why you may fail your IT Certification

How To Avoid Failing IT Certification Exams: Why Many Fail


Have you ever wondered why sometimes, a seemingly brilliant person may end up failing an IT Certification exam? They spend considerable amount of time studying and ticked all the major boxes yet it didn’t just turn out right!. What could have gone wrong? how do you avoid failing your IT Certification Exams?

When it comes to IT Certification Exams, there are some peculiar reasons why many people may struggle with passing, we will explore those in this blog. How you can fix these challenges or avoid and excel at your next certification exam. Specifically, I will discuss;

  • 7 Reasons you may fail your IT Exams
  • What can you do to increase your chance of passing IT Exams – including Exams Accommodations

7 Reasons You May Fail IT Exam

As someone who isn’t new to IT Certifications, here are some of the reasons I find really compelling why many people fail IT Exams. Although I make reference to some specific IT exams, they are applicable to other IT Exams. So let’s begin.

1. You Underestimated

Whether you are writing a beginner’s certification or mid-level certification exam, it is important not to underestimate the exam. A common example I can recall of this is the CompTIA ITF+-. The Exam is a beginner’s level exam that teaches the fundamentals of Information Technology skills. It is even sometimes recommended for High schoolers, yet a significant number of persons fail this exam because they underestimate the exam.

Do not underestimate any IT Exam, even if it is a beginner’s level certification. I think the best way to overcome this challenge is to stick to official exam syllabus. Preferably, have a hard copy of it printed out and mar each topic you have painstakingly gone through the topics and understand the concepts.

While it is important not to underestimate any IT exam, it is also worth mentioning that you may also run into the problem of “overthinking” the answers during the exam especially if you already hold some higher certification. If a question says “list”, you list, do not overthink what is needed, especially if it is a beginner- associate level certification.

Understand the difficulty level of the exam and respond accordingly.

2. Lack of Hands-On Practice For Labs

There is a positive feedback loop between IT Certifications and Industry employers of IT skills. Employers want more hands-on practical experience, so certification bodies have introduced practical labs into many certifications. Many IT Certifications will test your hands-on Practical skills in a simulated lab environment.

For example, Cisco introduced a New Performance-Based Lab Exam Item into its curriculum in 2020 into all its exams, including the CCNA. So, if you are taking Cisco Certification exams, you should prepare for Practical labs questions in a simulated environment. (For the CCNA, you actually type in CLI commands to simulated virtual devices)

There are no ways to get around this, if a certification exam has practical labs built into it, then you must practice those labs and master them before taking the exams. The good news is that, Labs demos gets easier with constant practice. Design your own labs and practice, make the mistakes an learn from them.

3. You Misunderstood the Exam Context or “Mindset”

Each exam has a focus and a certain type of “mindset” they would expect from candidates. You will fail the exam if you miss the context or mindset of the exam. One of the most vivid exams of this I recall is the CISSP Exam – Certified Information Systems Security Professional. It has its own “Mindset” which describes how a professional taking the exam is suppose to “think”. (See more EXPLORING THE CISSP CERTIFICATION: HOW TO PASS THE EXAM)

It is one of the most challenging Security exams, not necessarily because the exam is itself too difficult, but rather, because most persons misunderstand the Certification Mindset or the focus of the exam. It is a managerial-level exam and it is expected you think as a manager when picking your answers -not as a technical professional.

The sad thing about these types of certification exams is that you will find more than one correct answer. It is someone that understands the mindset that will be to pick the “more correct” answer.

Understand the Exam Mindset (focus) and practice accordingly.

4. Being Out-of-Date

Technology is always evolving and it is sometimes hard to keep track. Most certifications these days try to keep up with the rapid pace of chances and constantly update the exam curriculum to reflect such changes. This is a reason for failing certification exams for some persons- not paying attention to exam upgrades.

Cisco (one of the largest vendors) for examples reviews it curriculum quarterly, announces proposed new changes in 3-6 months afterwards, with the final draft taking place within another 3-6 months. So you should expect to see some changes in the curriculum 1-2 years. (Minor updates less than 10 percent, major updates greater than 20 percent)

Other certification bodies are not so gradual, you can have a major overhaul of the exam syllabus. It is very important to take note of these changes and adjust your study plans accordingly. Only use course study materials that are constantly being updated.

Some foundational topics in niches like Networking may not change much – IP, Routing and Switching has remained practically unchanged in the last two decades, while in fields like Cybersecurity, the changes are much more rapid. For example, just a few years back, there wasn’t much threat from AI as far as Cybersecurity is concerned, however, most modern curricula integrate AI in Cybersecurity- because that is the new trend.

5. Poor Time Management

Every IT Certification exam has a specific time for you to complete the exam. Effective time management is a big part of the exam. The CCNA for example is 120mins for about 100 questions – including practical labs. That leaves you about 1 minute for each question.

I would suggest you work out the time estimate for each question before you go in for any IT exam. It helps you properly allocate your time during the exam and avoid questions that potentially waste your time. Some exam allow you to skip questions and return to them after completing the other questions. Other exams, well, not so much.

Practice time management by using time-simulation exams.

6. Using Exam Dumps or Brain dumps

Exam dumps are illegal, unfortunately, many people nowadays rely on exam dumps to pass certification exams. It is a silly thing to do, as it can actually be the reason why someone may fail an IT exam. The problem with exam is that it relies on you memorizing the questions and answers but questions do change and exam cycles changes.

Exam dumps creates a dependency on cheap cheats and hinder you from learning the exam concepts that will both help both in passing your exams and progressing in your career.

I would suggest you use Practice Exam simulations instead. These are questions that simulate the style and difficulty of the real exam, they help you learn concepts rather than just answers, so you are always equipped even when there are changes in the exam structure.

7. Test Anxiety (Including Medical Reasons)

Test anxiety is a real thing. The fear of failing the exam can actually cause you to perform poorly as it can build up emotions that hamper critical thinking. You want to make sure that your emotions are under check before taking the exam – not too excited, or scared – just plain you with a clear mind.

Some persons “freeze” or lose their ability to think critically once they are taking an exam. While we all have this tendency to some degree, it actually reduces significantly if we have had enough mock practice for the exam, allowed enough time to study the exam resource etc. Try as much as possible to put your emotions under control before the start of the exam, practice good time management and have a general positive attitude.

Sometimes, there are other medical, physical or neurological impairments that may affect your performance e.g ADHD, Anxiety, Depression etc. If you suffer from any of these or you use any assistive technologies, you can apply for some considerations officially.

What Can You Do To Improve Your Chances of Passing IT Exams

Here are some highlights that can help you increase your chances of acing your next IT Certification exam.

1. Source the Best Up-to-date Study Materials

You want to study for the exam best collection of study materials. These can range from videos courses, books (including the official certification guide for the exam), cheat sheet, flashcards, practice questions, labs guide etc. Ensure that these materials are all up to date and from reputable authors.

Passing your IT certification starts with good study materials. See reviews and recommendations online for each materials. Chances are high that you will find some good recommendations from people who have taken the exams before you. For me personally, YouTube is a rich source for entry-level to mid-level certifications.

2. Use a Good Practice Exam Simulator

It is absolutely important for you to take some practice exam using a good Practice Exam Simulator. This will help further your understanding of the exam concepts, have a good grasp of what to expect in the exam, practice good time management and generally help you reduce text anxiety.

This is also the better alternative to exam dumps (which are unethical). Exam Simulator like the Boson Exsim (for the CCNA and other IT certifications) were instrumental to my passing my certifications. Get a good one, it is a good return on your educational investment.

3. Practice Lab Demos – Get a Lab Guide Demo

Some IT Certifications have labs question in the exam and you need to be prepare for this. It is easy to read the theoretical part and forget about the labs. Make a conscious effort to set aside a separate study routine to design and work in a simulated lab environment. Get a lab guide (if available for the certification).

The more you practice lab demos, the better you become with them. You naturally become familiar with the labs commands and will have things to “memorize”. I personally go through all my lab guides again a few days before the exam.

4. Practice Your Time Management

Time management in IT Exams

Practice your Exam Simulations using a timer and gradually adjust to the point your are able to complete the questions set within the stipulated time. Leave a little more time to account for exam pressure. For example, if you have 60 mins to practice 60 practice questions, do you exam practice with 50 – 55 mins.

In the exam, do not spend more than the required time on a question, mark and skip questions you are not sure of the answers. Some IT certification exams allow you to return to questions you skipped earlier for reassessment. Do not get stuck on any questions, you stand a better chance attempting other questions.

5. Take Advantage of Exam Accommodations

If you suffer from any form of impediments, there are accommodations for most standard exams to give you a fair platform to take your exam. These accommodations are may vary depending on the exam, but majorly are geared towards making it easier for you to take your exams with some considerations to your unique challenge. A common accommodation is an extension of the exam duration and the use of assistive technologies.

Some common impediments for which you can apply for Accommodations can fall under the following categories

  • Vision – blind, color blind, or have low vision.
  • Neurological e.g dyslexia, seizures, autism, or other cognitive differences.
  • Mobility – for people living with arthritis, quadriplegia, spinal cord injuries etc.
  • Sensory and Auditory Accommodations
  • Mental Health – ADHD, Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, Bipolar disorder etc.

You can find details for these and apply separately before taking the exam. See Accommodations for IT Exams vendor some IT exam vendors below;

6. Prepare for the Exam Day

You also need to prepare physically and mentally for the exam day. Avoid taking this that can hamper your judgement, cause you stress or physically discomfort. Take a good sleep before the exam day, eat moderately and by all means, arrive at the testing center on time ( if you are using a taking an in-person exam).

I prefer taking my exams in the mornings, fresh, before all the stress of the day starts kicking in.

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