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Last Updated December 10, 2003

Windows 2000 MCSE Exam Advice

New to the MCP exam process? Need some advice on what to focus on? Well instead of doing another FAQ, we thought we would just give you our "dirty dozen" list of tips for those new to the MCSE road. 
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Set a Deadline
Although studying at your own pace and taking the exam "when your ready" has its merits, it doesn't work well for millions of people who tend to procrastinate, or whose busy lives are filled with distractions. When you begin your studies, set a real schedule for yourself including how much you'll read every day, when you'll start with studying review questions, lab time, etc., Depending on the amount of study time you have available and your level of experience with Windows NT/2000, 8-10 weeks per exam should be enough.

Pick a training method that works for you
Not everyone learns the same way. Formal classroom training has its advantages, but it's not an option for many people because of cost, availability, and scheduling conflicts. Self studying with books is cheaper and more flexible, but it can be tedious and very boring. So what's left? SmartCertify (formerly CBT Systems) offers an outstanding computer based MCSE training curriculum that is well below the cost of classroom training. CBT Nuggets offers an excellent and affordable CD based video training program that is very similar to classroom instruction. You'll get a combination of theory and practical instruction as you progress through the lessons. 

Be prepared for the new test format
Microsoft has re designed the test format for the Windows 2000 exams to discourage memorization of answers, use of "Braindumps", and to make the exams a little more relevant to real world environments. Expect of lots of troubleshooting questions, complex scenarios, and interactive questions that require you to perform a specific task on a simulated control panel.

Always read 2 books on every exam topic
This advice has served me well. Always read an official MCSE study guide and a real world guide during your studies. This will give you the information you need to pass the exam as well as the "unglazed" version of how Windows 2000 really works. Begin by reading the real world version without highlighting or taking reams of noted. The idea is to get a basic understanding of the topic and an overview of how everything works. When you're finished, start up with the official study guide of your choice. Take your time, go through the review questions and lab scenarios in each chapter taking notes as you go.

Use the best MCSE Books you can afford
Your choice of study guides will depend on how you study, and your level of experience with Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 2000. In our opinion the best overall MCSE Book series is Syngress/Osborne's series which is written by Deb and Tom Shinder. Our second choice is the New Riders series. The Sybex series is decent, and covers the exam curriculum, but is not as thorough as the other series. Although the Microsoft official curriculum is a favorite of trainers, we found the writing style too dry for self study and the books don't include the number and quality of review questions offered by the other series. (However, Microsoft does make a "Readiness Review" series to fill this void, if you want to spend an additional $25.) If you're an experienced NT 4.0 MCSE with lots of hands on experience with Windows 2000 since it was in Beta, Coriolos Exam Cram series is a good place to start.

What to focus on
You obviously can't memorize the entire book when preparing for the exam, so what do you focus on? Microsoft publishes a guideline for each exam that list the topics they expect you to know, and these are a good indication of what you'll be tested on. But that still leaves a lot to chance. Fortunately, most of the MCSE books do a decent job of creating review questions that cover the exam topics very well. They also offer callouts of "exam tips" or "Alerts" for trick questions (check our Book Reviews for our recommendations). Test prep software can also be useful, and there are also a number of 'Certification Prep" books available that focus on review questions and their rationale.

Staying motivated
Procrastination is a big problem for many people, so if you're having a hard time staying motivated to study, you're not alone. You can fight this tendency by getting a study partner, and or starting a friendly contest of who can pass their exams first (or with the highest score).You should pick your partners carefully, and if possible get a group of 5-7 people together as a study group. Meet regularly, and discuss exam topics and review questions

Set up a lab - even a small one
Windows 2000 has some pretty hefty hardware requirements, but 30 GB hard drives are cheap, and you can load multiple versions of Windows 2000 on separate partitions and set up a lab. Network your PC's together (4 port hubs are cheap) and you will have an amazing number of combinations that you can experiment with. Set up a domain, configure Active Directory, set up Global Groups, performance monitoring, try some unattended installation, etc., If you are using an approved MCSE study guide, each chapter will have a walkthrough of a particular administrative task that should be performed in your lab. The new Windows 2000 exams feature simulations of actual configuration and administrative tasks to test how well you know the product.

Take plenty of Test simulators
Some people are very bright, but just bad at taking tests. And some of the test questions can be tricky and catch you off guard. By taking some of the prep tests available, you'll be better prepared for the actual exam and more likely to pass. If you have the funds, we recommend the Transcender Exams or There are also plenty of free practice exams available on the web. In addition, Sybex and Que make pretty good review guides that are full of sample questions. Well worth the money. Warning: Beware of test prep software companies that claim to offer the real questions from the exam. Microsoft, CompTIA and other companies have begun to crack down on these vendors for copyright infringement, and often demanding a list of people who ordered the software as part of the settlement agreement. It is unclear whether they intend to "decertify" people who used these products, but why take the risk?

A word about Accelerated study guides
NT 4.0 MCSE's and experienced administrators who have worked extensively with Windows 2000 have a big head start on the curriculum and often use accelerated study guides that focus only on the requirements needed to pass the exam. These guides can be valuable shortcuts for professionals who are short on time and need to upgrade their certifications quickly. Unfortunately, inexperienced administrators who are looking for a shortcut to completing their MCSE's have used these same study guides and passed the exams successfully, only to fail miserably when they have to do it for real in the corporate workplace. These people become known as "Paper MCSE's", a label that can stick with you for years and quickly kill your career Take the time to study the material and learn it inside and out. The faster you cram the information, the less likely it will "stick" in your brain and be there when you need it. In the end, "Paper MCSE's" not only cheat themselves, but also the qualified MCSE candidates who actually know the material because it dilutes the value of the certification.

Schedule the exam for your peak time
Give yourself the biggest edge possible by scheduling the exam at your peak time. For most people, this is between 10am - 2pm. If you are more of an evening person, try scheduling after 7pm. Obviously weekdays will be less packed then Saturdays, giving you less of a distraction during the exam. Try to give yourself a few hours of free time before the actual exam to run through your review questions and cram sheets just before you take the test.

Get a good nights sleep
Fatigue will kill you on the tougher exams. Study as much as you like in the week before the exam, but staying up late the night before your test can degrade your performance. Also, don't eat a big breakfast or lunch that may make you sleepy during the test. Have a small healthy snack to increase your blood glucose levels, and reward yourself with a good meal after you pass the exam

Come prepared.
Be about 15 minutes early, bring 2 forms of photo ID, and an extra pen if you need one. Take the extra time to clear your head in the testing center. Some people prepare a "cram sheet" of important exam concepts and review in the parking lot just before they take the exam. Printing out test questions and reviewing them just before the exam can be helpful as well.

Before you start...
Remember, the test doesn't start until you begin on the PC. Take your blank sheets of paper and write down any tables or other information you think you may "draw a blank on" during the test. If you've never taken a Microsoft test before, there is a sample test available that doesn't count towards your score or your time. It features the different types of questions you'll encounter, including the new interactive and drag and drop questions. Get comfortable with these before you start. When you're ready to start the real exam, take a deep breath, and relax before you begin. It's only a test.

Test Taking Strategy
When looking at a multiple choice questions, remember to read the entire group of answers before just clicking on the first right one you come across. Microsoft is looking for the "most correct" answer, and there may be 2 near correct answers. If you're stumped on a question, try to eliminate the obviously wrong answers first (there's almost always at least one, and sometimes two.) This will improve your odds of selecting the right answer from the remaining options.

If you fail, retake the test within 2 weeks.  
It's important to get back on the horse if you failed by a slim margin. See the test as a learning experience. As soon as you leave the testing center, write down any questions that stumped you while they're still fresh in your head. Study some more, and retake the test as soon as you fell comfortable. If you outright "bombed" the test, then you have a lot more studying to do.

Tell us about your experience
If you can take a few minutes to let us know about your testing experience, it will help provide better study aides and help others along the way. What areas stumped or surprised you? What study guides helped? Which one's didn't? Did you think was hard or easy? How long did you study? Send your comments to


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