Studying for Tech Certifications on a Budget

Tuesday Apr 14th 2009 by Eric Geier
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IT certifications can boost your career, yet preparing for them can be costly. Here are resources to help you get ready without spending a fortune.

IT certifications can help you gain an understanding of a tech topic and express your expertise to employers and colleagues. This is especially true when you're new to the IT world.

However, there's no doubt that their value is controversial. Many say they aren't worth the money and time because they won't help you get or keep a job, while some say the opposite.

Either way, you can use exam guidelines and their study materials to guide you through learning about a new topic. In other words, even if the certification certificate won't get you on the top of the prospect list, you will still have more knowledge on the subject.

Given the doubt surrounding the value of certifications, coupled with a tightening personal budget, you might choose not to go forward with them. However, even with financial troubles, you may still be able to afford studying for IT certifications. You might not be able take in-person training courses for hundreds or thousands of dollars, but there are many other resources out there. That's what we are going to discuss. We'll review some places you can find affordable or free resources.

Finding good studying resources

As promised, here are several money-saving ideas to consider when studying for your tech certifications:

  • Join the IEEE Computer Society: This is one of my favorite resources. Right now, students can join the Computer Society and IEEE for $28, for a half year, and non-students can join the society only for a half year at $49. This gives you free access to a conglomerate of study resources and networking outlets. You'll have access to 3,000 distance-learning course modules, where your favorite certifications will probably be included. Course subjects range from Cisco to Java to project management. You also have access to 600 selections from Safari Books Online, Essential Tech, and Business Library. Plus you are given access to 500 books through their e-Learning Campus, provided by Element K. You'll also get discounts on select conferences and be able to participate on committees. Lastly, you get a branded e-mail alias. Instead of listing a Gmail or hotmail address on your resume, you can put you@computer.org.

This could be the sole resource you'll need to study for many certifications. You'll have video or presentation based courses you can do at your own pace and books for reference. All this for a fraction of what you could pay to get one distance-learning course from other online training organizations, let alone the hundreds or thousands for live workshops. Another example: you could buy one thick study guide from Amazon or purchase 6-months to a year of access to a entire library of books and training courses for the same cost; which would you prefer?

  • Join the Association for Computing Machinery: This is similar to the IEEE Computer Society and is another favorite resource of mine. Students can become members for as little $19, for an entire year. Professional membership starts at $99, also for a year. All individual members receive full access to over 2,500 online computing and business courses, in multiple languages, and 1,000 virtual labs provided by Element K. Also like the IEEE Computer Society, ACM gives you access to 600 selections from Safari Books Online. The ACM Online Books Program also includes an additional collection of 500 online books from Books24x7. Lastly, ACM offers the usual networking benefits if you participate in local chapters and groups, subscriptions to newsletters, and a free email address, such as you@acm.org, with Google's Postini spam filtering.
  • Check out the ol' library: Don't forget about your local library. They might not have every technical book, but you should be able to find study guides for the most popular certifications, that you can borrow totally free. Before you make the trip downtown, you can Google for their site and may be able to search availability online. You might not even have to leave the house if they offer digital collections online. For example, my library is a partner in the Mid-Ohio Library Digital Initiative. From that website I can download eBooks, Audiobooks, Videos/eFlicks, and Music. Your library might offer something similar.
  • Browse the Internet.com family (the site you’re reading): Don't forget about us! Internet.com has many sites where you can read up on IT-related news, read articles explaining the technical jargon, and step through tutorials on performing tasks and projects. For a full listing of the Internet.com sites, see the site map.
  • Check for aid at work and school: If you already have a professional job, check with Human Resources on the aid they can provide. Some companies may help pay for training classes, materials, and certification costs. Additionally, see if they have memberships to organizations that offer resources or discounts. If you are in school, check with your college to see if they offer any financial assistance or similar membership benefits to societies, organizations, or digital collections.

  • Subscribe to Safari Books Online: This is great if you are a book worm and don't care to join societies or associations that provide partial access to Safari, or you desire complete access. However, they don't just offer books. You'd also be able to access training videos, review short cut documents, preview upcoming titles, and search through technical articles. Their over 8,000 books in digital format are from numerous publishers, including O'Reilly Media, Addison-Wesley, Peachpit Press, Cisco Press, and Wiley. However, before you subscribe, you can always search or browse through the content and see what titles are offered. Then to get a real taste of what they offer, you can sign up for their 10-day free trail. If you choose to continue you can select the $42.99 a month unlimited access option, or opt for the limited $22.99 or $9.99 a month options.

  • Google for resources: Of course, you can always scour the web to find free resources. You might want to search for practice exams on the certification you desire, in addition to general content. Practice tests can give you an idea on whether or not you're ready to take the real deal.
  • After you've studied for tech certs

    If you haven't found out yet, you'll probably soon see that the cost of taking the exam you've studied so much for could be more than the amount you've invested in preparing for it. As I’ve already touched on, be sure to check with your work and school on any help they can provide. If you haven't already, you'll also discover that real hands-on experience trumps certifications and degrees. Thus I'll leave you a few final ideas on how to get real-world experience:

    • Explore internships to get training and experience.
    • Start with entry-level jobs if needed.
    • Take classes at a community college and explore the possibility of using financial aid.
    • Volunteer your time and expertise for any organizations you belong to.
    • Try hardware/software simulators if you can't get your hands on the real stuff.

    Eric Geier is an author of many computing and networking books, including Home Networking All-in-One Desk Reference For Dummies (Wiley 2008) and 100 Things You Need to Know about Microsoft Windows Vista (Que 2007).

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