With Microsoft applications ubiquitous in both small businesses and enterprises, the Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) credential is worth consideration for many IT professionals.

Today, we share a few tips about this certification, including how to decide if it’s for you, and how to earn it.

Is the MCSE worth it?

There are a lot of opinions about whether technical certifications – including the MCSE and others – are worthwhile investments of your time and money. As with so many other big decisions, it depends — on your goals, career track, and employer.

Many will require certain certifications. Even among those who don’t, if you’re in a large and competitive candidate pool for a job, a certification like the MCSE can be the leg up that lands you an interview before someone else with similar skills and experience. Some employers will also provide a bonus or salary bump for certain certifications, so if you’re planning to stay at your current company, this is definitely something to ask them about as you make your decision.

The idea of having a certification is that you have demonstrated knowledge, especially of newer product features as they continuously change. Although an MCSE does not expire, the credential is tied to certain versions of each product. That means that, when a new version is released, it may be to your benefit to take the updated exam in order to stay up-to-date on changes that companies will want you to be knowledgeable about as they adopt those new releases.

The MCSE is therefore a good way to brush up on your own skills, and easily demonstrate to employers that you’re competent.

In general, you will also find managers and IT professionals to whom a certification is less important, as long as the candidate/employee has other skills and qualities they seek. It all really depends on your career goals. If you’re looking to change jobs, do some research on the employers in your area to see if the certification is frequently required or preferred. If your goal is to move up within your own company, talk to management to see what they think. If an MCSE is valuable to them, they may even be willing to sponsor all or part of the test fee.

How to earn the MCSE

If you’ve decided that the MCSE is for you, you’ll need to take the following steps. Note that the MCSE is for professionals who already have experience (usually at least 2 years’ worth) designing, installing, configuring, and troubleshooting Microsoft network and server technologies. If you’re brand new or looking to get into the field, the MTA (Microsoft Technology Associate) is the entry-level certification to consider.

Once you have some basic knowledge, you can consider the MCSA (Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate), and then the MCSE. These tips assume you’ve got some experience with Microsoft platforms, and you’ve either earned your MCSA or are prepared to.

Earn your MCSA: If you’ve already earned the Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate credential, then you’ve achieved one of the prerequisites for earning the MCSE. If not, this is the first step you’ll need to take. Earning an MCSA requires passing 2-3 exams depending on which type you choose. Including passing the prerequisite MCSA exams, you’ll need to take a total of 3-4 tests in order to earn your MCSE, as the MCSE requires just one exam following your MCSA.

Choose a focus area: There are five focus areas to choose from. Note that Microsoft changed these in the fall of 2016, so the list may look different if it’s been a couple of years since you researched the MCSE.

  • Business Applications
  • Cloud Platform and Infrastructure
  • Data Management and Analytics
  • Mobility
  • Productivity

Here again, you’ll want to consider your career goals to decide which area(s) of focus will be most beneficial. Data management and Infrastructure are two of the most common for IT administrators.

Prepare and take the MCSA (if needed) and MCSE exams: How long it will take you to prepare for the exams is highly dependent on your prior education and experience.

For some, studying will involve a lot of reminders about information they’re well-versed in from experience. If you’re newer in your career and/or don’t have a lot of training in the IT field, you’ll want to give yourself more time to prepare. You have options for what study materials you choose, including:

  • Free and paid online resources, like videos, ebooks, and practice tests, available directly from Microsoft on their website
  • Paid exam prep courses, which typically will last a few days
  • College-credit MCSE courses, which will likely take a couple of months to a semester to complete (this can be a good option if you’d like to earn college credit at the same time)

When you take the exam, you’ll be told immediately whether you passed.

Check in yearly to stay current: Microsoft eliminated the need to re-certify for the MCSE. Once you’ve earned one, it’s good for life. However, since each certification is tied to a specific version of whatever platform you’re studying, you have the option of taking an updated exam each year to stay current on new versions.

An MCSE certification can be a good way to boost your career and income. Looking for other ways to get ahead in the IT world? Check out our infographic, What Certifications Should I Get, to learn more about what your colleagues are doing to be competitive, and how you can keep up.