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Certification Training: What Are Your Options?

row of computers

Pursuing a technical credential is one thing; preparing for certification exams is another matter entirely.

Even experienced professionals often need training to prepare for the demanding tests needed to earn information-technology credentials. If it seems unfair, consider this: After three years of law school, graduates typically take intensive courses to study for the bar exam. IT professionals prepare the same way, even if it's a field they know inside out.

Your choices for certification training can be daunting, especially if you haven't studied for exams recently. Options include:

  • Instructor-led classes.
  • E-learning courses.
  • Intensive boot camps.
  • Books.
  • Other self-study materials.
  • A combination of these, sometimes called blended learning.

"People don't understand all of their options for training," says William Vanderbilt, vice president of education and training for industry association CompTIA. "It's a foreign world to most people, and yet it's an important decision."

Here's our guide to the ins and outs of certification training, in the form of answers to commonly asked questions about the subject, drawn from conversations with experts in the field:

Does certification require training?

Technically, it does not. You can sign up for an exam, head to the testing center and see how you fare. Your industry experience may be enough to pass the exams required to achieve certification. However, most IT professionals seek some form of training, even if only in the form of books or online resources reviewing key ideas, concepts and likely questions.

Do I need to follow an organization's certification-training plan?

A particular certification program may recommend a specific training path or plan. While worthwhile, these recommendations come with a caveat: You can be channeled into the organization's own training guides, resources and courses. Those may be among the best, but they are often not the only ones available. Be sure to research the full gamut of training options before you opt for those the certifying organization recommends.

How expensive is training?

Costs vary widely, depending on the type of program. You may be able to pick up a used certification training book for $20; an intensive two-week boot camp can cost thousands of dollars. In some cases, your company's training budget may subsidize or cover the cost.

Are boot camps worth it?

Boot camps are typically intensive, full-time programs, designed to immerse participants in a subject and lead toward certification. Vanderbilt says boot camps "absolutely serve a purpose," especially for those with "a high level of experience." Those less experienced may find the boot camp milieu overwhelming, because there is not enough time to digest all of the material covered, he says.

Where can I find training providers?

Certification programs typically provide a list of recommended training programs. Be sure to research them, ideally by asking to speak to instructors and current and former students, and also by tapping networking groups and organizations for the inside scoop.

Should I pursue training through certification, rather than pursuing a degree?

Certification is not a substitute for a college degree. If you are seeking training and wondering whether your ultimate goal should be a certification or a degree, balance a number of factors: your short-term and long-term career goals, financial considerations and other issues. Though it is hard to generalize, those just starting out in an IT career should consider pursuing a degree rather than focusing too soon on acquiring certifications. A degree lasts a lifetime; certifications are often tied to specific technologies, which come and go.

Is there a best way to train?

Different people learn in different ways. Some self-knowledge about your own learning style can help you decide what route to follow. "Do a little bit of research about the various options that are available," suggests Vanderbilt. "Think through how you can best learn. Am I structured enough to sit down and read a book or sit through an e-learning module? If not, a classroom may be more expensive but a better option."

Traditional classes may require more time and flexibility, but it often pays off. "For many people, the classroom is an ideal scenario," says Vanderbilt. "We have found that more often than not, that's the key."

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