How to Prepare for Certification Exams

Suzy Jamieson, International Council for Machinery Lubrication

You have been seeing a movement in industry toward skill standards and now understand the importance of being certified in your profession. You are aware that certification can give you recognition; it can help assure others of your skill level within the technical area you have been trained. So you have decided to become certified and you can’t wait to hang your certificate on the wall and add MLT, MLA and/or LLA to your business card. But there is only one thing between you and this dream of professional excellence - an exam.

You’re ready, maybe not. But here it comes. Suddenly, feelings of anxiety rush through you. Taking you back to your school days, it makes you question yourself in ways you hadn’t thought of in years. You thought you were past the fear of disapproval and rejection. You know you are capable of doing the job, but at the same time, you dread the idea that failing an exam might tell you otherwise.

While certifications of all sorts are developed to evaluate one’s ability to perform a technical task, there is a lot more to it - the exam. Some professionals may be horrible test takers. Even the fear of failure can get in the way of performing your best under pressure. After all, you spent all these years perfecting your trade and building a name for yourself - all you are missing are formal credentials behind your name and the certificate on the wall. Who came up with acronyms, anyway?

As much as you may hate taking that exam, you know all the recognition and benefits your new credentials would bring. Like any other learned skill, good test-taking skills take preparation, planning, trial and error, and above all, self-control. Start by assuring yourself that you can do this and follow the proper steps in preparing yourself for success.

Choose your certification carefully. Look for what will give you recognition in your area of interest and familiarize yourself with the options. Certifying organizations can offer different areas of certification in the same technical field, and serve other more specific purposes. Check requirements and the purpose for every area of interest.

Most importantly, make sure you understand what will be tested and to what extent. Many certifying organizations will provide a body of knowledge and domain of knowledge so you will know what subject areas will be tested and their weight percentages in the exam. This is essential because it will give you a clear picture of areas where you need to focus your efforts. More often than not, these will be areas that you perhaps do not deal with on a daily basis. You might be comfortable with a subject area that does not weigh heavily in the exam, yet feel uneasy about something that represents a greater percentage of the exam. Based on this, you can determine your education requirements.

Most certifications have minimum education requirements, but even if you meet the prerequisites, you might benefit from extra exposure to the subjects being tested. Look for a training or refresher course in weak areas to help you better prepare for the certification exam. Look for prep or review courses for the specific certification you are seeking and compare the subjects covered with the body of knowledge.

It is important to work hard and prepare by studying, but don’t overdo it - don’t let it get to the point of eating and breathing the subject. Like all things in life, this takes balance to bring you true success. And, don’t let the anxiety reach the point where you pour coffee into the sugar bowl and not the other way around.

After you have prepared and studied, taking the exam remains. Although it may sound like you are back in elementary school, it’s the truth - a good night of sleep and a healthy breakfast go a long way. Make sure you have prepared all needed materials the night before to diminish your anxiety. Some certifications let you bring simple tools, such as calculators and writing instruments, while others provide all materials. We all know how comforting an old familiar pen can feel, so go ahead and get comfy if you can. Lucky socks are OK too, with some discretion, of course.

By the time you sit down to take the test, you should be familiar with how much time you will have, the number of questions, as well as the style of test questions (multiple choice, essay). Read every question carefully and thoroughly, highlighting key words that may help. Don’t forget words such as “never” and “not” which can, if unnoticed, make you answer incorrectly. Answer every question to the best of your ability, noting the ones you are not sure about so you can come back to them if there is time. Some people prefer to skip questions they don’t know, and then don’t leave the time to answer later. You are not going to know the answer to every question so some guessing will be involved. Make sure to give it your best shot in those instances and never leave a question blank. After all, this isn’t a college entrance exam where points are deducted for questions answered incorrectly.

Decide before you take the test if you plan to go back to change answers. I have mixed feelings about this. My best professors always said a majority of the time that your first instinct is the correct one. If you read the question carefully this might be true, but I remember many instances of feeling glad I read through it again and changed my answer.

The main thing to remember is to focus and remain calm. Mantras of the sort: “I can do this, just focus, OK . . . ” do help. Happy testing!

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