Of all of the methods of certification study, whether it be training in a class room with real gear, a virtual class room (one of my favorites) a pre-recorded class on CD or DVD or self study; self study in the certification world is a very popular study method and here on CLN. Why?  Because usually, it is the most affordable.  I have had the privilage of attending some live online classes and self paced classes on CD, but for me, those are rare due to budget.
For those who choose the more affordable option, like me, there methods to the madness of self study.


  • The first thing to do is know the exam objectives!  In any Cisco class, exam objectives are presented in the introduction of a course, but when you have no class (no pun intended) you need to know what you are going to be tested on.  Those exam objectives are your blueprint for your study plan.  Know what they are or you are asking for failure.



  • Second, look for some good study materials.  Such materials would include books, simulators, used gear, rack rentals, other various web sites, such as CLN and a good legit practice test.  I would like to go through each of these study material categories one at a time. 


    • First anyone who is serious about self study needs a good book.  Some of the most popular books are from CiscoPress and Sybex.  When searching for a good book, go through the table of contents and make sure it matches closely with the exam objectives.  Also, read the reviews on that book.  Just because the book has the certification you are studying for on the front cover, doesn't mean it will meet your needs or cover all of the exam objectives.  Also, don't get too married to only one publisher.  I have seen some great books in my time, and others that were a total rip off and they were from the same publisher!  There is a lot that goes into writing a good book.  You have the content author, grammatical editors and technical editors as well as the publisher, plus much more I am probably missing.  It only takes one of these parties to make a book a horrible nightmare!  Don't think you have to settle on one book either.  There are many books out there that will complement each other and many times, having more than one is not only a help, but a neccessity.   Read reviews on that book!  Do some shopping and get some feedback from those who have already used it.  It may save you from wasting some money!  CiscoPress and Sybex are 2 of the most popular examples of publishers that release self study books. 


    • Simulators are becoming very popular and much more readily available.  Remember, when you are testing for a Cisco certification, you are being tested on what you can DO in addition to what you know.  Many  times, I have seen that knowing and doing are sometimes two different things!  You may know what to do, the steps to take, but you if cannot apply that and actually do it, you are of little use to your employer.  Simulators are a great tool to practice the doing!  Now, simulators are great... but they are just that, simulators.  If you are certifiying to show a potential employer that you can do the job, I can promise you that the employers network does not run on simulators!  My personal feeling is that simulators are great for entry level and associate level exams, but when it comes to professional level and higher... I prefer the real thing!  After all, I am certifying to DO the job and in a real job comes real hardware!  ebay is a great tool to find used gear.  It does add to the cost, but at times, you still may be able to put to gether a lab cheaper than paying for a class.  Rack rentals are another option.  It is real gear so you won't run into snag of an unsupported command, but you can't physically touch the hardware you are using so that is a disadvantage.


    • There are plenty of websites out there that help in your studies.  Besides of obvious Cisco Learning network site, there are many others that focus on networking, subnetting, wireless, voice, you name it!  Check out other vendors' websites and look at their documentation, it may just suprise you.  When I was first studying CCNA I really struggled with the 802.1q concept.  The documents I found on cisco.com didn't help me much.  So I went to HPs website and found their explaination of 802.1q and my eyes were opened... then going back to cisco.com, the 802.1 q docs made much more sense.  Different vendors use different terminology to describe the same  technology.  Sometimes that "different" persepctive helps enlighten understanding. 


    • Another popular method are videos!  Lots of people learn better when there is a visual in front of them.  Beware that not all videos are created equal.  Depending on the presenter of that video, you may find your self with eyeballs that are too heavy to bear and before you know it, you are sawing logs.  Look for a video where the presenter keeps your attention and uses different vocal tones to help keep you engaged as well as shows screen shots or even live demos of what you are learning.  The monitone power point presenter didn't help me much.


    • Another element of self study is the dreaded practice test.  Practice tests are just that... a practice test.  What is it exactly that you are practicing?  I think of a practice test more as a self evaluation to help me determine if what I am studying is really sinking in or not.  There are many many many types and options regarding practice test.  I would like to split these into 2 categories.  The first is a legit practice test made by a company that writes their own material and may provide some reference as to what their questions are based off of... say links to cisco.com.  Now no practice test is perfect, you may or even will surely encounter errors or inconsistancies in some of these tests.  Although it can be frusterating, use that to your advantage and research why the question is in error.  It will really take your studying to a different level and you will be better off in the long run.

The other category of practice test is the ever popular "brain dump."  This is a test that is created by people who take a cisco exam, memorize the question and submit it to a vendor where actual real questions are used on these practices.  These brain dumps are usually cheaper than a legit test and will typically offer you a garentee that you will pass on the first try!  Let me be clear that I am not advocating that any one uses a brain dump!  Brian dumps are a form of cheating in oh so many ways.  The person who gathers the questions is cheating because he or she is violating the Non Discloser Agreement that they accept to take a test, the buyer of such material is cheating because they have the actual test questions and answers and the test taker is cheating themselves by memorizing questions.  That only gets you so far.  Remember, you are not only testing on what you know, but what you can do!  A brain dump may pass the "what you know part" because the real questions are in fron of you, but when you are tested on what you can do....  say good night!  Using such brain dumps is cheating, it is wrong, it shows a lack of honesty, integrity and desperation.  Is that why you are studying?  To be dishonest or desperate?  I hope not.  Stay away from these.  You're not doing yourself or the rest of the certified community, or potential employers any favors by using illegal material.  Using such material is cheating the organization your are getting your certification from, other certified people, your potential employer and yourself!  You could and should loose your certification over it.


  • Finally, a good support group helps.  When you are studying your own materials, you can only go through it so much before your brain goes numb.  Getting others' persectives will certainly broaden your view and how to view various concepts.  Social networking sites are a great source for this.  Additionally, ask a co-worker, or someone who may work in the area you are studying in.  When studying for my CCNP, I approached one of the engineers that worked at an ISP and asked him to explain a BGP config.  Boy that went a long way and he was very happy to do it.  That different persective will really help make a difference when that brain numbing feeling comes and believe me, it will come.  Above all in your self study, use the above tools to practice, practice, practice!  Remeber why are you studying, why you are wanting to certify.  You certify to show you can do a job, not just pass a test!  Happy studying!