Get Salesforce admin certification on the first try: A 5-day study plan

Salesforce admin certification can't be achieved by rote learning; you need to demonstrate real-world understanding. Here's how to prepare for and ace the exam.

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James Sutton (CC0)

Salesforce certification is as a mechanism for vetting SFDC consultants and prospective employees. While there’s no reason to overdo it with certifications on parts of the system you actually don’t work on, Salesforce admin certification is really your first essential step no matter what your role.

SFDC’s certification program has grown significantly, now offering of specialist certifications.  In addition, the Salesforce system of Trailhead tutorials offers hundreds of badges on the technical details of what is now a huge software system.  While I know folks who have 10 certs and over 100 badges, I’m impressed more by how much time they have to waste than by the implied skill. Trailhead tutorials are self-paced, self-contained, and purely technical: there’s virtually nothing about best practices or the realities of a complex project.

Admin certification, on the other hand, cannot be achieved by rote learning (unless you’ve memorized a set of pirated test questions).  The cert tests are focused on depth of understanding and intelligent conclusions about the data model and the platform. The certification questions are designed to test for real-world understanding, and Salesforce recommends that the best way to prepare for the tests is to actually build some systems. This isn’t exactly a quick route, but to their credit SFDC wants certification to mean something.

Salesforce admin certification cost

The cost of the individual tests is $200; if you blow it and need to re-take the exam, you get a 50 percent discount on the retry.  You can also get cheaper tests at DreamForce events, which is a good use of your time if you’re going anyway. 

Of course, the test itself isn’t the real cost. It’s all in the prep time: expect to spend a week, minimum.  If you’re a consultant, that’s 40+ hours of non-chargeable time; even if you’re an employee, that can put a ding in your quarterly bonus.

The good news is that maintaining the admin cert is now free.

Salesforce admin certification study guides, exam questions and sites

Salesforce provides certification study guides and sample exams for free, and you definitely want to start there.  You’ll also want to take advantage of Trailheads (see the “action plan” below for details) for any topics where your knowledge is spotty. And of course, you’ll want to set up your own free “developer org,” as it’s the ultimate free resource from SFDC.

There are some third-party certification prep sites that help improve your chances (for example, FocusOnForce ).  These extra materials don’t hurt, but they aren’t free.  And you have to look out for “negative training” that’s caused by interpretation/emphasis issues in some of their materials.  For example, they may have a question or two that is based on information that is out of date or based on a mis-reading of SFDC documentation.  Given how fast the SFDC platform adds/subtracts bugs and “features” – and how many pages of their documentation are always out of date – you have to really think about the correctness of these sites’ answers.

There are certification training courses offered by SFDC and third parties, but these are  thousands of dollars each and will keep you out of the office for a week. Plus, there are different courses for Lightning vs the Classic UI.  

With diligence, you can do just as well on your own.  If you can, I suggest finding a “study buddy” who can learn alongside you and provide spontaneous quiz questions as you progress.

Prepping for the exam

The admin certification test tells you about the weighting of questions, but that’s not specific enough to be useful.  Here’s what you have to have down cold:

  • The core object model: in particular, field types, relationship types, record types, and page layouts. You must be able to describe:
    • What a junction object is and what it is for
    • How to have different page layouts for different types of users
    • How to have picklist items disappear for certain kinds of records
  • The usage (and limitations) of configuration, declarative development, workflows, process builder, flows, JavaScript/Aura code, and APEX code. You must be able to describe:
    • The difference between a workflow and a process
    • How an approval process works
    • When a trigger is necessary
  • The access control system: in particular, profiles, roles, sharing rules, and permission sets.  You must be able to describe:
    • What the visibility implications are of a role hierarchy
    • The difference between a permission set and a profile
    • How sharing rules interact with roles
  • Lightning and mobile app concepts, terminology and setup. You must be able to describe:
    • The functions of the Lightning App Builder
    • The difference between a button, a quick action and a global action
    • The difference between a standard layout, a compact layout and “cards”
  • Reporting and dashboard concepts, setup, and nicely-hidden features. You must be able to define:
    • A bucket field
    • A report type
    • An analytic snapshot

Your study time-budget

Day 1. Read through the SFDC study guide and take a practice test. Identify the areas where you are weak. Take in a Trailhead or two (e.g., basic,intermediate, and advanced) or look in Youtube(search term: Salesforce <topic>) for the areas you don’t feel confident about.

Day 2. Set up your developer org.  From inside it, you can download  Data Loader, set it up, and play with it to understand how it works. Upload some sample company and people data from your address book into your developer org.  Use the Schema builderto create some objects, fields and relationships.  Use the Import Wizard to bring in some data from a CSV.  Use the process buildertool to create a couple of branched process flows.  Install the Salesforce app on your mobile device of choice.  And get ready for the hard part tomorrow!

Day 3-4: in your developer org, go to the setup area in the Classic UI and go through each and every item in the left-hand navigation area.  Use each and every one of them to configure something. I. Am. Not. Kidding.

  • Spend time to understand the “Administer” area of that menu tree, particularly the “Manage Users” and “Security Controls” branches. This is where most admins mess up, both on the test and in real life.
  • Take a few minutes with the Activities (Task and Event) object, noticing its pecurliarities in comparison to other objects (particularly when building formulas based on “Related To” and “Name” fields).
  • Create a custom object and manually connect it to a standard object. Fire up the Schema Builder again and manipulate your custom object.
  • Spend a couple of hours on analytics. Create a filtered view of Accounts. Then create some reports to see how the analytics engine leverages the object model.  Create a pie chart within a report  Create a custom report type and an analytic snapshot.  Build a report on each of those.  Create a dashboard using stacked bar-charts, a gauge and a “legacy table.”
  • Spend an hour in the workflow area, understanding the difference between regular field formulas, workflow field updates and time-dependent workflows. Make sure you really understand the meaning of the evaluation criteria, and use the formula builder to set up the rule criteria.
  • Now go back to the Lightning UI, and spend an hour or two in the Lightning App Builder, understanding what you can configure and particularly grasping how page activation works. Make sure you are crystal clear about the interaction between an object’s page-layout-editor and the Lightning’s page editor.  See if you can figure out how to make a field on a page layout be invisible to some users (hint: profiles).
  • Go into the Flow tool and play with it (you’ll probably need a Trailhead for that). Understand the use cases for workflows vs. processes vs. flows vs. code.
  • Start up the mobile app and discover the differences in the user experience (some things are actually labeled differently in the mobile version). Play around with page layouts and global actions to optimize the mobile screen for your use.

Day 5. Take another sample exam and see where you feel weak. Go back to those areas of the system and work in your developer org get a better grip on the features you’re feeling insecure about.

On exam day (hopefully within a few days of your prep week), an hour or two before your scheduled exam, look again at the study guide(s) you’ve been using, to bring things back into focus.

Four test-taking tricks

The first trick is to make sure to schedule your exam before you start studying. Some test centers get very backed up, and you don’t want to have much of a gap between your studies and the actual test. Cramming doesn’t work, but forgetting works all too quickly.

Salesforce spends a lot of time and money developing their testing materials, but nobody is perfect.  SFDC tends to use its own jargon in the tests, even if there’s an industry-standard term that would work better.  So always, always pay attention to the vocabulary SFDC uses in their materials.

Some of the test questions will be about system limitations or even bugs that are discussed as if they were features.  Be ready for this:  every once in a while, it’s just a trivia contest about some dusty area of the system that they haven’t quite finished yet. So when you are studying, look into those dark corners.

Finally, there are the dreaded multiple-answer questions.  Typically, these present five possible answers and you’re asked to choose, say, two of them.  Inevitably, you’ll see three good answers there.  Spend a bit of extra time re-reading the answers and putting on your “SFDC headgear” to answer the way they think the world works…even if you know better.

This story, "Get Salesforce admin certification on the first try: A 5-day study plan" was originally published by CIO.