In the past three or four months, I’ve gotten at least half-a-dozen e-mails from IT professionals (some entry-level, some unemployed, and some already beavering away at IT jobs) asking for my advice on laying out serious cash for training and exam support for various certifications. Let me provide a couple of cases in point to illustrate what I’m talking about here — $1,695 for a CompTIA A+ prep class that didn’t include exam vouchers (which cost about $500 for both exams these days, except for those who work for a CompTIA member organization), and $2,995 for a pair of Microsoft Windows 7 exams that did include vouchers (which cost $300 for the both of them at list price, though occasional discounts for the general public pop up all the time, and students can almost always get them for $120-125).
The bottom line is this: If you’re paying for this kind of thing out of your own pocket, I urge candidates to first go the self-study route and see how they do. In most cases, you can cover the preparation costs for under $500 per exam, including a study guide, an Exam Cram, and a couple of practice tests, after which you need only pick up the cost of the exam to get over your particular hump (or humps, as A+ requires two exams, and the Windows 7 example covered two exams as well). For many Microsoft topics, in fact — including both of the Windows 7 exams involved here (70-680 and 70-681) — non-exam costs seldom exceed $250 or so. Then, if you look around for online study groups or active online forums that cover exam topics, you can reach out to the community to get help, insight, and other perspectives on problems or points of confusion as you need them.
Particularly for those still in school, or those who aren’t working right now, stretching dollars is very important. That’s why I have to repeat my exhortation to try self-study first and foremost if you’re trying to break into IT, be it as a fresh-out-of-school newbie or somebody with some experience who’s changing fields, or as an experienced IT professional who wants to change subject areas from one IT specialization to another. Even if you decide you need to take a class later on down the road because you can’t hack the do-it-yourself route, you still won’t be out that much money. And if you succeed on this path — and my research teaches me that at least half of all certification holders take the self-study approach — you will save a LOT of green on your way to certification.
On the other hand, if you are lucky enough to work for an employer who provides education support that includes training costs, by all means look into the level of support that’s offered and how it works in your case. Some employers pay a percentage based on exam scores (and don’t pay if you don’t pass the exam or earn the related cert), while others simply offer annual dollars that you can use to boost your career in whatever way you choose. Either way, it’s still worth weighing the self-study vs. classroom/online training paths you can take to certification, but cost doesn’t have to be the sole deciding factor any more. Count yourself blessed for being able to make such choices, too!