Networking certifications: How to pass your CCNA exam

Learn how to pass your Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) exam in this pointed advice on Cisco certifications from one of our CCNP Video Mentor contest winners.

This networking certification advice was one of the contest-winning pieces selected from the CCNP Video Mentor contest.

Networking certification advice from the trenches

Certification preparation: Locate good reading material, resources, and practice tests for any networking exam.

How to pass your exams: No matter which exam you're trying to pass, this bulleted advice will help.

CCNA exam plan: Know the best CCNA resources, and read how to mentally prepare for your CCNA.

Network+ exam plan: Learn how to study and read your Network+ material.

Your certification game plan: This covers online tests, lab setups and lists of activities to complete A+, Network+, CCNA, MCSA and Linux certifications.

CCNA studying: Understand studying time restraints here.

Ambition without knowledge is like a boat on dry land. If you truly want to set sail and reach your goal of Cisco certification, you will need several keys to help you reach it. In order to gain the knowledge required to pass the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) exam, you have to familiarize yourself with various mediums of information.

Before I discuss those mediums, however, I want to mention what is most important for success. What is truly required to obtain any Cisco certification is not a tangible item (such as the plethora of books, manuals, PDF documents, Web sites and countless other commercial tools that are out there). It is the psychological fuel that motivates you to follow through with those tools and implement them into your understanding of the exam.

When I say plethora, I am not kidding. As anyone who has begun the journey and started to seek out the information will know, it can be overwhelming. Being of Greek heritage, I know that plethora is from the Greek root plethein, which simply means "to be full." The more information you seek, the more you may become confused by the many possible directions you can take. You will not know where to begin, and you will soon discover that the information offered by all sorts of companies -- and by CCIE writers telling you how to get certified in no time -- will consist of one thing: false promises. When you realize this and accept the fact that the CCNA is a challenging test (and make the commitment to persistently pursue it until you are certified), you will succeed.

Now that you are ready to take on the challenge of a difficult test and have made the commitment to obtain the CCNA, you will need to set a date. Be realistic and honest with yourself. It is not where, when, or how you begin this journey but where you end up that counts. The day I made the decision to get certified, I purchased a nice bottle of wine and gave myself eight months to complete the CCNA exam. I labeled the bottle "CCNA" and kept it in plain sight in the kitchen, and I told myself that I would be deserving of that bottle only when I was CCNA certified. This helped me a great deal, as it was a constant reminder of my goal and commitment.

I realized that the test was not impossible but that skipping study for several weeks would be a double setback. A technique I used to remedy this was of great annoyance to my wife. For any day when I did not read one page or practice just a few potential questions, I would place a post-it note with the letters "CCNA" on the bedroom wall. Believe me -- as those of you who are married will know -- after about a dozen or so notes have been stuck on the bedroom wall, your significant other will notice. To rectify this situation, all I had to do was study, and one note at a time would come down. These constant reminders reinforced my determination and encouraged me to keep going.

Now let's discuss the tangible information that is crucial to the success of understanding and earning your certification. The books that I suggest for reading are Ron Gilster's CCNA for Dummies, Jeremy Cioara's Exam Cram, any Todd Lammle book, and any Cisco Press book -- since they are straight from the horse's mouth. I strongly advise you to get your hands dirty by getting some hi-liters and colored note cards to make your own flash cards. Just reading the books is not enough to get through the trickery in the test engines, which are built to seek out your weaknesses. I had approximately 300 note cards and had them with me wherever I went. Whenever I was waiting for my wife, delayed at the airport, at a traffic light -- you name it -- I popped out my note cards.

Another amazing resource was just talking to people and inquiring about the CCNA. I found out quickly that CCNA resources are floating all over the place in the networking field. It was unbelievable how much free information I received from people who had already purchased all types of CCNA books, as I mentioned above. Some people's books had become paperweights, so they were happy to loan or even give me their CCNA books!

In regard to the exams, I do not recommend splitting up the test. If you are looking for an easy way out by trying to take the CCNA exam in two parts, you will be in for a surprise. The CCNA 640-821, known as the INTRO exam, is approximately 75 minutes for 45-55 questions. The CCNA 640-811 exam, which is known as the ICND and is more difficult, is approximately 60 minutes with 40-50 questions. I know several people who have skated through the INTRO and have repeatedly failed the ICND. Since you have already accepted the fact that this is a challenging test, you will have no fear of taking the one exam, 640-801, which is approximately 90 minutes, with 55-65 questions. If you play the probabilities, you will significantly improve your chances of success with this time window of 90 minutes.

The bottom line is that this is not all Greek to me -- and it should not be to you either. Stick to your goal date, study, read, and go through the practice questions every day, even if your grasp of the material is not complete. Your persistence will lead you to understand the material and achieve the CCNA certification!


This was last published in July 2007

Dig Deeper on Networking careers and certifications