What is your plan of attack


Did you drive in the exact same way when taking your driver’s license test compared to how you drive in real-life? Did you ever think of what strategy and which tactics are going to help you reach your end goal of passing the exam? What does an effective exam strategy look like? Why do you need one? Is there only one way of approaching the exam? What else besides the technical content should you think about when taking the exam?


The previous article “Know Your Enemy” introduced some fundamental design attributes that collectively define the overall format of the exam. Having these attributes in mind is definitely essential to building an effective and successful strategy for approaching the exam.


While there are many other blog posts, articles, videos and even books specifically about overall CCIE Lab exam strategy, I’ll attempt to discuss three key recommendations that will hopefully help you develop your own strategy and tactics. Your homework will be to adjust them according to your own personality and study style. Subsequent articles will dive into more detailed and specific tactics for each exam module.


What is a strategy and why do you need one?

If you are reading this post, then there is a good chance that one of your mid- to long-term goals is to pass the lab exam and earn your CCIE number. The reason why you do it is very much personal, but the means to reach it should definitely be through studying legitimate material and practicing hundreds of hours with Cisco devices.


The strategy you’ll use to pass the exam is the “how” part of reaching that goal of earning your number. A legitimate approach may be to study by repeating many practice labs, quickly looking at the answers and trying to memorize various requirements for raw configuration lines. Another technique might be to take the exam repeatedly in a relatively short period of time, learning from mistakes, in hopes of eventually passing by chance. (The new CCIE Re-take Policy should now prevent this.) But a better method may be to develop true and long-lasting technical knowledge and skills. This last option is more difficult but will likely be the only one that will serve you after you’ve earned the number. It will enable you to perform on the job at the level that your boss, colleagues and customers will expect of a CCIE. But this is your call, of course.


Regardless of the above high-level strategy, what else besides technical studies should you plan to do best in order to maximize the chances of passing?


Just like with the driving test in many countries, you will want to pay extra attention to the details compared to how you perform in real life. This is because it is just an exam, and as such it, must be fair, so it must have strict and consistent scoring rules. As a consequence, some small mistakes that you may quickly fix or mitigate in real life might unfortunately cost you a $1600 lunch at the CCIE testing facility. Think about small mistakes such as typos in configuration lines, missing a loopback prefix in your routing protocol, or missing a small requirement in an exam item. Pure technical knowledge and experience are not going to help much to avoid these small mistakes. However, developing an effective exam-taking skill is the solution and will help you to reach the ultimate goal of passing the exam, provided that your technical skills are at the expected level.


Build your strategy when studying

For the strategy to be effective under pressure, you’ll want to avoid having to think about it during the exam. So don’t just build a plan of attack the night before the exam, as it might disappear from your brain when you’re sitting in front of the exam workstation. Consider trying to apply and refine your strategy when studying with practice labs so that it becomes a second nature.


Let’s take a look at three important and often-overlooked tactics that are applicable to all four exam modules and that could be used as a starting point for an effective exam strategy.


Manage your time, don’t get stuck!

As you know, all four exam modules are limited in time so it is expected that you efficiently manage the exam time. What exactly does that mean? What measures or tactics can you plan in order to maximize your work quality and quantity within the overall time limit?


An efficient measure is to set a mental timer with a maximum time per-item, which is just an indicator that you spent too long on any specific item and it is time to move on to the next one. This minimizes the chances of getting stuck and accidently ending up with too little time for the remainder of the exam. Naturally, some items will be more difficult than others and it is exactly for these difficult or tedious items that managing your time is vital. Depending on your progress in the exam, you will want to make a difficult decision: either move on to the next and hopefully easier item, or keep working on the challenging one.


Along with this “item max-time”, plan some milestones and anticipate deviations. These milestones are pre-defined checkpoints where you can evaluate whether or not you’re progressing as expected in the exam. By what time should each section of the exam be completed? What should be done in case things are not going as expected? At which point should you go back and verify the work you’ve done so far rather than starting a large new item? Again, it all depends on the situation, but planning the main options in advance is most likely going to be a valuable advantage when taking the exam.

In any case, you’ll want to keep moving and avoid getting stuck, especially during the first half of any exam modules. If you carefully manage your time, you will naturally build confidence and maximize your chances of success.


Pay attention to the details!

As said above, the exam is designed to be fair, and therefore it must have strict and objective scoring criteria. Remember that all CCIE R&S v5.0 exam items have only two possible scoring opportunities (true or false). Though they may be worth one or multiple points, partial scoring is not allowed and item scores are granted only if all of the item’s requirements are met by the solution provided, regardless of any alternate solutions.


These rules should illustrate the importance of the “details” in the exam. Any information that is provided in the content of an item (including guidelines, requirements, exhibits, diagrams and any other resource) may be considered as a relevant “detail”, regardless of the item format (WR & DIAG multiple-choice, TS ticket, CFG inter-dependent item).


One way to minimize chances of missing a detail is to consistently approach each item with a reliable process that includes systematically reading and analyzing all resources involved, and then correlate information and anticipate effects and consequences of possible choices or changes. For the lab exam, plan to triple-read all requirements of an item, and then plan your solution as well as multiple verification procedures. Keep track of these verification steps in a notepad in order to speed up backward verifications when progressing in the exam. Verifying the solution’s outcome is definitely a crucial step in the lab exam, especially in TS and CFG where changes made later on could very well impact and invalidate previous solutions.


Cherry pick and don’t target 100%!

The scoring logic of the CCIE R&S v5.0 defines a cut-score – that is, a passing score – and reaching or exceeding this score results in passing the exam. For the lab exam, this cut-score is a little more complex as it has three separate component scores, one for each exam module. Not only must the sum of these three component scores meet or exceed the lab-level cut-score, but each of the three components must also meet or exceed the corresponding module-level’s cut-score, which is called the minimum score.


On top of this logical rule, these min-scores are set to a [much] lower value compared to the lab-level cut-score proportional to each module’s maximum score!


So, for example, if the lab-level cut-score is 80/100 and DIAG is worth 10 points, the DIAG’s min-score is going to be much lower than 8/10 (lab-level cut-score proportional to DIAG’s max-score), probably somewhere in the 30 to 60% range of the max-score. Note that these numbers are not released publicly because they vary per exam questionnaire.


Nonetheless, the point I want to make here is that passing the exam mainly means to reach this cut-score with the additional min-score rule for the lab exam. While a perfect score will of course result in passing the exam, it is certainly not required in order to pass the exam! We’re not dealing here with a ranking exam, such as a college entrance exam, that would pass only the x% of the best performers, where the final score has a crucial importance! With CCIE, anyone who scores more than the cut-score is eligible to pass the exam; you do not need to ace it! This seems obvious, but unfortunately, I frequently meet candidates who failed mainly because they forgot this rule, along with poor time management.


In the lab exam, all items are readily available when starting each module. This means that one can select the sequence of addressing items. The default sequence might very well be arbitrary: the first item might be about routing protocol while the second one might be about LAN switching, etc. This doesn’t mean that they have to be completed in that order. They may very well depend on each other (in CFG), but even in that case, all requirements are most likely not equally inter-dependent. So one can choose to quickly configure the core requirements in item#2 (or use prohibited solution) in order to make item#1 work even if item#2 is not fully completed!


It all comes down to the fact that candidates can (and should) cherry-pick items. Which ones to address first is a personal choice: do you prefer to collect many “easy points” first, build your confidence and then address the more difficult items worth more points? Or do you prefer the opposite? The strategy should also plan what to do in case something goes wrong – like ending up with too little time to address all remaining items. Which one(s) should you address first, if any?


For this to be really useful, one should keep track of his/her progress within the exam with a simple table of items, their score value, and their actual progress status.


Naturally, one would not know during the exam if the items marked completed on this list are all going to be scored as expected – and therefore should maybe not target just the cut-score of ~80% but might rather target slightly above the cut-score.

However, that doesn’t mean one should target 100%, and that makes a big difference when working under stress to realize that not everything must be working or completed.


Furthermore, the new scoring logic of CCIE R&S v5.0 allows compensating weakness in a module (e.g. TS) with strength in another (e.g. CFG). This means that even if you feel like TS didn’t go too well and you probably scored around the min-score but not the proportional cut-score, you still have a chance of passing the exam! Do not give up at that time! In R&S v4.0, if you failed TS, you failed the whole exam, but this is not the case anymore.


If you scored the min-score in TS and DIAG, you still have a good chance of passing the exam, provided that the main CFG scenario is completed.


We’ll see in the next articles how to expand these high-level recommendations for each exam module into useable tactics. I hope this gave you some food for thought  as you start building your own strategy.


Thanks for reading! What questions or comments do you have at this time?