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DBA Certification: Test-taking and Study Tips

by Howard Fosdick


If you take the DBA certification exams from Oracle, IBM, or Microsoft, you want to go into them with every advantage you can get. This article discusses some test-taking tips I’ve collected from friends (and from my own experience) over the past ten years. The tips apply to the DBA certifications from any of the “big three” database vendors.

After we discuss the tips, we’ll talk about what you should study to prepare for the exams. Proper preparation is essential to pass.

Test-taking Tips

      • Remain calm — It’s not unusual for candidates to become rattled when taking a test, especially if it’s the first such test they’ve taken. Even experienced candidates can be thrown off balance if the first few questions look unfamiliar or are unexpected. Remain calm and keep your head. All the tests provide plenty of time for you to carefully read and consider every question. If you’ve prepared, you just need to relax and methodically work through the exam.
      • Answer every question — Every question you answer correctly counts in your favor, while incorrect answers do not carry a penalty. Answer every question on the exam, even if only with a guess. Double-check your work at the end of the test to ensure you answered every question.
      • Read the entire question before answering — The questions are usually detailed and often complex. Read the entire question before answering to ensure you do not jump to conclusions about what the question is asking. If you’ve studied “practice tests,” it’s not unusual to make an incorrect assumption about what a question asks based on a similar practice question you may have seen. By reading the entire question carefully, you’ll avoid this mistake.
      • Read all possible answers before answering — Just like reading the entire question, you may make an incorrect assumption about the answer if you do not read the answers listed. When answers consist of code, some of them may vary by only a single letter or by punctuation. You’ll only pick this up if you inspect all the answers carefully.
      • You may also encounter some questions with more than one correct answer; in such cases, the vendor believes that one correct answer is “better” than another. You’ll only catch this if you read all possible answers before making your selection.

      • Eliminate incorrect answers — The answers to many questions will not be immediately evident. In this case, it helps to use a process of elimination. Eliminate answers you know are wrong, and you’ll often be able to take your best guess from the remaining fewer alternatives. For example, if a question has five possible answers, you have a 50 percent shot at the correct answer if you can eliminate three answers you know are incorrect and take a guess from the remaining two. Blindly guessing from among the original five answers only gives you a 20 percent chance of getting it right.
      • Since most candidates encounter many questions on each test about which they are unsure of the exact answer, increasing your chances for correctly answering by eliminating poor choices can add several points to your score by the end of the exam.

      • Mark questions for later review — All the tests allow you to “mark” questions for later review. Some candidates use this feature to defer particularly difficult or time-consuming questions until after their first pass through the test. Others use it to mark questions they have answered, but want to double-check later. At the end of the test, you can return to any particular, marked question, or scroll through them all. I recommend going through the entire test and answering every question, while marking those that require deeper thought for review later.
      • Check your work — It astounds me that some candidates leave exams early and don’t use their extra time to thoroughly check their work. After weeks of studying, do the absolute best job you can. Why risk paying the exam fee a second time and going through the whole process again?
      • The majority of test questions are complicated and take real thought to answer correctly. The difference between passing and failing — on most tests for most candidates — is only a handful of correct answers. You want to use every minute you have to bore down on the more difficult, or “iffy” questions, and to double-check your work.

        Over-confidence is a killer. I’ve taken ten DBA certification exams and have really stomped two of them, missing only a single question. I’ve also taken two tests where, had I answered but one more question more incorrectly, I would have failed. Thank goodness I used every minute available to me to fight for a pass! While you’re taking a test it’s not always evident what the final result will be. Use all the time the test allows you.

      • Cross-check questions — Checking your work carefully and marking questions for later review reveals an interesting phenomenon on many tests: Some questions will help you correctly answer others. Sometimes this cross-checking enables you to eliminate incorrect answers from other questions, while at other times, it hands you the correct answer, gratis. This is definitely a gift you want to take.

What to Study

In addition to test-taking tips, the other question I get asked most frequently about DBA certification is, what should I study? In my other article in this series, I discussed specific sources to study to pass the Oracle, IBM, and Microsoft DBA exams.

Here I would like to talk more generally about how to prepare for the tests. This applies to the Oracle, IBM, and Microsoft database exams.

To pass any DBA exam, you need to:

      1. Verify the vendor’s exam requirements
      2. Get hands-on experience
      3. Study a book written specifically to help candidates pass the test
      4. Work with practice questions
      • Verify exam requirements — Visit the vendor’s Web site and search on keywords, “DBA certification” to locate their certification home page. While vendors typically only change their DBA certification requirements when they come out with new versions of their products, they reserve the right to change their requirements at any time. If you’re going to invest the time and money to certify, you want to make sure you understand what’s required! The vendors also spell out the terms of their certification programs, and you want to ensure you agree with those terms before putting in the effort to certify.
      • Check the requirements for certifying with different product releases and the timing in which the vendor is upgrading their certifications to new releases. You want to certify with the most current release.

        The vendor’s Web site will give you all the mundane — but important — details about the test. These include number of questions on the test, how many you must answer correctly to pass, and the time frame in which you have to take the test. Every vendor lists the test topics or objectives for each test. These should guide your studying.

        Mine the vendor’s Web site for any and all free materials they provide for candidates. All three vendors offer a lot of very useful, free material specifically designed for test-takers. I’ve encountered many candidates who did not review the vendor’s Web site carefully enough to find this material!

      • Get hands-on experience — While I’ve met a couple candidates who treat certification strictly as an intellectual exercise, for most of us, relating the exams to actual experience is mandatory. Why else would you take the tests if not to become more proficient at using the product?
      • If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to get the hands-on experience you need at work. If not, all three vendors offer free trial versions of their database for download. You can easily locate them off the vendor’s certification home page, or by entering the search keywords, “free download.” The products install on your Windows or Linux laptop or desktop.

        A key feature of all three database products is that they include the manual set. This is essential background information, and enables you to research questions while studying. You might also find that a particular manual is especially useful for preparing for an exam. For example, the Backup and Recovery Guide is a key resource for the DBA exams. I’ve found the New Features Guide useful for upgrading my certifications to new product versions.

      • Study a certification book — The topics and questions you encounter on the exams are quite specific. You need to study a book specifically written to help you pass the test you’ll take. Studying just any book on the database or knowing a lot about the product in general won’t cut it — the tests are far too specific for generic knowledge to ensure you’ll pass.
      • You’ll be spending a lot of time studying this book, so be sure to buy one you like. Read reviews online at to compare titles or page through them at the bookstore to get a feel for them before selecting one.

        Certification books are expensive. Unless the test is new, you can save some money by getting a used copy from an online bookstore. If you do, however, be sure that any CDs distributed with new copies are present in your used copy. These often contain key material to back up the preparation that the book gives you.

        Should you buy more than one certification book? I’ve known a few candidates who feel that reading material written from two different viewpoints aids their understanding. Personally, I select a single good book, then augment it with the vendor’s free manuals.

      • Work with practice questions — I’ve never met a certified DBA who does not take “practice tests.” The question is, which practice tests are sufficient? All three database vendors supply free practice tests online at their certification Web sites. These are best considered “self-assessment” vehicles, rather than tools designed to help you pass the certification exams. By themselves, they are not sufficient to prepare you for the tests.
      • Most DBA certification books include CDs that contain practice tests and also “flashcards” for studying. These are always valuable … make sure you use them.

        Some candidates swear by practice tests they buy from third-party vendors that specialize in exam preparation. The recommendations I most often hear are Self Test Software for the Oracle exams and Transcender for the Microsoft tests. Others recommend the materials from CramSession and from AudioWhiz. I do not know of any company selling practice questions for the IBM DB2 UDB exams. (Full disclosure: The author of this article has prepared materials for CramSession and AudioWhiz in the past, but has no business relationship with Self Test Software or Transcender.)

Courses? Forums? Brain dump sites?

Let’s wrap up by reviewing a few other potential study resources.

      • Courses — Every vendor would love for you to take their database courses. Whether classroom-based or online, vendors earn a high profit margin on these offerings (which is why you always see them advertised so prominently on their certification home pages).
      • Do you need a class to pass? If you’re new at working with the database, or inexperienced, it might really help. A good class from the vendor or one of many third-party training firms will help you learn the material more quickly and thoroughly.

        Experienced DBAs, however, are in a different position. They really don’t need classes to pass the standard certification exams. (The only exception would be if the vendor requires a course as part of the certification requirements, such as Oracle Corp. does for their Oracle Certified Professional (OCP) DBA certification.)

      • Forums — Many candidates find online forums useful for asking certification advice or for guidance on knotty database concepts. Among the several forums that cover all three major databases are DBForums, Quest Software’s pipelines, and There are also many online forums dedicated to specific database products, including those run by the three database vendors themselves.

        “Brain dump” Web sites — These are privately-run Web sites that claim to post actual exam questions. Their methodology is to have candidates write down any questions they remember immediately after exiting the test, then posting these questions and answers on the brain dump Web site. Brain dump sites are common in the Microsoft world, and I’ve heard of one that targeted the IBM DB2 UDB tests.

        Needless to say, the database vendors are furious about brain dump sites and have shut some down by threatening legal action. Brain dump sites are nothing but a vehicle for cheating. Besides being dishonorable, these sites are notorious for providing wrong answers. Whether on purpose or through poor expertise, many of the questions posted on these sites are garbled, and many of their answers are incorrect. Don’t mislead yourself by looking at these sites.


Well, that it’s it. I’ve given you advice that represents the “accumulated wisdom” of many certified DBAs. But the hard part — putting in the necessary effort — is up to you. Work hard, and you’ll surely pass!


Howard Fosdick is an Oracle-certified DBA and an IBM-certified DB2 UDB DBA for Linux, Unix and Windows. He’s the author of the new book, Rexx Programmers Reference, a 700-page tutorial and reference that covers database programming and all Rexx versions and interfaces.

Contributors : Howard Fosdick
Last modified 2005-12-05 09:32 AM
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