You failed your CCNP exam. Now what?

You took one of the Cisco CCNP Routing and Switching certification exams. You went to the exam center, sat down, and started the exam. About 2 hours later, you saw the dreaded news appear on the screen:

You didn’t pass.

I’ve failed certification exams in the past, so I can relate to the facepalm-worthy feeling you get when you realize you dropped a couple of Benjamins on an exam that you just failed. I know the feeling of wanting to give up, the thoughts of thinking that this whole certification thing is stupid, and the desire to assign blame to whomever or whatever led to your failure.

Failing certification exams is a reality of any IT professional. And from what I’ve seen, sadly, not many people handle failure very well. I want to talk through this.

This isn’t meant to be a pep talk or a “you’ll do better next time” motivational speech. Neither is it meant to be an assignment of blame to you or anyone else. Rather it’s a cold, hard look at why you failed, and how you can pass next time.. or the time after that.

Why you failed

I’ve taken a lot of Cisco certification exams and read a lot of Cisco books over the years and I’ve noticed a pattern. Cisco likes to play off of common misconceptions and little known technical facts. Here’s a non-real but representative example:

Two switches are connected via an 802.1Q trunk. You delete the switched virtual interface for VLAN 1 but both switches still exchange CDP messages. What will prevent CDP messages from traversing VLAN 1 without affecting Cisco IP phones?

Select the best answer:

A. Prune VLAN1 from the trunk

B. Disable VLAN1

C. Disable CDP globally

D. Disable CDP on the trunk

E. None of these

If you’ve watched my Pluralsight course series on the CCNP SWITCH exam, you’ll recall that you can’t disable VLAN1 or prune it from a trunk. Well, you can try to prune it, but CDP messages will still pass. But do you disable CDP globally or just on the trunk interface? This is where obscure knowledge comes in. Cisco IP phones use CDP to get voice VLAN information, so disabling CDP globally is out. That leaves only two answers: disable CDP on the trunk interface or none of the above. Disabling CDP on the trunk interfaces will certainly stop the CDP messages from moving between the switches, and it won’t affect Cisco IP phones since CDP messages never leave a collision domain.

Now here’s the thing: I made that question and answer up on the fly. You have to be able to do that if you want to do well on the exam.

The exam blueprint is like The Oracle, and sometimes just as wrong

If you remember The Matrix movies, you’ll remember the Oracle, a computer program that supposedly knows all. After seeing the Oracle for the first time, Neo asks Morpheus how accurate the Oracle’s “prophecies” are. Morpheus responds with something to the effect of, “Try not to think of it in terms of right and wrong. The Oracle is a guide to help you find the path.” Not surprisingly, it turned out the Oracle was kinda wrong on some stuff.

Well, the blueprint is a lot like that. It has stuff that never shows up on any exam. This is mainly because if the exam covered the entire blueprint, it would be 8 hours long. It also leaves off some topics that do appear on the exam. The lesson here is don’t depend on the exam blueprint. Make sure you know the topics for prerequisite and related exams. If you’re taking CCNP SWITCH, make sure you know the topics for ROUTE. If you’re taking TSHOOT, make sure you know ROUTE and SWITCH. Of course, make sure you know all the CCNA R&S topics upside down and backwards.

Each exam blueprint is a guide. It’s a guide to the other exam blueprints.

How to pass next time.. or the time after

If you’ve already taken a CCNP exam, the next time you go in to take the same exam, you’re technically “brain dumping” parts of it. I’m not talking about cheating. I mean you’ve seen the exam already, and you have a feel for what the questions are like. If you’ve got lots of time and money, you can take the same exam over and over again, getting slightly better each time until you pass. I don’t recommend this strategy, not just because it’s expensive, but because it puts you in the super awkward situation of telling others how many times you took the exam. Trying until you pass is respectable, but you should have some serious expertise to show for it. If I’m interviewing you and it took you 5 tries to pass a CCNP exam, I’m going to grill you hard on the technical questions.

If you want to have a great chance of passing the next time, then study for the certification one step higher than the one you want to attain. If you’re studying for the CCNA, act like you’re studying for the CCNP. If you want the CCNP, act like you’re studying for the CCIE. Obviously the topics are different. You don’t need to study multicast in-depth for your CCNP. But for the topics that overlap, it’s better to overshoot than aim for the bare minimum.

New book! Learn Cisco Network Administration in a Month of Lunches

The pre-release of my new book, Learn Cisco Network Administration in a Month of Lunches, is available from Manning Publications’ early access program.

The book is a tutorial designed for beginners who want to learn how to administer Cisco switches and routers. Set aside a portion of your lunch hour every day for a month, and you’ll start learning practical Cisco Network administration skills faster than you ever thought possible.

Study Tips for the CCNP Routing and Switching Certification

If you’re studying for or considering the CCNP R&S certification, here are a few things to keep in mind:

The CCNP exam tests CCNA-level skills and knowledge, too

This is a good thing, because it helps weed out those who “brain dump” the exams. If you got lucky with OSPF on your CCNP exam, you’re not going to get lucky on the CCNP ROUTE exam. You really DO need to know this stuff. You can’t just pass the CCNA composite exam and then forget everything. You have to have a solid foundation to build on. You’re never too educated to go back and revisit the fundamentals.

Spend most of your time studying configuration and troubleshooting at the command line interface.

There’s no hard and fast rule on this, but a good rule of thumb is make sure AT LEAST 50% of your time is spent in IOS. Both the ROUTE and SWITCH exams have some simulations, but the TSHOOT exam has a LOT. If you’re not proficient with the command line interface, you won’t pass. Again, this weeds out the dumpers, and it raises the difficulty level of attaining the cert.

Write down all your questions in one place and periodically revisit them.

You’ll be amazed at how many questions you will learn the answer to without realizing it. Some questions you’ll look at and think, “Duh, that one’s easy. How did I not know that before?” From my CCIE studies, I have a list of questions that I organized by category: Layer 2, Layer 3, Security, QoS, etc. Writing down questions also reminds you of how much you DON’T know, highlights your misconceptions, and becomes a de-facto study guide. The last thing you want going into the exam is a false sense of security.

The exams cover a LOT of topics, and some of them are pretty in depth.

This is where a lot of people get frustrated, confused, or just overwhelmed. They look at the exam topics, see the magnitude of it all, and try to study and memorize everything about everything.

This is one of the biggest reasons I’m creating a series of CCNP R&S courses for Pluralsight.

The first one, Basic Networking for CCNP Routing and Switching 300-101 ROUTE was released this month. In each course I focus on real-world customer requirements and then demonstrate how to configure them step-by-step, explaining each command as I go. When watching the courses, you’ll quickly get an idea of what areas you need to study more and what areas you already know.

Not only that, each course module includes an assessment which thoroughly tests your knowledge of the relevant exam material. And, if you get an answer wrong, it will take you to the exact spot in the course where I cover that particular topic. It’s an incredibly effective way to study and learn quickly.

Check out the entire CCNP Routing and Switching learning path on the Pluralsight blog.