Guide to ITIL Certifications and Tips for Exam Success

Introduction

This certification and exam guide discusses the various ITIL® certifications and what they might mean to you, your organization, and your career, as well as provide important test-taking tips for the ITIL certification exams. ITIL, which stands for Information Technology Infrastructure Library, is a collection of IT service management best practices designed to align IT services with business goals. ITIL focuses on providing a roadmap for organizations in order to improve on the capabilities of people, processes, and technology. Adoption of the ITIL framework can strengthen other business strategies, such as DevOps, cybersecurity, cloud computing, and other emerging trends.

ITIL certifications help individuals validate their ability to demonstrate skills from a foundational to a mastery level of IT service management. ITIL certification can often be a key differentiator in the marketplace as well.

ITIL certifications: functions and benefits

ITIL offers five different certification levels:

  • Foundation
  • Practitioner
  • Intermediate (Service Lifecycle and Service Capability)
  • Expert
  • Master

The flow of ITIL certifications is shown in the diagram below. As each certificate is earned, a set number of "credits" are earned. We'll discuss the credit system later.

ITIL Foundation

Starting at the bottom of the diagram, you see ITIL Foundation.

ITIL Foundation is an introductory certification that demonstrates an individual has a baseline understanding of ITIL best practices. ITIL Foundation consists of a 40-question, multiple-choice exam that typically follows an ITIL Foundation course. However, ITIL Foundation is the one ITIL exam that does not require an individual to complete what are known as "contact hours" to be eligible to take the exam. Contact hours are required class or study time to be eligible to take the exam. ITIL Foundation has suggested hours, but no required contact hours. In other words, you can take a foundation class that includes the exam, or you can self-study and take the ITIL Foundation exam through a company like Prometric.

ITIL Foundation is targeted to a broad demographic, from service desk jobs to senior leadership and everything in between. One of the purposes of this certification is to help everyone in IT speak a common language. If you're working in IT, or interested in working in IT, ITIL Foundation has quickly become an expectation in many organizations around the world. ITIL Foundation is an easy exam. Upon passing Foundation, two credits are earned. ITIL Foundation is really designed to be passable by most people in IT as it makes an individual eligible for the next level of certification, ITIL Intermediate.

Where Foundation simply introduces people to ITIL terminology and topics, the Intermediate level is more application-oriented. It's also where the individual's ability to apply ITIL best practices to common business situations is developed and tested.

ITIL Practitioner

ITIL Practitioner is intended to be a more hands-on course that focuses on the various improvement-related content contained within the ITIL framework. The ITIL Practitioner course takes a practical approach to topics such as the Continual Service Improvement approach, metrics and measurements, as well as the application of complementary guidance in an organization.

Using a realistic case study, the ITIL Practitioner course takes students on a guided and hands-on tour of the Continual Service Improvement approach to understand and define a vision, determine the current state of the organization, define measurable targets, define improvements to achieve those targets, establish various measurements and metrics, and understand how to course correct and adjust while on the path to a specific vision.

Numerous tools and techniques are provided and demonstrated throughout the course to enhance the hands-on feel. These tools and techniques are methods that students can take immediately from the course and apply in their organizations to enhance or establish a Continual Service Improvement program.

The ITIL Practitioner course also describes how to create, and demonstrates how to use, a Continual Service Improvement register. A Continual Service Improvement register is a way for an organization to document, prioritize, categorize, and manage improvement opportunities. In many ways it's a book of business for improvement. Many organizations are good at identifying improvements but are not good at keeping tracking of, managing, and completing improvements. A Continual Service Improvement register helps organizations with those activities that often impair improvement initiatives. In some circumstances, a Continual Service Improvement register can be implemented quickly, sometimes within an afternoon.

The ITIL Practitioner course concludes with an exam, which makes use of a case study and generally asks questions that lean more towards the practical side of improvement as opposed to the theoretical side. This is important as it allows students to see improvement from the standpoint of different types of organizations, and because upon passing the exam, students have earned a credential that illustrates a certain level of knowledge about improvement as defined by ITIL best practices.

For organizations that already have a strong understanding of ITIL best practices through other training, the ITIL Practitioner course can provide an added hands-on and improvement-oriented aspect that can propel their service management program to the next level. Additionally, ITIL Practitioner provides individuals a way to distinguish themselves in a job market with their in-depth knowledge and experience about Continual Service Improvement.

ITIL Intermediate

The Intermediate level is composed of two paths—Lifecycle and Capability.

Lifecycle path

The Lifecycle path is composed of five individual certifications, and is generally targeted towards those who are currently a part of, or are interested in moving into IT management. The five Lifecycle Intermediate certifications are:

  • Service Strategy
  • Service Design
  • Service Transition
  • Service Operation
  • Continual Service Improvement

Each Intermediate Lifecycle certificate requires the candidate to complete 21 contact hours before being eligible to take the exam. Each course has its own exam, and each exam consists of eight multiple-choice, scenario-based questions, which test the candidate's ability to apply ITIL best practices to common business situations. The lifecycle intermediate certifications are aligned to the five core ITIL books, with each one drawing content from the specific book it's aligned to. Each successfully passed Lifecycle Intermediate exam earns the candidate three credits.

NOTE: Each Lifecycle certification is discussed in greater detail later in this guide. Capability path

The Capability path consists of four individual certifications, and is targeted towards those in IT who play more of a hands-on role in the various process areas described by ITIL. The four Capability certifications are:

  • Service Offerings and Agreements
  • Release, Control and Validation
  • Planning, Protection, and Optimization
  • Operational Support and Analysis

The Capability certifications blend material from multiple ITIL core books. Thirty contact hours are required before a candidate is eligible to take one of the Intermediate Capability exams. Once a candidate successfully passes a Capability exam, four credits are earned.

Typically, those interested in the Intermediate certifications are pursuing ITIL Expert, which we'll talk about next. However, the Intermediate certifications are also appropriate for individuals who want a credential that demonstrates their competency in specific areas. The Intermediate certifications are somewhat rare in the marketplace, and are a good way to distinguish oneself from the competition.

NOTE: Each Capability certification is discussed in greater detail later in this guide.

Managing Across the Lifecycle

Beyond the Intermediate level is Managing Across the Lifecycle. Once an individual has earned 17 or more credits, which consists of two from Foundation, and 15 or more from any combination of the Intermediate classes, that candidate is then eligible to take a Managing Across the Lifecycle course along with the exam.

Managing Across the Lifecycle, or MALC, can be thought of as a capstone course that ties together the knowledge learned while earning ITIL certifications at the Foundation and Intermediate levels. Once the candidate passes the Managing Across the Lifecycle exam, five credits are earned, which gives the candidate a total of 22 or more credits. Once 22 or more credits are earned, with at least five coming from Managing Across the Lifecycle, the candidate is deemed an ITIL Expert.

An ITIL Expert is someone who understands the overall service lifecycle and can help organizations apply the various best practices to solve real business problems.

ITIL Expert

ITIL Expert is a high-level and highly sought-after credential that is appropriate for senior leadership in an organization, or a senior-level consultant. ITIL Expert is somewhat rare in the marketplace, and is a good way to demonstrate a commitment to service management. ITIL Experts are typically involved in high-level consulting engagements involving various service management activities. One of the key things that ITIL Experts tend to know, beyond those certified at the Intermediate level, is how various parts of ITIL work together to provide a holistic approach to overall service management in an organization.

ITIL Master

Beyond ITIL Expert, as the diagram shows, is ITIL Master. ITIL Master is a high-level credential that is targeted towards people who've been involved in service management for significant parts of their career, and have experienced adoption of the overall lifecycle, potentially even in multiple organizations. There are currently very few ITIL Masters worldwide. ITIL Master is earned by completing and defending the equivalent of an assessment of the candidate's prior work in service management.

Currently there are no continuing education requirements for ITIL certifications. Once earned, ITIL certifications are good for life. One caveat is that if the version of ITIL changes or other significant updates to best practice are made, the market tends to move away from old certifications.

Tips to prepare for ITIL Foundation exam

1. Slow down - Throughout my years of delivering various ITIL training courses along with the certification exams, I have noticed that people tend to be their own worst enemy sometimes on the exam. What is meant by this is that we all have a tendency to read through things quickly. When we do this, the brain tends to skip important things, or add in things that aren't there, causing you to miss questions. Read the questions on the exam slowly, deliberately, and completely. Ensure that you understand what is being asked, as well as what the answer really says prior to selecting.

2. Prepare adequately - Prepare with either a training class or by using effective and approved training material. The pass rate on the exam for those that self-study with inadequate material is significantly lower compared to those who attended an accredited training class, or used accredited training materials to prepare.

3. Double check work - The Foundation exam allows for enough time for most candidates to review their answers more than once. The exam is not a race. Make use of that time to adequately review your answers before submitting your exam.

4. Relax - Again, people are often their own worst enemy. Don't let the anxiety associated with taking an exam overwhelm your knowledge of the underlying content.

5. Use free practice exams - There are numerous free apps for tablets and phone, and various other sources of free practice questions available. I wouldn't recommend overdoing it, but familiarizing oneself with the style and type of questions by reviewing practice exam questions is very helpful.

6. Make note cards - A useful study aid can be to create note cards based on the key material learned during class, and then review these note cards in preparation for the exam. The ITIL Foundation exam is basically a memory exam, and using a technique such as this to jog one's memory can improve exam performance.

7. Read the official ITIL Glossary - The official ITIL Glossary is available for free. ITIL Foundation is basically an exam about your knowledge of the ITIL vocabulary. Reading the glossary a couple of times is one of the best ways to prepare.

8. Read a book that gives real world examples of ITIL concepts - One of the challenges that individuals sometimes have with ITIL concepts is relating them to reality. There are unfortunately few sources of information that do this effectively.

9. Pay attention to what the syllabus requires - ITIL Foundation is based on an official syllabus that is included with the class. This syllabus dictates what topics are covered on the exam. A careful review of the syllabus shows that the topics Service Design and Service Operation are covered in more detail than other topics. This means that questions will come from those areas on the exam. Be careful to not completely ignore anything and use this understanding of the syllabus to focus your study activities.

10. Follow a process - The ITIL Foundation exam includes complex multiple-choice questions such as the one shown below:

21. Which of these recommendations are best practice for service level agreements?

  1. Include legal terminology in service level agreements (SLAs)
  2. Ensure all the targets in an SLA are measurable.
  3. Ensure the agreement is signed as both sides have responsibilities
  4. Include the service hours and cost of delivering the service
    1. 1 and 2 b} 2and3
    2. 3 and 4
    3. land 4

This type of question is often unpopular with those taking the exam because they require more work to get to an answer.

However, the point of these questions is to demonstrate that following a process is the best way to handle an ambiguous situation. Handling ambiguous situations with a process is really what ITIL is about.

I'm going to show you version 1 of such a process for these questions, which is effective at getting to the correct answer. Then we will make a small improvement and create version 2 of the process, which you'll find often gets you to the correct answer much more quickly.

Version 1: Use this process to answer a question:

  1. Step 1 - Read the question
  2. Step 2 - Read statement 1
  3. Step 3 - Evaluate if statement 1 is true or false
  4. Step 4 - If statement 1 is true, write a "T" beside it. If it is false, write an "F" beside it.
  5. Step 5 - Focusing on what you can eliminate, look at the answer set. Does the value of statement 1 allow us to eliminate any of the choices? In this case, eliminate x by drawing a line through that answer
  6. Step 6 - Repeat steps 2-5 for all remaining statements, until only one possible answer remains

You just followed a process to arrive at the correct answer. Now, let's make one small improvement to our process, which will sometimes get us to the answer much more quickly.

The process is roughly the same, however, one thing you must consider with an exam such as ITIL Foundation is that to some extent, if you're using a process you can reverse engineer what the person creating the exam did.

Version 2:

  1. Step 1 - Read the question
  2. Step 2 - Read the last statement
  3. Step 3 - Evaluate if the last statement is true or false
  4. Step 4 - If the last statement is true, write a "T" beside it. If it is false, write an "F" beside it.
  5. Step 5 - Focusing on what you can eliminate, look at the answer set. Does the value of the last statement allow us to eliminate any of the choices? In this case, eliminate x by drawing a line through that answer.
  6. Step 6 - Look at the remaining answers. Notice what they all have in common. This means that those statements are true, regardless of our opinion of them. Mark statements x and у "T" on your paper.
  7. Step 7 - Repeat steps 2-6 until you've exhausted all the statements and have arrived at the correct answer.

In version 2 of the process you made a small improvement to make the process more efficient and effective, and you also used the structure of the exam to help you overcome the exam. You find that this process will ultimately be the basis for a process that we use to overcome the ITIL Intermediate exams, which are much more difficult than Foundation, and more valuable to you from a career perspective.

Understanding the Intermediate Lifecycle courses

Once a person has earned the ITIL Foundation certificate, they are eligible to complete any of the ITIL Intermediate courses and exams. The ITIL Intermediate certifications are divided into two paths: Lifecycle and Capability.

The Lifecycle Intermediate courses are typically delivered as three-day courses, however there are many different modes of delivery available in the market. The courses require that candidates complete 21 contact hours to be eligible to take the certification exam.

The Lifecycle courses are intended primarily for a management audience. These courses approach the various best practices from a management level.

These five Lifecycle courses are mapped to the stages of the ITIL Service Lifecycle. As mentioned, each course requires the student to complete 21 contact hours before being eligible for the exam. Each course has its own eight-question, scenario-based exam. The exams at the Intermediate level are different than Foundation. Intermediate exams are gradient-scored. What this means is that each question has a correct answer that is worth five points, a second-best answer that is worth three points, a third-best answer that is worth one point, and a distractor that is worth zero points. A passing score is 28 points or higher. There is no specific order required for students taking these courses and exams.

The Service Strategy course covers the Service Strategy stage of the Lifecycle/ITIL core book. This course goes much deeper into strategy topics than Foundation does. For example, the Service Strategy course topics that aren't included in Foundation, such as Demand Management, are covered. Furthermore, this course and exam go much deeper into topics such as Service Portfolio Management and Business Relationship Management. The strategy exam is one of the harder Intermediate exams. The worldwide pass rate for this exam is around 60 percent. This is most likely because the Service Strategy course and exam cover topics that many IT people aren't familiar with.

The Service Design course covers the Service Design stage of the Lifecycle/ITIL core book. This course extends upon the design topics covered in Foundation. For example, at the Intermediate level this course goes into much more detail about specific availability management and capability management techniques. Additionally, this course and exam go much deeper into the holistic nature of design activities as well as giving treatment to overall understanding and management of requirements as they relate to design. Where Foundation simply mentions the five major aspects of design, this course and exam covers these aspects in much more detail. The worldwide pass rate for this exam is around 70 percent. This is a tough course and exam, but the exam has a higher pass rate because people with IT jobs are more likely to be familiar with the various topics covered in the design course.

The Service Transition course covers the Service Transition stage of the Lifecycle/ITIL core book. This course gives a deeper treatment of the transition topics such as Change Management and Release and Deployment Management. Additionally, this course goes into Service Validation and Testing and Change Evaluation, which are topics not covered in the current iteration of ITIL Foundation. This course/exam does a good job of presenting a single overall approach to understanding and managing change in an organization, whether that change is operational, tactical, strategic, or overall organizational change. The worldwide pass rate for this exam is similar to the design exam—right around 70 percent. Again, this is a tough course and exam, but the topics are somewhat familiar to IT people. Part of what makes this exam so difficult is the amount of material that's covered.

The Service Operation course covers the Service Operation stage of the Lifecycle/ITIL core book. This course digs deeper into topics such as Event Management and Incident Management. It talks about Problem Management techniques in much more detail, and even goes as far as to cover what types of situations would require each type of Problem Management technique. This course also goes into much more detail about the various functions that ITIL defines, particularly Application Management. This is often the first course that people take when they pursue an Intermediate exam. It is a good way to get introduced to how the Intermediate classes are delivered and what the exams look like. This exam has a worldwide pass rate around 85 percent.

The Continual Service Improvement course covers the Continual Service Improvement stage of the Lifecycle/ITIL core book. This course covers in more detail the various aspects of continual service improvement. For example, this course and exam go into quite a bit of detail about various assessment types, benchmarking, the Continual Service Improvement Approach, and SWOT Analysis. It also goes into quite a bit of detail about the one process in Continual Service Improvement, the Seven Step Improvement Process. Particular attention is paid in this course to the roles required to do the various steps of the Seven Step Improvement Process. Additionally, this course stresses how important Continual Service Improvement and Service Level Management are to each other. The exam has a worldwide pass rate between 55 and 60 percent. This is a tough exam because it's a topic that many people aren't familiar with. I've seen many people breeze through the other Lifecycle exams, only to have difficulty clearing the Continual Service Improvement exam.

Reminder: Once a Lifecycle Intermediate exam is passed, the candidate earns three credits. The credits count as eligibility towards the ITIL Expert credential.

Understanding the Intermediate Capability courses

The ITIL Capability Intermediate course are typically delivered as five-day courses, however there are many different modes of delivery available in the market. The courses require that candidates complete 30 contact hours to be eligible to take the certification exam associated with that class.

The Capability courses are intended primarily for a practitioner or a hands-on audience. These courses approach the various best practices from a practitioner level of understanding.

The four Capability courses mix information from multiple ITIL core books to form a single course. Each course has its own eight-question, scenario-based exam. The exams at the Intermediate level are different than Foundation. Intermediate exams are gradient-scored, as a correct answer is worth five points, the second-best answer that is worth three points, the third-best answer that is worth one point, and a distractor is worth zero. A passing score is 28 points or higher. There is no specific order required for students taking these courses and exams.

The Planning, Protection, and Optimization course blends material from the ITIL Service Design and Service Strategy core books. It covers the relationship between Demand Management, which is covered in Strategy, and Capacity Management, which is part of Design. This course and exam delve into these topics all the way to the activity level of the various processes discussed. Advanced topics are presented, and it can be difficult for people to pass. The worldwide pass rate for this exam is right around 70 percent.

The Service Offerings and Agreements course combines material from the ITIL Service Design and Service Strategy core books. Where Planning, Protection, and Optimization focused on the warranty-aspects of design and strategy, Service Offerings and Agreements focuses on the agreement and financial related aspects of design and strategy. This course and exam cover in-depth topics such as Service Level Management, Service Portfolio Management, and Financial Management for IT Services. Again, one of the common features of the Capability courses is that they discuss the various ITIL processes to a detailed activity level. The worldwide pass rate for this exam is between 65 and 70 percent.

The Operational Support and Analysis course combines material from the ITIL Service Operation and Service Transition core books. This course and exam go into a high level of detail about the various operational processes such as Event Management and Incident Management. Additionally, this course and exam go into more detail about Request Fulfillment and Access Management compared to the cursory coverage given to these topics in Foundation. The course and exam also covers all of the various operational activities that are performed by the functions defined in the Service Operation core book. This is probably the easiest of the Capability exams, with a worldwide pass rate around 85 percent.

The Release, Control and Validation course and exam cover material from both the ITIL Service Transition and Service Operation core books. This course and exam cover, in quite a bit of detail, topics such as Change Management, Change Evaluation, Release and Deployment Management, and Service Validation and Testing. This is the one ITIL courses that gives the most in-depth coverage to testing and validation aspects as it relates to Change Management. Additionally, this course covers Request Fulfillment, which is really a form of Change Management. This can be a very tough course and exam. The worldwide pass rate is around 65 percent. Reminder: Once a Capability Intermediate exam is passed, the candidate earns four credits. The credits count towards eligibility towards the ITIL Expert credential.

Comparing the Lifecycle and Capability certification paths

  • Lifecycle courses are intended for management, and are a quicker, less detailed overview of the best practices.
  • Capability courses are intended for practitioners, and as such go into much more detail.
  • Capability courses cover process activities in detail.
  • Capability courses do not cover much in terms of Continual Service Improvement.
  • Capability courses cover only certain aspects of the content in the Service Strategy core book.
  • Capability courses are typically delivered at a more leisurely pace, whereas Lifecycle classes are more of a quicker presentation of the material.

ITIL certification credits explained

The Foundation exam results in two credits, whereas each Lifecycle Intermediate results in three credits, and each Lifecycle Capability results in four credits. To be eligible to take the MALC course and exam, a candidate must have a minimum of 17 credits. Two of the 17 credits must come from Foundation, however the remaining 15 credits can come from any mix of Lifecycle and Capability exams.

Once a candidate successfully passes the MALC exam, five credits are awarded.

Once those five credits are earned, the candidate is deemed an ITIL Expert. An ITIL Expert is someone who has earned a minimum of 22 credits from ITIL certification exams, with two of those credits coming from Foundation, five coming from MALC, and the remaining coming from various ITIL Intermediate exams or other sources.

The current iteration of the MALC exam is 10 questions and similar in format to the ITIL Intermediate exams. Each question on the MALC exam has four possible answers. One answer is considered the best answer and is worth five points. There is a second best answer worth three points, a third best answer worth one point, and a distractor worth zero. Passing the MALC exam requires a score of 35 or higher out of 50 possible points. Candidates are given two hours to complete the exam.

The MALC exam is based on a single case study that changes infrequently. The case study is about a bank that is in a highly competitive environment. On the exam, all 10 of the questions may be about the organization in the case study. However, it is possible that up to two of the questions do not refer to the case study, and simply assess the examinee's understanding of various ITIL concepts.

Comparatively, MALC has a much lower worldwide pass rate. My understanding is that the pass rate is between 45 and 50 percent. This is why carefully selecting your training provider is important. The MALC course and courseware that I wrote decomposes the case study, and shows where ITIL best practices can be applied and what the most likely topics assessed on the exam will be. I deliver MALC about once per quarter, and the pass rate for students that take my course is around 90 percent.

MALC is a tough exam and it shouldn't be underestimated. Once completed, the ITIL Expert is a worthwhile credential that will set one apart in the job market.

Conclusion

In this guide we provided an overview of the current family of ITIL certifications. ITIL is the de facto approach to service management used by many organizations throughout the world and in various industries to deliver IT services in a cost-effective and high-quality manner. Many tools that IT organizations use in their daily operations are aligned to the terminology and the process areas that ITIL uses. A baseline knowledge of ITIL, at a minimum, is essential to simply understand the terms and language used in an IT organization.

However, that baseline level of knowledge will only carry an individual so far in their career. Those who want to learn more about how all of the ITIL processes work, and how they are implemented and managed, can pursue in-depth knowledge at the Intermediate level. Those that are interested in taking things a step further and want to help adopt service management best practices throughout an entire organization, often benefit from attaining the ITIL Expert certification. Whatever level you choose to pursue, understanding all of the ITIL certification options is critical in order to properly chart one's course.

About the author

Michael Scarborough, ITIL Expert, PMP, CISSP, has worked in IT since the late 1980s in various roles, including hands-on systems operation, leading complex projects, establishing multiplatform automation, managing information security projects, and adopting service management best practices. Michael helps large and small organizations make significant improvements by adopting ITIL best practices.