Saturday, April 27, 2013

Oracle Beta Exams -- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

I should preface this post with the disclaimer that I do not really care for Oracle beta exams. I have taken exactly one, many years ago. It was the Oracle 8 DBA upgrade, so you can work the math on how long ago it was if you are so inclined. I passed the exam, but the experience was not one I care to repeat. That said, I know people who really enjoy taking beta exams. This post is not going to be all about why you should avoid these exams, but I wanted to make my own preferences clear in case it colors my writing.

The Good
Beta exams are cheap. They cost about one quarter the price of the production exam. Exam costs vary somewhat, of course, but generally in the US the production exams are $200 and beta exams are $50. If you have to pay for your own certification expenses, then this is obviously a significant incentive.

If you pass the exam, you will be one of the first Oracle professionals to do so. If this is an exam that will directly result in a certification, such as an upgrade exam or an exam in the Expert series, then you have the potential to add this credential to your resume very early. Becoming one of the first Oracle professionals certified in Oracle 12c for example could help boost your career. Realize, however, individuals who take the production exams in the first few weeks after its release will have the same advantage.

The beta exam will contain all of the possible questions that will be used on the production exam. Since the beta is testing all of the potential production questions, beta testers will see the complete set. During the post-beta review, some will be discarded and others may be modified somewhat. However, beta exam takers are the only candidates that get such a close look at the entire exam. If you think of the beta in terms of practicing for the production exam, it is cheaper than any commercially available practice exam and will provide you with 'actual' rather than 'similar' questions. If you were to purchase a practice exam from Transcender for $150, I guarantee that no matter what score you get on it, Oracle will not give you a credit for passing the test. However, if you pay $50 to take a beta exam, you have a reasonable possibility of passing it and receiving credit toward the associated certification path. Even if you fail the beta, you have been given enormous insight into the content. This can assist you once the production exam is available. My earlier blog post on what to do if you fail your certification exam can help with this.

The Bad
To my mind, a significant downside is the uncertainty about whether you passed or failed the exam for months. If you were to take the beta on the last day it is available, you would not know if you passed or failed for about twelve weeks. People who take the test near the start could wait for over twenty weeks before learning if they passed. This might not bother some people, but I hate being in the dark about my score for so long.

The exam will be buggy. Beta exams, just like beta software, are intended to locate problems that must be fixed before going into production. Flawed questions will not directly impact your score. These should be caught during the post-beta process and the results thrown out. However, they will indirectly affect your score by wasting your time and throwing your thought process off. When a question does not make sense, I do not automatically assume the question is flawed but that my understanding is flawed. It is possible to spend a lot of time trying to find the correct answer to a question that does not have a correct answer. If you are like me, you will read and re-read, and re-re-read the question and the answers trying to figure out why none of the answers makes sense.

There will not be any third-party study materials available to use in time for the beta. You will be restricted to using the Oracle documentation and secondary sources like articles on OTN and the Oracle Learning Library. All of these are good sources to use, for beta or production exams. However, if you normally use Oracle Press books or other such materials when studying for certification exams, do not expect any to be an option for a beta. Third party materials provide short-cuts to the information you need by compiling it into a single source. Without such materials, you will need to allocate additional time to prepare for the exam.

The Ugly
The tests are long. They are really... really... long. Years after I took the one beta, that is what I remember most clearly about the exam. I probably was not as well prepared for it as I should have been (that memory I find easy to repress). However, I clearly recall that I was ready to be done with that test before it was two-thirds complete. By the time I was ninety percent of the way through, I had a splitting headache and no longer cared whether I passed or failed so long as the exam would just end. In order to do well on a beta exam, you need to plan for this. Drinking a big glass of soda before any exam is not a wise choice. Doing so before one that will last for three hours can leave you unable to concentrate for a sizable portion of the exam. You should not schedule this test in the late afternoon after you will have had a full day of work. You want to be rested, alert, and energetic at the time you start the exam. I highly recommend that you take it in the morning for this reason. Of course that is also what I suggest for production exams... just to a lesser degree of importance.

I also suspect that there is a bit less time on average per question for beta exams than is the case for the production version. I cannot substantiate this because Oracle does not post specific times and question counts for beta exams. However, beta durations are listed as 2.5 to 3 hours and the question counts as 120-150. Picking the top numbers, 150 questions in three hours is 72 seconds per question. Using the bottom two numbers gives 75 seconds per question. It seems reasonable to assume that the target time per question on betas is somewhere between 72-75 seconds. By contrast, the 1Z0-117 and 1Z0-053 production exams have 112 and 92 seconds per question respectively. I have not done exhaustive checking, but 75 seconds is definitely a low-end number for a production exam.

The Conclusion
If you simply count the negative points I have presented in this post, they outnumber the positive ones. It is not my intent, however, to imply that taking beta exams is a bad idea. As I indicated at the beginning, there are people who enjoy taking them. If there is a point that I hope people come away from this post with, it is that you should go into beta exams with your eyes wide open. Do not spend a quarter the amount of time studying for the test just because it costs a quarter the amount of money. In order to be successful, they require more study time than the production version. The more familiar you are with the material, the faster you will be able to answer questions. This means that the increased question count will affect you less, the reduced time per question will be a smaller issue, and it will be easier for you to identify flawed questions.

Based on threads I see reasonably often in the OTN Certification forum, cost is a major concern for many individuals pursuing certification. My employers have always reimbursed me for exam expenses so their cost has never been a factor for me. This in turn means that betas do not provide me with a significant upside. However, for IT professionals pursuing certifications on a limited budget, there is no less expensive route to Oracle certification than studying using the online documentation, and then taking (and passing) a beta exam. For these individuals in particular, the Oracle beta program provides an excellent method to boost their career prospects inexpensively.

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