If you’re considering the Cisco CCNA as your next certification, you may want to know what you should be focusing on before you sit for the exam.  In this article, I cover seven things you should consider doing before you take the plunge and sit for your Cisco CCNA certification.

What should you do before the CCNA?  Before taking the Cisco CCNA certification, test takers should establish their basic networking knowledge, build hands-on experience through a variety of formats, and familiarize themselves with more advanced network configuration options.

Let’s jump in and look at what you can do before your CCNA exam.

1. Take a basic networking course

If you’re just starting out in IT or cybersecurity and you don’t have any real knowledge or experience yet, one of your first steps should be to start building basic networking knowledge (my Intro to Networking course can help).  

Some people who have their sights set on the CCNA jump quickly into the more advanced material on the exam or jump into working with the equipment pretty quickly, which can create a situation where the person is working with networking technology but doesn’t understand the basic foundation of what they’re actually working with (read my article here about how hard the CCNA really is).

If you are truly new to the field and don’t have any networking knowledge at all, consider first taking a networking basics course.  You should definitely consider this if you’re trying to learn the CCNA on your own.  I’ve found it to be pretty effective to run people through the basics of networking first so that they can judge their interest and aptitude for the subject before having them jump into the CCNA content.  This also enables me as their instructor to get them hands-on with equipment quickly, once we get into the CCNA material.

Now it is true that the official CCNA curriculum does include basic networking content, but it also gets hands on pretty quickly, which is why taking a basic networking course first may be helpful if you’re studying on your own without the benefit of access to an instructor.

2. Consider Taking the CompTIA Network+ First

I’ve talked about the similarities between the Cisco CCNA and the CompTIA Network+ before, and have found that if you have a choice between the two, most people would benefit from taking the Network+ first (see my article here about why you should take the Network+ before CCNA).

If you haven’t earned your CompTIA Network+ yet, and you are interested in both of these certifications, one option for you to consider before you take the CCNA would be to instead prepare for and sit for the Network+.  The Network+ exam will require less preparation, study, and hands-on experience, and therefore can be earned more quickly than the CCNA (here’s why the Network+ is worth it).  And the Network+ is well recognized by employers as well.

3. Download Packet Tracer from Cisco’s netacad.com Site

If you’re taking an official CCNA course with an instructor, your instructor may already have you working with Cisco’s Packet Tracer software to complete labs related to the course material.

However, if you’re self-studying for the CCNA, and especially if you don’t have access to real equipment, one thing to do before taking the CCNA would be to download Packet Tracer software and practice working with the virtual equipment in the program.

Packet Tracer is a proprietary network simulation program developed and maintained by Cisco that is designed to help CCNA test takers work through labs associated with the CCNA material.  Cisco makes the Packet Tracer program available to everyone for free at their site netacad.com  (You will have to create an account and jump through a few hoops, but you’ll still be able to download it.) Here are some time-saving tips for using Packet Tracer.

Packet Tracer has some limitations, but for the CCNA, it is a pretty good tool to practice working with Cisco commands and configurations that you may see on the exam, and it provides a quick way to mock up a network topology and try out a configuration, which would be much more involved with real equipment.

4. Set Up a Wifi Network

Another thing that I recommend test takers do before sitting for the CCNA is to spend some time configuring an actual home or small-office wireless network.  Modern wireless routers are inexpensive, readily available, and have an amazing volume of networking protocols and options built in that you can practice working with.

For example, most wireless devices have switch ports, routing, NAT, DHCP, firewall, encryption, VLANs, and many other features already built in.  Working with one of these devices, even if it’s not Cisco, is a great way to reinforce what you’ve learned in your CCNA preparation, all in one device.  No other device that is covered in depth on the CCNA can provide so much variety.

5. Complete Lots of Labs

If you’ve been following along so far, you’ve already downloaded Packet Tracer and gotten hands on with real Wi-Fi equipment.  Now that you’ve downloaded Packet Tracer, a great next step is to go through labs for the CCNA.

If you’re taking an actual CCNA course, you already have access to dozens of step-by-step labs that you can and should do.  If you’re not taking a CCNA course, you can still find hundreds of CCNA related labs online by doing a basic internet search.

At this stage in your preparation for the CCNA, working through actual labs will give you a variety of experiences that will help prepare you for anything that the actual CCNA exam might throw at you.  Don’t make the mistake of completing a video course or reading a CCNA textbook but skimping on the time you spend working with labs, since this will be one of the best ways for you to reinforce your CCNA networking knowledge.

6. Get Experience on Actual Equipment

Now that we’ve covered getting hands-on with basic equipment, such as a Wi-Fi router, you should also consider any opportunity that you can find to work with actual equipment that the CCNA exam covers (to see how to get hands-on experience for all things cyber, check this article out.)

Getting access to this equipment is often easier said than done, but if you are taking a CCNA course at a college, your college may have a lab available to you.  Also, many of the actual Cisco devices can be purchased in a used state online for pennies on the dollar, meaning that you could buy all of the Cisco equipment you would ever need for the exam for a few hundred dollars, even though this equipment cost several thousand dollars when new.

To be clear, many people have passed the Cisco CCNA without ever touching real networking equipment (usually by using Packet Tracer), and some colleges don’t even provide access to this equipment for their CCNA classes.  But if you do have the opportunity to get access to real Cisco networking equipment, it is a great way to reinforce your knowledge and build confidence for the exam.  And keep in mind that no simulation software is ever going to be as real as real equipment.

7. Watch Configuration Videos

One final thing that I recommend people do before sitting for the CCNA is to spend some time online watching Cisco CCNA configuration videos.  There are hundreds of videos available online where you can watch a networking professional configure any and every topic that is listed on the CCNA objectives.

A lot of people don’t think about doing this, but watching a professional do what you’re trying to learn to do is extremely helpful.  It is the fastest way to learn shortcuts, witness the thought process that experienced professionals go through, and see where you’ve been doing things the hard way.  All of these things could never be effectively explained in a book, but watching a video is a sure way to see for yourself how things can and should be done. And if you’re looking for more CCNA tips, check out my article here.

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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.