I just logged onto the Cisco Certification Tracking system and looked at my history.  As of today, I have taken computer based Cisco Exams 39 times.  I can say that every attempt was a learning experience.  Some people are particularly good test takers, others struggle under pressure.  I don’t think I fit into either extreme.  However, in some instances I had my eyes open to an unexpected difficulty level.  Other times, I found unexpected content.   In almost every instance I had a question or two that I went away, researched and learned from.  Over a period of several years, I have revised my approach to preparing and taking technical exams.  This is an exam centric post about how I prepare for the testing process.  It is not about understanding or preparing for specific technical content.   Everyone seems to have their own approach. I wanted to share a few things that I think may be beneficial to those taking Cisco exams.


When preparing for an exam, the very first thing I do is look at the exam blueprint.  The Exam Blueprint is a list of topics that are covered by the exam.  These are found by going to the Certification Center, choosing the certification track, selecting the relevant exam, and drilling down into the Exam Topics.  When reading the exam topics, I like to pay particular attention to some keywords.  For example, “Understand” or “Describe” is most likely an indication that an understanding of the topic, protocol or technology is necessary.  If I see the keyword “Configure”, I know am expected to demonstrate the knowledge and commands that are relevant to configuring the technology.  In this case, I would expect more difficult questions and possibly simlets.  The other keyword that I often see is “Troubleshoot”.  Troubleshooting skills require us to have an in-depth knowledge of theory and configuration.  Therefore, by looking at the blueprint, I can often gauge the depth of knowledge required for a topic. 


Blueprint Keywords:


  • Understand/Describe—Basic Knowledge (Theory of the Technology)
  • Configure—Intermediate Knowledge (Ability to configure and apply the Technology)
  • Troubleshoot—Advanced Knowledge (Understand the Theory/Configuration and be able to determine what is and is not compatible)



Having determined roughly what I am expected to know, I prepare myself to reach the requisite level of knowledge on each topic.  This part of the process is different for every person and every exam.  Self-study, using Cisco Press books, has been the primary method of preparation for most of my exams.  Regardless of the approach though, I find it important to keep the exam blueprint readily available.  As progress is made through the materials (whether instructor led, self study book, VOD, etc), I like to think about how Cisco would test on the topics that are listed on the blueprint.  Ultimately, the blueprint is the reference point I use to assess my readiness to take the exam.


When scheduling an exam, I think the time slot chosen is very important.  In order to have optimal results, a good clear mind is very important.  I have found that I do much better on the exam if I take it early in the day, or even on a weekend (when offered by a nearby testing center).  For me, the worst time to take an exam is after a stressful day or when there is a major issue that needs my attention.  It is also important to keep in mind that exams can last a couple of hours, so enough energy to get completely through it is important.


Upon arrival at the testing center and setting down for the exam, there are a couple of things that I find crucial to success.  The first item is thoroughly reading each and every question and ALL the answers.  It is way too easy to read a couple of words and make assumptions regarding what Cisco is looking for.  Sometimes, questions have a twist or just seem to be intentionally tricky.  Thoroughly reading the questions and answers gives me the time to pick up on clues and often allows me to gain points that I would otherwise have lost.


Obviously the competing factor to thoroughly reading each question is time.  Each Cisco exam has a time limit with the remaining time shown in one corner of the testing engine.  These time limits are not impossible, but aggressive enough that it is important to keep everything in check.  Therefore when I start an exam, I quickly divide the number of questions by the allocated time.  For example if I have 50 questions and two hours, each question should take about 2 minutes or so.   About halfway into the exam, I’ll round the time and the remaining question count to see if the remaining time and questions still calculates to about 2 minutes per question.  If at this point, I have more time per question, I’m on track and should finish on time.  If I have less than that amount of time remaining per question, I must be very cautious to finish on time.


Follow the link to a Test Simulation—Time Remaining is in the top-right corner


Test Simulation


Even though we can calculate the average time each question should take, it is important not to expect to get each and every one of them done in the average time.  Actually, the questions often take radically different amounts of time.  Some of the more involved and multipart simlets can take a long time.  Other questions may only take 20 or 30 seconds.  So while I use the average time to gauge my progress, I must point out that I never really know exactly where I stand.  The other thing that I have learned is to prepare for the possibility that I may receive several difficult or time consuming questions early in the exam.  It is not uncommon to find the first ten or so questions very challenging or time consuming.  I try to keep that from affecting my psyche and just continue to do my best with each new question.


Cisco exams are very challenging.  A key point to taking any exam is understanding what topics the exam will test on.  In addition to being well prepared with a mastery of each topic, developing some test taking strategies will benefit the candidate at the testing center.  Scheduling the exam in a timeslot that allows for a clear mind is very important.  Once at the testing center, I find that carefully reading each question provides me the best possibility to fully understand what Cisco is expecting.  The final item is keeping an eye on the time remaining. 


Ultimately, these are some test taking strategies I use and have developed over time.  What is important is finding a strategy that work for you.  If you have developed strategies that you would like to suggested, please share them by commenting below.