Should you become a Microsoft Office Specialist?

By Annette Marquis, TRIAD Consulting

A Microsoft Office Specialist is a person who has passed an exam administered through a Microsoft Authorized Testing Center on one of the Microsoft Office 2003, Microsoft Office XP, or Microsoft Office XP products. Introduced in 1997 as the Microsoft Certified Office User Program, users today can receive designation as Microsoft Office Specialists in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Outlook, and Project. For those who really want to demonstrate their skills, exams are available at expert levels for Word and Excel.

The Office Specialist difference

The Microsoft Office Specialist certification is fundamentally different from other certifications that Microsoft offers. People who pass the Office Specialist exams are are frequently employed in professions outside of the computer field. They are real people performing a wide variety of jobs. Whether in a large corporation or a small office, Office Specialists use programs such as Word and Excel to function effectively as administrative assistants, as office managers, and in many other positions that require day-to-day problem-solving skills. The Microsoft Office System of products has helped the Office Specialist meet deadlines, impress managers, and perform work more efficiently. Office Specialists are interested in improving their skills and increasing their opportunities. As more and more employers begin looking for verification of employee software skills, you have no better way to stand out from the crowd than to show your credentials as a specialist in the software that a job requires.

What are the Microsoft Office Specialist designations?

After you've decided to pursue certification, you have to determine whether you want to take all of the exams or pick and choose among them. Unless you plan to train other users or you have a job in technical support, you probably don't need to take all of the available exams. On the other hand, if you want to demonstrate comprehensive knowledge, you can become a Master Specialist by taking four of the five exams (three are required, and one is elective).

It's possible to receive designation as a Specialist in each of the six programs mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Because Word and Excel are the most popular of the six and have the most widespread application, you can also take separate exams to receive an Expert certification in either of the two programs.

Microsoft expects that an Office Specialist is able to complete the everyday Microsoft Office tasks that arise in a typical office setting. For example, a Word Specialist should be able to format text and paragraphs, create tables and columns, manage files, and work with pictures and charts. An Excel Specialist should be able to format cells and worksheets, enter formulas and basic functions, work with multiple worksheets, create charts, and insert objects.

In order to become an Expert Specialist, you are expected to be able to create more complex documents. A Word Expert should be able to conduct mail merges to create personalized form letters with envelopes and mailing labels, work with master and subdocuments, add references, and use collaboration features. An Excel Expert should be able to use templates, work with multiple workbooks, create macros, use analysis tools, and use collaboration features.

What are the exams like?

Exams are hands-on. You will be expected to apply your knowledge of a Microsoft Office program to real-world tasks. You will complete specific tasks during the exam, such as formatting a document in a specific way, creating a formula, or sorting a list. The exams must be completed within the designated time frame; time frames differ by exam, but all are under an hour.

This is not a paper-and-pencil test. You will be working with a live or simulated version of the Office program you are testing for. You can use all of the usual menu and toolbar commands; however, shortcut keys, such as CTRL+X, and the Help feature, are not available.

When you're ready to start, take a deep breath (be sure to exhale!) and click the Start Test button. You'll complete each task on the sample documents that are provided. Each task has a set of instructions for you to follow, and when you've completed one task, you'll move on to the next.

Preparing to take an exam

Before you start studying, review the objectives for the exam you want to take. You can find information about the certification and objectives for each exam on the Microsoft Office Specialist Web site. If you're an experienced user, spend some time reviewing those objectives that you already feel comfortable with, and make sure you're 100% confident in completing each of them. When you're ready to tackle new ground, move on to the next set of objectives.

If you'd like to get a taste of how the exams work, you can purchase and download practice exams from the company that administers the exams, Certiport ( These exams help you get used to the format and the structure of the exams so that you'll know what to expect. To hear from people who have taken the exams and to get other test-taking tips, visit the Web site of CertCities (, an independent online certification magazine.

When you are ready, you can find a nearby testing center on the Certiport Web site and purchase vouchers for each exam you want to take.

Taking more than one exam

It's not unusual that you may want to take more than one exam in a day, especially if the testing center is a long distance from your home. Be careful not to overload yourself, however. Some people may be able to handle taking three or four in a day — others may faint after taking one! Evaluate how long you can realistically concentrate without affecting your ability to think clearly. There's no point in paying for an exam and then not being able to do your best.

The moment of truth

The exams are scored electronically, so you'll know your score immediately. You need to get about 80% correct to pass the exams. If you pass, you'll receive a certificate of completion in the mail in a few weeks after taking the exam. Take yourself out to dinner to celebrate, or better yet, have your supervisor take you out!

What happens if I don't pass?

If you need to take an exam again, ask the test administrator for a printed score report. It identifies where you need to focus your energy as you prepare for retesting. Of course, you'll have to pay to take an exam a second time. However, you learned from the first experience, which increases your chances of passing the next time.

Does certification really make a difference?

The Microsoft Office Specialist Program provides a mechanism for all types of workers to prove their competency in the Microsoft Office System programs. A recent study of 14,000 Office Specialists and 1,200 of their supervisors clearly demonstrated that Office Specialists are viewed by their supervisors as more competent, more productive, and more credible as a result of their certification status. Whether you are new to your career or a highly trained administrative professional with a top-level staff position, you will find that adding "Microsoft Office Specialist" to your resume is beneficial.

About the author     Annette Marquis is a partner of TRIAD Consulting, the premier Microsoft Office System training firm for the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP).

Applies to:
Access 2003, Excel 2003, Outlook 2003, PowerPoint 2003, Project 2003, Word 2003