Microsoft 365 certification exams have changed and evolved a great deal over the years, and there is more choice than ever before in terms of learning paths and SME categories. Becoming certified is important for many reasons, and as we delve deeper into this increasingly important subject, you’ll begin to understand why.
In this article, we’ll explore how to get started on your Microsoft 365 certification journey; help you better understand how to choose the best certification path; the steps needed to begin your journey and provide more perspective around the value and importance of M365 exams as it relates to personal growth and career development.
A Brief History of Microsoft 365 Exams
A few years ago, I would have shied away from the challenge of taking exams. I did not consider myself an “academic,” therefore exams were not for me, they were for other, smarter people. However, my mindset changed when I shifted my career focus from being an IT generalist to specializing in Office 365. It was the emergence of cloud technology that sparked a drive and a passion in me I’d never known before.
Prior to that, I’d always liked my career, but never loved it. Now, I had a newfound desire to hone my skills and conquer this lifelong aversion to academic achievement to better understand this new frontier. At that time, there was only one certification path available for Office 365 which was the now-retired Office 365 MCSA. This comprised two exams shown in Figure 1:
To my delight, I had passed! I booked the second exam a week later and didn’t do so well, but undeterred, I booked another attempt. I used the score breakdown report from the first attempt to study up on the areas where I needed the most improvement, which was incredibly useful. On my second attempt, I passed and achieved my MCSA:
The feeling of pride and sense of achievement was overwhelming, and from there I was hooked! Fortunately, my timing was perfect – I’d achieved the MCSA with a month to spare before it was retired, and Microsoft had recently revamped the Microsoft 365 certifications and introduced new role-based certifications. My learning obsession was just getting started.
Getting Started with Microsoft 365 Role-Based Certifications
At Ignite 2018, Microsoft announced the new role-based certifications for Microsoft 365. The certifications are comprised of three tiers:
- 1-star fundamental level certifications – Ideal for beginners starting their learning journey; strengthens your grasp on the fundamentals within a particular subject matter area of Microsoft 365.
- 2-star Associate level certifications – Designed to test your competency within a particular subject matter area of Microsoft 365.
- 3-star Expert level certifications – This certification demonstrates that you are an expert within a particular subject matter area of Microsoft 365.
From a Microsoft 365 perspective, the certification that validates you as an expert is the Microsoft 365 Certified: Enterprise Administrator Expert. There are several paths to achieve expert certification. You can complete one prerequisite Associate level certification, or complete two exams:
This was a welcomed change from Microsoft, as it meant that exam candidates could achieve expert certification by selecting the role path most relevant to them – i.e., Security, Teams, or Modern Desktop. The criteria for passing the individual exams remained the same, with a score of 700 or more being required.
Preparing For Microsoft 365 Role-Based Exams
So, what are the best ways to prepare for a Microsoft 365 role-based exam? That will vary from person to person as we all have different learning styles, and you will obviously have an advantage if you already have hands-on experience working with the technologies in the exam outlines.
For study exercises, Microsoft 365 trial tenants can be provisioned and then discarded quite easily to test out the features you’ll need to learn about. If you are looking for more queues from Microsoft, the learning paths they provide for each certification exam are a great resource, and always my go-to whenever I begin studying for a new certification.
For example, if you’re starting your certification journey with the MS-100: Microsoft 365 Identity & Services exam, start working your way through the free learning path first:
There are also several exam guidebooks available, both print and online versions. Many of these come with valuable practice questions, and sometimes even a full mock exam to test your knowledge. And if you REALLY want to test what you have learned, there are also online practice tests you can purchase. However, you’ll want to make sure you find authorized practice tests through reputable providers and be wary of questionable sources.
I recently recorded a video with Steve Goodman on this exact topic, where we candidly discuss M365 exam prep – the fundamentals, but also the rationality – i.e., is it worth focusing on exams relevant to what you do today, for example Managing Teams or Security Administration? What’s more important – hands on experience or knowing the best Microsoft answer?
Check out the video below to hear our analysis of those questions, and more:
Don’t Be Afraid to Fail
It’s important to realize there’s no shame if you don’t pass a Microsoft exam on your first attempt. You can prepare in all the best ways possible, but sometimes it boils down to ‘luck of the draw’ and the questions you’re handed. If you don’t get through that first time, look at your score report which you will receive at the end of the exam. This shows you how the exam was broken down, and it will guide you clearly to the areas where you need to brush up on your knowledge.
If your first score just fell a little short of the 700-pass threshold, take the exam again as soon as you can. If your score was closer to the 450 mark, you’ll want to give yourself more time to prepare and study before you try again. Have faith though, you will get there!
So, Why Take M365 Exams?
To the all-important question then – are Microsoft 365 certifications important? The answer most certainly is, ‘yes!’ Becoming certified is a fantastic way to validate your existing skills and gain new ones. It demonstrates to existing and potential employers that you are passionate about what you do, and that you take your career seriously.
These exams are also important because they ensure you’re keeping your skills up to date in an ever-changing and evolving landscape of exam outlines. Microsoft recently implemented an annual renewal assessment for certifications so you can continue to validate your competencies in Microsoft 365 technologies. The process of renewing your certifications is free, simple, and extremely fair, and requires you take an assessment of 25 questions based on the current exam outline (which may have many differences since you first took the actual exam). The assessment is not subject to exam conditions, so you may do it anywhere, at any time, and if you don’t pass the first time, then you can simply try again.
Additionally, these Microsoft 365 certifications matter even more to many employers who are Microsoft partners, especially partners who are in the process of obtaining certain Microsoft competencies. In fact, many of these Microsoft partner organizations reimburse admins for the cost of the exams.
Above all though, the most important reason is to do it for yourself, because you love learning, and you love working with Microsoft 365 technologies and services. It’s a great feeling when you pass one of these exams, and it does become addictive – especially with so many shiny badges to collect and share. It also may lead you to unexpected paths and opportunities – you just never know!