Taking an exam in the US is a very different journey than what I experienced in France when I was a student there.
Let's dig a bit
To take an exam vs. to pass an exam
First things first, let’s clarify the wording :
“to pass” an exam means to succeed
If one prepares and sits for the exam, then one “takes” the exam.
So one needs to take it before one can pass it. This is one of these misleading words for French people, what we call a “faux ami” (literally a “fake friend”). The best way to remember this is a sentence found in one of the prep books I used : “Anyone can (…) take an exam : just show up.”
Take the exam - a wide range of options
First, you can prepare your exam in the comfort of your home. Yes, you do not have to go to school, this is sooooooooo old fashioned ! Welcome to the 21st century ! You can prepare all kinds of certifications, masters, trainings, via internet or with books at home.
This has a huge plus compared to our French system : you can work and study at the same time. This is how most of the Americans I know got promoted : they started at a low position and after a few years decided to go for a master or a certification while working. The reward is immediate : you get a salary increase or change jobs, as easy as that.
There are hundreds of websites, online universities and books’ writers who wish nothing but to help you prepare (as well as make you spend money for them). This is a real business, not managed by the state but by private corporations. A 4-year master degree typically costs more than 80 thousand dollars, and this does not include food and lodging. The three professional certifications I personally passed cost each several hundreds of dollars, not including the books and registration fees.
Take the exam - the exam
The exam itself is very likely a multiple choice questionnaire. In a way, it is easier since one of the 4 answers has to be the right one. But for us French people who are used to talk and make essays even for a math exam, it is actually quite frustrating to just have to circle a, b, c or d, and not be able to share how one reached that conclusion. Here, all is about the outcome, not on the way to get there.
Pass the exam
“For starters, don t think of this process as preparing to take an exam – think of it as preparing to pass an exam” (extracted of one of the prep books I referred to, of course there are prep book just to train you to answer the multiple choice questionnaire).
The books and websites I prepared my three certifications with have one target in mind and one only : you pay, so you have to pass. There will be no time lost on the context, all efforts have to be focused on the exam itself. What is left after a month ? Well…. You paid to pass, not to remember what you learnt, right?
Keep your certification
Once you passed your certification, it is time for celebration cause you think you are done, right ? Big big mistake : you are probably not.
Most of the certifications will require you to (i) pay an annual membership (ii) to get every year credits, which are courses you have to follow and validate to keep your certification in good standing. If you do not do these, then you lose it all.
The official intent of that system is to keep you up to date with the new regulations and standards, which is a very good thing, so you do not rely on something you learned 20 years ago as we do in France. But it is also to ensure you keep contributing to the brother/sisterhood you now belong to.
Therefore, when you decide to pursue education, you need to do a real cost / benefit analysis before starting : not only you have to study and spend less time doing fun things, but also you will have to pay for books, memberships, registrations, exam fees, exam rescheduling fees, etc , all your professional life.
Be proud of your achievements
When I worked in Europe, I never saw the actual diplomas of my co-workers. You talk about it, you can check them on LinkedIn or on the Alumni books, but never ever will you see the actual piece of paper.
When I started in the States 8 years ago, the very first time I visited the office for my job interview, I was shocked to see that everybody had their diplomas on the walls or in their cubicles. How arrogant are they to display their credentials like that ?
Again, I was wrong. After a few months, I realized they are not arrogant : they are just proud. Proud of their achievement because it is the symbol of the hard work and money they had to invest into their education, to simply improve their life. It is also a good way to start the conversation and to immediately locate someone on the business map.
To be entirely transparent, I tried to display mine on the walls of my office but took them down after a month. It felt so weird to show my life like this, as if I had no respect for my co workers, as if I was putting these achievements in their face. But I kept part of my credentials on my business card and in my email signature. I might have become half Americanized after all…
So based on that
Life is a long learning experience, keep learning and why not being proud of your achievment ?