Why CCNA is Difficult, Part II

Breaking down the CCNA exam itself

Last week, we got the discussion started about why the CCNA exam is considered to be so difficult. We focused on prep tasks last week. This week, I'll try to break down the exam itself into the components that make CCNA difficult. I'll use the same ground rules as last post, so check that post if you want more background.

First, I'd like to make a few comments about last week's survey, which asked which area of  CCNA preparation caused the most problems for the test. The poll essentially gave four options:

  • 1) Prep time required
  • 2) Prep $$ cost
  • 3) Gauging when you're actually ready to take the test
  • 4) Other

Two big surprises on the numbers for that so far. First, answer 3 above was 2nd place, and almost 50% at several points in the last week. It's fallen to around 35% as of this morning. I know these things aren't scientific, but I would've guessed that that the $$ cost (#2) would've been higher on the list. The other surprise (to me at least) was that the "other" category got almost no votes. I figured I had missed something that more than a few people had on their minds, but I guess not, at least again according to this unscientific poll.

So, on to today's focus - the CCNA exam itself. Here are the line items of things that make CCNA difficult:

1) Sim questions

2) Simlet questions

3) Testlet questions

4) Application questions

5) Subnetting questions

6) General time pressure

7) Amount of non-OJT covered

8) Topic breadth

I'm going to take these one at a time, give a few words to clarify each, and briefly state why I think each category contributes to the difficulty of the exam.

  • 1) Sim questions: These questions use an imbedded simulator. These questions begin with either an incorrect or incomplete configuration relative to some goal, and your job is to fix the config. EG, "R1 cannot ping R3's LAN IP address. It should be able to. Fix it." They word them nicer, with betterer English, but you get the idea. ;-) The challenges: you need to know all CCNA level config commands, and have skills to recognize missing pieces, optional config commands, and to interpret show commands..
  • 2) Simlet questions: There's an imbedded Sim, but 3-4 multichoice questions, too. You do not change the config, and often times cannot get into enable mode (and therefore cannot see the config). You must answer the multichoice questions, but you need to use the Sim to do so. To answer the questions, you must issue commands. (I love these questions in terms of how it makes the exam more realistic.) Challenges: These usually require more reading during the exam than Sim questions, so there's more language processing (like the dreaded "word problems" in math class), and they can require solid mastery of show commands.
  • 3) Testlets - These questions have one central scenario, with 3-4 multichoice on the same scenario. These mainly exist so they can ask longer questions that require more application of concepts, rather than just recollection of facts, and fit more in to the time allotted. Challenges: it messes with your time estimates (1 testlet of 3-4 subquestions counts as "1" on the question counter), and these are often application questions (see next).
  • 4) Application - Not applications like email and web, but application as in applying the concepts and commands to unique situations. These questions often require more reading than some other multichoice questions. So, all the question types 1-3 above could also be application questions. EG, they don't ask about ARP, but ask about what you might expect to see in a switch's MAC table, and a router's IP routing table and ARP table, and ask which addresses are where, for a given network diagram. Challenges: requires higher level of thinking, piecing together multiple concepts (often from layers 1, 2, and 3 of the OSI model), and they require more think time.
  • 5) Subnetting - Gotta be good, gotta be fast, with subnetting-related questions. Again, the other types of questions 1-3 above could have subnetting requirements. EG, a question might ask "which answers list a subnet number that could be used for a new LAN in this design",with a figure showing existing subnets. This may require 5-6 computations of "what range of addresses exists in this subnet", and that question may deserve 60-70 seconds total, so figuring the range of addresses in a subnet needs to only take 5-10 seconds each. Challenges: knowing what math/process to use, doing it right, doing it fast.
  • 6) Time pressure: I list this separately because while all the question types require time, the biggest issue may not be with any one type of question, but more to do with the overall issue of finishing on time. Issues: mastery of broad knowledge, practice with hands-on, gauging time when some questions deserve 30 seconds and some deserve 5 minutes.
  • 7) Non-OJT topics - Every exam has some topics that you simply don't learn when you are doing the job already. So, is there enough topics that your on-the-job (OJT) training does not teach such that it's a problem for passing CCNA? (This is the only one I really don't have a prior opinion about, by the way.)
  • 8) Topic breadth - it's just a lot for one exam.

OK, my usual disclaimer to those working on CCNA - do not let the above dissuade you from working towards CCNA. I'm again focusing on the difficulties. The goal is to be aware of the various challenges, and then be ready for them. EG, you ought to at least mentally and on paper practice time management before going to the test. (Maybe that'll be a blog post in this series - say so if you're interested.) Hopefully this will help us all be ready for the more difficult parts of the exam.

I think all these things I've listed today contribute to making the CCNA exam itself difficult. Often times, that means you can't just read and do once, and not dig in and study. Practice helps, and reading different examples, from different references, and using different practice tests, really does help. I guess that comes back around to the "how do you know you're ready" concept from last post.

My plan is to discuss these issues for a few more posts. Your vote on the following poll will guide me in part; I'll try and tackle what you folks are telling me are the biggest difficulties. Also, note that I'm going to try another one of these polls with multiple possible answers - with 8 options, you may have 2 or 3 even that you feel strongly about. So, CHOOSE ALL!

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