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You Didn't Pass Your Certification Exam – Now What?!

Posted on November 9, 2017 by TerryCoxTerryCox


It’s happened to most of us. We have gone through countless hours of studying, training, practicing, learning, etc. We have spent long nights watching videos, reading whitepapers, practicing in labs, and taking practice tests. We thought we had this; we KNEW we had this! But when the test was completed, we hit submit, and we get the dreaded score, which is less than what was required for the Powers That Be to award us our certificate. Four of the seven stages of grief pour over you in rapid fire:
“What went wrong?!”
“I can’t believe I just wasted this money!”
“Maybe if I write to the testing board, they’ll understand that they’re wrong.”
“Ugh, this is so laaaaame!”
But, it’s done. It’s time to take this experience, learn from it, and come back and crush this exam!

The Upward Turn

Okay, so you’ve accepted your fate. The score is final, there’s nothing you can do except pull yourself together and figure out what went wrong! Luckily, most tests (with the exception of a few – I’m looking at you, Red Hat!) will provide you with an analysis of where you went wrong. In many cases, it will be a series of percentages. Obviously, you want to start with the lowest percentage and work to improve in that area! In my personal experience with the students of Linux Academy, most of the ones that do not pass are the ones that skip straight from the videos to the quizzes and skip, or gloss over, the labs. DO NOT DO THIS! The labs are the most important aspect to passing an AWS – or any tech-based – exam! The exam is changed frequently to ensure you have actually experienced all of the nuances in the services. If we were to quiz on every aspect of every service, we would have thousands of questions! The other reason labbing is important is it provides “context.” Once you have experienced a concept in practice, you will usually find that it is easier to remember.
For example, if you are told how to get somewhere by someone who took the journey six months ago, you may find that they were unaware of road closures, a new roundabout, or that police officer that hides behind the billboard looking for speeders! By actually experiencing the journey, you are able to do more than memorize; you are able to understand! This is CRUCIAL to passing an exam, especially the tougher exams like AWS, Microsoft, and Red Hat. Red Hat is, of course, a very special case in that it is a hands-on environment, so it is absolutely crucial to have hands-on experience!
Once you have gone through the labs or practiced the material in your environment, you can start to review practice questions again. You want to ensure you do not start with practice questions until you feel you know the material. The practice questions are not from the test, so they should never be memorized! Memorizing the answers to a practice test is not going to help you on a real test. If you find you are unsure on most of the answers in the practice test, STOP! You do not want to risk invalidating that practice test as a test of your skills by inadvertently memorizing the answers. You want that test to validate what you have learned through videos, whitepapers, and labs, so to keep it effective, head back to the learning materials until the practice test feels easy. This is the thing that harms most students, including myself, when studying for an exam! You think you can pass the test because you can pass the practice test, but you actually have no experience with other questions.
Okay, so you have your training plan in place. You are going to study each item in ascending order based on your score. Remember, just because you passed an area, unless you received a 100%, don’t overlook it! Those extra points could mean the difference between passing and failing again!

The Retake

You have studied everything again. You are feeling confident! You are blazing through practice questions without any issues. You can pass the labs without the lab guides or videos. You are ready to knock this exam out of the park! Make sure you give yourself ample time before the retake. Most companies will only allow you to take a retake within a relatively short amount of time, but some will make you wait weeks or months before you can take a third attempt, so make this one count! Once you have the retake scheduled, and you are ready to do it, do it right!

  1. Read the testing requirements again; you’ve done this before, but tensions are high. Don’t let yourself do something like forget your ID, which would prevent you from taking the test.
  2. Plan your route the night before, ensuring you account for any traffic or transit issues. Plan to be there early.
  3. Ensure you get plenty of sleep.
  4. Don’t eat anything different for breakfast other than what you normally eat; nobody needs indigestion to ruin an otherwise stellar test-taking performance!
  5. Get to the test taking site early, and feel free to bring some flash cards or something for a quick refresher. Only focus on quick topics and memorization type things, such as formulas. If you are “learning” an entire topic at the test-taking center, it’s too late. Focus on the areas in which you can win, don’t try to save a sinking ship with a topic you don’t know well enough.
  6. Enter the test taking room when you’re allowed and take a deep breath.


In conclusion, I hope the main take away is this: everybody misses the mark at some point, and the best way to handle it is to accept the grade, strategize, and go back and pass it! Whether you just had a bad day the first time, the test wasn’t what you expected, or you just didn’t study enough, not passing a test can be overcome! If you’re worried about the money, just remember that you did it for a reason. And if that certification isn’t capable of helping you earn much much more than you paid for it, it wouldn’t have been worth taking it in the first place! So get back out there and knock it out of the park!
For more reading on how to pass a test in general, check out my colleague Tom Haslett’s guide here:


Image of Dale
3 years ago

I’ll have to say I’ve been quite lucky in that I’ve never failed a certification exam, even aced a couple of them, and I have taken about a dozen. That said, I have studied to extremes for each exam I have taken. I have bought book after book, for each exam – usually at least two books over a thousand pages each, read them cover to cover and did exercises and labs until I could do them in my sleep… Then I worked with a guy who was new to IT. He was a smart guy but not a lot of experience. He bought a certification book for Windows 95 certification (yeah, it was that long ago), perused the book for a couple weeks, and took and passed the exam.
The lesson I learned was that, for many exams, the best practice exam you can buy might be the real exam. I’m not suggesting being foolish and taking exams you haven’t prepared for but, sometimes, the best use of time and money might be, once you’ve done some amount of studying, to just take the exam and be ok with the idea that you might fail. You’ll never find a more realistic practice exam to buy and study.

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