This article is about how difficult the Cisco CCNA certification is. If you’re looking for information on how to prepare for the CCNA, see our article here. To see our recommended entry-level certifications, see our article here.

A lot of people ask how hard the Cisco CCNA certification actually is, and they want to know how it compares to other industry certifications, especially those offered by CompTIA.  I’ve taken and passed multiple Cisco certifications (including the CCNA), as well as certifications by CompTIA, and taught classes on those certifications as well, so in this article, I want to answer questions about how hard the Cisco CCNA actually is.

So, is the Cisco CCNA hard?  The Cisco CCNA is a challenging entry-level IT certification exam because it requires both technical networking knowledge and the ability to configure specific equipment issued by Cisco.  Because of this configuration requirement, test takers will need more experience with actual networking equipment than for other exams.

With that said, let’s start by looking into what makes the CCNA a challenging exam, especially for beginners.

Beginners and the Cisco CCNA

I have found that the Cisco CCNA is a great entry-level exam and one that every aspiring networking professional should seriously consider.  The CCNA benefits from a multi-decade track record, is highly recognized by professionals and employers in the industry, and is a good measure of someone’s networking knowledge and actual hands-on ability.  However, this doesn’t mean that the exam is ideal for absolute beginners.

Is the CCNA hard for beginners?  The CCNA is a hard exam for beginners because it tests heavily on the ability to configure Cisco equipment and troubleshoot actual issues that often arise in networking.  Because of this, beginners often need several months of hands-on experience with live equipment or a simulator to be prepared for these objectives on the exam.

This hands-on configuration requirement of the Cisco CCNA is what really separates it from other entry-level IT certification exams on the market such as the Network+ (more on that in a moment).  While the networking concepts on the CCNA exam could be learned from a video course or textbook, understanding how to use the configuration commands that the exam requires simply takes actual practice.  It would be nearly impossible for someone to learn this part of the exam effectively without actually doing these things in a lab environment.

Experienced Pros and the Cisco CCNA

If you’re in the situation where you’ve been fortunate enough to actually be working in the field, with a position that has some interaction with actual networking, then you are certainly a step ahead of others without that experience.

For those that get hands on experience at work, you’ll find the exam to be a good test of your knowledge and skills.  One mistake that is often made by those already in the field is that they often underestimate how much study they’ll actually need in order to be prepared for the CCNA exam.

As IT and cyber professionals, we often forget that we actually don’t use all of the commands that would be on an exam every day while at work.  If you think about it, your job probably requires that you do a few things quite often, but then some other networking tasks you may not even get a chance to do but every six months or so.  And that is where the challenge for existing professionals comes in – making sure that you are still sharp on those networking concepts that you don’t work with frequently.

A good strategy for working IT and cybersecurity professionals looking to pass the Cisco CCNA is to pursue your study strategy at first as a skimming or overview, depending on your experience, and then dive deeper into the topics that you’re not as fresh on.  From there, always be sure to cover many practice exam questions until you’re getting at least 85% of those correct.  Don’t underestimate how much the miniscule topics that the exam will throw at you can sink your chances at passing by not being fully prepared.

Cisco CCNA vs. CompTIA Network+

The comparison between the CCNA and CompTIA’s Network+ is one that many test-takers make and a lot of people ask about, and for good reason.  That’s because these two certification exams are very similar.  Just to prove the point, take a moment to compare the two exam objectives sheets and it becomes very apparent that there is tremendous overlap in exam content.

Where these two exams differ, of course, is that the Network+ is vendor-neutral, and the CCNA is Cisco proprietary.  This has a big impact on the “hands-on” or performance-based sections of the exams, as the Network+ will have to generalize these questions much more than the CCNA.

If you’re preparing for the CompTIA Network+, you should have some experience with network configuration and troubleshooting on some form of equipment.  However, this equipment doesn’t have to be Cisco, and I have seen people pass the Network+ without ever actually completing real networking practice.

If, on the other hand, you’re shooting for the CCNA, keep in mind that it would be virtually impossible to pass this exam without having worked in a Cisco-based lab environment of some type and having learned the required commands.  While I have seen people pass the Network+ without experience, I have never seen that happen with the Cisco CCNA.

Is the CCNA harder than the CompTIA Network+?  Test takers will find the Cisco CCNA more challenging than the Network+ because the CCNA requires substantial knowledge of actual Cisco IOS commands and how they apply to configuration scenarios.  This requires hands-on experience with a Cisco networking environment.

Should You Take Network+ or CCNA First?

The previous section leads into this question of what you should do first if you’re determined to do both, and should you even do both anyway.

Personally, I think all certification exams have value and improve the chances of hiring success, so having both certifications is better than having one, which is better than having none at all. I have seen that employers do recognize and value both, with perhaps the Network+ being more requested by employers slightly, just from my experience.

With that said, if you’re going to pursue both, a good strategy that I recommend is to pursue the CCNA and plan on gathering the hands-on experience required, and test for the CompTIA Network+ while on your way to the CCNA.  You certainly should take the Network+ before the CCNA if you’re planning on doing both, and those that are truly motivated can study for both at the same time.

Cisco CCNA vs. CompTIA Security+

For some reason, people will occasionally ask about how the Security+ from CompTIA compares to the Cisco CCNA.  Keep in mind that these are very different exams with very different objectives.  The Security+ is designed to prove that you know the basic concepts of network-based security so that you can step into an entry-level role that has a security component.  The Cisco CCNA is very different – it is designed to prove you are ready for an entry-level networking job that is based on Cisco equipment.

Both exams are entry-level, but are aiming at different targets.  They are even different in delivery – the Security+ is conceptual while the CCNA tries to be practical.

So, is CCNA harder than the CompTIA Security+Both the CCNA and Security+ are challenging entry-level exams, however most test takers will find the Security+ concepts and questions more challenging.  With proper hands-on practice, you should find the Cisco CCNA to be the easier exam of the two.

Should You Take Security+ or CCNA First?

Some people are planning to go straight into a cybersecurity role as quickly as possible, and perhaps want to work in a governmental or government contract position.  Many of these cybersecurity-based roles value the Security+, and in fact, treat the Security+ as the entry-level gateway certification into the field.  As such, if you’re planning on cybersecurity in your near future, you may want to choose the CompTIA Security+ as your next certification exam, and you may find that you won’t need the Cisco CCNA at all (see our article on how to pass the Security+ here).

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.