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In the world of IT and Cybersecurity, certifications are important, especially for those that are trying to get their careers started with little to no experience.  People will often ask if a tech certification can be earned completely with self-study, so in this article, I’m going to provide a step-by-step process to pass the Cisco CCNA exam on your own with self-study, for those that are interested.

Can you pass the Cisco CCNA with self study?  Passing the Cisco CCNA requires hands-on experience and knowledge of computer networking concepts, however these skills can be obtained solely through self-study if one chooses, using commonly available online learning tools and software.

Read on to see my seven step process that you can use to study, and pass, the Cisco CCNA on your own completely through self-study. And if you’re not quite ready to prepare for the CCNA at this time, check out my article about what you should do before you consider the CCNA.

My CCNA Self-Study Process

Step 1:  Get Started with Packet Tracer

The first step to complete on your way to earning the CCNA on your own is to download, install, and learn the basic operation of the Packet Tracer software program.

For those not familiar, Packet Tracer is a free, downloadable software program developed and offered by Cisco (at their NetAcad.com site) that works as a simulator for configuration and troubleshooting concepts that are covered at the CCNA level.  

In Packet Tracer, you’ll have access to simulated Cisco equipment and the Cisco IOS operating system, where you can practice configuring a variety of network concepts that are covered on the CCNA.

Packet Tracer does not include all of Cisco’s networking equipment, nor does it include all of the commands that are needed for higher level Cisco certifications, but it is the perfect tool for self-study of the CCNA certification.

To get started with this step, go to NetAcad.com to download the Packet Tracer program for free.  Cisco will ask you to create an account and perhaps complete a short training on the software in order to complete the download process.  From there, install the software program on your computer and learn it’s basic operation, which means understanding how to add, delete, and configure basic devices and connections, such as a router, switch, PC, straight through and crossover cables, and a console cable.

To learn what you need to know about Packet Tracer, you can watch any of the many short training videos available online on YouTube.  Make sure that you understand these basic concepts now so that you can use the software in the upcoming steps. Check out my article about time saving tips for using Packet Tracer here.

Step 2: Get a CCNA Textbook and Begin Your Study

If you want to be successful in cybersecurity or IT, you’ll need to enjoy the basic process of reading technical material.  And for a certification exam, reading a technical certification textbook is critical.

In this second step, get a textbook on the current version of the CCNA exam and begin to read 30 – 60 minutes every day in the book.  You’ll need to cover and understand all of the material in the textbook, and be able to retain it, so it’s important to get started with your reading right away and to remain consistent with it, as this material can easily be forgotten if you take extended breaks away from self-study. The CCNA is not an easy exam, as I cover here, so you’ll want to stay consistent with your study habits.

The best textbooks for this are usually offered by Cisco Press.  Cisco knows first what will be on each version of their exams and can guarantee that at least the most important topics for the exam are covered in their books.  Every other publisher is getting the material second-hand.

You can find textbooks for the CCNA for free at your local library or college library, or online for purchase.  Just make sure you’re getting the edition that is for the version of the exam that you’re going to take, and look for any downloadable material that the publisher is offering with the book.

Step 3:  Get a Low Cost CCNA Video Course Online

Video courses have quickly become the preferred way to learn cybersecurity concepts because of their ease of use and the fact that they are now readily available online.  Unfortunately, some certification test takers make the mistake of using a video course as their primary or only way of learning the exam material.

The best strategy I have found is to use a video course as a supplement to the book reading you are already doing in the prior step.  This enables you to hear all of the content in two different formats from two different providers, which is a great way to reinforce the concepts.  Also, for exams like the CCNA, much of what is covered in a video course can simply be heard, so you also have the option of just listening to the videos in the course as well as watching.

There really is no need to purchase an expensive online video course for the CCNA, or sign up for an extended program that requires a big commitment.  The CCNA exam alone is not so challenging to necessitate making such a large investment.  And now many well-qualified and reputable instructors are offering their courses to the masses for minimal cost through platforms like udemy.com.

For this step, find a low-cost CCNA video course online and begin to review that course while you continue to read the textbook material.  You should be reading the CCNA textbook and watching the video course each day, not just one or the other.

Step 4: Dig Deeper Online for Topic You Don’t Fully Understand

It is inevitable that your book and video course study will cover some technical topics well enough to suffice for the exam, but will still leave you unsure of truly how the technology works.  This is a real problem that you should work to solve while you’re going through your exam preparation.

Keep in mind that a textbook only has so many pages to cover material and a video course can’t go on forever, and their first and only job is to cover what’s on the exam.  When they do this however, they aren’t able to get into the fundamental aspects of some of those technology concepts, which means you don’t really know them as well as you should for the exam.

A good indicator of your level of understanding is to ask yourself if you could explain or teach the concept to someone else.  What you’ll often find after reviewing your exam study material is that you did understand what you covered, but you don’t understand the concept fully.

In this step, use sites like wikipedia.org to dig deeper online for any concept you don’t fully understand until you are able to build that full and complete knowledge and understanding.  For example, if you cover a concept for the CCNA like the OSI model, you’ll know what it is from your book and video study.  But going online and doing an internet search for this topic will provide you with information about why it is what it is.  You’ll gain the full understanding of the topic, which will help you on the exam and build your confidence.

Step 5: Invest in a CCNA Commands Guide

As you’re going through your study, you should be using Packet Tracer to build labs along with the book and video, and building labs of your own design as well.  One optional textbook that can help you is an IOS commands guide, which covers the commands available in the IOS operating system and how to utilize them.  For this step, consider acquiring a commands guide to supplement your other learning materials.

Some of these command guides are even specifically developed for the CCNA, meaning that they pull out the commands you don’t need at this level.  You can find a textbook like this online for purchase, or you may be able to come across a website that has a listing as well (however be careful about it’s accuracy).

Adding a commands guide is an optional step, and not one that I have personally done, but I know several people who have used these guides in their preparation and it has benefitted them.

Step 6:  Complete All of the Labs

One thing that I have seen really harm CCNA exam takers is when they watch labs being completed on their video course, but they don’t actually complete the labs themselves.

Keep in mind that on the real exam, you will have to do actual configuration and troubleshooting, meaning that you’ll be the one that is typing in the commands (with no study materials to reference, by the way).  

Doing this successfully is nearly impossible when you haven’t actually done it, and watching someone do it doesn’t count.  You have to complete the labs yourself.

For this step, take the time to build each and every lab that is available in your textbook and covered in your video course.  Ideally, you should build each of these labs twice so that you can build speed as well, which will help you on the exam.  Don’t make the mistake of skipping this step as it is a quick way to find yourself under-prepared for the exam.

Step 7: Don’t Worry About Equipment Right Now

Working on real equipment is certainly a superior way to become a true networking professional and learn the skills you need for the exam (see my article on whether the CCNA can get you a job here).  Real equipment is real.  It fails, shuts down when the power goes out, breaks, and reacts like real equipment does in the real world.  

A simulation environment like Packet Tracer of course is not real at all.  You’ll never have a device fail in Packet Tracer and never encounter a bad cable, which occurs with some frequency on the job.  But even though Packet Tracer alone isn’t the best preparation for a real networking job, it is enough to prepare you for the CCNA exam, which is our goal in this article.  Also, Packet Tracer has some benefit in that it operates faster than actual equipment does and has some learning and testing tools built in that equipment does not have.

For this step, keep your focus on learning and mastering the material for the exam and not on trying to find equipment that is functional and suitable for your use.  You’ll have plenty of time to build your networking lab when you’re not in the middle of actively preparing for your CCNA exam.  Good luck!

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About the author 

Matt Day

Matt Day is a cybersecurity professional with over twenty years of experience in the IT, cybersecurity and technology training fields. He has a degree in Computer Information Science and CompTIA A+, Network+, Security+, Server+, CySA+, and Cisco CCNA certifications. Matt is the author of the courses CCNA Troubleshooting Mastery and Cybersecurity Career Launch, and the book CCENT Troubleshooting Guide.