To indicate basic hardware mastery, consider adding the vendor-independent A+ certification to your résumé.

Making the Grade with A+

To indicate basic hardware mastery, consider adding the vendor-independent A+ certification to your résumé.

Odds are good that one of the reasons you’ve become a Microsoft Certified Professional is to stand out from your peers. Now you may be seeking another certification to enhance what you have. One of the best companion certifications you’ll find is the A+, the only independent hardware competency certification around. While Microsoft certifications represent software mastery, with emphasis on a product (Windows NT Server), the A+ certification represents a hardware mastery (although one of the two exams is actually software-based).

The A+ certification is universally recognized and gives you the ability to fulfill many service technician requirements established by vendors like Hewlett-Packard.

Marrying what the market perceives as a software certification (the MCP title) with a hardware one helps indicate a well-rounded administrator, able to see the whole picture. Also, there’s a good amount of overlap between information you had to learn for the Networking Essentials exam and the A+ Core exam. Additionally, if you took Windows 95 as an elective to become a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), then you know a great deal of what you’ll need for the A+ DOS/Windows elective. In short, the two certifications work well together, and you’ll find a minimal learning curve if you’ve already become an MCSE.

The Governing Body

Whereas Microsoft is the sole vendor behind the MCP titles, a number of vendors support the A+ certification under the collective title of Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA); member vendors are listed on the Web site at The tests are available in numerous languages around the world and administered through Sylvan Prometric (800-776-4276 or

The cost per exam is $120 for one or $215 for two (there are also slight discounts if you work for a company that’s a member of CompTIA). You must pass the two exams within 90 days to become A+ certified, and many candidates choose to take both on the same day–thus qualifying for the discount pricing. If you don’t pass your second exam within the 90-day period, you must retake the first exam.

As with the Microsoft exams, anyone can call, register, and sit the exams. You’re not required to attend any specialized training first. You’ll find numerous self-study routes available to you; more on that shortly.

An Overview of the Tests

The A+ certification has been around since July 1993, and over 65,000 people have become A+ certified. The tests recently underwent a major overhaul to make them more current, and the new exams debuted on July 31, 1998. Prior to that, a candidate had to pass the Core exam and an elective–either Mac- or DOS-based. After the revisions, a candidate must pass the Core exam and the new Microsoft DOS/Windows exam. The Mac elective is history.

Sample Questions for the A+ Core Exam
1. The IRQ commonly used for the floppy drive is:
  1. 5
  2. 6
  3. 7
  4. 8
2. How many pins are typically on a keyboard (choose two):
  1. 5
  2. 6
  3. 9
  4. 15
3. Expanded memory is controlled or accessed by:
  1. Himem
  2. Hiload
  3. Emm386
  4. UMB

(Click here for the answers.)

The exams ask multiple-choice questions; they’re non-adaptive. Whereas Microsoft loves to use verbose questions that require a great deal of reading just to ascertain what the question really is, A+ questions are short and straightforward (“IRQ 14 is commonly used for:”). You can mark questions and return to them, as well as use the Next and Previous buttons to navigate. The exams incorporate a minimal number of exhibits. The testing engine is, for all intents and purposes, identical to that used for the Microsoft exams.

The Core Exam

The core exam consists of 70 multiple choice questions that must be answered in 60 minutes. The last seven questions are on customer satisfaction and don’t count in your score. All told, the exam is divided into eight categories. Those categories and their weight on the exam are as follows:

  Installation, configuration, and upgrading 30%
  Diagnosing and troubleshooting 20%
  Safety and preventive maintenance 10%
  Motherboards/processors/memory 10%
  Printers 10%
  Portable systems 5%
  Basic networking 5%
  Customer satisfaction (doesn’t affect your score) 10%

The passing score is 65 percent.

Though the Basic Networking portion is only five percent, you’ll find that much of the information you had to study for the Networking Essentials exam (70-058) carries over to this test. For the Microsoft exam, you had to know different connector types (which falls into the Installation section here), modems (which falls into Diagnosing here), and so on.

What you’ll find you must study most is the individual system components: IRQs, DMAs, and I/O addresses, as well as everything you can about memory and how it was configured in days of old.

Sample Questions for the DOS/Windows Exam
1. In DOS 6.2, the line “FILES=60” should be in which file:
  1. Autoexec.bat
  2. Config.sys
  4. IO.SYS

2. What type of multitasking is supported in Windows 3.1:

  1. cooperative
  2. preemptive
  3. real mode
  4. protected mode

3. What is the correct file boot sequence in Windows 95:

  1. Autoexec.bat, Config.sys,
  2. Config.sys, Autoexec.bat,
  3., Autoexec.bat, Config.sys
  4. Config.sys,, Autoexec.bat

(Click here for the answers.)

The DOS/Windows Exam

The elective exam consists of 70 multiple choice questions that must be answered in 75 minutes. This exam is divided into five categories; each category’s weight on the exam is as follows:

  Function, structure, operation, and file management 30%
  Memory management 10%
  Installation, configuration, and upgrading 25%
  Diagnosing and troubleshooting 25%
  Networks 10%

The passing score is 66 percent.

You must know plenty about MS-DOS, Windows 3.x, and Windows 95. If you used a Windows 95 exam (70-063 or 70-064) as your client elective for the MCSE certification, you already know all that you need for that portion of this exam. Just go back and break out the old DOS and Windows 3.x books and look at the information on file configuration. Also know what utilities were included with DOS and Windows 3.x for defragmentation, backups, and memory management.

Getting Ready

For this pair of tests, you can take a class, read a book, or watch a video. Dozens of products have appeared in the last six to nine months to help you prepare. One caveat: When looking at books or other study materials, make certain they reflect the exam overhaul of last July. In most cases, this is spelled out on the cover or back of the book. If it’s not quite so obvious, look at the copyright date; it’s a safe bet that any book bearing a date prior to 1998 is written to the old exams.

I've evaluated a number of texts you can consider for self-study. Here’s a brief rundown:

  • A+ Certification Exam Guide by Michael Meyers. Published by McGraw-Hill for $54.99 (ISBN 0-07913-765-2). Excellent coverage of hardware; well-illustrated. Includes a CD of test questions that fit in well with the text rather than being another add-on.
  • A+ Certification Study Guide by Syngress Media, Inc. Published by Osborne McGraw-Hill for $49.99 (ISBN 0-07882-538-5). All the topics are within the standard study guide format; it’s bundled with a demo software CD. Be sure to download the errata sheet from the publisher’s site.
  • A+ Certification Test Yourself Practice Exams by Syngress Media, Inc. Published by Osborne McGraw-Hill for $39.99 (ISBN 0-07211-877-6). This book has no text, per se, but is a good collection of questions to study in each category; answers follow the exams. A good companion to any other guide, including the A+ Certification Study Guide.
  • A+ Certification Test Yourself Personal Testing Center, published by Osborne McGraw-Hill for $129.99. This newly-released CD-based software program provides lessons and practice tests. (A companion package was released at the same time for the MCSE track.)
  • A+ Exam Cram by Jones, et al. Published by Certification Insider Press (Coriolis) for $29.99 (ISBN 1-57610-251-3). To those who have used the Exam Cram books for MCSE study, this format will be familiar. Rather than going into excessive detail, the facts you need to know for the exam are covered in a concise format.
  • A+ Exam Prep by Jean Andrews. Published by Certification Insider Press (Coriolis) for $59.99 (ISBN 1-57610-241-6). An excellent book with the information you need for the current exams, although the layout of the chapters doesn’t always make that as clear as it could or should.
Other CompTIA Certifications
The Computing Technology Industry Association currently offers three certifications:
  • A+—hardware certification.
  • CDIA—Certified Document Imaging Architect.
  • Network+—formerly known as IT Skills.

As of this writing, the Network+ exam was undergoing revisions to accompany its name change; it wasn’t available.

Learn more about the A+ track at

After You Pass

  • A+ Core: 1. B,  2. A+B,  3. C
  • DOS/Windows: 1. B,  2. A,  3. D

When you finish the exams, you receive a printout resembling the ones accompanying Microsoft exams. The report details how well you did in each category, and which areas you need to focus on. When you’ve passed both exams, Sylvan Fulfillment will mail you a logo tear sheet and certificate within a few weeks. You can add the A+ logo to your business cards and purchase placards to display at your site of business.

If you fail either exam, you can reschedule to take it at any time so long as both are passed within 90 days.

More About Training
In addition to self-study books, almost all of the vendors behind computer-based training products for MCSE exams also have A+ offerings. Vendors known to have products are listed below in alphabetic order; check their Web sites for prices and features:

Computer-based training vendor Web site
Data Train Institute
ForeFront Direct, Inc.
InfoSource, Inc.
Marcraft International Corp.
MeasureUp, Inc.
MindWorks Professional Education Group, Inc.
Self Test Software
Specialized Solutions, Inc.
Wave Technologies International, Inc. 
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