Have a plan when preparing for the CCNA exam

Looking for some advice on how to prepare for the CCNA exam? A pro who's been there offers some insight about the best study guides and testing tips, and whether instructor-led classes and virtual labs are worth the money.

When I first decided to become a Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), I was overwhelmed by the amount of information concerning certifications available both in print and online. Where do you go? What are the best Web sites for the type of information you need? You could spend literally hours researching this information both online and in your neighborhood bookstore. The path you choose will take one of two circuitous routes. Whether it be instructor-led or self-study, you’ll need some sort of plan to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Selecting the exam
Your first step should be a stop at the Cisco Web site to see what exams have been retired and which are in beta. The current CCNA exam (640-407) will be retired July 31, and a new test (640-507) will replace it. Beta exams are tests that Cisco used to offer free of charge through the Prometric Testing Center in exchange for feedback. But because of the increased demand for certifications, Cisco now charges a nominal fee for these exams. (By the same token, I believe as test takers we should charge a nominal fee for the feedback Cisco is asking from us.) In any event, you need to sign up early because these seats fill up fast. You can do this fairly easily by calling (800) 204-3926. The results are posted on the Cisco Tracking System and, in turn, mailed to you from Prometric. When checking your results online, don’t forget your Prometric Testing identification number, as you will need this to gain access.

Arm yourself with study guides
After you’ve determined which test is the right one for you to take, it’s time to plan a course of action. If you have difficulty learning independently or you feel more comfortable in a classroom environment, sign up for one of the myriad of certification courses—both instructor-led and Web-based—being offered today. But be forewarned—it will cost you plenty. The CCNA is easily attainable via self-study for academic knowledge and virtual labs for hands-on experience. Get yourself The CCNA Study Guide for 640-507and the CCNA Routing and Switching Exam Cram and you’re set.

I’d strongly advise against enrolling in an instructor-led CCNA course. The network associate certification covers a simple network, some basic IOS command syntax, and subnetting. You can learn all of this on your own in your spare time. Besides, the prices charged by the certification mills in this new cottage industry (some as high as $1,000 a day) are obscene. While there is almost no other alternative to an instructor-led course for the more advanced certifications, don’t waste your money on one for the CCNA.

The same applies to virtual labs on the Web. Many of the people who run these are trying to separate you from your money by charging for lab time. But what good is the knowledge without the hands-on experience? Not much. Fortunately, there are some great free sites that offer hands-on access to an actual working lab. At, for instance, you can log on to an actual Catalyst 5000 switch, Cisco 4500, or a 2500 series router absolutely free. There are no gimmicks, nothing to buy, and you won’t need a credit card number. It’s also a great place for all information that is Cisco certificate-related.

There are numerous practice tests and study guides available online so that you can gauge your readiness before you lay out the $100 fee for taking the CCNA exam. Again, you can get them for free at such places as,,’s Cramsession, and, which also offers an excellent mailing list.

Gear up for the test
When you feel you’re ready to tackle the exam, call Prometric at (800) 829-6387 to register and schedule your test time and location. You’ll speak to a customer service representative who will give you an identification number. You must make payment at this time, not when you take the test, and it’s nonrefundable. If you have to reschedule, you’ll need to call the 800-number at least 48 hours in advance. You can also register and locate the testing site of your choice at the Prometric Web site.

It may be a good idea for you to scope out the testing center beforehand to get a feel for the environment. You want it to be fairly secluded and quiet. I’ve heard horror stories from people who’ve been subjected to all kinds of distractions while taking their exam. If you’ve come this far and have devoted that kind of time and energy to this goal, you don’t want any last-minute surprises at the testing center. I took my test in a private room with two other people. It was quiet and relaxed—just what I wanted.

You have 65 minutes to complete the new test with a score of 822 or better. Cisco previously allowed test takers to skip questions they were uncertain about and return to them. This is no longer an option; so take your time with each of your answers. The questions are multiple choice and—as is typical for a Cisco test—some will have more than one correct answer. The upside here is that you will get the results of your test immediately after finishing. If you pass, Cisco will mail you a certificate and a laminated card to carry in your wallet.

Card-carrying member privileges
After you achieve CCNA status, you’ll be able to impress your coworkers with your knowledge of access list designations and subnetting. In addition, you’ll have access to the Cisco logo, which you can download from their site and insert on business cards, letterhead, e-mail, and other business materials. Does this mean more money from your employer? Probably not, since the CCNA certification is considered the stepping-stone to more advanced criteria and is the most widely held of Cisco certs. But management philosophy is fickle. The odds may turn in your favor.

Timothy Huckabee is a project manager for ICG Communications, a rapidly growing telecommunications company with a nationwide voice and data network serving more than 700 U.S. cities. He has worked as a technical consultant for Lucent Technologies in Saudi Arabia and as a high-capacity digital data circuit designer for U S West.

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