Obtaining a CCNA certification is not a walk in the park. Successful certification demands that you devote several months of your life—probably six to nine—to studying and preparing for the exam. (The CCNA certification also has a two-exam track that can help you spread this time out a little more.) You will probably also be working 40 hours per week.
Lots of resources exist to help you prepare—practice tests, books, videos (such as those on youtube.com), online classes, online forums and discussion groups, study guides, and boot camps are just a few of the resources you can tap. Which resources you use can depend on your personal study habits and your training budget.
Taking practice tests is probably one of the most common ways to prepare for the CCNA exam. These tests serve a double purpose of testing your knowledge and reducing test anxiety: If you do something often enough, you’ll be less nervous about it.
It is also a good idea to have an actual practice lab in your home or workspace, where you can get hands-on experience with the concepts covered by the CCNA exam. PCs, cables, routers, and switches all cost money and take up room, so be prepared to part with some hard-earned cash and maybe use the back bedroom as your “laboratory.” If you have a spouse or significant other, make sure he or she is aware of the time, money, and square footage the CCNA exam preparation will require.
The CCNA certification exam is administered at “brick and mortar” test centers located throughout the United States. Be sure one is located near you or that you budget time and money for travel to a testing center.
How Much Time Are You Willing to Devote?
Studying for CCNA certification takes time—lots of it. Successful preparation for the exam involves reading books, attending courses, taking practice tests, working with flashcards, watching instructional videos, doing simulations, and “playing” with real networking components in a lab. Exam preparation usually takes about six to nine months. If you are a slow reader, or have a heavy workload at your job, preparation could take longer than that. Bear in mind, however, that the longer you take to prepare for the CCNA test, the more likely you are to forget some of the earlier material you studied; you’ll have to include periodic reviews in your study plan (which will take more time, of course).
One way to break up the preparation time into more bite-sized chunks is to take the two-exam route to CCNA certification. Instead of taking the longer, more comprehensive 640-802 CCNA exam, which consists of about 45 to 50 questions and takes 90 minutes to complete, you can study for and take two separate exams:
- 640-822 ICND1 (Interconnecting Cisco Networking Devices Part 1) – 90 minutes, 45 to 50 questions. According to the Cisco Web site, this entry-level exam covers networking fundamentals; connecting to a WAN; basic security and wireless concepts; routing and switching fundamentals; the TCP/IP and OSI models; IP addressing; WAN technologies; operating and configuring IOS devices; configuring RIPv2, static, and default routing; implementing NAT and DHCP; and configuring simple networks.
- 640-816 ICND2 (Interconnecting Cisco Networking Devices Part 2) – 75 to 90 minutes, 40 to 50 questions. Cisco’s Web site indicates that this exam covers VLSM and IPv6 addressing; extending switched networks with VLANs; configuring, verifying, and troubleshooting VLANs; the VTP, RSTP, OSPF, and EIGRP protocols; determining IP routes; managing IP traffic with access lists; NAT and DHCP; establishing point-to-point connections; and establishing Frame Relay connections. (If you don’t know what all these acronyms mean, then you’d better hit the books!)
- The 640-822 ICND1 exam is not as in-depth as the ICND2 exam, so studying for it is not as intensive. After passing the ICND1 exam, you’ll have three years to complete your CCNA certification by taking and passing the ICND2 exam. Of course, because you have to pay a fee for each exam, the two-exam approach will cost twice as much as simply going for the gusto with the 640-802 exam.
Cisco’s Learning Partners offer in-classroom (not online) courses that help you prepare for the CCNA exam topics. You’ll need to schedule some time off from work to take these classes. For example, the ICND1 course takes five days to complete.
One option is to ask your employer if you can use one or two hours a few days a week from your paid on-the-job time to study for the CCNA certification. Some employers, recognizing the worth of the certification, may allow you to do this.
Study for and Take the Appropriate Tests
There are no prerequisites for taking the CCNA exam; the only thing required is that you be prepared. This means studying. Study aids include online practice tests, books and eBooks, instructional videos, online and classroom courses, online forums and discussion groups, study guides and lab books, and boot camps.
The following study tips can increase your chances of passing the CCNA exam to obtain your CCNA certification:
- Read the exam objectives, and study for each objective.
Develop a study plan (including deadlines), so you can check off each objective and topic as you complete it.
- Include several review periods in the study plan to further cement material in your brain. Don’t try to cram several topics into a short period—your retention of the material will suffer.
- Don’t skimp on purchasing relevant study guides, books, and other resources. You may save money, but what’s the point if you don’t pass the test?
- Ask around at work and visit social networking Web sites to find other people studying for the CCNA exam. Bouncing ideas and questions off others is a good way to learn the material.
- Avoid long study sessions. One to two hours at a time is plenty long. Create “cheat sheets” for topics that you can easily carry with you, so you can sneak “sound bites” of studying into your day, such as while you wait for a bus or a burger.
When you think you are ready for the test, it’s time to register. The CCNA exam is administered through a testing company called Pearson VUE, and you must physically go to a Person VUE testing center to take the CCNA exam. You can register for exams online.
When registering for a test, be sure you register for the right one! The numbers and acronym identifiers are rather similar in nature, and you don’t want to pay for a test you aren’t ready to take. Print out the exam confirmation so that you have a record of your confirmation number, the exam date and time, and the testing location.
Here are some tips to help you “be the best you can be” on exam day:
- Visit the testing center a day or two ahead of time to check out parking, traffic flow, etc.
- Sleep and eat well before the test.
- Allow plenty of time to get to the testing center.
- Even though the test is timed, read the questions carefully—maybe even twice—so you don’t make silly mistakes.
- Finally, don’t be nervous—although it will be a disappointment not to pass, you can always try again.
Choose the Right CCNA Training for You
When deciding how best to train for your CCNA certification exam, you should consider four major criteria: learning style, budget, available time, and quality of the training material.
Learning Style: Some people like to study at their own pace. Others prefer on-site classes, where someone else sets the schedule. Some people like to work alone; others want to work in groups. Online classes mean questions have to be asked and answered by e-mail, whereas on-site courses enable you to ask questions directly. Many people learn well in an intense, “boot camp” environment.
Also, there are many ways to get information—reading books, watching videos, listening to lectures, studying in groups (in person and/or with online discussion), and hands-on experimentation. Choose the training medium that suits you best.
Budget: For most people, money is a limited resource. Therefore, you’ll need to consider the cost of various training venues and make your dollars go as far as possible. When choosing training materials, ask online forums and your co-workers for recommended books, videos, and courses. Boot camps and multi-day classes can cost upward of $1,000; a good networking book may cost $20 to $50; hands-on equipment, a simulator package, or a set of training videos may cost you a few hundred dollars.
Also, make sure training materials cover topics of the current CCNA certification exam—every time Cisco updates the exam, the syllabus changes.
It can take six to nine months to prepare for the CCNA certification exam, especially if you take the single-exam track. If you prefer the two-exam track, you may take more time to gain your CCNA certification, but studying won’t be quite as intense. When preparing for and scheduling the CCNA exam, consider your other time commitments, such as work, other schooling, family, friends, and (perhaps most importantly!) time for yourself (recreation, sports, working out at the gym, etc.). If you are going to take the official Cisco CCNA classes (there are two), remember that each class takes five days.
Quality of the Training Material:
Unfortunately, not all CCNA courses and study materials are of equal quality. Be a smart shopper when choosing CCNA training by asking questions such as the following:
- Is the author of the book or video a well-known Cisco networking expert? Is the book written clearly? Are the topics in the book relevant? Books published by Cisco Press are likely to be up to date and of good quality.
- Is the company that is offering a particular class a Cisco Learning Partner? Does it make false promises, such as “guaranteeing” that you’ll pass? (If it makes such a guarantee, be sure that you understand how to get your money back if you do not pass!)
- Does the course include hands-on learning, or is it is just in-class lecture and tests? To prepare fully for the CCNA exam, and to get a good job after passing the exam, you need to work with real Cisco equipment, not just read about it in a book.