by Mike Dailey on October 3, 2011

Failing a certification exam can be a disheartening and emotionally draining experience.  You go into the testing center nervous, but confident, and walk out deflated and upset.  It is an experience that many of us in the field of Information Technology know all too well.  While it can render a blow to your confidence and self esteem, failing a certification exam can become a positive experience and an extremely powerful motivational tool.  The key is in understanding how to handle your emotions and maintain focus after failing an exam.

When preparing to take an exam, you should also prepare to fail the exam.  It may seem a strange concept, but preparing yourself for the possibility of failure is an important step in maintaining your focus and determination.  If you are mentally prepared for the possibility of failure, you will have circumvented the potential shock and depression that could set in immediately after the failed exam, freeing you to turn a negative experience in to a positive force for learning.

Preparing yourself for a potential failure is simply a matter of thinking through the failure, how it would impact you and your career, how you would feel, and how you might respond.  How will you handle the immediate emotions of failure?  What will you tell your coworkers, boss, or friends?  How will you study all of that training material again?  These are the types of thoughts and questions that you should consider, prior to taking the exam, so that a potential failure is far less impacting.

Become Your Own Coach

In the days leading up to your exam, it is important that you begin to coach yourself on how you will handle a negative outcome, if it should occur.  This is a critically important step in your exam preparation.  By thinking through the experience of failing the exam, you are mentally preparing yourself to avoid the negative emotions associated with failure, and it is these negative emotions that could derail your attempts to achieve the certification.  As part of this preparation, you are planning the steps and actions you will take immediately after failing the exam to put yourself in the best position to move forward.

Part of your coaching is to put a new study plan in place in the event you fail the exam.  Not achieving a passing score means that your study time was not as effective as it could have been, or as committed as it should have been.  “If I do not pass this exam, I will study Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday evenings for 3 hours each night.”  The important point to remember here is that it is not the quantity of hours you spend studying, but the quality of those hours.  A new study plan also means changing your study environment.

Change your study location.  Select a quiet, well lit area, away from outside noise, television, music, and other audible disturbances.  Design an atmosphere that allows you to concentrate more intensely and absorb more information.

Remove possible distractions.  Do not try to study when you are hungry or tired.  Keep a bottle of water nearby so that your study is not interrupted to get a drink.  Turn off your cell phone, and tell your family and friends you will be out of touch for the next few hours as you study for an exam.

Make a study task list.  Lay out on paper a short list of the exam areas you are most concerned with.  For each item on the list, set aside a short block of time for focused study on just that area.  Expand the list as necessary, but also remove completed items from the list so that you can see your progress.

Putting this type of detailed plan in place can turn the negative experience of failing into a positive, results-driven approach to ensure that you do not fail the exam again.  The goal here is to avoid the depression and negative emotions associated with failure.  You want to control and redirect the natural, negative reaction to failure, instead turning it into a driving force behind your new dedication and determination to succeed.

Shouldn’t you be following a plan like this to begin with?  The short answer is yes, but as we all know, hindsight is 20/20.  In most cases, we only realize that we have not studied well enough when presented with the reality that we have failed the exam.

“Sorry, you failed.”

You’ve answered the last question on the exam, the computer takes a few seconds to grade your responses, and… failure.  The bad news is delivered, your test results are printed out, and you are on your way out of the testing center.  Now is the time to fall back on your coaching, set aside your emotions, and take steps to begin preparing yourself for a retake of the exam.

Immediately after the exam, think through the exam experience, and recall as many questions as you can.  Write these down, along with the answer you selected for each.  Make effective use of this list by reviewing your answers against the study materials to see if you were correct, and if not, what the correct answer should have been. These questions will likely appear again when you retake the exam, and you will now be armed with the correct answer.

With most certification exams, each area of the exam is graded and a total score provided.  Using this information, you can determine what areas of the exam you found to be most difficult, scored the lowest in, or the areas you felt least comfortable with.  Focus your study on these areas, and this focused attention to troubled areas of the exam will result in a higher score the next time around.

Failing a certification exam is not the end of the world.  Realize that in almost all cases, failing the exam means only that you did not study as effectively as you could have.  Consider this an indication that a more effective method of exam preparation is needed, and put a new study plan and approach in place.  This is the time to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, establish a new study regimen, and work to fill in the knowledge gaps that exist in the information you have retained. 

Moving Forward

Whatever the reason for not achieving a passing score, the important thing is that you continue to work towards passing the exam.  Remember that these certification exams are designed to be difficult, and passing the exam is a testament of your dedication to overcome obstacles.  Obtaining a technical certification is not only a demonstration of your technical knowledge, but an indication of how serious you take your career, as well.

Experiencing failure is a fact of life, and failing an exam, while not a desirable outcome, is part of the certification process.  It is not a reflection of your intelligence, skill, or experience, but rather a likely result of insufficient or ineffective study time.  Take a step back, re-assess your study methods, and schedule a retake of the exam.  Keep moving forward until you succeed.

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