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Knowing something about an exam's design can help get you comfortable with the format in advance, so here are a few words on what you can expect to see after you sign in at the test center.

Microsoft is free to modify the exam format whenever and however it wants, but the two styles that Microsoft currently uses are

  • "Classic" multiple choice
  • Adaptive

Don't make the assumption that the exam is one style or the other, despite what you may see on various MCSE-related Web sites. Microsoft is known to change a test's style midway through its life cycle.

Choose from multiples

The "classic" MCSE test is a closed-book, multiple-choice exam. Computers are well suited for grading multiple-choice tests, and it is nice to get your grade right away.

Just because the exam is multiple choice doesn't mean that you can ignore the question format. A common pitfall is giving only one answer when the question calls for multiple answers.

You can usually tell by the graphical element next to the answers:

  • If they're circles (radio buttons), only one answer is right.
  • If they're squares (check boxes), maybe more than one answer is right.

Be very aware whether the question calls for the best answer, two answers, three answers, "all that apply," or whatever the case may be. Mark the questions that expect more than one answer for later review because of their inherent trickiness. (Bear in mind that if your test is the adaptive type, you can't mark questions for review.)

Some of the questions are pretty long, and they sometimes give you more information than you really need. Read through these long paragraphs once and only once, noting the key facts (and maybe even drawing a picture) on your scratch paper. This way, you won't have to read those long spiels multiple times.

A graphic example

Some of the questions involve a graphical screen, either as part of the question (the screen is called an exhibit) or as the way to provide the answer (the screen is called a simulation).

When a graphic is an exhibit, don't skip over it! You can click a button at the question's main screen to show the exhibit, but overlooking the button is possible. Most often, the test question exhibits show a simplified network diagram illustrating the hypothetical setup you're being quizzed about.

Consider looking at the exhibit before even reading the question. That way, you already have a mental picture of the question's premise. You can look at the exhibit as often as you want.

When a graphic is the vehicle for providing an answer, it's normally a screen shot of a dialog box or property sheet. The cursor turns into a riflesight icon, and you must point and click at the check box(es) or radio button(s) in the dialog box to answer the question.

Although no one who can talk about it really knows how accurate you have to be for your answer to register with the test engine, take your time and click right in the middle of the check box or radio button.

No point losing points for poor pointing.

You may also see questions in which you must click one or more computer icons in a network diagram to convey your answer.

So, although most of the exam questions and answers don't involve pictures, know how to deal with those that do. By the time you take the test, Microsoft may cook up some other clever graphical exam elements, but at least you'll be aware of the ones in this section, if you encounter them.

Skipping to success

In the classical multiple-choice test style, you can skip any questions you don't immediately understand, and come back to them later. That's actually a good practice. Because your grade in a classical-style test depends solely on the percentage of questions you answer correctly, you need to make sure that you answer as many questions as you can. An unanswered question may as well be wrong; you only get points for questions you answer, and answer correctly.

So, if a question stumps you, or even makes you feel mildly uncertain, go ahead and make your best guess, but "mark" the question for later review by clicking the Mark button on the test screen. Then move on to the next question. After you're done with the first pass through all the questions, you get a review screen that shows the questions you've marked. A click of the mouse takes you back to ponder further on those knotty problems. You may run out of time before you can study all the questions you marked, but at least you're not missing the opportunity to score on questions that you can quickly answer correctly.

If your test uses the classic style, use every last minute you have coming to you. You may very well finish in less than the allotted 90 minutes, especially if you've done a great job preparing. So apply these rules:

  • Take the time to go back and review questions that you marked, especially those asking for multiple answers.
  • Look for keywords in the test questions that may offer a clue that you missed on first glance.
  • Draw diagrams.
  • For questions that you don't understand well, use the process of elimination to improve your odds.

Adapting to adaptive tests

Adaptive, or "hybrid" tests, have two parts:

  • A regular, what-percent-did-you-get-right part
  • An adaptive part

Unfortunately, you don't necessarily know where the dividing line is between the two parts, so you may have to treat the whole test as if it is adaptive, unless Microsoft gives you some clues in the testing instructions.

So what does "adaptive" mean? An adaptive exam's grades are based on the hardest question you can answer on the subject matter of the test. You encounter a series of questions of increasing difficulty. Each question depends on the previous answer: If you got the previous answer correct, then you get a harder question, but if you got it wrong, then you get an easier question. The questions "adapt" to your answers.

Pace yourself by using the on-screen clock. Adaptive tests don't have as many questions, so you can allow yourself more time per question than on a classic-style test. However, you typically don't know in advance how many questions you'll receive. What you could do is take the average of the maximum and minimum number of questions (the test tells you this information) and calculate the approximate amount of time you should spend per question using that number.

You don't have the luxury of marking and reviewing questions on an adaptive exam: You have one shot at each question. So the test-taking style is very different indeed from the "classic" test in which your grade depends solely on the percentage of questions you answer correctly. Here are two suggestions for taking an adaptive test:

  • Go slowly and carefully.
  • Do your best on each question, skipping none of them.
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