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Last Updated November 19, 2003

Tips for choosing MCSE Test Prep Software

A good test prep software package will prepare you for the real exam by providing questions that accurately depict the questions and scenarios on the real exam - without using the exact questions. The catch-22 is that it is impossible to asses the quality of the software unless you have already taken the exam. Well never fear, we have taken the exams, and we've seen a lot of test prep tools. Here's our guide for separating the worthwhile tools from the rubbish.
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Look for the Microsoft Certified Practice Test Provider Logo
Microsoft actually certifies certain vendors who provide test preparation tools, and recommends only using these test prep software products. To be approved by Microsoft, a practice test provider must do the following:

  • Submit practice tests to Microsoft for quality reviews
  • Offer products that provide automatic feedback on all correct and incorrect answers with detailed explanations and reference sources for each answer (MCP exams are not designed to provide feedback)
  • Cover all of the exam objectives as specified on the Microsoft exam preparation guide
  • Provide a wide range of practice test titles to cover the content of most Microsoft exams
  • Include a variety of questions and question types
  • Provide technical support for its products
  • Include real-world, complex scenarios that are similar to those in MCP exams and discourage rote memorization of exam items
  • Support the integrity of MCP exams and the value of the credential

Incidentally, only two vendors meet this criteria: Kaplan Self Test Software and MeasureUp 

Stick with the established players
While we don't want to see just a handful of the big guys rule the market, there is a reason why they're at the top. Smaller companies may offer cheaper products, but the quality of the test software varies and you often get what you pay for. In addition to the quality of test questions, the established vendors often have a larger support staff, better customer service, and are more likely to stand by their product guarantees.
Download their practice tests first
Most companies offer a demo practice test that is available for download. It pays to check these out before forking over your hard earned cash. Just to be safe, always scan these demos with AntiVirus software, and be aware that some may be spyware that sends your e-mail address back to the vendor.
Look for companies that are based in the United States or Europe
The market for test prep tools has become so lucrative, it has attracted a number of fly by night operators who will be happy to bill your credit card and send you questionable products. (These are often simply a reworked braindump from one of the many free sites that offer them). Since they are outside the jurisdiction of the United States, they use a variety of deceptive business practices including false claims and testimonials, ripping off other company's products, and outright theft of your funds. If you never get your product, or it turns out to be just a reworked braindump, you may have an impossible time getting your money back. For companies that don't list their address, look for subtle clues on their websites. These sites often have very well designed and visually appealing websites, but horrible grammar and spelling is one clue. Here's an actual sample: "This product has been developed by a strong base of IT professional who are recognised by Microsoft and Cisco with some or the other certification." Also, a large number of user testimonials from unnamed or impossible to check resources in remote countries is another flag. 
Check the newsgroups
Do your own research when choosing one company over another. A quick search of the company's name on Google or should reveal a number of discussion threads regarding the quality of the questions and how well it prepped the candidate. Be warned: A few less scrupulous firms have their employees (or principal partners) post bogus testimonials on discussion groups as well. Use your best judgment when deciding if an endorsement is genuine or not.
Look for a guarantee
Most quality test prep software runs around $100 per exam, which is quite expensive considering it costs $125 to take the real test. So if it doesn't do a good job of helping you pass the test you should get your money back. Not all guarantees are created equal, so buyer beware. It's easier to get a refund from the larger vendors, and from vendors based on the United States. Again, check the newsgroups for horror stories.
Avoid software offering "real exam" questions
There have been a number of vendors that have either paid their employees to copy the questions from the real exams, or formulated their test questions from braindumps and turned this into a questionable product that they are willing to sell to you. This is flat out cheating and buying these exam questions will only hurt you in the long run when you get out in the real world. But beyond the ethics issue, Microsoft has been aggressively pursuing these vendors for copyright infringement. As part of the settlement, Microsoft has required a few companies to turn over their client lists so they know which candidates cheated on their certifications. Under the new MCP guidelines, if you're caught cheating you'll be stripped of all of your current certifications and will be barred from taking any future Microsoft exams. 
Beware of fake testimonials
We often take it for granted that if a company includes a testimonial for their product, it is legitimate and they can back it up. One new company (based in Pakistan) approached us looking for a partnership in March 2002. We asked them for evaluation copies of their test software, but they told us their products were still in development and were unavailable. What they did send us was a half finished braindump (that is available for free on the web) with the answers filled in. When their web page was officially launched a few days later, it included over a dozen testimonials of how great their products worked in helping them pass the exam. It seems doubtful that 50 people received the recently completed product on Monday, then took the exam on Tuesday, and then immediately forwarded testimonials, which were subsequently posted in less than 24 hours. Another company claims that "a recent survey ranked [their product] among the best ones in this business", but fails to link to the survey or provide any details. Look for legitimate e-mail addresses when reading user testimonials. "Bob" from Seattle may be a bit tough to track down.  
Look for free alternatives
Many of the printed MCSE Study guides available have begun bundling test prep software with their books as a value added bonus. While not "top of the line", many of these do a great job of preparing you for the exam and will save you a few bucks. In addition, there are a number of free practice questions available on the web for each exam.
Talk to your peers
If at all possible, find an MCSE in your organization or user group and ask them what they used to study for the exams. In the event you can't find one, here's our top 3 recommendations for exam prep software. (In alphabetical order)

Exam Simulators
Exam Simulators claim a 99.79% pass rate and offer a passing guarantee to back it up. Their exam software looks and feels a lot like the actual Microsoft exams, including the new interactive drag and drop questions. Free demos and screenshots are available on their website.

Kaplan Self Test Software
Kaplan has been in business for over 10 years, and are a Microsoft Certified Professional Test Provider Self Test Software practice tests are realistic exam simulations packed with study tools and resources based on the Microsoft Official Curriculum (MOC) that help candidates prepare for the real exams. Standard features include learning and certification modes of study, in-depth tutorials, test history, and score reporting by objective. Advanced features found in online practice tests include live instructor mentoring and flash cards. They offer free demos and a passing guarantee.

One of the leaders in the industry, Transcender has built a solid reputation for the quality of their products and their relevance to the actual exams. Although a bit costly, their software does come with a passing guarantee and they offer free demos.

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