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Last Updated December 10, 2003

MCP/MCSA/MCSE FAQ

If you're new to the Microsoft Certification process and are filled with questions, you've come to the right place. We've done our best to try to cover every question that we've been asked over the years. If you still have questions after reading this FAQ, please send your comments or questions to feedback@labmice.net 

 

Why get certified?
Certification offers vendors and employers a baseline to judge your skills. Experience is important, but it's not always a reliable measure of expertise. (I once heard a 26 year old administrator claim he has 20 years of experience - sorry Stuart, playing with your Teddy Rukspin toy and working the register at Burger King doesn't count). Although certification isn't a foolproof benchmark either, it assures an employer that you at least have met some sort of standard and have proved your knowledge via a written test. Certification can help set you apart from other candidates with the same level of experience, it can open doors for you if you don't have the experience, and it can help you negotiate a higher salary.

What are the certification levels?
Microsoft offers a number of certification levels, but in this FAQ we'll only focus on those that apply to administrators. The basic level of certification is Microsoft Certified Professional or MCP. You acquire this level when you pass one current Microsoft certification exam. (Except for exam 70-058: Networking Essentials since it isn't a product exam). The next level up is the MCSA or Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator. MCSA candidates are required to pass three core operating system exams (one of the which must be exam 70-218) and one elective exam, and is designed to test your ability to manage and troubleshoot a Windows 2000 network. The highest level of certification is the MCSE or Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, which not only tests your ability to manage networks, but design and implement them as well. To achieve your MCSE certification, you must pass 7 exams. 5 core required operating system exams and 2 elective exams. (For specific details on which exams are required for each level, click on the hyperlinks above)

Is the certification process worth it?
I certainly think so, and I think most people with the certifications do. The cost of the exams, study materials, test prep tools and time have easily paid for themselves in terms of salary increases and better job opportunities. The road is tough and depending on your experience it could take you 1-2 years and over $1,000 to complete the MCSE requirements, but completing says a lot to your employer and your peers. You may hear a few people knocking the exam process, but in my experience it's only because they aren't certified themselves and are looking to justify it. They claim that with their experience, they know as much as an MCSE and shouldn't have to prove it. I think $875.00 (the cost of the 7 exams) is a small price to pay to settle that argument.

How much do the exams cost?
The exams themselves cost $125.00 in the U.S., but this can vary country to country. 

How long are the exams?
Each exam is different, but typically you'll have around 2 hours to complete 60 questions. (Some exams are a little longer, others are shorter.) 

How hard are the exams?
Again, this varies by the exam, but the short answer is that the get harder as you go up the MCSE ladder. The client operating system exams are fairly easy, with a lower passing score. In contrast, the "Designing and Implementing" exams are brutal and have a much higher minimum passing score. 

What kind of questions are on the exam?
Although most of the questions on the exam are multiple choice, don't let that fool you into thinking they'll be easy. Many of the questions ask for the "best" answer from several close responses. Others present an implementation scenario, requirements, and a proposed solution and asks if the solution meets all of the requirements or combinations of the primary and secondary requirements. There are also a few interactive questions that require you to drag and drop components into a network diagram, or place a set of actions in the correct order. If you've never worked with Windows 2000 before, these questions are designed to weed you out.

Where do I take the exams?
All of the MCP exams in the United States are administered by either Prometric or VUE. To take exams at any authorized Prometric testing center around the world, call Prometric at (800) 755-EXAM (755-3926). Outside the United States and Canada, contact your local Prometric Registration Center. To register online with Prometric, visit the Prometric Web site. Register by telephone at any VUE location worldwide by calling the registration center nearest you. To register online with VUE, visit the VUE Web site. Please read more details about exam registration

How much does it cost to finish the MCSE certification process?
Well the exams alone will cost you $875.00, assuming you pass each one. Books typically cost about $30 - $60 each, but some publishers offer MCSE Training bundles at a discount. If this is all you need to study, you can get your MCSE for less than $1,500.00  That's about the minimum expense required. Exam prep software could run $50.00 - $150.00 per exam depending on which software you use. If you take classes as part of your training, your costs could easily jump to over $10,000.00 And regardless of which training method you use, you should have access to a computer lab so you can actually get some experience using Windows 2000. 

How much time should I spend studying for each exam
That depends on your level of experience with Windows 2000, or its predecessor Windows NT 4.0  We've seen experienced administrators complete one exam a week. Four to six weeks per exam is a more reasonable pace for most people. This gives you 2 -3 weeks to read the exam study guide or Microsoft Official curriculum and complete the exercises, and a few weeks to practice with review questions and test prep software.

Should I take classes or self study?
This largely depends on your experience and budget. Classes can run anywhere from a few hundred dollars to well over a thousand per exam. If your employer is paying for it, great! I highly recommend taking a class with a qualified instructor. If you're paying for it yourself, that's fine too - but make sure you know the quality of the school and the instructor. I've taken a few instructor lead classes at a local Microsoft Certified Technical Education Centers (CTECs), and each time all of the instructors followed the Microsoft Official Curriculum to the letter (page by page) and didn't add a whole lot of value to the training. Self study is definitely cheaper and more convenient, but requires a lot of discipline. It also helps to have a fellow MCSE around to answer questions if you get stuck. 

What are Certification Boot Camps?
Boot Camps promise that they'll make you into an MCSE in anywhere from 1 week to 1 month. The training is very intense, with each day dedicated to each exam. Many of these camps are more focused on getting you to pass the exam than giving the skill set necessary to function well as an administrator. If you really want to go this route for your training, do your homework carefully. Try to find someone who actually took training via a particular boot camp and actually passed his MCSE before committing the time and money. Another thing to keep in mind is that the faster you learn a skill (i.e. cramming), the faster you'll forget it. If you already have solid experience and are taking the boot camp to help prep you for the exams, you'll be fine. If you're completely inexperienced and are taking the boot camp as an alternative to in depth classroom training, you might find yourself coming up a little short if you actually do find a job.

I can't afford to take a class, and don't do well with just books. What else can I do?
There are a couple of untraditional training options that are available. SmartCertify offers an excellent computer based training program that is used by many corporations including Microsoft. Another excellent option is CBT Nuggets, which offers a complete CD-based MCSE video training program for around $600.00. If you have a long commute to work, AudioWhiz offers MCSE audio training on CD and tape.

I want to self study, what training materials should I use?
For self study, you'll want a book that will server you well studying for the exams as well as a reference afterwards. Ideally, the book should be interesting to read, call out specific study points to watch out for on the exam, have review questions at the end, and if possible provide a CD with decent Test Prep software and an electronic copy of the book so you can study anywhere. You'll also want to set up a lab at home with a few PC's to run the exercises in the book. (Don't skip this step - you don't want to look like a moron when you get into a real environment) Based on this criteria, I really like the Osborne/Syngress MCSE Series and the New Riders MCSE series. Both are well written, and do a great job of preparing you for the tests. The Microsoft Press study series is decent and parallels the Microsoft Official Curriculum, but doesn't include review questions or test prep software. (This is a separate product for MS Press, called Readiness Review)  

Is Test Prep software really necessary?
If your study guide didn't come with it, and you're bad at taking exams, a good test prep software package can really make a difference. There are a number of things you should evaluate, including price, vendor reputation, number of questions, refund policy, etc.,  For more information, check out our Guide to Choosing Test Prep Software

What's the best way to prepare for the exams?
Study, study, study. Just kidding. We've actually compiled our methodology and recommended practices into an entire article, and can find it here

What is a Braindump?
A "braindump" is someone's notes on the exam, usually completed immediately upon exiting the testing facility. The sheer volume of people who have contributed and posted braindumps on the web eventually leads to the entire exam pool being leaked out. Posting braindumps violates the license and confidentiality agreement you took when you start each exam. If are every identified, you could lose your certifications. In addition, using braindumps is cheating plain and simple. Sure the temptation is strong, but you're not only cheating yourself, your cheating your employers and peers as well. Would you hire a doctor, lawyer, architect, or other professional who cheated on their exams? A little knowledge on a computer network is a dangerous thing. Don't cheat.

What is a "paper MCSE"?
A paper MCSE is someone who managed to earn their certification, but doesn't actually have the real world skills that should go with their certification. (Yes, it happens) Typically, these people either cheated on their exams outright, used Braindumps as their sole study aid (which is still cheating), or purchased the exam questions outright from the web. (which again is cheating). A few paper MCSE's are just inexperienced "book smart" folks who are good at self study and never set up a lab. Although they didn't cheat, they still don't know what they're doing. Every paper MCSE cheapens the value of the certification for those who worked for it. Don't fall into the temptation to cheat on your exams. People will notice when you get into the field.

 


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