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Preparing for ZCE 5.3

Note: This article was originally published at Planet PHP on 20 December 2010.
Planet PHP
Recently I have been getting to grips with the ZCE since it was updated to take account of PHP 5.3. In the last few weeks I've both passed the certificate myself and also taught Zend's certification training course as a classroom course at NTI Leeds. I thought I'd share my top tips for preparing for taking the ZCE - getting to the standard, last-minute preparations, and also some tips for surviving the day itself (disclaimer: everyone sitting the ZCE signs a declaration not to disclose the contents of the exam, so I can't actually tell you the questions, sorry!)

Getting Up To Scratch

The first thing I would say is that I don't recommend this exam for anyone who doesn't have a year or two using PHP regularly. It doesn't have to be as a job, if you're coding for fun or as a sideline then that's fine, but in general it is pretty difficult to get the sheer breadth of knowledge needed for ZCE without actually knowing and using PHP. If you're a beginner or improver programmer, then consider working your skills up a bit before you go forward to the exam. If you're programming at work, then set up PHP at home and get used to installing and configuring it. If you're using a framework, try writing code without it and understanding the program flow (a great example is on Rasmus' blog). Build a project of your own and implement any elements of the syllabus that are unfamiliar, and look for some resources out there that will help you get to grips with it - remember this is PHP so there are some great materials freely available. For example if you want some content on the object-oriented concepts, read my series on ThinkVitamin which covers it all in small pieces (link goes to the last article, which has all the others in the series linked from it)

There is currently little supporting material around ZCE 5.3. You can take Zend's training course, either as a classroom course or as a virtual course. There isn't a full study guide as there was for the 5.0 exam but most of the material in that book still applies, with the exception of the PHP 4/5 Differences part. There are some new areas added for PHP 5.3, I recommend you read the syllabus for ZCE and download the free PDF study guide from the same page (right hand bar) - the study guide is currently (December 2010) a bit of a work in progress but I assume it will improve (yes, I'm an optimist!). Currently I can't find links to the old 5.0 practice tests, but it is still worth taking those since there is a lot of overlap in the materials and also the questioning styles are quite similar. The style of questions is one of the main reasons that, as a trainer, I always recommended the practice tests for the previous version of the certification.

The Night Before

There is a lot of content covered ZCE. My top tips for things to read the night before (or to tape to the door of your downstairs loo for a few weeks beforehand!) are:

  • The operator precedence table because this is a great source of trick questions. If you've forgotten how to do binary, hexadecimal or octal maths, this is a good time to quickly recap (personally I love this stuff, maybe I will write a separate post on it!)

  • Read all of the string and array functions. You need to know function names, what each one does, what arguments it takes, the argument order, and the return values. It isn't possible to hold all these in your head (not for me anyway!) but if you can stuff a few extra ones in the night before that can only be useful

  • The superglobals is also worth a recap

The Exam Itself

First of all, don't panic! The exam is 90 minutes long and you will get 70 questions (approximately, apparently they are all weighted so you might get one more or fewer to make your exam worth the correct weight). This means that you have literally all the time in the world!! Even when

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