Troy’s Survival Guide for the CCNA Exam

May 22, 2009 at 12:59 pm | Posted in Cisco | Leave a comment
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Often, in the process of addressing customer issues with the CCNA exams, I’ll have customers ask me, “What is the best way to study for the CCNA exam?” When I was a full-time trainer I also heard that question many times. It takes me back to when I was certification newbie (when dinosaurs roamed the earth) and I tackled this beast called the CCNA. I took myself from absolute Cisco knucklehead to certified Cisco knucklehead. I’d like to share some of the things I learned the hard way, some of my own best advice, and some really sound advice I have gathered from others.

First: Know what you’re getting into.

The exam can be digested in two different ways:

  • Single exam, the 640-802
  • Two exams, the 640-816 and 640-822

If you are a newbie to Cisco, I highly recommend the two-exam attack. It will cost more ($250.00 for both 640-816 and 640-822 at $125.00 each, versus $150.00 for 640-802) but the material is broken into two parts and much easier to digest. I would only advise an experienced Cisco technician who is uncertified to take the 640-802.

The material is not rocket science, but you do need some kind of IT background before you start this. I would suggest getting something like CompTIA’s Network + certification under my belt first. That exam covers networking, IP addressing, subnetting, and the OSI model. These topics are about half the battle for the CCNA, so if you have that background covered, you’re ahead of the game.

Second: Mr. Natural says, Use the right tool for the job.

Collect the right resources. You don’t want to be wasting time with books and study materials that cause you to

  • Not learn the right stuff, or
  • Learn a bunch of stuff you don’t need for the exam (or in real life).

I have two suggestions for books. The first is an easier read than the Cisco Press book and I think if you are new that’s what you need.

CCNA: Cisco Certified Network Associate Study Guide: Exam 640-802, 6th Edition by Todd Lammle. (Mr. Lammle didn’t pay me for this endorsement, and I don’t get a kickback on his book sales.) It’s available in paperback from Sybex and clocks in at 1008 pages.

Pros: This book covers all the material for both exams, and is easy to read and understand.

Cons: I do have one complaint with this book. The quizzes and assessments that come with the book are NOT HARD ENOUGH. There’s nothing worse than feeling prepared for an exam and finding out the hard way that you aren’t.

So, after you read this book and can answer all the questions and assessments you need to move up one level to the Cisco Press books. These books are not as easy to read, but after going through Todd’s book you should be ready for it. There are two books, one for each exam, and the book information is shown below:

Interconnecting Cisco Network Devices, Part 1 (ICND1): ICND Exam 640-822, 2nd Edition

Interconnecting Cisco Network Devices, Part 2 (ICND2): ICND Exam 640-816, 3rd Edition

When you read these books, pay special attention to the quizzes and assessments. Make sure that you can answer them all and, more importantly, understand the answers.

Third: Get your hands dirty!

Get some hands-on! This used to be the hard part. Back when I was studying, I went on Bbay and spent about $1500.00 to buy some old routers and switches (the ones they told me to buy in the Cisco book) so I could do the labs in the book. Then I set them up and practiced and practiced. There are other options now. Allow me to blow our horn, please. We have a new product that would have really saved me some money: The KaplanIT Cisco CCNA simulator (see the blog entitled Finally! A product to help me practice for the Cisco CCNA without buying routers and switches!). With this product that installs on your PC you can practice anything in the books. EVEN BETTER, it comes with a PDF that holds a set of exercises that test the exact skills you need for the exam. But as they say in the 12-step ads, “If you don’t get help from us, get help somewhere.” In other words, get some routers and switches or another simulator before tackling the exams. You will definitely be required to perform some configurations and do some troubleshooting on routers and switches on the exam, so be ready!

Fourth: Don’t make rookie mistakes.

Be organized. Create a study plan that has time limits and target finish date (and I don’t mean “when I get to it” – I mean specific days and weeks).

This study plan must have a target test date. Even if you don’t make the target, you’ll do better than if you don’t have one. There should be daily, weekly and monthly goals describing where you want to be. You should be constantly monitoring your progress so you know when you are behind.

Know your study style. Some people need to be somewhere totally quiet to study. Others (like me) can study in a rock concert. If you need quiet, go to a library or something. Also pick the time of day that is best for you. I do better in the morning when I’m all jacked up on coffee. Do what works for you, not me.

While self study can work for some, if you need it, take a class. Nothing beats having a real human being to ask when something doesn’t make sense. There are both technical colleges and Cisco academies that teach this will real equipment. If you are a “learn by doing” type of person this may be the best for you.

Cisco Academy information is here.

Fifth: Get a good practice test!

The purpose of an exam-focused practice test, rather than a general knowledge-based test, is that it focuses your learning on the topics most likely to appear on the exam. If the practice test is done well, it will also present the questions to you in the same way they will be presented on the exam. I cannot emphasize how important that is! Half of the battle is knowing how Cisco is going test you on a concept. The practice test should also contain detailed explanations that describe why the incorrect answers are incorrect and in what situations those answers would be correct.

Under NO circumstances should your practice exam contain the same questions you will see on the exam (brain dumps, cheat sheets). Not only are these in violation of the Geek honor code, but they can get you booted from the IT world if you get caught. And after all, if you use those and don’t actually learn the material, how satisfying can that be? (Not to mention you’ll probably get fired on your first job for not knowing what you’re doing.)

Can I make a crass and self-promoting suggestion? Get Transcender tests. It covers all the bases. And while you’re at it, get the CCNA simulator as well. Arm yourself with books, practice test and simulator, and go forth and conquer your certification!

–Troy McMillan

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