Who knows why you decide to get certified. Maybe your employer demands it. Or maybe it’s just a demonstration of your commitment to your career. Perhaps it increases your salary, or your value on the job market. Whatever the case, you’ve gone to the boot camp or done your self-study track, you’ve read the book and the study guide, you’ve made your flashcards, you’ve taken the sample tests, you’ve combed the Internet for other resources, and now you’re going to actually take the test. Here’s what to expect.
Taking your certification exam
Signing up will be more difficult than you expect. These test facilities are low-margin operations. The simple steps to create your account won’t work. Click submit and the screen shimmers, refreshes, and you’re back where you started. Open a ticket. Try a different browser. Only when you try a totally different PC will it work.
When you show up, they’ll thrust you a dog-eared sheet of rules in a greasy clear plastic sleeve. You won’t read the rules because, really, what recourse would you have if you don’t like one of them? Besides, you’ll mind your own business and not try to cheat. So you nod and sign the form. They require two forms of ID. The instructions here are unclear: one must be a government-issued photo ID, the other can be something basic like a credit card, but an example they give of an acceptable photo ID is your employer-issued work ID. But unless you work for the government, this doesn’t meet the requirements. The reason you even worry about it is that your driver’s license, or driver license (depending on what state you live in), is expired. There is a rule that it can’t be expired. Do you lead with the employer-issued ID, then? No, it doesn’t look official enough. You hold your breath while the clerk dutifully records the expiration date of your driver license, without registering the fact that it’s expired.
They’ll ask you to turn off your electronic device, but you won’t have brought one, especially not your laptop because you know the lockers are only big enough for a small purse. They make you take everything out of your pockets and even remove your watch. You put your personal affects in the little locker. The key has a giant fob and they forbid you to put it in your pocket. Then they make your turn your pockets inside out while standing on the painted clown feet. Standing there with your pockets pulled out, you suddenly realize you’re acting out the non-verbal punch line of a dumb riddle: “Would you rather kiss an elephant on the trunk or a rabbit between the ears?” Then they make you pull up your sleeves and your pant legs. You quip, “Nothing up my sleeves!” in some nonspecific cartoon voice, and to your amazement this gets a chuckle. You thought these people were humorless.
Then they will go over you with the wand, like at the airport, looking for—what? Weapons? You turn around. “Arms out to the sides.” You will now be looking at a calendar on the wall showing that famous statue in Rio de Janeiro, Christ the Redeemer, seen from behind, and you’ll realize your acting it out, too.
Certain rules will be recited to you. “You are not allowed to visit your locker during breaks,” she will say. She is new and her colleague will correct her: “No, you actually are. For medication only, or food, no checking notes or turning on your phone.” The new person will have the hang of this job in two weeks tops and then it will get progressively less interesting and rewarding. For now she is going into the actual testing room to prepare your computer. It is very quiet in there and there are a dozen video cameras under little domes attached to the ceiling. It could be that some of the domes have no camera within them: placebo cameras. There are partitions between the test stations, like the partitions between urinals in your nicer restrooms.
Of course it isn’t actually possible to cheat on this kind of test. You will recall with a chuckle how a guy once tried to read your bluebook during a English Lit final exam. How could he possibly have hoped to gain enough insight, without the context of your sprawling essay, to improve his own? Then you’ll recall a really funny tale one of your professors told you. He was giving a summer session course on feminist literature. There was one man in this class, an immensely obese and hairy fellow who always came to class wearing only a Speedo. (This was during the sixties.) He was so fat, the rolls obscured the Speedo and he appeared to be naked. During the final exam, the woman seated next to him suddenly became flustered, turned in her exam after only ten minutes, and left. Written in her bluebook was: “I need to talk to you in your office.” She came to the professor’s office the next day and complained, “That man was looking at my bluebook. I looked over at his to see if he was copying off of me, and discovered that he was writing about my breasts!” The professor replied, “Well, in fairness, he was actually writing about Gertrude Stein’s breasts. But it’s okay, you can retake the exam.”
Lost in this reverie you almost won’t notice the clerk gesturing to you come over to your PC. It will be a cheap desktop, sitting right up on the desk, very old school, and the monitor, though a flat-screen, will be crooked and cheap and sad. You will be given two little whiteboards that aren’t boards but just sheets of plastic, and two greasy dry-erase pens. You will label these “transparencies” because you will feel a need to classify the simple objects available to you during the test. But they’re not actually transparencies, because they’re not transparent.
You must display your two forms of ID and your key on the desk. It will be too hot in there but when you remove your sweater you’ll be told to put it back on: “The cameras don’t like extra objects in their field of view.” Except it might be a clumsier, or perhaps less clumsy phrase, than “field of view.” You will also be given a little calculator, which will serve no purpose during the test expect perhaps calculating your possible score if you know which problems you probably missed, which you won’t.
There will be a PC tutorial on how to use the multiple-choice test software. It will be emphasized that the sample test you take will not have any bearing on your score for the actual test, but this won’t satisfy everybody. Some people will be sweating bullets and will consider skipping the tutorial. So just in case, the questions in the sample test will include the answers so you can ace the test and boost your confidence. The test will be about astronomy, and you might learn something from it.
During the actual test the proctor will come stand behind you for minutes at a time. They will have warned you that they reserved the right to do this. You will remember that the rules also stated in bold, so you noticed it, that everything you do will be recorded, visually and audio-ly. Is there an equivalent word for “visually” that connotes sound? Don’t ponder this: the clock is ticking! You’re wasting time!
The test will be made more difficult by awkwardness in the answers. There are two versions of this awkwardness: either all four answers will seem wrong, or more than one will seem right (when only one answer is allowed). You are forbidden to disclose any content of the test, as doing so would cause irreparable harm to the certifying body, harm that no financial compensation can remedy. So I will explain the awkwardness modes via analogy.
Suppose the test was evaluating your knowledge of what food is served in Italian restaurants. The question “What boiled entree item is most popular?” would have these answers:
You know the best answer is “pasta,” but that’s not an option. And “spaghetti” is too specific. So it must be “noodles,” but that doesn’t really cover penne, farfalle, etc. which are not long and ribbon-like. And doesn’t it technically have to have egg in it to be a noodle?
Or, the answers will be:
C. Alimentary paste
You won’t like “noodles” for the reasons given above, but what the hell is alimentary paste? That phrase certainly wasn’t in the book or the training or the sample tests. It is both the correct answer and the weirdest possible way of expressing it.
Depending on the test, there may be one more possible scenario: there actually will be two totally correct answers (in this example, pasta and alimentary paste) but you’re only allowed to choose one, so you literally have a 50/50 chance of getting it right, and that’s just the way it goes. Your instructor will have warned you about this.
The cryptic answer choices will be far worse on the actual test, of course, because the subject matter will be totally arcane to begin with, not something simple like food.
There will not be a buzzer you slap when you’re done with the test. The testing software will tell you that you’re done, and a printer somewhere in the facility will print out your score, but this will not alert anybody. So you’ll sit there for a little bit before venturing out of the test room, feeling like you’re doing something wrong. You’ll be clutching your greasy transparencies, your giant locker key, and your two forms of ID, and you will smell like a dog because you’ve sweated so much in your wool sweater.
There will be congestion in the lobby area because so many people take these tests. Priority will go to an unfortunate woman who is checking out to take a break and must be escorted to her locker. She is in a huge hurry; it may be that she is making for the restroom to throw up. You will present your items to the clerk who will be visibly flummoxed for some time before realizing you’re at the wrong desk because you took that other type of test. You will finally be given your score printout, which looks like you cooked it up yourself. But they initial it and use this special stamp to make it official. Because you didn’t bring anything to the test, you have no folder or bag to put this in, so you’ll carry it—unfolded because it’s an official document—in your hand when you walk back across town to your office.
One more thing: they will not wipe clean your greasy transparencies, nor had they provided a tissue so you could do this. They put the transparencies in a folder. Will somebody analyze your scribblings later, to determine if you cheated somehow? Or will they scrutinize them as part of a larger psychological experiment? Could it be that you only thought you were enhancing your career prospects through this ordeal, but were actually unwittingly taking part in a study? You will never know.