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
In The Matrix movies, you may 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
Once 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.