Cisco Exam Study Strategies
Given that Cisco’s is one of the three biggest IT certification programs, and that exam preparation material is readily available to candidates, an organized program of study is the best approach to tackling any Cisco certification exam. Given that Cisco exams are updated regularly, so that in some cases third-party materials may not be available, I also explain how to prepare for the exams before third parties deliver their exam goods.
Before I sketch out this approach and explain its various elements, I’d like to stress the value of waiting as long as possible or reasonable to take certification exams. That said, some people must take exams sooner rather than later to meet job requirements, to learn subject matter ASAP or to teach others or write about the subject matter. Even so, there are benefits to delaying your exam date:
- It takes time for a collective body of knowledge and experience to coalesce around an exam. Reputable, reliable exam reports usually take from two to four months after the exam’s release to appear. These reports are informative, helpful and valuable.
- Trade books on exams, be they full-length study guides to help you learn the material as well as prep for the exam, or shorter, more focused tools, are seldom available until at least two months after an exam goes public. Even Cisco Press titles don’t hit the shelves sooner than a month after an exam goes live, and they have an inside track!
- It’s rare to see practice tests for exams appear sooner than a month after an exam’s public release, and it’s not atypical for them to take as long as three months after an exam’s release date to arrive.
All of this helps to explain why I offer one prep strategy for early test-takers and another for those who can wait for third-party materials to arrive to guide their exam preparation.
The quick take on this strategy is that it relies entirely on Cisco materials. This approach works only as soon as exam topics for an exam appear in the Cisco “Career Certifications” pages, and it uses those topics and other Cisco materials to guide study and practice. Normally, at roughly the same time that Cisco announces new exams, it also publishes exam topics, so ambitious readers can start right away. Following this strategy, it’s not uncommon to take an exam twice, where a first try is as much to scope out an exam’s topics, level of detail and coverage as it is a real try to pass, and a second try represents a real go at passing.
- Step 1: Review and analyze exam objectives. Exam objectives map out topics, technologies, tools, commands and troubleshooting skills at a high level. These help identify subjects that you need to learn, tools and commands you must explore and understand and skills you must develop. It’s particularly important to carry through to skills development, because that’s what Cisco exams seek to test most directly. Look for supporting materials like recommended reading lists, background study and so forth, which Cisco occasionally offers for some (but alas, not all) topics.
- Step 2: Map the exam topics to technical resources. For this and following steps, access to Cisco training materials is essential (and of course, the best way to secure these materials is to attend recommended, Cisco-sanctioned training courses or e-learning offerings for the exam you wish to take). Cisco Learning Partners get access to exam content to make sure that the training materials they create prepare their students to deal with topics and simulations likely to appear on Cisco exams, so this material is valuable to exam candidates. Those with limited budgets may have to find other ways to read such materials, if they can’t afford courses. The idea here is to identify manuals, white papers, training materials and background reading lists relevant to specific exam topics, and compile a list of reading and study material.
- Step 3: Identify hands-on activities relevant to exam topics. This proceeds in parallel with Step 2, but requires a different slant on mapping exam topics (and recognizing what’s covered in materials you collate). Here, you should identify installation and configuration tasks to master, as well as tools, consoles, commands and utilities relevant to exam objectives with which you must get familiar. This is where the “skills training” part of learning starts to emerge.
- Step 4: Read and work through reading materials and hands-on activities. This is where your analysis in steps 1 through 3 goes to work, as you read about subjects related to exam topics, then master relevant hands-on activities and skills. This may not sound like much, but it’s the most labor-intensive step. It also requires access to tools, software, systems and networks for experimentation and to garner experience.
- Step 5: Absorb as much ancillary material as possible. Cisco’s exam descriptions include pointers to various information, including detailed listings of exam topics, as well as additional resources. Even so, it’s a good idea to search the Cisco site using individual topic items to look for ancillary materials online, such as technical support bulletins, white papers and so on. These can help augment course materials and improve skills and understanding. (You can do likewise with good third-party resources, including forums and study guides at sites like TCPMag.com.)
- Step 6: Take the exam. I assume you can do this without guidance; steps 7 and later apply only if you don’t pass on your first try. Good luck!
- Step 7: Analyze and determine areas for further study. If you didn’t pass, it’s important to recognize the topics, tools and technologies on the exam for which you weren’t adequately prepared. If possible, use the “return to question” marker during the exam to mark questions you aren’t sure about, then scan them again just before scoring your exam (time permitting, of course). Strain your memory banks to retain that material and record it after the exam so you can use it to drive further study.
- Step 8: Absorb necessary material and perform hands-on tasks as needed. Use the list of topics you take away from the exam to re-apply steps 2 through 4 to topics where further study or hands-on experience and experimentation is needed. Keep at it until you’re comfortable with those topics. Then, move on to step 9.
- Step 9: Retake the exam. Repeat steps 7 through 9 until you pass! If practice tests, exam reviews or books appear while you’re in this process, consider switching to the strategy outlined next.
Here, life is easier, and the odds of passing on the first try increase. That’s because materials you use not only cover steps 1 through 3 from the preceding strategy, but you also benefit by working from other people’s experience with the exam. In a nutshell, this explains why I recommend this strategy unless dire necessity determines otherwise.
The later taker’s strategy depends on obtaining four types of material to help you prepare:
- At least two practice exams, one to use for self-assessment, one or more for pre-exam tune-ups or retakes.
- At least one good study guide for the exam, if not also a more focused tool (like an Exam Cram 2).
- One or more exam reviews, along with the Cisco exam topics, to understand content details and requirements for any particular exam.
- The usual collection of Cisco materials described in detail in Step 2 of the preceding strategy to complement and complete the technical exam resources.
Some people might call this a “belt and suspenders” approach because books, reviews and exam topics overlap. But because not all books do complete justice to the exams they cover, added coverage is good insurance. In other words, if you see somethin