The Road to SQL Server Certification – Part 3: Exam 70-461

The 70-461 exam was, surprisingly, my favorite of the two exams I’ve taken so far.  The subject matter for the exam is querying SQL Server, which means lots and lots of T-SQL.

Initially, 70-461: Querying Microsoft SQL Server 2012 was the exam I feared the most, as my previous experience with Microsoft exams involving lots of syntax (Powershell) were pretty evil.  It’s really easy to make syntax-based exams very difficult.  But it turns out, this exam wasn’t so bad…not so bad at all.

I prepared for the exam using the tried and true method which I’ve developed for myself over the years.  Typically, the process takes me about 3 months to complete at a leisurely pace (allowing real life to interject where necessary):

  • Round 1:  Video Training — I like to start off a subject with video based training.  Usually, CBT Nuggets whenever they have a relevant series available.  We’re fortunate enough to have a corporate subscription to this resource, but the one-month subscription is pretty affordable in a pinch.  Generally speaking, a series will be around 20 hours in length, broken up over 20-ish parts and they really focus on teaching the material in a demo-heavy environment rather than just drilling practice questions.

The CBT Nuggets 70-461 Series, taught by Garth Schulte, clocks in at a very manageable 12 hours, but it does an excellent job of covering all of the exam topics — especially some of the more foreign ones which the exam was heavy on:  XML queries, merges, and window functions.

  • Round 2:  Books and Labs — I’ll typically follow a video series by either reading a book or at least picking through and reviewing the more complex or foreign chapters.  This lets me focus and get more detail on individual topics which I don’t have a deep knowledge in already or that I think the exam will focus on.In the case of the 70-461 exam, I found the Microsoft Press book, Training Kit (Exam 70-461) to be incredibly useful.  After all Itzik Ben-Gan is one of the authors!  This Microsoft Press book was well organized and well-written, comes with a PDF version, and comes with a pretty good and exam-relevant bank of electronic sample questions.  Additionally, I already had Itzik’s T-SQL Fundamentals book on hand, which was another excellent resource.
  • Round 3:  Practice Tests — For the final round of my preparation routine, I move on to drilling practice tests.  I’ll typically use 1-2 resources, depending on what is available, and run through their question banks until I’ve got them as well as the “why” of the questions pretty well mastered.At the time, the 70-461 exam was fairly new, so my primary go-to resource, Transcender, wasn’t out yet.  Fortunately, the test question simulator included with the Microsoft Press book was good enough that I didn’t need the Transcender practice questions.  As a matter of fact, I bought the Microsoft Press book primarily for the practice questions, since I knew Transcender nor any other reputable provider had released their practice exams yet.


With my three-pronged preparation completed, it was time to actually sit the exam.  It’s difficult to discuss too much about the exam itself, since its covered by NDA, but with any Microsoft exam, it’s always a safe bet to really learn the stuff that’s new or greatly improved with that edition.  I was glad I’d spent a lot of time on XML queries, merge statements, and window functions!

A useful bit of information for anybody who has yet to take a Microsft exam or SQL Server 2012 exam, this transcender blog post lists examples of the current styles of questions Microsoft uses on its exams with a “safe” example of each type.  A new type of question for the SQL Server 2012 exams is the “Repeated answer choices” question…which I absolutely loathe.  But more on that later!

I was fortunate to pass the exam on my first try (though I had a 2nd Shot available if I needed it) and looking back on the series, I can say that I’m pretty confident that this was the easiest exam of the series, likely due to the fairly narrow breadth of the subject matter (unlike 70-463).  Now, on to 70-462!

[ Go back to Part 2 | Go forward to Part 4 ]