Failing IT Exams Sucks
I never forget my first attempt at the Cisco CCNA exam back in 2000. I'd spent weeks studying from a big-name study guide. I had to pay for the exam fees out of my own money and I didn't have much at the time. When I took the exam my mind went blank. Many of the questions made little sense to me, the subnetting questions completely stumped me and of course, I failed.
I'd told my family and work colleagues that I was taking the exam so now I had to face all of them adding to my embarrassment.
I wasn't alone though. Globally, exams such as the Cisco CCNA have a 50% failure rate. Many people take two, three, four, or more attempts before they pass. Visit any forum or Reddit group for IT certifications and you can see the ‘I've failed' posts for yourself.
The trouble is that, once you have put the time and money into your attempts you can't back out or it will be a waste. Now consider exams such as the Cisco CCIE which cost around $1600 per attempt, excluding flight and hotel costs for the lab venue where you have to attend in person.
People think nothing of dropping hundreds of dollars into books, video courses, practice exams, and lab software but they put near zero thought into exam strategy. It's odd because, for my driving test, my instructor took me around the routes the examiners tested us on and pointed out the places where most students make mistakes.
By the time my driving test came, I knew my way around the routes and how to deal with the obstacles I would face. Now imagine if I'd just turned up never having done it. But every day, thousands of students do just that with their IT exams. You can read their posts in the forums. They were thrown off by the topics they were asked, didn't realize that you can't go back to questions later, ran out of time, didn't know that there were practical assessments included, or that you can't use a calculator!
I'm going to lead you through my entire strategy for prepping and passing your IT exams. You just need to follow the strategy to get the result. The strategy is designed to give you a methodical approach, remove any doubt and help you master all the topics you need to before you take the exam. It's part technical and part brain training. If you are studying for your Cisco CCNA exam, I have a complete Cisco CCNA Coaching Program here on the website with 60 days worth of strategies and techniques.
Before you start, you must block off two months for study. Don't book any holidays, big events, or personal projects. Two months should be enough to study for most IT exams but adjust accordingly. If you have something coming up, such as a wedding, then wait. There is nothing worse than getting some momentum going and then stopping.
Step 1 – Block Time
You need to find two hours per day to study. I recommend you do this in two one-hour blocks but it's your call. Bear in mind that on average, people watch five hours of TV per day so it can be done. If you have kids or other commitments then you need to find a way to work around these. I set my alarm for 5 am and did one hour of study. I also drove to work very early and did one hour in a quiet office.
For lunch breaks, I sat in my car and studied. I actually enjoyed it because I'd otherwise be spending the time in the canteen at work just wasting my time. I also stayed behind at work doing practice labs but we'll come to these later.
Block out the time you can do every day because routine is important. If you can't do it for any reason then you need to cancel your TV time or any other discretionary time. If you start missing study blocks then you will quickly fall behind. Ensure you put your phone on silent if you can, disable any social media, and let people know you aren't to be interrupted.
Step 2 – Syllabus Breakdown
Take the exam syllabus, which is usually in PDF format, and put it into a spreadsheet. You can mark the major headings and then each sub-heading. Here is the Cisco CCNA syllabus for example:
You will see that to the right I marked each topic out of 10 for my hands-on ability and understanding of the theory. I'll explain more about that later.
If you have a study guide you can read it every day for say 60 minutes. It might not follow the order of the exam syllabus but that's fine. You just need to make sure that for every topic listed in the syllabus, you understand.
Step 3 – Your Daily Steps
Studying for your exam is a process, not an event. You will slowly begin to understand subjects, then forget, then recall as the information goes from short-to-long-term memory. Just trust the process. Every day you will:
- Do theory study via books and or videos
- Take practice exams
- Do hands-on labs
That's it. I recommend you follow either the syllabus order or the order in your study guide. You do your allocated two hours and then stop. So it would be roughly one hour of theory, 45 minutes of labs, and 15 minutes of practice exams.
1. The Theory
Books are the most convenient because you can write notes in them and pick them up whenever you have time. Of course, if you prefer to have an instructor then you can watch a theory video. Many can be streamed or downloaded via the web or an app. I do like books because I can write explanatory notes or commands to go with the technology I'm reading about.
I tend to use one main theory book and a secondary book I can refer to. Different authors have different ways of explaining the topics so for your secondary book you copy notes into your main book. The secondary book can be in Kindle format which may be cheaper than print.
2. The Practice Exams
DO NOT leave practice exams until the end. You will get a low score and either panic or become dejected.
Use practice exams as a study tool. It will help you shift the information you have learned into the recall section of your brain so you are applying the information to problem-solving. Most books come with exam sets or if you join a quality website such as this one, there will be many included in your course.
If you can find exams to match the chapter of your book it's best but otherwise, just take any practice exam for your chosen certification. Don't concern yourself with your score.
3. Hands-on Labs
Many exams have no practical element to them, meaning they are theory based but this is a trap for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, you have no hope of understanding topics such as DHCP without configuring them. I mean none. DHCP will just be a fluffy concept in your mind with no practical application.
Second, although there may not be a hands-on test in the exam, you may be grilled on configuration commands. Not so much for vendor-neutral such as CompTIA but certainly for vendors such as Cisco or Microsoft. They will expect you to know how to configure, which commands you type, or which boxes are available if there is a GUI.
I see so many students falling foul of this mistake. The new version of the Cisco CCNA exam had no hands-on test (it does now) so many didn't bother doing any labs to prepare and of course, most of them failed for the above two reasons I just mentioned.
Now back to the syllabus you wrote out.
You will go through your book from front to back over and over. Each time you will have a better understanding of the subjects. You will of course be doing the labs and practice exams. Over the weeks your knowledge and confidence will grow.
Now you can score each syllabus topic out of 10 on two counts, theory and hands-on. You must be at 9 or 10 for each column before you attempt the exam. Topics you are 9 or 10 in can be left alone as you work on the lower scoring areas to bring them up. If you know NAT back to front then spend your study time on DNS for example.
Eventually, each exam syllabus topic will be 9 or 10 and you know you are ready. Check the image of the CCNA syllabus above so you can see what I mean.
All of the above should be sufficient to get you through the exam but there are a few little boosters you can use to really improve your chances of passing.
Yes, I know we usually think of Harry Potter and such when it comes to audiobooks but you can often buy or create your own for your IT exam. You can listen to it while driving, on the bus, or even at work if it's permitted. It's another way to let the information sink in.
I can't tell you how important hands-on skills are. Even if you are taking exams such as the CompTIA Network+, at the end of the day it's designed to get you a job doing network support.
There are very few out there but that's changing. I ended up having to create my own to fill a gap in the market so please check out my 101 Labs series of books in case there is one for the exam you are taking. There are over 10 in print now.
There are so many free trials or evaluation versions of software you can use now to study. You can usually load software onto a virtual machine so your main files are never affected. Cisco offers an excellent network simulation package called Packet Tracer where you can configure most protocols and services as well as install wireless, firewalls, servers, and more.
You can type all of the main learning points into a cram guide and take it everywhere with you. I wrote one for the Cisco CCNA which I gave away to all my students but your writing your own is best. All the boring TCP port numbers, commands, packet information, and anything else.
You need to commit the entire cram guide to memory before you take the exam.
The final piece of the puzzle is the actual exam. It's shocking to hear stories of students not knowing the exam process or even not knowing where the testing center is and missing their exam slot. That's $350 down the drain.
You must be familiar with the testing process and rules for your exam read both the exam vendor website but also the testing centers such as Pearson Vue. For online testing, I've seen a ton of posts where the candidate bent over to scratch their foot or grab a drink and their face wasn't in the webcam for a split second resulting in an instant failure.
Check you understand how long you have and if you are permitted to mark questions to go back to later. Some vendors permit it and others don't. Note that the syllabus is usually a strong indication of what you will be tested on but most add a note that they can ask you about topics not listed there so don't freak out if this happens to you.
You will not usually be told which questions have how many points allocated. Some will be there just for testing so will have no points at all. Check how long the exam is. There will be a timer on your screen but you should know in advance and keep an eye on the time. This is where all the practice exams you took will pay off.
If you get stuck on a question then you can usually rule out one or two of the answers as definitely wrong. Guess the correct one and move on or you may run out of time.
Please do read all the rules and requirements in advance. Generally, you will need to produce two forms of ID, one with a photograph, You won't be permitted any paper, pens, or anything else in fact. I'm often denied water which for a 90-minute exam is very unfair you can usually leave the testing room to use the water cooler but of course, the timers still count down.
Many centers will supply you with an A4 whiteboard and a marker. I use these for subnetting questions but they will often not supply you with a tissue to wipe it clean! Either ask for one or put some in your pocket. I'm afraid that the keyboards are often dirty and the screens very poor quality but there is little you can do about that.
You may well see other candidates in the room taking tests but you can't speak to them of course!
I always take my booking confirmation to the testing center with me. Once I attended to take an exam but they had no record of me coming but I had proof so they loaded the exam for me.
You should know exactly where the testing center is and how you will get there. Many have paid only for parking and if you have no change then you won't be able to park. Many are inside multiple shared office spaces so you might have to find the right floor and then the right office on that floor. You should attend on another day if possible so you know where you are going.
After the Exam
Your score usually appears on the screen after you finish the exam. If you followed my advice you should pass convincingly. Of course, I cant' guarantee 100% but if you take all of the above steps then your chances of success are very high indeed.
You will usually receive a printout confirming you passed. Some vendors send you a certificate pack, some charge for it and others don't at all so check for yourself. You can usually have a secure page on the vendor's website where you can send proof of passing to recruitment agents or HR managers.
I hope this helps. If you have any suggestions then please drop a comment. Remember that I have a complete Cisco CCNA coaching program on this website if you want to check it out.