Why is Passing CCNA so Difficult?

The Beginnings of an Analysis of Cisco's Most Popular Cert (Survey)

As Tom Hanks said back in the movie Forrest Gump, "It happens". Almost every time I chat with someone new around the "so whatta ya do for work" question, my side of the conversation commonly comes around to the CCNA exam. And when the other person is an IT person who knows anything about CCNA, 4 times out of 5 - without any prompting from me - they comment about how it's a tough exam to pass, especially for an entry level cert. And that's not just from what they've heard or experienced about newbies to Cisco - I've met many people with a fair amount of Cisco experience, or who were former CCxP certified folks, who found CCNA difficult. And a lot of people who've recertified by taking CCNA again have told me that they were surprised how much harder the test was than when they had passed it 3 years ago. So as Mr Gump says, it happens - these dangling comments, the reasons why they think it's a hard test to pass.

Well, I've not done much posting about CCNA specific topics in quite a while... so here we go. Today I'll look at some of the root causes of the difficulty, focusing on preparation before the exam. Next post, I'll look at the exam itself, and why the exam is a challenge. Then I'll bridge into some discussion of what to do about those challenges in the coming posts. Your job - tell me why you think CCNA is a difficult exam, or why you don't. And as always, make sure to not break Cisco's NDA when posting about an exam. ;-)

First, a few background comments. If you're considering CCNA, don't let my first few words of this post scare you away from CCNA. Lots of people study and pass. But if you're thinking that CCNA would be a quick entry-level cert to get, you might want to take a closer look.

Next, CCENT (www.cisco.com/go/ccent) is officially Cisco's entry level cert, but in practice, CCNA functions more as the entry level Cisco cert. Most (if not all) of the associate and professional level Cisco certs require CCNA and not CCENT; in fact, even the CCNA specializations (eg, CCNA Voice) uses CCNA, not CCENT, as the prereq.  So for now, I'll focus on CCNA, and in particular, the single-exam path to CCNA: the 640-802 exam.

Now to what I really want to discuss today: why CCNA is difficult.

First, consider the prep time before the exam. CCNA is a big set of topics today. My two book CCNA Exam Cert Guide set, if you ignore the pages for front matter and back matter, totals to over 1200 pages. (OK, I do have a rep for being "thorough" in my books, but that's still a lot.) The authorized Cisco courses for CCNA total 10 days of classroom time - and frankly, I think most people still need to study after those classes to be ready to pass the 649-802 exam.,  The rest of the associate and professional level certs essentially cover a single 5-day class's worth of material, with a few exceptions.

The size of coverage results in two underlying issues in my opinion. First and more obvious, the study time required to be ready for the test. Second and less obvious is the forget-before-the-exam issue. If you're diligent, and take 10 hours a week to study CCNA (quite a bit of time per week for most folks), you may need 10-15 weeks of such effort to read books, watch videos, discuss in communities, take practice exams, practice subnetting, practice hands-on skills, review, etc. In that time, some of the early reading may just fall out of your memory. Then you need more review, which takes more time, viscous cycle, etc etc.

Next, I wonder how much the monetary cost impacts the preparation. Most people purchase multiple tools to prepare, and use many free resources. Usually, scrambling around to find free resources costs a little more time, but you might save a few bucks. And there's a ton of CCNA products out there, including several with my name on them. You could spend many hundreds of dollars beyond the your base study book(s), on videos, gear or simulators, practice tests. How much of that stuff you need depends in part on the person, but I'm thinking that some people take the test, and think that maybe buying/using one more study resource may have made the difference. (Any anecdotes on that in particular? What did you, in retrospect, wish you had done more when prepping for CCNA?)

Certainly, taking a CCNA class can really help you prepare for the exam. Classes typically cost well past $1000 US, making them out-of-reach for a lot of people whose companies are not footing the bill. It makes me wonder how many people feel like that their (lack of) budget really impacted their ability to prepare for CCNA.

The third and last exam prep issue I'll bring up today is the whole question of knowing when you are ready to have a reasonable shot at taking and passing the 640-802 exam. It's a bit of chicken and egg problem because it is a first Cisco exam, so it's more difficult to know if you're ready. (For those of you in this particular boat right now, take a look at the sample of the exam interface.) But I think that a lot of people gauge their readiness using the exam software and exams, but that's a tough way to gauge your readiness. But using practice exams may be the best we have, so let me comment a bit.

First off, the actual CCNA has many hidden details that we don't know about grading. Are all multichoice questions equal? Are all Sims equal? Are Sim questions graded with partial credit (answer is yes from what I've heard in the past). In a testlet with 4 subquestions, how does that compare to a single multiple choice question as far as points go? How do they decide how many questions you get, which then impacts how much time pressure exists? We don't really know.

Next, compare that lack of knowledge about the exam to the test-taker strategy of taking a "sample CCNA exam" with whatever exam software you use. For instance, with my CCNA ECG books, the CD in the back has practice questions (supplied by the publisher, often times by me for my own books), and exam software from Boson (www.boson.com). You can take a "sample CCNA exam", timed, and get a score. You might take  those tests to help decide whether to take the actual exam now, or wait a few more weeks for more study.

However, it's difficult for those building the exams to make such a practice exam match up to the real exam experience because of all the hidden details about scoring. Even if a particular exam used questions that match the same level of difficulty as the actual exam - not always easy to do, by the way - getting the right mix into a single mock exam is difficult because of the hidden scoring details. So if you pass the practice exams with high scores, it may mean you're ready. Unfortunately, it might also mean that the practice exam had easier questions, or not enough of the longer application questions so that oyu didn't have time pressure, or not enough Sim/Simlet questions, or you had seen some of the questions when using the software before, skewing the results. Or, you could fail, or barely pass, but have actually been ready a month ago, with the opposite factors.

So, what do you do to gauge whether you're ready for a Cisco exam? Is the "passing the sample exams" measure your primary gauge? Or is it something else?

That's it for today. So, what amI leaving out, for preparation issues that make passing CCNA difficult? What's your biggest hang-up? Weigh in on the following survey as well.

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