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While there is always a test-taker or two who is overqualified or over-prepared for the CCNA exams and will scoff at them, most test-takers historically report the exams are rather brutal. Students often need to attempt them several times before they can earn that passing mark. This should be truer than ever, as the scope of the CCENT and CCNA exams has been widened substantially.
You will notice that I break this article down into phases: Preparation, Night Before, During Exam, and After the Exam. Just like everything in life, some of these tips might not “feel” right for you, so no worries—just use what you can.
The Preparation Phase
Congratulations! If you are entering this phase, you have decided to pursue a particular Cisco certification. Here are tips designed to make your studying go as smoothly as possible.
- Tip 1 – Know exactly what is on your exam! This might sound rather obvious, but it is amazing to me how many students don’t think to thoroughly and carefully research this. And the great news is, Cisco makes this incredibly easy. For each exam, Cisco publishes a written exam “blueprint.” This blueprint spells out for students what is covered in the particular exam. Do you have questions about how deep to study a particular topic? Or perhaps you would like to know what subtopics to worry about under that topic? Just head over to the appropriate Discussion forum at the Cisco Learning Network and ask the experts hanging out there. They can guide you.
- Tip 2 – Use a tracker. Now that you know what is on the exam, track your progress towards mastery of that subject matter. You can build this tracker using the information in the exam blueprint. Use a tool like Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Project. Project is nice because you can assign dates that you will be planning in order to master the material, and use the tool to track your progress and easily reschedule things.
- Tip 3 – Rate yourself. It’s a good idea to develop a rating system within the tracker, and rate yourself honestly and accurately for each subject. For example, when I study for a CCIE certification exam, I use the following 1 to 5 rating system:
- 1 – I have never heard of the topic before in my life! That’s not good.
- 2 – I can explain to someone a high-level overview of what that technology does, in plain English.
- 3 – I have a decent knowledge of how the technology is configured and verified.
- 4 – I can configure the technology and verify it.
- 5 – I can troubleshoot the technology.
I provide my rating system here for you, as it might be a nice start for you when designing your own.
- Tip 4 – Use electronic flashcards. I love the product on the Anki website, and there are many others like it. You make these electronic flash cards as you study, and then the tool will drill you on your cards, showing you the ones you need the most help on more frequently. There are also Cisco certification-specific flash cards available, including products found on this website.
- Tip 5 – Find the study materials that are right for you! You need to make sure you “test drive” the study materials you plan on using. This might mean you download a sample chapter of the book you plan to use, or it might mean that you sit in an hour of a class. Remember, if you cannot sample the materials you are about to use because the training provider does not let you sample, run! That is a big red flag.
- Tip 6 – Take breaks in your study. This means taking breaks not only during a long study session, but also between study sessions.
- Tip 7 – Get the approval of your friends and family. If you are going to be locked in your study for long hours in your pursuit of certification, make sure your friends and family are aware of what you are doing, why you are doing it, and ensure they are supportive.
- Tip 8 – Schedule the exam when you are ready to pass it. It always confuses me when I hear about students who schedule an exam for a few weeks out, and then are crushed by the exam. Why did they not just wait until they were ready and then schedule? Most students tell me that it is because they need to schedule the exam to get themselves motivated to study for it. Arrrrggg. I would like this idea just fine I guess if they had built a tracker and followed their study plan. But if they do not do that, their preparation strategy does not work anyway, so they should have scheduled when they were ready!
- Tip 9 – Schedule a time of day you really like. Typically, your testing center will have times throughout the day from which you can choose. If you are a morning person (yuck!), then by all means schedule a morning session.
The Night Before Phase
The night before the big test has arrived. Here are some tips to help your success.
- Tip 10 – Study! I like to study the night before, but it is by no means some marathon cram session. It is just casual refreshing on what my weakest areas have been. I of course have this information in my tracker where I rated myself on all of the topics.
- Tip 11 – Sleep and eat well. I hope this means that you are not varying from what you would normally do in these areas.
- Tip 12 – Plan your time correctly for the next day. This will help you sleep well. Know your route to the testing center, know how long it takes to get there, plan to arrive early, and give yourself extra time for that inevitable delay.
During Exam Phase
You have done it: you are taking the exam. How exciting! Here are some tips for this rather important phase.
- Tip 13 – Use your scratch paper wisely. Yes, that’s right—you can dump key tables and charts from your brain on to the scratch paper right at the start of your exam. As long as this information comes from your head and not your pocket, you have not violated the rules of the exam. Now you can refer to these materials as you take the test. The classic example of this is to use a conversion chart to help with your with IPv4 subnetting questions.
- Tip 14 – Keep an eye on the clock. Manage your time wisely during the exam. Cisco even gives this tip to you. If there are simulation questions in your exam, Cisco reminds you that you cannot spend too much time on any one simulation.
- Tip 15 – Don’t let a crazy question shake you. There will always be a question or two that just seems absolutely unsolvable. No worries. Do not let such a question shake your confidence. Just smile, guess, and move on. There is always a margin for error with the exams that you are provided. No one claims you have to pass with a perfect score.
After Exam Phase
Congratulations! You got through it. Now, here’s one final tip.
- Tip 16 – Evaluate. It is over. You might have crushed the exam with an amazing score, maybe you squeaked by, or maybe you just missed that passing mark. No matter what happened, it is time to evaluate how you did in all phases. What worked? What did not work? Chances are, even you passed this one, there is another one to tackle on the horizon!
I hope that this article helps you dramatically in your pursuit of certifications.