I have been working in the field of Professional Certification and Licensure for roughly 10 years. In that time, I've worked with and observed close to 40 IT certification programs and there has been a recurring question I've encountered at each stop. While it is often phrased differently, it means mostly the same thing:
How do I best prepare? Is taking the class enough? Is the practice exam or other prep materials worth the cost? Will I pass if I do this or that?
Ultimately, "How can I improve my chances for success on a SAS certification exam?"
The answer varies greatly by individual. Often, I feel candidates are in search of the silver bullet that will guarantee they pass an exam. I'll tell you now, there is no silver bullet, and the responsibility to come up with a plan to give you the best chance for success lies squarely on your shoulders.
The idea for this post came to me while recently completing development of the first SAS Visual Statistics Certification. The process for developing the exam was a strong reminder of how heavily we focus on following rigorous industry best practices, not only for exam creation but also for the creation of prep materials. Some of the material here was discussed previously in a webinar I conducted with a colleague, Becky Gray, Getting Started with SAS Certification.
In this article I will outline preparation options, steps and recommendations that should improve your chances of success. This list can't be all encompassing because programs and credential requirements vary. Also, I can't guarantee that following these steps will assure that you pass your exam. I am confident, however, that if you follow these steps and choose the activities and exercises that resonate with you and fit your learning and testing style, you will greatly increase your chances of passing an exam.
So, here are eight tips to help you prepare for a SAS Certification Exam.
Tip #1: Do Some Soul Searching
Is certification right for me? Do I meet the recommended experience and training level? If not, how do I get there? Is this credential for me? Should I try to gain the knowledge and experience to earn this credential and does it help me in my career path? If your heart isn't in it, you'll have a harder time mastering the material. Basic requirements and exam details for all SAS exams can be found at www.sas.com/certification.
You've decided it's for you? Then let's go!
Recommended Action: This is the time that some people like to go ahead and schedule the exam. Draw a line in the sand. A deadline helps some people take action and develop a plan.
Tip #2: Download the Objectives
Countless times, I have had a candidate that has failed the exam come to me, usually upset, and complain. The conversation usually goes something like this:
Candidate: "How was I supposed to prepare for the questions on xyz topic? Why is that on the test, I didn't know it would be."
Me: "Well, it's in the objectives ('exam content guide' at SAS) that we publish. What did you use to study for that objective?"
Candidate: "What? What objectives? Where do I find those?"
If you can spend countless hours reading reviews on Amazon before purchasing a blender (I own a Ninja, more blades than Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands, love it), don't you think you should take at least that amount of time to review the exam pages on the certification sponsor's webpage. Objectives are right there, front and center. This is your career, not a smoothie.
Read them, review them, and think about them. Take them to training courses with you and make notes about where the content was covered. Get them tattooed backwards on your chest (ok, maybe that's going too far). If something doesn't make sense, ask questions. These objectives, in their detailed form, are exactly the blueprint that our exam writers use when creating the exam questions. All exam questions are congruent with an objective. Keep in mind, there are many ways to ask a question to determine if a candidate can complete an objective, but they must all "pass the test" (sorry, bad pun) and be tied to an objective.
Recommended Action: Go ahead, look up the objectives (content guide) for your exam, I'll wait…
Tip #3: Perform a Self-assessment
So, you've found the objectives. Now, take a pass at them and be honest with yourself. What are your strengths and weaknesses as it relates to the list of exam topics? This will help immensely in determining where to focus your attention while devising a prep plan.
Recommended Action: If you have trouble assessing your own skills, ask co-workers or your manager. The more honest you are, the better you'll study.
Tip #4: Make a plan
Think about how you learn. In a past life, while creating a webinar to help our candidates understand the best way to prep, we invited a colleague to join us. She was an expert in brain-based learning and her team had studied methods to best employ adult learning techniques routed in neuroscience discoveries. In other words, learn how your brain wants to learn. But more importantly, how does one go from learning something to moving it to long term memory for future application. This post isn't written to tackle this topic, but there are plenty of resources available that discuss this, here are a few.
- Brain Rules, by John Medina
- 10 Brain-based Learning Laws that Trump Traditional Education, by Jeff Hurt
- Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John Ratey
Your plan should include not only your study techniques, but how you might support them through healthy activities, like exercise and good sleep habits. Train your brain by writing down what you've learned and teaching it to others. Buddy up with a colleague to help explore content areas and learn from each other. We could do a full post just on this - maybe I will in the future.
Recommended Action: Make a written study plan. Think about techniques, then add tools (see next tip).
Tip #5: What tools will you use?
Choose activities (some are listed below) that meet your learning style and do them in the order that you think is best. For example, some people like to complete a practice exam first to help them identify the types of questions they may see and what the experience will be like. From there, they schedule training to fill the gaps they may have uncovered through their self-assessment and practice exam.
Want to know how certification candidates rank different types of exam prep tools before deciding for yourself? Check out this article.
- Training – Every SAS exam has an associated training path. World-class training is offered by SAS Global Education. Review your exam requirements and book your course as soon as you are ready. Here's your link: http://support.sas.com/training.
Remember to compare the course against your exam objectives and don't expect that everything in the exam will be covered explicitly in your training course. If it wasn't, look it up elsewhere.
- Hands on skills building – When available, download sample software and play with it. Maybe you can use your production system at work or a sandbox environment at your company. Some program sponsors offer free sample software or full versions for academia (SAS University Edition). Practice, practice, practice.
- Practice Exams – Maybe you haven't taken a test since Nirvana topped the charts, or maybe you're a regular pro. Either way, practice exams don't only help you with the content, but can help you learn or remember how to test and get used to question formats, etc. All questions are put through a rigorous process to assure they are accurate and relevant. Don't overthink them. Think to yourself while completing the practice exam. What are they really getting at here? We are not trying to trick you! This experience goes a long way.
- Sample Questions – Hey, they're free. Sample questions can help, like the practice exams, and if your budget is tight, they are often free. You don't get the full experience (timers, feedback, etc.) but it will help you see what to expect.
- Study Guides – First, make sure it's a publication authorized by the program. You'll find many black and gray market materials available for purchase. Don't waste your money. Find a study guide developed by experts approved by the test sponsor organization. Remember, no silver bullets or magic diet pill, but when used with other materials study guides can be extremely useful for exam prep.
- Documentation – I know; it's daunting to stare down a 500+ page manual and think about where to start, but if you have done a successful review of the objectives and an honest self-assessment, you should be able to zero in on knowledge gaps and do a focused review of what's important to pull from the manual.
Recommended Action: Determine what tools are at your disposal and which methods tend to work best for you. If you need guidance, contact the program team (see next tip).
Tip #6: Leverage the Certification Team
Every certification program should have a team of individuals that can, at the very least, guide you through the process. Don't be afraid to ask us questions, chances are we've heard it before. No, we won't give you the answers, well okay, the answer is C. Now you got one out of the way. Really though, we're happy to help, just don't wait until the day before your test, or worse until after you have failed.
Tip #7: Know the test sponsors policies
All reputable testing programs will have written policies that govern how candidates can interact with the program. The majority of these terms and conditions will be covered in a candidate agreement that you must agree to just prior to taking your exam. Most programs publish this agreement online. If you can't find it, ask the program team for a copy. That way you won't have to read through several pages of legalese before you start your exams. In short, these policies should cover: exam retake, Intellectual Property protection, cheating, arbitration, etc.
Tip #8: Take the stress out of test day
This is my last tip. By its nature, testing is stressful process. Here are a few ways to lower your stress level.
- Some exam delivery providers and/or test sponsors have online videos that discuss the check-in process and what to expect. See if yours does, and if they do, watch them.
- Use your legal name from your identification when registering for your exam. Name discrepancies can cause delays or you may be turned away. Bring proper ID in accordance with the sponsor policies (you've read those by now, right?).
- Read all the instructions that come with your exam registration. If you have questions, call the test center or the program sponsor.
- See if your program sponsor offers an online exam tutorial. Practice exams are great as well to help you understand how to navigate the testing tool.
- Leave any nonessential items at home. There is not always a place to store your "stuff." You will have to surrender your phone, and anything else you may have brought, so be prepared to do that.
- Show up early. Plan to arrive 30 minutes early, so when you're 15 minutes late, you're still 15 minutes early. If you are running late, have the test center number and call to see if they can hold your seat.
- Know where to park or what type of transit you'll be taking. Consider a dry run of your commute to increase your confidence.
I hope you found these tips helpful. Good luck!