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Passing your CCNA Exam

Updated on July 4, 2013

So, You Want To Pass Your CCNA

If you are looking towards a long and successful career within Information Technology (IT) and more specifically networking, it will not take long before you are introduced to the world of Cisco Systems. Cisco are an American networking and communications organisation founded in 1984 (a good year for me...I was born). Although there have always been competitors, Cisco have maintained market dominance for many years and have a stellar reputation for providing cutting edge equipment and first class training.

Many large corporations have complete buy in to Cisco equipment and adopt end to end solutions which incorporate multiple technologies including LANs, WANs, VoIP, VPNs and Cloud services. Cisco equipment forms the digital backbone for a huge number of industries all around the world and play a major part in financial, medical, military and public networks. Many of the systems utitlising Cisco infrastructure rely heavily on confidentiality, data Integrity and high availability; for this reason there is a technical and extensive certification track which aims to educate its students to an extremely proficient level.

The Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) is the entry level Switching and Routing certification made available by Cisco. The remainder of this Lens is dedicated to providing an overview of the certification process and the best ways to prepare for your exam

Why should you listen to me?

My Background

Before you read any further in this Lens I would just like to point out that I have already studied, sat and passed this exam (see my certificate) so know exactly what is required and the level of effort needed to make the grade. I can't tell you how many times I have been given "great advice" on IT certifications from people who have never actually passed them before. Now I am not saying that these people are not knowledgeable but there is nothing better than getting tips from people who have already walked the line.

I got in to the IT industry about 10 years ago when I joined the Royal Air Force. I spent 6 years in the RAF working on data networks with a main specialisation in server management and systems administration. It was not until I left the Air Force that I really got involved with the networking side of things when I set up my own business providing IT consultancy to both the public and private sector. To expand my knowledge, I decided to study the CCNA certification process to add an industry recognised qualification to my CV and provide weight to my practical experience. Although I already had previous IT experience, there was still a lot for me to learn and the whole process took me about 2 months (3-4 hours each day) from start to finish.

I would definitely recommend the CCNA to anyone looking to progress in the world of data communication & networking but recognise that it should be supplemented with the appropriate level of practical knowledge. This can be a bit of a chicken & egg situation but passing the exam is definitely a positive step in the right direction. The qualification alone will not automatically entitle you to a highly paid job but may open a few doors in the rights places as you seek to expand your practical knowledge and experience.

I will be honest with you and say that the day I passed my CCNA is a day I will never forget...I walked out of the test centre on cloud 9 and firmly believed that my career and financial security had just been secured. Needless to say that this was a little naive and I quickly realised that there was more to things than qualifications alone but as I mentioned before, it is a great step in the right direction and passing this exam has without doubt propelled my career forward and taken me to places which may not have been possible without it

What will you be Tested on

The Syllabus

The CCNA is designed to provide a vocational qualification to supplement someone who has 1-3 years experience installing, operating and troubleshooting data networks.

The one thing that I would like to point out that there are no better resources available than the ones published by Cisco themselves, it is at the end of the day a Cisco exam you will be sitting so it makes sense to touch base with them. The full list of examined topics can be found by following this link but can be cetegorised in to the following areas:

  • WAN Connections , Network Media, Network Security
  • Routing & Switching, TCP / OSI Models, VLANs
  • IP Routing, IOS management, Access Control Lists (ACLs)
  • Point to Point solutions, Frame Relay

I appreciate that this is an extremely broad array of subjects and each one can be examined in great depth but it is important to realise that you will not be expected to have expert levels of knowledge on these topics. The Cisco certification track is designed to enhance your understanding as you progress so it is fair to say that a Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) will be expected to have a greater undersatnding than a CCNA.

Note: This is not always the case and I have worked with some incredibly knowledgeable individuals in the past who have never sat even a single IT exam. Although it is a good indication of skillsets you shoud neve judge a book by it's cover

CCNA Study Guides on Amazon - Learn the Right way

With any IT exam, I would always recommend using the vendor produced training aids. They are the ones who set the criteria and more importantly, present information in a way that is designed to increase knowledge opposed to simply passing the exam. Having said this, I realise that you might not have a connection to the way the information is presented and may need to look for other sources of information. Here is a list of the best sources of Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) training, all of which, I have personally used and can therefore vouch for

Preparing your Study Lab

Setting up your Training Network

The ideal scenario for anyone attempting to pass the CCNA is to already be employed within the networking industry and have daily exposure to the technologies outlined in the exam syllabus. If like many people who sit the exam, you do not have access to this kind of infrastructure then fear not because there is always a way to get some hands on experience and at the end of the day, you are going to need access to a training lab so that you can aquaint yourself with IOS at the command line and general configuration steps

Rightly or wrongly, it is now possible to pass the CCNA and gain all of the required practical experience without ever touching a physical device. You may feel that this is not ideal and in many ways I tend to agree with you but there has got to be some give and an opportunity for those who may not have access to this kind of environment.

The options which are available to you can present themselves in both physical or digital format and should not cost you any more than about $300 (absolute ceiling limit) to buy. This decision is going to be based on your own circumstances but if you can, I would recommend going for the physical solution as it will expose you to physical devices and and start off with a couple of low end routers (maybe the 2500 series), a LAN switch and connecting media (cables etc.).

This equipment can be picked up fairly cheaply on eBay; second-hand or maybe refurbished but either way more than fit for purpose. With this hardware you will be able to construct a basic lab format and carry out pretty much all of the procedures required by the CCNA syllabus:

  • Basic Switch Configuration, VLAN Management
  • Basic Router Configuration, InterVLAN Routing,
  • Configure Routing Protocols , Configure Switching Protocols
  • IOS Management

The other option is to implement a completely digital solution and make use of network simulation software. There are a few choices in this arena with the main ones being:

  • Cisco Packet Tracer - This is only available to those who have signed up to the Cisco academy. I have used Packet Tracer personally and know that it is an excellent tool for testing and education purposes. The only real drawback is the fact that it is a simulator and does not provide the entire capability of a real IOS. While this is OK for CCNA studies, it will not suffice for further studies where you will need to work with protocols such IS-IS. But still, fine for CCNA :)
  • GNS3 - Unlike Packet Tracer, GNS3 is a network emulator which provides a platform to use actual IOS images for you to work with. I have used GNS3 in the past and was impressed with the capabilities. It is probably the closest you will get to the real thing and will still prove useful as you progress your studies. The only potential blocker with this is that you will need access to actual IOS images.
  • Boson NetSim - I have never used Boson NetSim but have heard great things about it. NetSim provides a Cisco simulation which comes loaded with the labs and exercises required for use within your chosen certification be it CCNA or otherwise.

If you do choose to go down the virtual network solution then please take the time to research each path based on your requirements and budget. My advice would be to purchase real hardware but I realise that it is not for everyone (the fans can be extremely noisy). Luckily there is now an alternate option which will still allow you to continue with your certifications

CCNA Training Labs on eBay - Get your ready made CCNA lab

All of the equipment you will need to carry out your CCNA studies. There is no better method of preparing for the exam than getting hands on experience with live equipment. I am not trying to de-value the power of theory but at the end of the day, your future employer is going to want you to operate, maintain and troubleshoot these devices so the quicker you get to know them, the easier your job will become

The Path to Certification

What Exams do I need to take

There are currently 3 different ways to achieve CCNA certification:

  • Pass the 640-802 Exam (this exam is set to retire on the 30 September 2013 and will be replaced by the 200-120 exam
  • Pass the 200-120 CCNA exam
  • Pass both the 640-822 ICND1 (this exam is set to retire on 30 September 2013 and will be replaced by the 100-101 ICND1 exam) and the 640-816 ICND2 (this exam is set to retire on the 30 September 2013 and will be replaced by the 200-101 ICND2 exam)

The choice you have is pretty simple, do you want to take 1 exam or split the process up in to 2 exams. Each to their own but I know I wanted to get it out of the way in 1 hit.

The best piece of advice I could give you is to frequently check the Cisco website for any changes to the examination criteria. This is why I have included links to the Cisco website in the section above.

True Story...I started my CCNA studies by googling "CCNA Study Guides" and ended up buying the first book I came across. I did not stop to check the Cisco website and bought a guide for the 640-801 exam which had been retired over a year ago. I did not realise until 10 days before the exam and had to cram like crazy to revise the differences...


IP Addresses & Subnetting - This can get tricky

If you ask any CCNA, what was the hardest part to learn? I would take a guess that 80%+ would say subnetting...and unfortunately, it is a subject that needs to be almost second nature to you if you are going to progress in your networking career. Subnetting also features a great deal within the CCNA exam; directly and indirectly you can expect to have a lot of questions pertaining to subnetting. You will not pass the exam if you only know subnetting but you will fail if you do not know how to do it.

Subnetting is a technique used to divide large networks in to smaller networks for ease of administration, security and performance. I firmly believe that you should learn subnetting from one source because it can get confusing if too many people are giving you advice. For that reason, I have attached this webinar from Trainsignal which outlines a lot of the information needed to understand IP Addressing and Subnetting. It is a long video but stick with it and you will get in no time

The Exam Itself

Your Finest Hour (and a half)

The CCNA exam is an online test which comprises of 45-55 questions. An example of the testing format can be found here. They types of questions you can expect to encounter are:

  • Multiple choice (1 answer from a choice of 4)
  • Multiselect (2 maybe 3 correct answers from a choice of 5 or 6)
  • Drag and Drop
  • Fill in the Blanks
  • Simulation Questions (Router or Switch simulator whereby you are expected to carry out command line functions.
  • Testlets (answering questions based on given scenarios)

You will have 90 minutes to complete your examination.

For a full and comprehensive list of certification policies, follow this link

The exam is marked out of a possible score of 1000; the questions are weighted so that some will acrue more points than others so the best way to ensure you pass is to get them all right. The pass mark has always been a point of contention as Cisco do not publish it but it is thought to be around the 85% mark which is quite high for an IT exam. I passed with a score of 916 / 1000 on my exam so was pretty comfortable but could have been a lot better

Booking your Exam

To book your CCNA exam, you will need to register with PearsonVUE and attend one of their worldwide testing centres. You will need to search locally for your nearest testing centre and shecdule your appointment.

The price of the exam is approximately $250 or £170. Regardless of who is paying for your exam, it is a lot of money not to pass first time so make sure you are prepared.

Your Experience - What Certifications have you taken before?

Just a quick insight to the certifications which other people have previously studied

What vendor's certifcations have you taken in the past?

See results

Practice, Practice, Practice - Confidence expels all Fear

Once you believe that you have completed all of the learning modules then it is time to start peparing for you exam. The best way to do this is to take as many practice exams as you can. Practice exams can be found online or in book form (many of the books you can buy will arrive with an interactive CD-ROM for you to complete your studies)

I cannot remember how many practice questions I completed in my preparations but it was well in to the thousands and I only moved on once I had acheived 95%+ on a given subject. The following items were training aids which I poersonally used to prepare for the CCNA exam

CCNA Practice Questions (Exam 640-802) (3rd Edition)
CCNA Practice Questions (Exam 640-802) (3rd Edition)

Mass array of Q&As. Divided in to specific topics making it easier to master and move on

CCNA Exam Cram (Exam 640-802) (3rd Edition)
CCNA Exam Cram (Exam 640-802) (3rd Edition)

Great for providing a little bit of theory behind the right answers. Perfect as a little refresher


My Exam Tips

What got me through it

I have studied for and passed quite a few IT exams from vendors such as Microsoft, CompTIA, CIW, and of course Cisco and I would be lying if I said there was not a knack to it. It is all about getting in to that learning groove; We all have the mental capacity to learn and pass an exam but it is how you go about your studying which enables you to excel. Below are a few tips which have gotten me through a whole bunch of IT exams:

  • Book the Exam first - There is nothing like the thought of an imminent exam to provide motivation to learn and focus. I always set myself a realistic timescale and bok the exam before I have even began the learning. This way I have always got my goal in sight and can work towards it.
  • Plan your time - Booking your exam in advance also allows you to plan your study time with greater efficiency. Allocate your time to specific modules and activity and stick to it. Self study requires a lot of dedication and effective time management will help you significantly
  • Learn from others - Get on the forums and see how other people have coped and what materials they have used. Do not simply ask for what questions they had on their test as it is against confidentiality agreements and is completely the wrong attitude to take.
  • Only move on when you are ready - It is extremely tempting to go through the while syllabus in quick time but it will not do you any favours. Make sure you are completely confident with a topic before moving on to the next one.
  • There should be no rush -Take your time and absorb the information at a natural pace, learning something in a month and forgetting it straight away after will not help your career in the slightest

On the day

  • Book a time which suits you - if you are a morning person then book the exam early, if not then don't.
  • Not on an empty stomach - You have enough to worry about without needing to add a rumbling tummy in to the equation. Eat before you test!
  • Allow enough time - The first Microsoft exam I took was a nightmare. I had to rush through it in 30 minutes to catch a train. I passed by the skin of my teeth but from then on always allowed myself adequate time to test without any distractions.
  • Refrain from cramming - I always think that if you do not know enough by the day of the exam, you have not prepared well enough. Last minute cramming can be more of a hindrance if t leads to you doubting your own knowledge
  • Read the questions - I have taken exams in the past which have been more like grammar tests (ITIL in particular); failing to read the question properly can lead to a wrong answer and with a 85% pass mark, you need all the points you can get.
  • Relax - I know it is not as simple as this but at the end of the day, if you have failed, it is not the end of the world. Sure it will feel bad at the time but just take your score and work on the areas in which you need to and pass it another day.

Good luck on passing your CCNA exam, I know how tough it can be but I assure you it is definately worth it in the end. All the best!!!


Have you taken the CCNA exam? Are you planning to take it? Either way I would love to hear your comments and thoughts on the exam

Share your CCNA Experiences here

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    • wanda-skinner profile image


      5 years ago

      All I can say is WOW! There's a lot to know, and you've covered it brilliantly - thanks!

    • Brians Secretary profile image

      Brians Secretary 

      5 years ago

      Some great info here, I shall refer back when I finally get ready to take the exam


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