Dear SQL DBA: How Do I Prepare for Certification Exams? (video)

on April 23, 2018

In this episode, I talk about how to strategize for and prepare for Microsoft Certification exams, using the Database Fundamentals exam as an example.


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Welcome to Dear SQL DBA: a podcast and youtube show for SQL Server developers and database administrators.

I’m Kendra Little from

This episode is all about preparing for certification tests

I get a lot of questions about certifications– so many questions that I already have a podcast episode addressing the question: should I get certified? I still think it’s worth thinking heavily about whether you want to invest the time and money into getting certifications, and figuring out are these going to be meaningful for your career.

Certifications has been a really valuable milestone on my path to learning about a lot of topics in SQL Server, but they don’t have to be – and certifications aren’t required for you to meet your goals, necessarily, when it comes to your career working with data.

In this podcast, I’m going to talk about how I strategize approaching something like a certification exam, but do you go back and check out that other episode if you’re questioning: hey do I need to get certified?

Because this podcast is all about taking the challenge of certification and making the most of it.

One word of warning: I will be talking about an example exam in this in this session, but these things change a lot!

Not only do the exams change, but the certifications themselves change, and the definition of hey what is the certification and what does it cover – and that is something that shifts over time. So, if you’re listening to this episode in the future, don’t just assume that this exam is still the same. You want to take this strategy that I’m giving you. Take out of it what’s meaningful for you and use it as a toolset to approach the exams that you want to take on your own path.

Now, that being said, the example exam I’m talking about that we’re gonna say okay, how can we strategize taking this exam for someone who’s just getting started on their path towards being a DBA – that exam is exam 98 364. The database fundamentals exam. Now, this exam covers a lot of ground, and it doesn’t assume that the person taking it has all of the job experience– but it’s gonna cover all of the fundamentals, or at least a really wide chunk of them.

When we’re approaching an exam, what I like to do is first…

Get a big-picture view and just really start looking at: what are the skills that this exam is measuring? I want to expand each area and get the details out of the exam description, and then I want to summarize it and analyze it in my own format. I like to use a spreadsheet, and I like to do that because I want to assess myself on the different skills that they’re measuring, and also I want to do some analysis on where I may want to prepare and where I may not want to prepare.

Summarizing the exam is really helpful because these exams can be intimidating. The level of things that they cover. the number of things they cover and the level of detail in them may become overwhelming, and if we don’t do that analysis and strategizing about where to invest our time, we may quickly become overwhelmed– and we may become, you know, kind of frightened of the exam. That doesn’t put us in the best place to take the exam.

We want to set ourselves up so that we have good confidence going into it and feel that we have a good chance to tackle the exam

Looking at the database fundamentals exam, it has multiple areas, and it lists out for each of these areas how much weight is put on that area in the exam.

The first area that is covered for database fundamentals is this concepts section

Understanding core database concepts is estimated to be 20 to 25 percent of the weight of the exam.

We get a fair amount of detail about what they’re going to ask us about: it says you need to understand how data is stored in tables, you need to understand relational database concepts as well as data manipulation language and data definition language. All of these things together are up to 1/4 of the weight of the exam. All right, so I take out these headings and I put those into my spreadsheet.

I may read some of the detail on here to make sure that I understand what this means as well.

The next section of the exam is creating database objects…

…and this is again 20 to 25% of the weight of the exam. This section, creating database objects, contains questions on choosing data types, understanding tables and how to create them, creating views and creating stored procedures and functions. Now, there’s parts of these that may sound familiar if we think back to the first section. The first section had understanding how data is stored in tables, which is understanding columns and rows. The second section of this says understanding tables and how to create them. It’s very very similar to the first one. It’s more about understanding T- SQL to create a table, but of course to understand the T-SQL to create a table, we need to understand these concepts of columns and rows.

So there is some overlap of concepts in here. If I understand tables and how to create them I am going to understand most likely how data is stored in tables, as long as I understand not just how to– you know create tables, but the fact that they can have rows in them as well.

These sections of this exam aren’t measuring totally separate things…

..and if I understand some concepts well it may cover more than one skill measured in the exam. The first section of the exam is about manipulating data: it’s about selecting data inserting data, updating data, and deleting data. And again, some of these may sound similar because that first section that was big picture already covered a lot of these concepts. To understand selecting data we need to understand relations between tables. To understand inserting updating and deleting data, these are all ways that we can manipulate data.

The next section of the exam is called understanding data storage…

…and this is an example I think of where some of the titles may not mean what I think they mean at first. Understanding data storage– if I only saw those words I might think that this was about how to create files in the file system and how SQL Server pages store data, or how data access to storage is done. But when I look into the subheadings of this topic it says that understanding data storage consists of normalization, primary, foreign and composite keys, and indexes. So they’re talking more about what are the ways in which we design our data structures in the SQL Server. It’s not talking about the Windows file system and how SQL Server talks to the Windows file system necessarily, and that’s part of why I think it’s useful to go in and expand these and pull out the sub headings: because if I simply read the big picture categories the way in which I interpret those words may not be really what they’re talking about. This data storage portion is 15% to 20% of the exam.

Now, there’s one last section on this exam called administering a database

Administering a database is only 10 to 15%, and they only list two concepts or two skills inside administering a database. There’s there’s definitely more to administering a database than this, but in the fundamentals category. the skills they’re talking about are database security concepts and backups and restores. This is a great example of an area where if you tried to master all parts of administering a database to pass the database fundamentals exam, you would be doing way more work than this exam covers. And that might be really really valuable, but we’re really at a big picture level here, and at the fundamentals level they’re really doing some selection of topics and deciding exactly what is fundamental to database administration.

All of these headings that I’ve listed at all of these skills, I take these skills and put them into a spreadsheet that gives me a nice big picture view

Each of these skills is approximately five and a half percent to seven percent of the exam, and as we said there is overlap in some of these skills that were listed. So data manipulation language is 5.6 percent just as an overview topic but then inserts updates and deletes are each seven percent as well. So if I want to work on just a lot of T SQL and understanding how to select and manipulate data, that alone is gonna have quite a lot of coverage on this exam.

It’s worth assessing that, because just looking at individual skills you may underestimate the weight that something has on the exam, so look for redundancy in the areas listed.

I also like to add some columns to this spreadsheet and for each skill that’s being measured, assess: what is my confidence level in this area?

You do need to know yourself a little bit

Do you tend to be overconfident?

Do you tend to be really self-critical?

Try to not be so self-critical or dial it back a little bit. If you tend to be overconfident you want to have a fair idea of this just for your own purposes. What we’re really saying is where are my areas where I’m strongest? Where my areas where I’m weakest? This will help– this will be part of the formula to figure out where I want to study– but not the whole formula because I also want to look at these areas and note separately: how interested am I in this area? So for example, for this exam what I did is I went way back and I thought about Kendra before she was even a Junior DBA. Kendra when she was just starting out. I really loved writing queries– that was one of the first things I did with SQL Server was figure out how to interpret data in the database and make it useful. Looking through these areas I had medium confidence on storing data in tables, and medium confidence about relational database concepts, because I was used to working with tables and joining them. I was a little bit used to data manipulation language because I would use temp tables, but I wasn’t super confident. I had low confidence when it came to data definition language, because I would do a lot of things like select into a temp table and then manipulate the data in there.

I didn’t feel that I knew a lot about data types, and honestly looking back, I would have underestimated myself a lot, I would have said low comfort. but actually I DID know a lot of them, I just didn’t have a lot of knowledge of what I didn’t know in that area, right? Because I only knew– oh I’ve interacted with these data types. It turns out I’d interacted with a lot more data types than I really gave myself credit for. But I would go through each of these areas and rank: high confidence, medium confidence, low confidence– or if I just literally didn’t know anything about it, just put question marks. I knew absolutely nothing about indexes, I knew I didn’t know what an index was at this point in my career, so I would have just put like question mark question mark question mark there. I also knew hardly anything about security. All I knew about security was how to ask to get access to something. I wasn’t at the point where I was a database administrator so I had really low or non-existent knowledge in some areas in these exams, but also there were some areas that were interesting to me– where I had really high interest. And then there were other areas where I had really low interest. Noting those is really really important as well.

Saying that something is low interest, isn’t saying that it’s not important or it is not valuable

It really is a question of what is something that I just I have a desire to learn more about. I find it really compelling, or something that I think might be really useful to me in the short term.

At that point in my career, where I was really focusing on getting a lot better using databases, as somebody who used T- SQL, the areas that were of the greatest interest for me had to do with becoming more and more of an expert at creating objects in the database, and I just really wasn’t the point where I was ready to learn about backup and restore. It was later in my career that that became much higher interest to me. You want to avoid the anti-pattern of being the perfectionist at this point. There can be, for many of us, a tendency to say: I’m just not ready to take the exam yet and to get stuck in this place where we never get started, because we’re like oh I haven’t learned these three things yet. To me certifications can help move your knowledge forward, and a big part of that is just getting to the point where you’re ready and excited to try the exam.

To me, the point of being ready and excited to try the exam is when I feel that I have enough coverage of these areas, and I’m in the right mental state.

But that right mental state isn’t that I’m confident I know everything.

That right mental state is: I see the challenge in the questions and I think I can get past the tough videogame level of this certification exam. There’s gonna be moments when I’m like squinting at the certification screen and I’m trying to get past something, but I want to be having fun while I do it, because honestly for me I am better at exams when I’m in that mood of: okay I think I’ve got what it takes to pass this exam, and I’m gonna go for it, and I’m really going for it. I’m not like at this oh I know everything overconfidence stage.

I’m at the: I think I can tackle it competitive stage. Not competitive with other people, but really competitive almost against a video game boss type thing in the exam. I’m competing against the challenge that’s been set up for me. Looking at how I’ve scored myself in my imaginary report writing Kendra, approaching the fundamentals exam, if I highlight areas where I ranked myself as either medium or high comfort level, looking at the percentage is given to each skill on the exam comes out to about 42% coverage of the exam. Honestly, that’s not so bad! That’s a pretty confident little Report Writer Kendra, who’s like oh you know I know something about these other areas, even areas where I have kind of low confidence, I’m gonna be able to possibly make some guesses in those. But I think I’m gonna be able to make a really good guess if I have medium or high confidence in that area.

42% coverage isn’t bad, but I might want to bring that up a little bit

I might want to get to the point where I have medium confidence in some other areas on this exam, but I’m not gonna try to cover every single area on the exam, because I just want to get to that competitive fun-loving part. I need to pick out other skills that I want to level up, and here is where that interest ranking comes in. Areas where I have low confidence, but I have high interest: these are things that are actually going to be valuable to me to learn at this point in my career, because I have either an excitement about them, or I think they may be useful to me, but I’m not very confident about me. Those areas are the ones where I want to go into those and say: yeah okay I’m not super confident about creating tables with T-SQL, I want to build that up because I have high interest.

Same thing with creating views and creating procedures and functions. I’m excited about learning those and preparing for this exam has brought to light: hey here’s something I’m excited about that I don’t have medium confidence in. That is an exciting thing to go out and learn to me! So I want to avoid those areas where I have low confidence, but my interest is also low. Those, hey maybe later on my interest is going to be higher in those, but I’m not gonna pick those out to tackle right now for this exam. If little Report Writer Kendra tackles those areas where she has lower confidence and higher interest, and she if she gets those up to medium or high level interest, then I’m gonna have 67% coverage of topics on this exam. And at that point I’m gonna say: okay I’m gonna go ahead and give this a try and see how I do, because I have a good level of coverage, and confidence enough that I feel good enough about to try and tackle this thing!

My study style for these areas where I have low confidence and high interest, my particular study style is very hands-on.

This is just how I learn. I have always learned something better if I go out and research it, and write down notes. I have to do something– I have to either write down notes, or I have to write a demo script. Learning for me is the best when I have a problem. Maybe it’s is me creating the problem, or maybe it’s just me saying okay I want to learn how to create functions, so I’m going to look at some examples of functions online and then I’m gonna use a demo database and come up with my own function, and then make sure I know how to use it. My tools for preparing for these are things like sample databases, evaluation– or Developer Edition, rather, of SQL Server, which is now free. Evaluation edition is free - but it expires, so Developer Edition is awesome.

Books Online and online documentation and search engines and blogs– but actually not just reading for me, really getting my hands on things helps me learn. Adapt that to your own style of learning, of course. If saying something out loud helps you learn, then you want to say things out loud. I really really– when I’m preparing for these exams– like to get myself into the mindset of approaching a game. Maybe it’s a video game, maybe it’s some sort of competition for you, but for me when I’m approaching these questions with exams I want to learn to read the question critically.

And this is something that sometimes folks like to do practice exams for.

I don’t think that the practice exams all have to be official practice exams

For example, on SQLWorkbooks, I have a bunch of free quizzes– and I am NOT claiming that these free quizzes are anything like certification quizzes. But they are free, and they do give you a chance to read the questions critically, to practice eliminating answers where you’re like: okay I know that one’s not it, and I know that one’s not it, so I’m down to two, and now I’m gonna –how I can decide between these two? You also can help get into the habit of saying: I’m going to look at– gonna run through all the questions on this quiz, and I’m gonna kind of set myself, that I’m gonna keep timing in mind while I do it. So, if one question is really tricky, I’m gonna table it and I’m gonna come back to it later.

Now, my quizzes don’t have the functionality– I don’t have hundred question quizzes, so I don’t have the functionality of marking a question for review– but in many of these online exam situations you do have that ability– which being mindful of the time and not getting stuck on a question is a really important skill. And that’s something that any practice quiz can help you with if you get used to: okay I’m gonna go past this question and I’m not gonna let it get to me, I can come back to it at the end. Just that practice of being comfortable with that and having it not ruffle you too much can be very very useful.

Timing is a huge part of being quite being successful, not only in video games, but also at quizzes.

Calmness and preparing for the test ahead of time can also help you out a ton

I have learned the hard way that anytime I’ve got something that is sort of an important thing that I want to do well coming up: it might be an exam, it might be an important meeting, it might be a long flight, it might be any critical situation: I want to do my best at that, I may want to start thinking about preparing for it a week in advance, or sometimes even more. Doing things like saying: I’m going to start getting to bed at a consistent time so that the night before the exam I have this evening ritual where I wind down where I go to sleep, where I’m not staying up all night. Because for me, just getting and having a routine going into the exam where I’m calm, where I’ve been doing healthy things like walking my dog and working out, it puts me into just a much better place to take the exam. A much more confident place and a more relaxed place. I am also personally into meditation.

Meditating the morning before a big event makes a huge difference for me.

It helps me remember to breathe during the exam, it makes it easier to not get stuck on things like tough questions, to not have them bug me and get into my head. Because a lot of the folks who have problems with exams – times when I’ve had problems with the exams have been times when I’ve gotten into a place of fear, where I’ve gotten really nervous, and I’m like oh oh I didn’t do well on that question! Having a question haunt you during an exam, or a series of questions haunt you can really be tough. But if you have that mindset of saying: all right, I got knocked out of that question, maybe, I’m not sure if I got it right, but okay I’m gonna tackle this next one! And now my mind is fresh, my mind is clear, I’m ready to get this. I’ve got my shoulders down and deep breath – self-critical thoughts have gone past me.

That is the place where you’re more likely to rock that exam. Building up these habits of getting to a clear mental space– and having had a full night’s sleep really can help you rock out that exam and stay in that mindset of: hey I am going to take this exam down, and get past this confidently. Knowing that the exam doesn’t mean anything about you is really really helpful when it comes to having a great time during the exam, to me.

The perfect exam taking– if I got to you know level 100 of exam taking, I would be in a place where I could take an exam that I did terrible at, and still have a good time, and still learn something from the experience

I’d be able to say, after this, okay, maybe that was a disaster, but what did I learn from the questions it asked me? I’m gonna learn some things about the subject matter itself just from analyzing the questions they asked me. And what did I learn about what I want to do? Maybe I’ve discovered that despite my research, this exam is actually not related to what I want to do, and that, whoops I maybe I don’t want to pursue this!

But maybe what I’ve learned is, okay, I’m gonna get my results back and it was it was Cathrine Wilhelmsen who pointed out– she said hey you know, you get back the skill results, an analysis of where you were strongest and where you were weakest. If this is something you want to pursue, you can use that to redesign the areas you want to study in. You can take that list and you can rank it: high interest, medium interest, low interest. It has just ranked you on your confidence levels, or rather your your skill levels, right? So you can take that and use it as your map to your study plan. But really, the sign of a great exam is learning as much as you can from that exam, and using it to move forward. At the end of the exam, you want to be in place where you don’t use the exam to judge yourself. I know it’s something– I know it’s hard to say this exam means nothing about ME. Look at the exam results as meaning something about what to DO next.

If you pass the exam, maybe you want to take another exam next. Maybe you don’t. But if you don’t pass the exam– same thing. Maybe you want to use that to redefine your study areas, maybe you don’t. It’s all up to you and it really is completely about choosing your own adventure.

Please please please don’t take negative exam results to mean that you are not good enough

There are a lot of super smart people out there, just tons of super smart people who haven’t passed these exams the first time. Maybe they haven’t passed these exams ever.

These exams are a challenge, and they can be part of your journey to your career. They do not have to be.

And they do not have to define you. They’re an achievement you can have, but they aren’t something that judges you, and they aren’t something that says what you are worth.

You are worth a lot regardless of whether you’ll ever take a certification exam.

Now, getting more for your buck

There is definitely a path– like if you are saying okay these exams are expensive, and I want to do them, but I want to make sure that I get the absolute most out of the certification experience– I believe that the way to do that is when you are studying for the exam, when you find those areas where you say, okay, I I have low confidence but I have high interest: start a blog and write about those things as you learn them. That will not only help you learn them and keep you on track, but if you’re consistent, building that blog that blog is going to be the thing that helps you get a job moreso than the certifications ever will. Because just the fact that you’ve passed a certification or a set of exams for a certification, that tells your employer may be that you’re persistent– but sort of at a high level. A distant level, right? They don’t know a ton about that.

But if you blog about those areas while you’re learning about them, and you do it consistently, that tells your employer: hey how do they approach problem-solving, and in great detail! They can see in sampling your blog posts how you’re analyzing something, why you think something is interesting, what your writing skills are– and a little bit about your personality.

That blog can absolutely boost your career in a way that the certification by itself does not

It’s a little bit like getting to watch somebody practice for the Olympics rather than just hearing how they ranked in different events. Seeing how someone is working out and how they’re attaining and sharing knowledge tells you a ton about that person, and that can absolutely be a worthwhile thing to list on your resume and to share with potential employers, as well as your colleagues in the community– it’s about you and about your interests in SQL Server.

Thank you so much for joining me for this episode of Dear SQL DBA.

I have some upcoming live episodes that I’ll be recording: on May 2nd I’ll be talking about the question, “Do DBAs need college degrees?” Then following that we’ll be talking about dealing with lack of control as a DBA, we’ll talk about being a woman in technology on the internet, and training resources for SQL Noobs is coming up on June 13th. That one’s gonna be a ton of fun.

Thanks so much folks! See you in a podcast episode soon.