Aug 18, 2016

Tips for Tracking Progress During a Certification Exam

Some people are natural test takers – there is no anxiousness or fear in them as the attack the exam. Others dread sitting down and being in a controlled situation where their knowledge is challenged and they feel that their self-worth is on the line. Whichever of these situations you find yourself in, or anywhere in between the extremes, I hope that you might gain some skills to help you in future exams from the content I’m sharing today.
I don’t remember when I first started to use these techniques but over the course of taking many technical certification exams I have created a process to track my progress through the exam.
I feel like this helps me in several ways. It helps to give me an overall perspective of how I am doing on time, which keeps me well paced through the test. It gives me insight to how likely I feel I am to pass the exam helping me not get too anxious when I hit a series of questions that “stump” me. It reduces the time required to review questions at the end of the exam reducing the chance of making bad “guesses” at answers as I finish up the exam.
I have shared this technique with several people over the past few years. Most say they have found it useful. As with any technique that claims to make some task easier I suggest that you see how it feels for you, and that you adopt any parts of it that you believe will be helpful as you pursue new certifications.

Before You Start

Based on my experience you have a few tools available to you as you sit down to start your exam. You typically know how many questions are on the exam. You know how long you have to complete the exam. You often have an idea of the minimum required score to pass the exam. And finally you have a blank sheet of paper and something to write with.
Before I press “start” on the exam I create a tracking tool for myself with the blank paper. It looks similar to this:
Certification Exam Tracking - Before the ExamFirst look at the top right corner of the paper. Here I list the key information that I know about the exam. The time limit, the number of questions and the anticipated pass percentage. I calculate the number of questions that I will need to get correct to pass the exam. Finally I note the time that I hit “Start”.
I know that all of this is information that you already know, and some of it is available in the testing engine. I have found that writing it down before I start helps me to settle down a bit, and it means that I won’t have to use any mental energy to think of these things during the exam.
Next I start at the top left of the page and I create a grid with a row for each question. This almost always takes at least two columns. In this sample I’ve shortened the first column and show a second column as an example.
Next to each number you will see there are three columns. I also add a line for every 5 questions to help keep things lined up.

While Answering Questions

Once I’ve finished preparing the paper I take a deep breath and hit start. As I work through the test I use the grid I to track how confident I feel about each question I answer. I check the first column for questions I feel very confident of the answers. I check the third column for answers I have no confidence in. and Finally I check the middle column for the rest.
A quick look at this during the exam will give me a feeling for how well I am doing overall. If I see too many check marks in the third column I start to get a little worried. I don’t worry too much about how many are in the middle column, from past experience I know that I have to be very confident in the answer to mark the first column.
I answer all questions on my first pass through the test, but I also leave behind some information as I go. When I am not confident in my answer I will often leave myself a note about my thoughts. This can take the form you see next to questions 12 and 15. Here I identify how many answers are needed, for instance in my sample of question 12 I have put a 2 in parentheses indicaCertification Exam Tracking - During the Examtes the question is asking for the 2 best answers. On question 15 there would only be a single answer for the question. I then also note which of the possible answers I believe to be wrong by writing a slash through the option. I also note which I believe to be correct by underlining the option. This will reduce the time I need to review the question if I come back to it after completing my first pass through the questions.
Most people also have experienced situations where a question later in the test helps them to recall something that would be useful in answering an earlier question. To help me find something like this I might make a comment with the question number. In my sample I have noted that I don’t remember what a “widget” is and I need to know that for question 6. I also have found that writing down a note like this can help to keep my mind working on that question in the background as I continue through the test.

After Completing all the Questions

Once I have complete my first pass through the exam I’ll do a quick check of my time. This will help me to decide how to approach reviewing any questions. Based on the time I have available, and the number of questions I have marked in each category, I will go back and review questions. On my sample paper you can see where I have totaled the number of questions from each column to give me a better idea of what my actual scoreCertification Exam Tracking - After the Exam might be.
I seldom return to the questions that I marked in column 3. The only real exception to that is if I believe I’ve remembered something that will truly help me select a better answer. This comes from the notes I might have made (like “what is a widget”). I will tend to return to questions where I eliminated some possible answers on the first pass (like questions 12 and 15).
I’m certain everyone has heard the advice that you should not change answers to questions when you review your test. I’ll let you make your own choice on that, but my approach is to consider that I might have been reminded of something while reading other questions that makes the changing of my answer less of a random thing and more the implementation of “newly remembered” knowledge. and change answers accordingly.

After You Hit End

One the test is actually finished because I have either ran out of time or hit “end” to complete the test I do two last things. First I will make of list of any topics that I feel like I need to focus on based on the experience I just had with the test. These may be things that I found I didn’t know as well as I would like, or topics that I felt were heavily covered on the exam which I feel I should do some more study on. While I am not able to take this paper with with me after the exam writing them down helps me to remember them. Then I can make note of these topics after I leave the testing center.
The final thing that I do is to compare my actual score with the results of marking my three columns. For instance if on this hypothetical exam I scored 81% I would do the math to see that I must have gotten about 49 questions correct (the math says 48.6 – I find that it seldom works out to be an exact number of questions – maybe some of it is rounding and possible some questions are scored differently than others). I compare this to the results of totaling up my check marks. In this case, it is likely that I got nearly all of the questions that I marked as “very confident” or “OK” correct. I had marked 16 as “very confident” and 34 as “OK”. I use this as a gauge for future exams to better know how to interpret my “self grading”.

A Final Thought

A while back I wrote a post about how I feel about technical certifications ( In that post I presented the typical reason I pursue certifications. I also discussed some of the common feelings I have heard others express about certifications.
Please let me know what you think of my approach, and what you would do to improve it!


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