F5 Certifications Mega Meta Series: Flag your way through the exam without raising the white one

In this series of articles, I will go into the details of how the exams are developed (...as far as I know at least), and how I think you can improve your chances of passing them. In this article, I will share with you a tool of the gods: the flag. It's such a simple function; put a little flag on the screen to keep your place. Knowing how you can get the most out of it can make the difference between you stressing all the way through and sitting there relaxed as if you were filling in a questionnaire about the sandwich you just had.

Guest Author: Alex Tijhuis

An evangelist for anything software designed and security, and a self-described massive network geek, Alex is an F5 trainer and consultant at ABCT.net. While certified and highly skilled and interested in all things F5, he's just as happy pulling cables in a data center and designing scalable systems as he is messing around with the latest cool kids toys our fine industry has to offer.

Let’s back up a bit first

Many moons ago when I was working through my Cisco exams, there used to be as multiple choice questions as well as “Simlets” – small simulation items that were checking if you knew the procedure for configuring certain items. I don’t know if Cisco exams still have them, but I used to dread them. You would have about 3 or 4 of them in an exam, and you would have to configure something in a simulation, or fix a problem. You wouldn’t know at which question they would pop up and because they were supposedly quite heavily scored, it means that missing one will already reduce your chances of passing. Missing two and you’d better be REALLY good at the rest. One fateful day, sitting one of the CCNP module exams, I believe I got 3 of them within my first 5 questions! Oh bugger… Of my 90 minutes, I think I only had 45 or so minutes left when I got passed them; I didn’t want to skip them because of their importance, but I also didn’t want to spend too much time on them. Oh, did I mention you can’t go back to questions in these exams once you have answered them? I wasn’t looking like a happy bunny when I finally got passed those first 5 questions. I might as well have given up right there and then as there was no chance of keeping my stress levels under control after that – what a waste… To be fair to the exams, I did pass this test a few weeks later, and this particular scenario only happened to me once, but it almost felt like being cheated out of a “pass”.

This is one of the reasons why I appreciate the option to go back to previous questions in F5 exams so much more. If you have a difficult question, or don’t want to spend the time on reading something right now, no problem! Flag the item, select an answer if you wish, and move on! At the end of the exam, you get a review screen where you get a chance to revisit all your questions and see how many you have answered, how many you have flagged and how much time you have left. The only thing that’s missing here is an overview of how many questions you have right – wouldn’t that be helpful!

Let’s talk strategy!

So, here is my plan; when I start the exam, I answer all the short and simple questions. Any large question with exhibits or large pieces of text, I just flag and move on. Any short question that I have read and THINK I may know, I answer and also flag. After about half the exam time, I then end up on the final review screen. There is something serene about this screen for some reason – seeing it drops my stress levels and gives me a moment to breathe. This might also be a good moment to indeed take a deep breath; congratulations on not failing so far! My review screen should now roughly be filled with 20-30% of questions unanswered, and 40-50% of questions flagged. First, let’s have a look at the unanswered questions – if anything, those are you easy points. Now is the time to read them properly and pick a sensible answer. If you still can’t figure out the right answer, no problem! At least pick the best suiting answer, but leave the flag. Get back to the review screen and pick another one. Remember, there is no penalty for going back to the same question again and again – other than a small time penalty when you find out you’ve already tried that one. Work your way through these unanswered questions and remove the flags of any answers you are happy with. Of that 30% unanswered questions, you should now have all of them answered, and most of them will no longer be flagged. So, all the flagged questions you have left now - probably still about 25% of all questions - are questions you have seen before, have taken the time to read them and given it your best shot. Let’s now revisit this lot, one by one and review the questions again. This is where you may want to make a bit of a judgement call depending on how much time you have left. If you have lots of time left (i.e. more than 10 minutes), take your time to read through these questions again and see if you can come up with a better answer. If you only have a few minutes left, unflag any question that you know you are struggling with and are unlikely to improve in any way and use the time you have left on the questions that you DO have a chance with. Of course, also keep in mind that often when you revisit a question and don’t quite read the whole question, you may end up misreading it and changing the answer to the WRONG answer… - so don’t rush! All questions already have an answer and you should already have passed, so whatever you are doing now, is purely for bonus points. Lastly, with this strategy, I also don’t expect to be able revisit all flagged items. During my last recertification – I believe it was the 402 again, I ran out of time with still about 10-20 questions flagged for review. I was absolutely knackered, but I passed! Remember, they are not testing if you can have everything right, they are testing if you are good enough to call yourself an F5 specialist!

Flagging for Professionals

Here is a tip for anyone going for the 400-level exams; how to deal with Case Studies! Case studies are sets of questions that are all based around the same company/scenario. You need to read the scenario first, then read the questions and pick an answer. As I understand it, F5 has tried to put all case study questions at the same spot in the exam, but apparently the exam software doesn’t allow for this. As such, you may get case study questions dotted around the exam, which means you need to read the whole case before you are able to remember the details you need and answer the questions – quite a waste of time. How about you try this; the moment I find one of these, I put them on my notes paper (you should get a few pages before entering the exam room), and make a note of the exam question number, and which case study it is for. Flag and move on, don’t try to read it, remember it or glance at it – LEAVE IT! Once you are at the review screen, you can then pick up all questions from a specific case study at once; you take your time to read through the text and “easily” answer all the questions. Doing it in this way, will also make it less likely that you start confusing the different case studies and scenarios.

So, that’s it. If you now come to the end of this article and were expecting some grand finale, my apologies. None of these tips are really shocking or brilliantly thought out. But at least in my experience, these little things can make the difference between dreading the process and just waiting for the exam to be over and being comfortable and having a good chance in making it. Let’s see who can use the most flags!

Dr. Ken Says...

I have suggested many of these strategies over the years based on my own test-taking experiences, so I’m glad that at least one person also finds them useful.

One thing I will point out is that, at least in the current exam structure, all the questions are equal in value, and the passing score is determined by the overall number of correct questions. That is to say, you need to correctly answer a certain number of questions, but it doesn’t really matter which questions they are, or that you have to even answer all of the questions in order to pass the exam. I point this out because, when it comes to time management, it can help ease the tension (and improve the score) if you follow some of these tips. By answering all the “easy” questions first, you not only save up extra time for the harder/longer questions, but you increase the likelihood of maximizing the number of correct “easy” items. Then, with the extra time you have, you can knock out the rest. If you run out of time … you’ve at least answered the bulk of the questions and may not even need the remaining ones.

While this may seem like “gaming the system”, we: a) know many of our candidates will do everything they can to do so anyway (it’ kind of our nature); and, b) our exams are designed in such a way that it shouldn’t make any difference in terms of passing someone who isn’t qualified. We only care about how you do on the assessment “overall”, not how you approach it.

Published Jun 10, 2021
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