On preparing for certification exams

I would like to provide some insight into what worked well for me in regards to certification prep, and what will hopefully be of value for anyone trying to come up with a gameplan. While it may not be the perfect solution for you, I have yet to fail a certifiction exam by following this system. To lend credence to this, in 2019 I passed four certification exams: Cisco’s CCENT and CCNA, Palo Alto Network’s PCNSA and Check Point’s CCSA. None of these are expert level certifications, but the amount of time and devotion required for each was sacrificial.

For the sake of brevity, I’ve chosen to focus this post on studying for a certification without the use of a bootcamp. For Cisco exams, this can be a simple task. There are many resources available out there, and it will cost a fraction of what you would pay to attend a bootcamp.

There can also be many pitfalls to going the way of self-study; you need to be very disciplined in your approach to time management. Life has a way of creeping in and without the proper motivation to grind it out you will consistently see your goals and schedules fall by the wayside. Regardless of how you feel about certifications, learning the material covered in the exams will make you a better engineer.

The learning phase

Here are some suggestions to maximizing your self-study (these tips are not exclusive to Cisco certifications):

  • Come up with a schedule and stick to it
    • I made it a goal to finish a section of my textbook each week. This normally meant I was up late at night while my wife and son were sleeping. If I found free time during the weekend, I would try to read or work on labs. Tip for other moms and dads: The kiddo’s nap time is great for studying!
  • Find a good textbook
    • Reddit is a wonderful source of knowledge for IT certifications. There’s no shortage of people willing to help, and more than likely any question you want to ask has already been answered there. I’ve posted some helpful subreddits in the footnotes.
    • I prefer hardback textbooks. It’s impossible for me to stay focused while reading on a tablet or computer. Your mileage may vary here.
  • Organize your notes and leave reminders for yourself
    • I purchase a separate spiral notebook for each exam and only use it for notes for that exam. I like to put my notes on the right page, and reserve the left page for additional notes in the future.
    • If something is confusing, I make a note to come back to it later. I never take incredibly detailed notes, but I am very intentional about marking confusing areas that need a second look in the future.
  • Supplement your reading with videos
    • There are great video series for almost everything IT related on YouTube. When I was studying for the CCNA exam, I purchased Chris Bryant’s CCNA course on Udemy. I didn’t go through every video, but for the areas that confused me, this was invaluable. I watched a lot of these videos during my lunch break and listened to the audio during some of my daily commutes into the office.
  • Create flashcard decks along the way
    • I copy anything I think I will need to know into flashcards. I recommend Anki. Without going into detail into the Anki method, I would not have passed my exams without flashcards.
    • My flashcards are quick and easy to memorize. Example:
      • Front: Command to enable BPDU Guard on an interface
      • Back: spanning-tree bpduguard enable
    • Most flashcard apps have a tagging feature. Tagging different sections makes organization an easy task.

The pre-testing phase:

  • Find practice tests:
    • For Cisco exams, Boson makes amazing practice tests. These are worth EVERY penny and are probably the single most helpful tool in my experience. The price may seem steep, but there are almost always coupon codes available to cut 15-25% off. I wouldn’t recommend taking any practice exams until after you’ve finished your textbooks and labs, so maximize your savings by finding a good deal or coupon code. In addition to Boson, the Official Cert Guides from Cisco come with great practice exam software.
      • Turn the hard questions and the questions you get wrong into flashcards
      • Study mode on practice exams is the best feature; you get really in depth explanations on why one answer is right and why the other answers are wrong.
    • For Check Point exams, look no further than Pearson VUE. Check Point makes practice exams available on Pearson and can usually be found on sale. I believe I paid $25 for a practice exam for CCSA R80 which is an amazing deal. Take screenshots and make flashcards out of the exam questions.
    • Palo Alto Networks makes practice exams available for PCNSA and PCNSE on their website. You can take these exams for free and retake them later. These were very helpful. Again, turn the hard stuff into flashcards!
  • Hitting the labs:
    • Some people like to do labs at the same time they’re reading the relevant section of the textbook. I like to do labs AFTER I’ve finished reading the textbook. For me, it’s a great way to re-learn or remember the things I read at the beginning of the textbook, and put the pieces of the puzzle together.
    • For Cisco, check out David Bombal’s stuff on Udemy. I’ve heard the Boson labs are good too, but they’re pretty expensive.
    • Most of my labbing for Palo Alto and Check Point came from hands-on experience and the bootcamps. I use the products everyday, so I was already familiar with the products.
  • Flashcard Blitzes:
    • Continue with your daily Anki goals. The default is set to 20 cards a day, but as your test date approaches crank that up to 40 or 50. I can’t stress enough how important Anki was to my success. It may feel very repetitive, but it may also be just the thing for passing an exam by a few questions instead of failing an exam by a few questions. From my own experience, I know that there were two or three CLI commands on the Check Point exam that I would not have known had I not memorized these commands through Anki cards.

Taking the exam

  • Don’t be afraid to reschedule:
    • Most exams will be proctored by Pearson VUE. Typically, you can reschedule your exam for free as many times as you want. Just make sure you finish rescheduling the exam at least 24 hours before your scheduled exam; you cannot make any adjustments once there is less than 24 hours til the exam date.
    • I’ve rescheduled an exam multiple times because I didn’t feel like I was ready, and I didn’t want to waste $150.
  • Show up early:
    • This is a no-brainer. Show up and be early. Bring a couple forms of ID.
  • Pick a time that works best for you:
    • I like to take the exam as early in the morning as I can. I don’t want to sit around thinking about it all day, and there’s not a lot of studying I want to do on the day of the exam anyway. This is another one of those ‘your mileage may vary’ suggestions.
  • Read every question twice:
    • There are a lot of ‘gotcha’ questions on these exams. Its frustrating, but make sure you re-read every question to make sure the answer you’re selecting makes sense.
  • Guess intelligently:
    • Knowing how to guess on an exam question can help you score a few extra correct answers and might just be another reason you pass the exam instead of failing it by a question or two. Try to think about vendor best practices and how that would be relevant to the question being asked. Normally, you can eliminate one or two answers off immediately and then just try to go with the option that sounds “the least wrong”. I passed the Check Point test by 3 points, so I know for a fact this helped for me.

Footnotes

  • What about bootcamps?
    • I attended two bootcamps in 2019 and have written some advice here. The process doesn’t change that much, but it may help reduce the amount of time you spend attaining a certification
  • Helpful Subreddits:
    • Cisco:
      • /r/ccna
        • This is helpful for CCENT and CCNA studying. Great community. Don’t forget to post your scores once you pass!
      • /r/ccnp
        • I haven’t decided if I want to continue on to CCNP any time soon, especially with the changes coming. However, I subscribe to this sub and have poked around a bit. It’s just as helpful as /r/ccna, but for the ccnp level certification
    • Palo Alto
    • General
      • /r/sysadmin
        • The content is not as great as it once was, but still helpful for those in the IT field. It is more rants than knowledge these days.
      • /r/networking
        • Simply the best professional IT subreddit there is, in my opinion. The subreddit is monitored closely for content and leans heavily towards enterprise networking.
      • /r/devops
        • This is what /r/sysadmin used to be. Very professional, and great for Cloud technologies.

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