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How To Become A CCNA

By Chris Bryant, CCIE #12933 

Congratulations!    You’ve made the decision to pursue your Cisco Certified Network Associate certification.

Whether you’re just getting started, or you’ve been reading and working on the certification already, you’ll be glad to know that you are already 90% of the way there. 



You showed up.


The majority of people who are “thinking” about going after their CCNA, sadly, will never follow through.  They might look through a book at the bookstore or visit a certification-based website on occasion, but that’s it.   They have no plan for success, and therefore the success will not happen.


Those who do pursue the CCNA the right way, with the right plan, are creating the foundation for unlimited success in the IT field.   

How do I know that?  I’m living proof.   I picked up my first Cisco book years ago.  I had been doing some basic network installations and helpdesk work, but I didn’t really know a subnet from a hole in the ground.  (And the explanations of subnetting that were around then didn’t exactly help.) I earned my CCNA, worked my way through the CCNP, and later made the decision to tackle the world’s most difficult IT certification, the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certification.


On February 26, 2004, in Raleigh, North Carolina, I passed the CCIE R&S Lab. Since then, I’ve started a highly successful Cisco training company, The Bryant Advantage, and a successful consulting business as well.


I’m telling you this not to impress you, but to show you what is possible.  Not easy, but possible.  One reason I do so well with my books and classes is that I remember what it’s like to get started with your Cisco studies. I’m not one of these people who acts like they were born with all this knowledge.  I know what it’s like to look at a chapter in a CCNA book and wonder if you can learn all this stuff and pass the exams.


I did it, and you can do it, too.


Just as important as you earning a passing grade on the CCNA exam is the fact that the work you do in studying for the CCNA is the most important study you’ll ever do.


There's a good reason I use a pyramid in my company's logo.  When viewing an ancient Egyptian pyramid, where do we tend to look?  At the peak.  That’s natural. But what is the most important part of the pyramid? The foundation.


Pyramids built thousands of years ago are still standing not because they have a great peak, but because they have a great foundation. 


It’s this foundation of Cisco knowledge that you are building when you study for the CCNA.   Perhaps you don’t want to go after the CCIE now, but the day may come that you do go after it.  It’s also my experience that 90 – 95% of CCNAs pursue the CCNP.   The CCNAs who have a solid foundation of networking knowledge are the ones who get it. 


The CCNP exam that trips up most candidates is the troubleshooting exam. Look at it this way:  How can you troubleshooting anything if you don’t know the basics of how it works?


You can’t.   So keep in mind that while you’re going after the CCNA, you’re building your professional future.


To build this future, you need a plan.  That’s what this article is all about.   By following the steps I outline here, you will greatly maximize your chances not only of passing the CCNA, but excelling on exam day, on the job, and in your future certification endeavors.


Starting On Your CCNA Success Path


First, you need to decide to succeed.  


Too many Cisco certification candidates take a hesitant, “maybe I’ll fail” approach to their study.  You must eliminate this attitude and replace it with a “I have passed” approach.  Act as though you have already passed, and your passing score on exam day is a foregone conclusion.  When you show up on exam day, you're already a CCNA; you're just there to make it official.


I spend 15 – 45 minutes a day writing down my goals for the day, the month, and the year.  I have found that writing down my goals cements them in my mind, and your mind is the world’s most powerful computer.   By reminding yourself on a daily basis that you are going to pass the exam, you actually program your mind for success. 

If you’re not writing your goals down on a daily basis, you’re missing a great method of accelerating your life and your career.  It takes 15 minutes a day, and it’s the best investment you’ll ever make.


Decide On The Two-Exam Path Or The One-Exam Path


It’s early in the process, but you’ve got an important decision to make.  Do you want to take the single CCNA composite exam, or take the two-exam path? 


The two-exam path consists of the Introduction To Cisco Networking exam and the Interconnecting Cisco Networking Devices exam.  You can also take the single CCNA exam.


I tell my students that the path they choose should reflect their level of experience. There is a good amount of overlap between the Intro and ICND material; the real difference between the two exams is the depth to which you’ll be questioned on various topics. 


The Intro exam material includes some Ethernet and TCP/IP basics, and cabling information.  If you’re familiar with how Ethernet works, and you know your Ethernet cabling types and differences between them, you probably want to go straight for the CCNA composite exam.   If you’re a newcomer to the field, or not familiar with TCP/IP and cable types, I recommend you take the Intro exam and then the ICND exam.


Developing Your Study Plan

Now that you’ve made your decision as to the two-exam vs. one-exam approach, you’re ready for the most important part of the entire CCNA process:  Developing your study plan.   

That’s right, this is the most important part of your CCNA chase.  Without this study plan, your study will be unstructured, random, and most likely unsuccessful.


There are several steps involved in developing a successful study plan.  Let’s examine them one at a time:


First, schedule your exam NOW.


I know what you're think. "Okay, Chris has lost his mind.  Why should I schedule my exam now?  I haven’t started studying yet!"


From experience, I can tell you that this technique works.  People complain about timetables and deadlines, but the truth is that people do their best work with a deadline. 


I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard this:


I’ll schedule my exam when I’m ready.”


You know when “ready” is?  For many people, NEVER.  I know someone who’s been preparing for their CCNA for years – literally! He’s going to schedule that exam when he’s ready.   He’s been getting ready for years!


By scheduling your exam now, you give yourself a mental deadline. You’ll be surprised at how focused your mind becomes when you know the date of your exam before you start.  I have used this technique for my CCNA, CCNP, and CCIE exams.  It will work for you!



Both sites have test center locators, so no matter where you are in the world, you can find the testing center nearest you.


We all have times of the day that we’re mentally sharper than others.  I personally am a “morning person”, so I always schedule my exams for first thing in the morning.  If you’re stronger in the afternoon, schedule an afternoon exam.



Next: Schedule Your Study Time, And Track It.


Ever hear someone describe their study time like this?


I don’t know why I haven’t passed the CCNA exam.  I’ve been studying for four months!”


Do not make the mistake of measuring your study time in weeks and months.


What does it mean when someone says they’ve been studying for “months”, anyway?  I hear that all the time, and it doesn’t mean anything.  It’s a totally inaccurate way of measuring how much studying you’ve done, and it’s also a good way of fooling yourself as to how much work you’ve actually put in.


Consider this example:  Sam studies 90 minutes a day, six days a week.  His study time is uninterrupted and quiet.  Sam does this for eight weeks.


Bill studies 45 minutes a day, six days a week.  His study consists of opening his book in front of the TV, and taking phone calls while he thumbs through the pages.  Bill does this for twelve weeks.


Over eight weeks, Sam will put in 72 hours of solid study.


Over twelve weeks, Bill will put in 54 hours of subpar study.


Yet Bill will say, “I’ve studied for three months!”


Instead of doing what Bill did, do what Sam did.  Make a commitment to study “x” minutes a day, stick to it, make sure your study is uninterrupted, and track your study time. You’re much better off to get six hours of quality study time a week than to get 10 hours of constantly interrupted time.


You can track your time using Excel, or even Notepad. Every day, write down how much time you spent studying and the topic(s) you studied.  You have to write this down.  Not only will you have an accurate picture of how much study you’re actually putting in, you’ll be able to make sure that you’ve spent adequate time on every exam topic.


Would you make an appointment with a client, or another professional like a doctor, and then just not show up? Of course not.  That would be incredibly unprofessional. 


Consider your study time an appointment with yourself. Just as you would not be late or skip an appointment with someone else, do not skip this appointment with yourself.


Next: Keep Your Goals Away From The Trolls


If you let your friends and coworkers know you’re pursuing certification, hopefully they will be supportive.   Sadly, though, some of them won’t be. 


I’m reminded of a person I worked with years ago who walked by my cube one day and saw a Cisco certification book on my desk.  She then spent ten minutes telling me why certifications stink, anybody can get them, there’s a nine-year-old in Missouri that has an MCSE, blah, blah, blah….


What was really interesting is that while she would tell anyone who would listen that anyone could get a certification, she herself did not have one.  There were two reasons that she spent so much time badmouthing my certification pursuits.


First, she was threatened by my ambition.  Second, she wasn’t doing anything with her career and her time, and therefore she didn’t want anyone else doing anything, either.


I’m telling you this because these people are everywhere.  I don’t care what Internet forum you go to, or what certification you’re going after, when you declare your intentions, there will be some people who feel it’s their duty to tell you that you’re wasting your time.  


Keep your goals away from these trolls.  Do not spend time with these people, whether it’s in person or on the ‘Net. You’re not going to change their mind, and you must NOT let them change yours.   Professional computer certifications, particularly Cisco certifications, are definitely worth pursuing. Again, I’m living proof.  I now own my own training company, write my own Cisco certification books, and own a successful consulting business.  If I had listened to that troll, I wouldn’t have accomplished any of this.


Carrying Out Your Study Plan


You’ve scheduled your exam; you’ve created a document to track your study time; you’ve planned exactly when you’re going to study.  Now the plan must be carried out, without exception.


What exceptions do I mean?  Cell phones.  Televisions. IPods.  Significant others.  The list can go on and on.


It’s one thing to have a plan, and an important thing; now you’ve got to make sure you carry it out to its fullest potential. That’s easy to say until you’re studying and a friend calls, or you remember that TV show you wanted to watch is on tonight, or you start surfing the Web for Cisco information and end up playing a game.


You MUST make these small sacrifices in order to achieve your main goal, the CCNA.   To paraphrase the Marine Corps slogan, the pain of missing a TV show is VERY temporary, but the pride of passing your CCNA with flying colors is forever. 


TV will be there when you’re done studying.   Your significant other will be there when you’re done studying.  And believe it or not, people once existed without cell phones. Turn the phone off.  Turn your instant messenger service off. Turn your text pager off.  Despite what we think, the world can do without communicating with us for 90 minutes.  It’s better to have 90 minutes of great study than 180 minutes of constantly interrupted study.


How To Spend Your Study Time


CCNA candidates generally spend their time split between book study, practice exams, and lab time on real Cisco equipment.  The best study is done by a combination of these, not by overly relying on one.  Let’s take a look at each method.


Book study – I’ve never understood why some people (usually the trolls we were talking about earlier) talk about book study like it’s a bad thing.  “You can’t learn about technology from books.”  What a load of manure.  You have to learn the theory before you can understand how a router or switch operates.   The best way to learn the theory is to read a good book.


At the CCNA level, you doubtless know that you have dozens of choices when it comes to books.  Some books really do gloss over some important topics, such as binary math and subnetting.  Make sure to pick a book or books that go beyond just explaining the theory and that give you a lot of explanation of router configs and real-world examples as well. 


Practice Exams:  Practice exams are good in moderation, but don’t use them as your main focus of study.  Occasionally, I’m asked for study tips by candidates who have taken the exam a few times and not passed yet.  I ask them what they’re doing to prepare, and they give a list of companies they bought practice exams from.  (You see a lot of this on Internet forums as well.)


Don’t fall into this trap.  Practice exams are fine if used as a readiness check, but some candidates just take them over and over again, which renders them basically useless. 


On top of that, some of them cost hundreds of dollars.  That’s money you’d be much better off spending on Cisco equipment to practice on.


Again, I’m not against practice exams as a supplement to your studies.   Just don’t make them the main focus of your study.  Taking practice exams over and over and hoping the exam will be just like the practice exam is a recipe for disaster.  As I tell my students, when you’re in front of a rack of routers and switches during a job interview (or at 2 AM when you’ve been called in to fix a problem), the correct answer is not “D”.  You’ve got to know what to do.


And how do you learn these skills?  Funny you should ask.


Lab Time On Real Cisco Equipment.   Again, speaking from experience:  This is the most important part of getting your CCNA, succeeding on the job, and going on to get your CCNP. 


Getting hands-on experience is critical to developing your networking skills, especially your troubleshooting skills.   Although simulators are better than they used to be, they’re still not Cisco routers, and they never will be. 


You do your best learning not only when you’re configuring your routers, but when you screw something up.


That’s so important, I want to repeat it – loudly:


You do your best learning when you screw something up.


Why?  Because then you have to fix it; that’s how you develop your troubleshooting skills.   You can read about all the debug and show commands in the world, but you don’t really understand how they work until you’re figuring out why your Frame Relay connection isn’t working, or your RIP configuration isn’t working.


This is true at every level of the Cisco Learning Pyramid.  I can show you the show ip protocols output or what you get when you run debug ip rip, and you might remember it for a little while.  But when you use it to troubleshoot a lab configuration, you WILL remember it.


Putting your own practice lab together will also help get you over what I call “simulator question anxiety”.  If you spend any time on CCNA Internet forums, you’ll see discussion after discussion about these exam questions.  


There’s no reason to be anxious about them if you’re prepared.   You don’t want to be the person who walks into the testing room that’s scared to have to create a VLAN or an access list; you want to be the person who walks into the testing room confident of their ability to perform any CCNA task.  The best way to be that confident is to know you’ve done it – on real Cisco equipment.


There are several vendors that sell routers and switches on ebay; most of them sell CCNA and CCNP kits that include all the cables and transceivers that you’ll need as well. (And how is a simulator going to help you learn about cables and transceivers?)   Keep in mind that you can always sell the equipment after you’re done with the CCNA, or you can add a little equipment to it to go after your CCNP. 


Whichever of these methods you use (and I hope you’ll use all of them), make sure to keep them in balance with each other.  Don’t depend too much on just one.



On the topic of learning how to troubleshoot… as you run labs on your Cisco equipment, you’ll run into questions or problems that you don’t know the answer to yet.  Get used to using Google (or your favorite search engine) to find the answer to these problems.


There’s nothing wrong with asking questions of someone else if you’re not able to find the answer yourself.  Trying to find the answer yourself is another important troubleshooting skill you need to start developing today.  Don’t be one of these people who posts a simple question on a forum without trying to find the answer yourself. Besides, you get more satisfaction and build more confidence when you determine the answer yourself. 


The Big Day Approaches….


 As exam day nears, you know you are on your way to success because you have already completed these steps: 

1.     You decided to succeed.

2.     You decided on your exam path.

3.     You scheduled your exam.

4.     You created your study plan.

5.     You tracked your UNINTERRUPTED study time.

6.     You kept your goals away from negative influences.

7.     You balanced your study between books, practice exams, and lab time.


 At this point, some CCNA candidates are panicking.   They start “cramming”, hoping they can jam all that information into their heads in the last minute. This is a study technique that needs to be left behind when you leave high school. Cramming for exams is for junior high.  You’re a professional, in a professional field. You do not cram, because you don’t have to.  You made a plan and stuck to it. Now as we approach exam day,  use these techniques to maximize your effort. 


First, get lots of rest.  LOTS of rest.  A well-rested candidate is a successful candidate. 


Second, if you are not familiar with the location of the testing center, drive to it several days before the exam.  The last thing you want to do is drive around like a mad person the day of your exam, trying to find the testing center.  (Or, as happened to a friend of mine that the testing center had moved to the other side of town!) If you have a morning appointment, make sure you allow for rush hour traffic patterns. There’s one testing center in my city that takes 15 minutes for me to get to, except for one hour in the morning – if I go then, it takes 40 minutes.  Allow for rush hour ! Do NOT rely on MapQuest or any other “driving directions” website the morning of the exam.  They’ve been known to be wrong.  (Trust me on this.)   



Call the center and ask for directions.  Many testing centers have directions to the center on their website, but it’s always best to call. 


Mentally rehearse your success.  See yourself passing the exam, because that is exactly what you are going to do. Finally, take a practice exam the same way you’ll take the real exam.   Time yourself, use a pen and paper, and use only 40 – 50 questions. (By the way – there is no scientific calculator available to Cisco certification candidates in the exam room.  You have to know how to perform conversions involving hexadecimal, decimal, and binary numbers.  Get as much practice on this as you can.) 


The Day Of The Exam 


Today, all the planning and work you’ve done for your CCNA exam pays off.    You wake up confident and ready to go, because you’ve followed these steps and you know passing the exam is a foregone conclusion. There are still things you can do to maximize your chances of success!   

Show up on time.  Yes, I know everyone says that.  The testing center wants you there 30 minutes early.  So why do so many candidates show up late, or in a rush? Again, if you have a morning exam appointment, make sure to allow for rush hour traffic.

Use the headphones.  Most candidates in the room with you understand that they should be quiet.  Sadly, not all of them do.  Smacking gum, mumbling to themselves (loud enough for you to hear, though), and other little noises can really get on your nerves in what is already a pressure situation.  In one particular testing center I use, the door to the testing room has one setting: "Slam".  Luckily, that center also has a headset hanging at every testing station.  Call ahead to see if yours does.  Some centers have them but do not leave them at the stations. Wearing headphones during the exam is a great way to increase your powers of concentration. They allow you to block out all noise and annoyances, and to concentrate on your job -- passing the exam.

Prepare for the "WHAT??" question.   No matter how well-prepared you are, there may be one question on any Cisco exam that just stuns you.   It might be off-topic, in your opinion; it may be a question that would take 10 of your remaining 15 minutes to answer; it might be a question that you don't even know how to begin answering.  I have talked with Cisco exam candidates who got to such a question and were obviously so thrown off that they didn't do well on any of the remaining questions, either.There is only one thing to do in this situation:  shurg it off. 

Compare yourself to a major-league pitcher.  If he gives up a home run, he can't dwell on it; he's got to face another batter.  Cornerbacks in football face the same problem.  If they give up a long TD pass, they can't dwell on that.  They have to shrug it off and be ready for the next play.Don't worry about getting a perfect score on the exam.  Your concern is passing. If you get a question that seems ridiculous, unsolvable, or out of place, forget about it. It's done.  Move on to the next question and nail it.

Finish with a flourish.  Ten questions from the end of your exam, take a 15-to-30 second break.   You can't walk around the testing room, but you can stand and stretch. By this point in the exam, candidates tend to be a little mentally tired.  Maybe you're still thinking about the "WHAT??" question.  Don't worry about the questions you've already answered -- they're done.   Take a deep breath, remember why you're there  -- to pass this exam -- and sit back down and nail the last ten questions to the wall.  There is one final piece of advice I’d like to give you for exam day: BE AGGRESSIVE.


You’re in that testing room for one reason:  to PASS.    Occasionally I hear someone say that they’re taking an exam “just to see what it’s like”.  That’s not a winning attitude.  You’re not there to see what it’s like; you’re there to pass so you don’t have to see it again.  Would you work on a router or switch with the attitude of “let’s just see what happens”?  Not on my network.  And not on anybody else’s, hopefully.  


Go in the testing room with an aggressive attitude. You’ve planned; you’ve studied; you’ve sacrificed.  You’re ready to seize your destiny and pass the examWe play the game to win the game. We take the exam to pass the exam. And from someone who’s been there – there is no feeling in the world like seeing “PASS” on that computer screen! 


Some Final Exam Tidbits 


For many of you, this may be your first Cisco certification exam.  Here are a few tips that all candidates should find helpful, especially first-timers.


Make sure to bring your wallet or purse.   You cannot take the exam without proper identification.    You're required to have two picture IDs. 


Make sure the marker you are given had a fine point and is not dry.


When you go in, you’ll be asked to enter your testing ID. Once you do that, the exam engine starts running. However, this doesn’t mean the test starts.


When you take a Cisco exam, you’ll first be presented with a survey.  The survey consists of 10 – 20 questions asking about your background, preparation methods, and comfort level with different technologies.   This is a good time to catch your breath before starting the exam.  The survey will only take about five minutes, and this time does not count against your exam time. Finally, the exam starts!  Since you have prepared correctly and efficiently, this will be a pleasant experience for you. Speaking of that grade, you’ll be presented with it about five seconds after you answer the final question.  


Cisco exams no longer allow CCNA and CCNP candidates to go back once a question is answered, so be prepared for that. 


I hope you've enjoyed this look at how best to prepare for your CCNA success.  The Cisco certification program has made tremendous professional success possible not only for me, but for CCNAs around the world..  That success is waiting for you.  By following the plan I’ve laid out for you here, you can begin creating the foundation for an incredible future.


To your CCNA exam success,


Chris Bryant

CCIE #12933

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