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Why You Should Avoid "Brain Dumps" When Preparing for IT Certifications

Why You Should Avoid
Credit: Shutterstock/BranislavNenin

I've been working in and around certification programs since the late 1980s, when it was my pleasure to have been loaned from a field office to corporate headquarters at Novell to work on what would become their "Intro to LANs" course, and a very early element in the CNE certification curriculum. I didn't really find out about brain dumps until the mid-1990s, when the CNE was in its heyday, and the Microsoft MCSE program was just getting underway.

As I understand it, the original idea behind the earliest brain dumps came from pooling the memories of exam takers, who would post as many questions as they could remember about exams they'd taken online, using language as close to the original wording as memory could provide. They would also provide input about answer options associated with such questions, and make suggestions or provide direction about correct versus incorrect answers. Over time, these bulletin boards or websites could accumulate substantial information about what appears on some specific certification exam, and what kinds of tricks one might encounter, as well as how to answer questions, whether tricky or straightforward.

Over time, brain dumps have turned into more of a business where companies or site operators invest in an online presence, and then hire test-takers or otherwise obtain test information, so they can sell so-called test preparation tools, exam guides, practice tests, and so forth to exam candidates. There have even been reports of unscrupulous test center operators in the VUE or Prometric networks who've gone so far as to videotape the screens of PCs at which candidates take various certification exams.

Later, they go through the video to obtain exact copies of the questions and answers for whatever exam was on display. However they gain this information, their goal is to use it to make money, by selling "exam aids" to candidates seeking to improve their odds of passing some specific certification exam.

Whenever you take any IT certification exam, you will generally be asked to sign or agree to a non-disclosure agreement before you will be permitted to take the test.

The terms and conditions to which test-takers must agree include a stipulation that reproducing, sharing, or publishing exam content, verbatim questions, or identifying correct and incorrect answers is expressly forbidden. Furthermore, any person found to have provided such information can be stripped of their certification credentials, as can anyone else who used that information to earn other certification credentials as well. Simply put, brain dumps are not allowed, and no one is supposed to use them to prepare for any certification.

As somebody who's made a good part of his living for the past 15-plus years from writing cert prep materials, I've had to learn how to stay on the right side of the fine line between teaching people about technical and certification subjects and simply repeating exam questions (and answers) verbatim. There are a lot of things wrong with brain dumps, as it happens, and I'll try to share them with you in list form to explain the moral and technical issues with this sometimes dicey, always illegal form of information disclosure:

  1. Using a Brain Dump breaks the certification agreement. As I've already explained, certification sponsors are insistent upon protecting the integrity of their exams, and their content. This means no public disclosure of exam contents is allowed. Those who make or use such disclosures to become certified will lose those certifications if and when such disallowed behavior comes to light.
  2. Brain Dumps have no quality control. Just because somebody says something is on an exam, or claims to know right from wrong answers doesn't mean you can believe them. Real cert exams go through stringent research, design, and testing before questions make it into exam question banks. In a brain dump, there's no telling where the information came from, or how old or accurate it may be. You simply can't believe – or trust – what brain dumps tell you. What kind of "learning resource" is that?
  3.  Brain Dumps provide no real learning. Just because you know the answer to a question doesn't mean you understand the paltforms, tools, or technologies upon which the question is based. The real goal of certification is to ascertain what you know and what you can do. Without real learning to back up rote memorization, certification is meaningless (this is the real reason why exam sponsors don't want you to use brain dumps, either, as you can see in this YouTube video entitled "How do I find legit test preparation sites?"
  4. There's more to a cert exam besides questions and answers. To some extent, certification is about acquiring knowledge and developing skills, and then putting those things to work. The purpose of IT certification is to determine whether or not an exam candidate has mastered a certain body of knowledge, and acquired a specific skills inventory. Simply learning the answers to a set of questions may get a person past some exam, but it won't provide the underlying skills and knowledge that the certification is supposed to warrant. This could ultimately wreak havoc in the workplace, and do far more damage than the loss of an IT cert or somebody's job.

The biggest giveaway that an IT certification prep site is a brain dump is that it will simply call itself one, or use the terms "brain dump" or "braindump" in its search engine optimization search terms.

Thus, for example, I get over 1 million hits in Google when I search on the term "Microsoft braindumps." CertGuard has a terrific article entitled "Braindumps: Protecting the Value of IT Certifications" that digs into this subject in great detail. Here, I'll just hit the high points so you'll be able to tell friend from foe, and legimitate certification resources from illicit braindumps:

  • The site labels itself as a "brain dump" or "braindump" or uses one or both terms in its search labeling.
  • The site or product uses language like "Actual Exam Questions and Answers" or "Current Exam Content."
  • The site or product comes with a "Pass Guarantee" with no related terms and conditions, or questions asked.
  • The site or product (set) includes enormous question banks for each exam, and covers the entire certification spectrum from Apple to Zend.
  • The site or vendor also offers one-price access to all of its practice exams or question banks.
  • The site or vendor offers coverage for exams with days or weeks of that exam's release (legit practice test companies usually lag at least 60 days behind public release dates).

Not all of the organizations who meet one or more of these criteria are brain dump outfits. There are plenty of reputable and legitimate practice test and cert training companies out there, including Transcender, Boson, MeasureUp, and SelfTest.

The bottom line for cert prep materials and practice tests remains: If it looks too good to be true (or makes an iron-clad passing guarantee) it's probably best to steer clear.

Ed Tittel

Ed is a 30-year-plus veteran of the computing industry, who has worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a classroom instructor, a network consultant and a technical evangelist for companies that include Burroughs, Schlumberger, Novell, IBM/Tivoli and NetQoS. He has written for numerous publications, including Tom's IT Pro, and is the author of more than 140 computing books on information security, web markup languages and development tools, and Windows operating systems.