Cisco CCNA

10 tips for CCNA certification exam success

Laszlo Szijjarto
September 10, 2020 by
Laszlo Szijjarto

1. Get to know the CCNA certification exam

You cannot take a successful exam if you don’t know the exact requirements. Fortunately, the Cisco CCNA is well documented. 

First of all, this website gives the basic information and a very useful overview of concepts. It provides links to official training providers, exam topics, practice tests and study material. 

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Another worthwhile starting point is the CCNA Certification and Training page. From here you can join a guided study group, watch webinars and read about the exam and recommended training. One of the most important pieces of information is the exam topics. This is the place where everything should start. Without this, you won’t know what to learn exactly and it will be hard to build your study plan.

2. Create your own custom CCNA certification study plan

It’s true for almost anything in life: we do better if we plan ahead, and that’s true for exams as well. Creating a study plan that fits your personal needs is essential; even a simple to-do list can help a lot. 

For your custom study plan, you should consider factors such as:

  • How soon do you intend to take the examination? Create an account on the Pearson VUE website to find a time and location that works for you. Here you can find information about the exam itself, too.
  • How much time can you devote to your study efforts? If you are already working or have other commitments, make sure you can dedicate sufficient time to the basics, such as covering all exam topics, taking practice tests and reviewing exam simulations. If you find some time every day (15-20 minutes is enough for some practice or lab), it’s better than leaving just one day per week for study.
  • How much can you spend on preparation material and training courses? Look for official, certified study materials and training to make sure you have a thorough understanding of each topic covered in the exam. A great option is getting the official Cisco books and reading them early on; this will create a solid basis for further developing your skills/knowledge with whatever training methodology you chose.
  • What training method best suits you? Some people prefer self-learning, while others like to study in a classroom with a teacher. Other candidates find online training helps them study on-the-go, at any time. Use your past learning experiences to help you pick the method to help you prepare best.
  • How well acquainted are you already with the exam subjects? Even very experienced professionals with a good knowledge base can have a hard time during the examination. Your personal experience can save you some studying time, but you should take into consideration factors such as the exam length and question logic. Relying too much on experience alone is a poor strategy that will likely lead to bad results. You need to become familiar with exam question types and you need to learn to schedule your time.

3. Enroll in a CCNA certification exam prep course

As mentioned before, there are many study methodologies and one can think that self-studying is enough or it’s the best way to beat the exam. On the other hand, some experts can think that they know everything about the exam topics and have enough knowledge in every field without more studying. 

These statements usually aren’t true. The definitions and your understanding of some of these topics may vary, depending on the point of view of whatever certification body was responsible for developing the exam. In practice, this means even if you have firsthand knowledge, some of it may not apply since the certification body’s view may be quite different from the tasks professionals are used to doing in the field. 

That’s why it is recommended that you take part in a certification preparation course. Here, candidates spend some time with an experienced instructor, with actual knowledge on how to take the exam more easily. It is an excellent opportunity to get all your questions answered, share experiences and strategies, and even do some networking if it is in-person training. This helps and speeds up learning and results in better performance on the exam.

4. Understand TCP/IP stack addressing and data flow

When you learn about networking, among the most fundamental topics are the layered models (OSI and TCP/IP). For a successful exam, it’s essential to know them and the related TCP/IP protocol stack. Some layers are even more important than others. Let’s see them:

Network Access Layer: The main focus at this layer will be on Ethernet addressing. You should understand the following about media access control (MAC) addresses:

  • MAC address structure and representation: 48 bits represented as 12 hexadecimal digits
  • MAC addressing on the local network: Any two hosts/nodes on an Ethernet network communicate using MAC addresses. Understand how ARP works and how a host keeps an ARP cache/table
  • Switches and MAC addresses: A basic understanding of the MAC address table or Content Addressable Memory (CAM) table, and how a switch builds and uses it to forward and filter traffic

Internet Layer: The tests will all have questions about Internet Protocol (IP) addressing. These include:

  • IPv4 addressing: Know the reserved addresses and understand what the subnet mask does
  • IPv6 addressing: Know the different address types (global, link local, unique local and so on) and addressing modes (unicast, multicast, anycast)

Spend some time getting familiar with subnetting concepts as it’s almost certain at least one question about subnetting, even more. Another task in this layer is routing: be familiar with static and dynamic routing concepts and the structure of the routing table.

Transport Layer: Know the characteristics of TCP and UDP. Be familiar with some of the common port numbers for well-known services like Telnet (23), HTTP (80), HTTPS (443) and others.

5. Have a basic understanding of the Cisco Command Line Interface (CLI)

Although you can configure network devices in other ways, the CLI remains very important. The Cisco tests include lab work in the so-called Simlets, and a Cisco technician should have a solid understanding of the basic configuration and investigative commands. Specifically, you should understand how to use the show commands to do the following:

  • Examine interface settings
  • Check routing protocols and the routing table
  • View mac address tables
  • Verify configuration details

It’s also important to memorize the output of the typical show commands and find relevant information in them quickly.

6. Take CCNA certification practice exams

If you want to feel the atmosphere of the real exam, it’s a good way to take practice exams before. This helps getting familiar with how questions are structured also. It may sound nice to take a batch of 10-15 questions whenever you have some free time, but every candidate should take a complete mock exam at least a couple times. Completing a full practice exam will not only test your skills, but also improve your resilience, attention level and concentration. 

There are resources on the net with question databases too. A good question database will not only show the correct response, but also explain why it is correct and even have details on why the other options are incorrect; this is great for complementing whatever prep course you may have chosen. 

One thing should be clear, though: try not to memorize every question. This may seem like an easy way to deal with a certification, but most exams have thousands of questions in their official banks. Instead, try to use practice exams as an opportunity to discover your strengths and weaknesses. If you consistently have a top score in a specific subject, you may divert study time to reinforce areas in which you did not do as well.

It’s important not to be discouraged if you take a practice exam and your score isn’t so high. It’s just a sign that you need more time to study and practice in specific areas.

7. Join the online community

Even if you prefer the self-study method over others, there can be times when you don’t understand something or are simply stuck on a topic. In these situations, it may be a great opportunity to take part in an online community. Here, you can meet other candidates and experts and share knowledge, exam strategies and can find answers to your questions. 

There are such groups on social media also. On Facebook, there are many: you can choose them based on the number of members and meaningful and engaging posts per day.

If you know something, you can also help others, but be careful with some toxic people and posts. Some unfortunate exam takers go online to vent their frustration and this can be discouraging. Try to learn to ignore them.

8. Have an exam-day preparation plan

It’s natural that you are a bit anxious before and on the day of the exam, but if you prepare well and arrange some things then don’t worry: it’ll succeed. Some advice for this day:

  • Prepare your exam kit: The Pearson VUE website includes information about the things you need to take with you for the exam. Take special note to your identification documents: you cannot start the exam without them. If you’re uncertain, contact the test center for the exact requirements.
  • Be calm and well-rested: if you’ve done an exam before, you know that this is very important. It may seem wise to study for the last minute, but it’s not. You’ll achieve better results if your mind isn’t exhausted. Enough sleep and a good breakfast can help a lot. If the exam is during the afternoon, eat a light lunch. Don’t forget to drink as well (not alcoholic drinks!) and eat some chocolate. 
  • If you think it’s important to do a final review, do a selective reading instead. A great tool for selective reading is using summaries or glossaries, which have lots of important information. Also, do not focus solely on weaknesses. If you have not mastered a specific topic until now, you may prefer to focus on enhancing the areas where you’re good. 
  • Make the necessary arrangements to be on time at the test site: Many certifications have a strict timetable. Candidates who don’t arrive on time may not be admitted to the site if they are late. If you are using public transportation, double-check the best routes; if you are driving to the exam site, make sure to know where to park beforehand. Don’t forget: you have to be at the test center about 15 minutes before the exam starts.

9. Clear your mind

You’re in the test center and the exam starts right now. You’ve been waiting and did the whole studying procedure for this moment. We can give some last-minute advice:

  • Be aware of time: During the exam, you may reach a high level of concentration. This means a greater focus, which is great for question solving, but you must not lose track of time. What may seem like seconds can be precious minutes; hours tend to pass quickly, so make sure you have time to go through every question on the exam and fill answer key forms if required. So look at your watch sometimes. Also, note that don’t press the Next button on a question twice: it may jump a question over and you can’t go backward!
  • Take your time reading the questions: Although the exam time is limited, try not to rush and possibly miss some of the correct answers. Pay attention to each question and option, make sure you understand what is being asked. Watch for distractors (options that are obviously false) in multiple-choice questions that can be quickly eliminated. It is also important to pay close attention to terms such as MOST, LEAST, NOT, ALL, NEVER and ALWAYS, since they can entirely change a sentence. Remember, questions that ask you to pick the “best answer” may have more than one correct option. You must be able to understand and choose the most suitable answer for the given situation. This is yet another reason for using the official question database of practice exams whenever possible.
  • Try to relax: Remember to stretch and relax your muscles during the exam. A relaxed mind can help you beat that hard question you already spent several precious minutes trying to solve without progress. 
  • Remember, there is no reason to panic: Of course this exam is an important moment in your life and career, but not the only one. Remain calm and believe in yourself. You studied and prepared and this knowledge is not useless. Even if this exam won’t succeed, the next one obviously will!

10. Keep learning

You’ve pressed the last button on the exam page: it’s over! If you pass, this is a big relief and gives the feeling that you’re able to do anything. But if maybe it didn’t succeed you can learn a lot of things from it which can help the next one to be successful. 

Also, if you are willing, this would be a good time to share your story with peers to give something back to the community. Nowadays in many areas — especially in the IT field — the “lifelong learning” is not a magic word but part of our life. So use the knowledge and skills you’ve got so far and step up towards other certifications!

Earn your CCNA, guaranteed!

Earn your CCNA, guaranteed!

Get live, expert CCNA training from anywhere. Enroll now to claim your Exam Pass Guarantee!


Laszlo Szijjarto
Laszlo Szijjarto

Laszlo Szijjarto is a mechanical engineer and teacher of informatics. He graduated from the Technical University of Budapest in 1995 and after a short period of working in the field of logistics, he taught CAD systems and general IT in a secondary school. In 2003 he started teaching in the Cisco Networking Academy and currently teaches computer networks exclusively. Mr. Szijjarto has his CCNA and CCNA Security certifications and is a certified Cisco Instructor Trainer as well.