Monday, January 15, 2018

How to Pass an IT Certification on your First Try

I've studied and passed multiple IT certifications from multiple vendors over the last 10 years. As time progressed, I've become more efficient on gathering the tools needed to pass an exam on the first try. This isn't to say that haven't failed or come close to failing an exam a few times along the way. As a matter of fact I seemed to learn the most when I failed exam. Today's quick topic I will discuss the process I use to study for an entry level to professional exam. I won't include the Expert level certification in this group as they're whole different beasts. Yes I'm talking to you CCIE and F5-CSE!

For starters lets begin with what the exam objectives will cover. This is something I see quite a few colleagues skip over when they begin studying for a certification. Knowing what the objectives are will allow you to set goals that you can follow along the way before exam date. For example when you've touched on every objective and topic in the exam at least once, this is a goal you can use to assess how ready you are for the test. Every vendor typically has a page that lines out the objectives and topics you need to know before even picking up your first book.

For example Amazon has a PDF that lists what you need to know and the percentage each topic holds on Solutions Architect the test:

Now that you know what you need to study, next we'll need to find study resources for the exam. This is where using forums such as or Reddit comes in handy. I usually spend a few days researching methods others used along with tools available to me. I'm lucky enough to have CBT Nuggets for videos and SafariBooks  for cert books at my disposable, but even then that's sometimes not enough. You'll want to add labs and flashcards (Anki) to the mix as well. Vendors often times have free material as well. For example I was able to study for my Juniper certs using nothing but their free books and practice tests they offered, all in it only cost me $50 bucks to take their certification!

Now that you have your blueprint and resources, the next and longest step is how to study for the certification. This really comes down for personal preference, but for me this is where my secret sauce comes into play. I use the following 3-step method when I study for a certification:

1. Start with the most high-level material, usually videos such as CBTNuggets. Take notes as you watch the videos, these will be placed into Anki flashcards once finished.

2. Once videos are finished, create initial flash cards then pop your head into the reading material. Hopefully the vendor has some type of official certification book, otherwise boring Whitepapers it is! Again take notes as you progress through the material. As you finish each chapter, this is where your labs come into place. Either attempt to recreate the examples listed in the chapter or even better, come up with your own scenarios and get the environment working as expected.

Along with labs add your notes to Flashcards at the end of each chapter. I should also mention that you should be studying flashcards EVERY SINGLE DAY until your exam date. Reading is a slog and rightfully so. That's where I really start to hone in and pick up most of my knowledge about the objectives at hand. I usually can't wait to take the exam because the repetition on the same topics start to get old at about this point. I consider this a good sign that it's about time to sit for the certification.

3.  While I'm still studying flashcards EVERY SINGLE DAY, I go back to any high-level material I can find. I'll look for YouTube how-to videos, exam caveats, and any additional lab examples I can find on the interwebs. At the same time I'm also locking down and scheduling the exam date, usually 2-4 weeks away. During this crunch time window I usually feel overly prepared and actually slow down my studying a few days before the exam. The only thing I'm doing at this point is studying flashcards EVERY SINGLE DAY!

There you have it folks. For the very last step I walk into my nearest Pearson-Vue location on game day, ace the exam, and walk out calm and collected. As I head back home I put any thoughts of certification out of my mind for at least two months (otherwise my family would kill me).

So this was my method, how do you typically study for a certification? Let me know in the comments below!


  1. If I can't summarize it on a flash card, and if I can't recall it on a flash card, I can be sure that I don't know the material.

  2. Nice, think we should quote that!

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  4. To get my ccna voice I copied some of the things you (Shawn) did back in 2014. So what I do is find a great set of videos, download the blueprint and get what ever book I am going to use. I already have a good lab at home plus I have GNS3 and Packet Tracer. Once that is done I have look over the material and the blue print and start with the topics I am already familair with. I watch the videos on the topic first then I read the section/chapter and take notes. Then I swing back around to start the lab of what I just learned. So for cisco voice and route / switch Jay Johnson has created a very good series on with videos on
    Udemy and Chris Bryant is my main source of videos. Then I am using the Cisco foundation Learning books for my CCNP. Then finally I am using a friends Eve server my home lab (see below) and GN3. Since I am on the implemenation site of the house, somethimes I can use the commands I learn to see real results on the production side. It usualy take me about 2-3 months of studing to pass and exam.

    Home lab:

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