How to pass your CCNA exam

The author of the official 'CCNA Exam Certification Library' explains how to pass your exams

Certification still carries weight when you are looking for a networking career move, according to 'CCNA Official Exam Certification Library (CCNA Exam 640-802), 3rd Edition' author, Wendell Odom.

Odom recently spoke with about how to study for and pass the CCNA exam. Odom also offered advice on how much time you should take to prepare for the tests, the support groups that are available, and how a certification might help in your job-seeking endeavors.

Everyone works and studies differently, but how much time should someone devote to studying for the CCNA exam?
Wendell Odom: Well, there are lots of variables in that question. First, there's the question of how much (if any) related skill or knowledge the candidate has when starting study. Next, there's the question of compression: How many days/weeks/months does it take you to put in the study time? The longer the elapsed time, the more time required to review earlier studies.

To give a couple of "for instances," if someone came to the game with no knowledge or skills and could do 10 hours a week of preparation, I'd say it would take three months (65 hours actual study) for the two-exam path, and maybe three-and-a-half months for the one-exam path. That's essentially to read 400 to 500 pages, do some labs on a simulator, review, and take some practice tests.

Another example -- someone who knows some of the technology and can spend 15 hours a day, maybe does it in six weeks (45 hours per exam) with the two-exam path, maybe a little longer for the one-exam path.

How can you best prepare for the CCNA exam? Would you recommend a practice or specific task to people who would like to be CCNA certified?

The first and possibly most important task is to create a study plan. By the time you're getting into Cisco certifications, most people know how they like to study. The plan should include the tools you'll have: always an Exam Cert Guide (like my two-book CCNA library!); possibly extra practice exams; probably either borrowed gear, used gear or a simulator; and maybe some videos. But planning beyond just gathering your tools is important, so that when you get 30 minutes, or two hours, or whatever time, you can sit down and learn, and remove the time wasted trying to figure out what to do next.

I personally like the idea of reading several chapters in the book, then reviewing, then doing a few labs, and maybe even answering questions covering those topics from the exam CD that comes with most Exam Cert Guide books. For example, with some of my products, here's a sample study plan for say IP routing in ICND1:

  1. Read the related chapters in the book (12-15).
  2. Review those chapters.
  3. Do some IP addressing and RIP labs.
  4. Use the CD test engine: Filter to see just the questions from chapters 12-15, and answer all those questions.


Are there any support groups to help you become CCNA certified?
Odom: I've seen many over the years, but a great place to look is the Cisco CCNA Prepcenter. That's a Cisco site, and it has lots of preparation resources. But a Google search can uncover lots more places to gather for discussions.

Is it necessary (or easier) to become CCENT certified before you get your CCNA? What are the benefits -- if any -- of certifying for this beforehand?
Odom: It's not necessary to become a CCENT (by passing the ICND1 exam) before becoming a CCNA. However, I'd say it's easier for someone who knows little about the topics to separate the study effort into two parts by first passing ICND1 and then passing ICND2.

For perspective, almost every other Cisco Associate- or Professional-level certification exam covers topics that are also covered in a four- or five-day course. The CCNA exam covers topics that require two different five-day courses. So the two-exam path to CCNA can be a little more manageable. If you know some things coming into the process, however, going for CCNA as a single exam is useful. Also, there's no real downside to just passing the single exam -- you don't get the CCENT cert, but you do get CCNA, which is better.

What types of jobs and salaries should people expect once they have become CCNA certified (with or without experience)?
Odom: I really don't have much I can offer on salary; that's outside my area of expertise. But the IT world appears to be favoring the generalist who also has business skills. A CCNA cert plus other non-Cisco certs, along with business skills, make a good combination. For network engineer jobs -- jobs with most work related to the network infrastructure -- employers will want candidates to have, at a minimum, the skills associated with CCNA. The most tangible way to prove that you know those topics is to pass the certification.

Where might someone who is CCNA certified sit in an IT organization? What job title would be expected to go along with this certification?
Odom: CCNA, and other Cisco certs, don't define job roles or job titles. It's a technical certification, so it shouldn't be leading people toward management roles directly. Instead, it leads toward what HR folks call "individual contributor" -- which is a fancy HR term for someone at the bottom of the org chart. But I can't imagine any Cisco cert affecting someone's job title.

What is the best next step after you CCNA certify? Would you recommend another certification after this one?
Odom: If your goal is a network-centric job, then certainly one of Cisco's Professional level certifications -- CCNP, CCIP, CCSP, CCVP -- would be best. However, if you're looking to be more general, then [I recommend] Microsoft, Linux, Storage, ITIL, CISSP, or SNIA storage certs.

Foote Partners recently published a study which revealed that people who are not certified are getting paid more than those who are. Why might that be?
Odom: I actually spent some time looking at the data. It makes for great headlines, doesn't it? I think the No. 1 takeaway I got when looking into that survey was that it showed companies rewarding the same technical skills included in the survey. For instance, someone with a CCNP might be rewarded (for example, with money) less than someone who demonstrated skill with OSPF and BGP, two topics in the CCNP survey. The survey also showed pay for people who were still working at the same company year-to-year -- all interesting information, to be sure.

I concluded that it shows that once an engineer is in the job, managers can (and should, in my opinion) reward employees for skill/performance. However, for getting the next job and proving yourself to new potential managers (be they in the same company or another company), the hiring manager has only the interview and resume to go on -- so the certs still carry weight when you are looking to move.

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