Why Sample Certification Exams Appear Less Challenging than the Actual Test

By Felipe Villegas and Donna Knapp

A frequent observation among certification candidates is the notion that sample exams are less daunting compared to the real certification tests. Despite both types of exams being designed to mirror each other closely, this perception persists. In this blog post, we will explain how exams are built and will speculate about the underlying factors contributing to this perception.

Certification exams, whether sample or live, are constructed based on a standardized blueprint that outlines the distribution of questions, desired difficulty levels, and other technical details. These exams are assembled using a comprehensive pool of questions, each of which is classified by learning objective, topic, and level of difficulty. Once multiple exams are built, one or more are selected at random to be distributed as sample exams.

If all exams are constructed the same way, why are sample exams often perceived as being easier than their live counterparts?

The perceived difference in difficulty between sample and live exams may originate from a combination of psychological and situational factors that candidates encounter during the test-taking process. Let's dissect a few of these factors:

  1. The Weight of Expectation:

    Certification exams hold substantial consequences. While failing a sample test might be a disappointing experience, failing the actual certification exam can have far-reaching impacts. This heightened sense of stakes can amplify the perceived difficulty of the real exam.

  2. The Ticking Clock:

    Live exams cannot be paused and resumed later. Candidates must navigate the pressure of completing the exam within a designated time frame, which can lead to heightened stress and influence the perception of difficulty.

  3. Access to Answers:

    Sample exams offer immediate access to correct answers and explanations, providing a safety net for candidates. In contrast, live exams withhold this feedback, contributing to a sense of uncertainty that adds to the perceived difficulty.

  4. The Testing Environment:

    The setting in which an exam is taken can significantly shape the experience. Live exams come with a logistical setup, constant remote monitoring, and potential external distractions, thereby creating an environment that may appear more demanding, which can also influence the perception of difficulty.

  5. The Proximity to Instruction:

    Candidates are typically provided sample exams during class and may be presented with sample questions immediately following a course module. Having questions presented in a randomized order and out of context, as is typically the case on a live exam, can add to the perceived difficulty.

We posit that the divergence in perceived difficulty between sample and live certification exams stems from a combination of factors beyond the mere content of the questions. Taking an exam is stressful, and it is normal to experience test anxiety. Stress can impair cognitive function, memory recall, and decision-making abilities, all of which can affect performance.

Taking practice or sample exams can help candidates better understand the nature and format of the questions that they will be asked on the live exam. This can help reduce stress and enable candidates to feel better prepared for the live exam. However, candidates still need to prepare, both by studying effectively and by being aware of the requirements of the exam setting. While convenient, taking online proctored exams come with their own sets of challenges and stressors. But that’s a blog for another day.

About the authors:

Felipe Villegas, the Managing Director at Professional Designations Corp., possesses over two decades of experience in the education and certification industry. With a proven track record in question bank development, statistical analysis, and item performance metrics, Felipe offers invaluable insights for high-stakes test takers.

Donna Knapp has over 30 years of experience in the IT industry and, for more than 15 years, she has been ITSM Academy’s Curriculum Development Manager. Donna’s years of practical experience and love of learning show in her engaging and informative speaking and writing style. She is the author of The ITSM Process Design Guide and has authored two college textbooks: A Guide to Service Desk Concepts and A Guide to Customer Service Skills for Service Desk Professionals.