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Passing Certification Exams

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Denise Donohue describes what it takes to be a successful test-taker.
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Passing Certification Exams

The most successful test-takers understand three things: adapting to the different types of questions, the need for speed, and how to use your short- and long-term memory. The CCNP Flash Cards and Exam Practice Pack (CCNP Self-Study) is designed to work in all three of these areas, to help ensure your Cisco exam success. It’s a combination of flash cards in both print and electronic formats, quick reference sheets that succinctly review important concepts, and electronic practice exams. Let’s examine each of these areas and see how you can use them to your advantage.

Understand the different types of questions, and adjust your strategy accordingly. Both your studying and test-taking techniques need to reflect the types of questions you will likely encounter. You typically will have some questions that describe a scenario and ask you to choose how to respond to that scenario. Some scenario questions are simulations, where you will need to configure routers or switches. The bulk of the exam will probably be multiple-choice questions, although you may also encounter questions that ask for a specific command. Each of these question types requires different preparation and different thought processes when answering.

  1. Long scenarios typically have a paragraph or two with a lot of information, some of which is useful and some of which is not.

    TEST STRATEGY: When faced with these questions, start reading at the bottom. The actual problem that needs to be solved is probably somewhere near the end of the scenario. Once you know the real question, then you can skim through the scenario text, looking for relevant information and ignoring whatever is irrelevant. This will save you time and help focus your thinking.

    PREP STRATEGY: Practice scenario-type questions. Work with open-ended questions such as those from the CCNP flash cards to help you develop speed in analyzing problems and compiling your thoughts.

  2. Simulation questions usually describe a network, and ask you to configure or troubleshoot something regarding that network.

    TEST STRATEGY: Use the same technique as with scenario questions—start reading at the bottom. Note important information, such as passwords or IP addresses. Take a few seconds to decide what you must configure, or what possible troubleshooting steps to take, and then plunge in.

    PREP STRATEGY: Hands-on experience with Cisco equipment is the best preparation for the simulation questions. If you don’t have access to equipment, there are companies (such as Global Knowledge) that offer labs and time on live equipment. To speed up your command-recall, you should supplement your hands-on time with flash cards that deal with commands. Carry them with you and pull them out when you’re waiting in line at the bank, at the grocery store, anywhere!

  3. Multiple-choice questions can be the trickiest of all. It is easy to play word games with such questions.


    • If you don't know the answer to a question, ask yourself "What are they testing? What piece of knowledge do they want to know that I have?" That might help you deduce the answer from the information given in the question.

    • Watch for "nots". Sometimes questions will read something like, "Which of the following are not...." Look for the "not" to make sure you don’t answer incorrectly.

    • Guess if you have to. Eliminate as many wrong answers as you can to improve your odds, then choose between the ones that are left.

    • Think like an exam writer—if you were writing an exam for Cisco, which choice would you consider to be the correct answer?

    PREP STRATEGY: Know the information as well as you possibly can—the quick reference sheets will help with that. Once you learn it all, the single best way to prepare for multiple-choice questions is to do them. The practice exam on the CD-ROM has multiple-choice questions that will help you prepare for this section of the exam. As you run through them, make sure you learn the information for any question you get wrong. You can segment the questions and test yourself on one technology at a time and then, when you think you’re ready for the real exam, go through them all one more time to be sure you understand all the concepts.

The need for speed—time management is a crucial part of these exams. You must be able to recall information quickly, taking very little time on the questions you know the answers to. This will give you more time to spend on the longer questions, and on those questions you can't answer right away. You build speed in two ways: first, you have to really know the information covered on the exam and, second, you have to practice recalling that information quickly. Whether you’ve taken a class or learned through self-study, there is an overwhelming amount of information covered on each exam. Use the reference sheets, flash cards, and practice exams to help you review everything, and point you to the most important concepts. The flash cards and the practice exams can help with the quick recall part of this equation.

Questions on the flash cards are open-ended, so you have to recall the answer without any prompts. This is probably the ultimate test of how well you know the information. The practice exams contain multiple-choice questions—do these over and over, practicing reading the questions quickly and then scanning the answers, narrowing them down until you can find the answer as fast as possible. The goal here is not to memorize the questions and answers – these are not the actual exam questions, after all—but to build up your speed in reading, analyzing, and recalling data.

The third tactic in successful exam taking is to use both your short- and long-term memory to your advantage. When you first learn something, it goes into your short-term memory. Repeated exposure to the same information over a period of time puts it into long-term memory (just like all those brand slogans you remember from years ago!). When studying for an exam, review the information repeatedly over a couple of weeks, to get it into your long-term memory. The flash cards and quick reference sheets are good for this. Then, just before the exam, load up your short-term memory by again reviewing the flash cards. This actually worked for me on the CCIE exam—I made flash cards with the commands for many of the odd technologies I might be asked to configure, and reviewed them the night before the exam. The next day, I was happy to see one of them on the exam, and was able to configure it quickly.

The CCNP Flash Cards and Exam Practice Pack can be a terrific help in the final stages of your exam preparation. Tailor your preparation and test-taking strategy to the different types of questions by using all three sections—the flash cards, quick reference sheets, and practice exams. Use the flash cards and practice exams to build up speed, and use the flash cards with the reference sheets to get the needed information into both your short- and long-term memory.

Good luck as you advance in your Cisco career!

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