So, youve decided to go for the Microsoft Certified
Systems Engineer accreditation. The following article will guide you through the set up of
the exam, a variety of training methods and also offers advice on the best revision aids
To obtain the MCSE qualification you need to be able to prove that you are proficient in
both the Windows NT operating system and at least some of the elements of the Microsoft
BackOffice suite of server applications and utilities.
When NT first became recognised as a viable alternative to Novells NetWare,
Microsoft realised that companies would need a common denominator by which to measure an
NT specialists skills. Novell had the CNE (Certified Novell Engineer) which was
extremely popular with both employers and employees. Microsoft duly decided to create its
A qualified MCSE must continue to update their skills by taking further examinations in
new software releases, as older versions become obsolete. In practice, Microsoft does not
retire an examination for a considerable time after they have stopped selling it. For
example, the Windows 3.11 for Workgroups examination is still an accredited examination;
Microsoft has only recently retired the Dos 6.2 and Windows 3.1 examination. Refer to http://www.microsoft.com/train_cert/ - for
a complete list of current required and elective examinations.
Successful candidates must pass six examinations set by Microsoft. Some of the examination
subjects are compulsory and some can be chosen from a range. It is entirely computer-based
and you are presented with a series of questions with four or five accompanying answers.
Your job is to choose either the single correct answer or (more awkwardly) all correct
answers. You will be asked roughly 60-65 questions that are downloaded randomly from a
pool of around 2,000 potential questions. The pass mark is usually around 75% depending
upon the exam and it is a straightforward pass or fail; there is no grading, although you
do get a results sheet which gives you the exact percentage you attained. If you fail you
may re-sit after three days. Examinations take place in designated testing centres run by
Sylvan Prometric. They have approximately 40 centres up and down the country and their
central booking number is 0800 592873. Examinations cost £65 + VAT and can be booked as
soon as you feel you are ready to take the plunge.
If you are already an NT guru with several years of experience with the chosen product to
be examined in, I recommend you go to Microsofts web site (listed above) and
download a copy of the exam syllabus. This will give you a comprehensive listing of all
the topics covered in that examination. From this list you can decide whether to brush up
on the weaker spots with a book and a PC to practice with, or whether you need a more
For those starting with less knowledge and/or experience it would be advisable to undergo
a more formal training regime. There are many good products on the market to choose from,
but they all fall into two main categories trainer-led and self-taught.
Which training method is right for me?
Training courses have some distinct advantages and disadvantages over the self-taught
model. Firstly, you are paying for the services of a knowledgeable trainer that can deal
with you face-to-face, respond to your individual needs and help solve any problems you
may come up against.
When choosing your training centre make sure your trainer is fully experienced in his/her
field, has passed the examination that you are aiming to take and has also been assessed
for their teaching skills. Talk to the sales people at the training centre about your
needs. Not all sales people are trying to rip you off; if you do smell rip-off, simply put
the phone down and call another centre. They advise people every day about which courses
to take and should be able to help you meet your needs. Be sure to pay the centre a visit
before you part with your cash. One final point dont be afraid to haggle.
Some centres give better rates to freelancers who are paying for themselves and all
centres will give you a discount for booking multiple courses.
If your company has provided you with a miserly training allowance or you have to pay for
your training yourself, you may want to consider self-taught methods. The two main
advantages of using self-taught methods are cost, which can be considerably cheaper than
with trainer-led methods, and being able to fit the training time around your current
workload and social life. Self-taught methods often allow you to take the course at your
own pace and complete the entire course in as long or short a time as suits your needs.
There are a variety of self-taught methods available, from the traditional book learning
method through to videos, computer based training (CBT), CD-ROMs which use multimedia and
even to online training where you can attend virtual lessons via the Internet
and gain support from a remote tutor.
Any decent bookstore will offer a whole host of books on becoming an MCSE. There are many
publishers in this market, including Microsoft with its own Study Kit range
(Microsoft Press); these are good but expensive. Many of the books have CD-ROMs with mock
examinations and demonstrations that make learning easier and more interesting.
Another good source of MCSE literature is 29th Street Press, which offers a comprehensive
list of MCSE Rapid Review Study Guides. Covering all aspects of the examination, the study
guides allow you to work at your own pace with frequent review checklists, and trouble
shooting summaries to monitor your progress. A CD is included with each book and includes
hundreds of mock exam questions for the particular core subject and quick links to the
books test to explain answers. See http://www.ntbooks.com
for more information.
Self-taught and especially book learning methods require a rigorous, self-disciplined
approach to your training. If (like me) youre not a great self-starter, try instead
picking from the new online courses such as Microsofts Online University (MOLI)
which you can find with a few well chosen words in a search on the web.
Once you are comfortable with your knowledge level, get hold of some self-testing
software. Quite a lot of freebies are available via the net, but for quality
products I strongly recommend the products by Transcender http://www.transcender.com. Take these tests and
then gauge the results. Note down all the questions that you got wrong (or got right by
accident) and use your notes as a revision list. Go back to your books and study those
topics until you are confident and then go back and take the tests again. Repeat this
process until you are consistently scoring 95% or more, then you know you are ready for
the real thing.
Is it worth it?
It takes a great deal of commitment to pass six examinations and become a Microsoft
Certified Systems Engineer. But look on the bright side thats the very reason
why MCSEs are so sought after. If it was easy to become an MCSE then everybody would be
one! Attaining MCSE status is an excellent way of making your CV stand head and shoulders
above the competition. For contractors it is arguably even more essential to be able to
prove their technical competence to a prospective client. MCSE status can open the door
for new recruits and can also prove an excellent and effective boost to those who wish to
make a big step forward in their career.
Richard Adams is an Executive Technical Director for
Additional Resources, an IT training company