The three primary entry level CompTIA certifications are the A+, Network+ and Security+, and because so many people start their careers focusing on one or more of these certifications, the question often comes up about which certification to take first and which of these you really need for your career.
Should you take the CompTIA A+ before Network+? You don’t need to, and probably shouldn’t take the CompTIA A+ before the Network+ certification exam, because if you’re entering into field of cyber security, your focus should be on obtaining the Network+ and Security+ instead.
I’m sure this response brings up quite a few questions in everyone’s mind, so let’s discuss why skipping the A+ is practical and why you should go for the Network+ and Security+ instead.
Reasons why skipping the CompTIA A+ makes sense
While I do train students on CompTIA A+ material, and in fact require the training before they get into networking, I have been advising students to skip the CompTIA A+ certification exam and jump straight to the Network+ exam if they are pursuing a certification. There are several reasons why.
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Reason #1: CompTIA A+ requires two exams, while Network+ and Security+ only require one. The A+ covers a lot of material and requires you to take two exams, which most people sit for on different days, often a week or more apart. This two exam approach requires a lot more study and preparation and therefore delays when you can actually say that you’re certified. One test certifications are the best option for entry level certification seekers because they are more manageable and provide the positive reinforcement of an early victory that much sooner. And because it’s advisable to also be looking for internship or entry level opportunities while you’re pursuing your certifications and education, it’s that much sooner that the certification will be on your resume.
Reason #2: Network+ is not more difficult than the A+. While CompTIA recommends that you take A+ before Network+, they have never made it a requirement, and plenty of people are successful jumping right to the Network+. This is because the Network+ isn’t any more difficult that the A+, and in fact it may be easier than the A+ simply because of the tremendous amount of material on both A+ exams and the rote memorization much of the A+ material requires. If the difficulty level is so similar, it is worth considering if the higher level Network+ certification is a better use of your time. Keep in mind that A+ knowledge is important, and will help you success on the Network+, so it’s still an important subject to learn. But what we’re talking about here is which topic to choose to do the deep dive study required to pass a certification.
Reason #3: A+ aligns to a lower level, and lower paid skill set. The CompTIA A+ is the go to certification for anyone interested in getting into a computer repair or help desk position, but those positions have always been considered entry level and have been on the lower end of the pay scale. Since your study time is limited, the fact is you just don’t have the time to prepare for every certification you may want or learn everything you may want to know, so we have to be careful and deliberate with our study time. It’s not prudent to spend time on a certification that aligns to a skill set that you will quickly move beyond in your career. Consider this: If you only had time to prepare for two certifications, would you want the A+ and Network+, or the Network+ and Security+? I think in some cases, having the A+ may inadvertently pigeonhole us into a non-cyber security position or career path.
Reason #4: Network+ supersedes A+ in most employer’s minds. It seems that employers are fairly comfortable with assuming that if you’re solid on the Network+ than you also have a working knowledge of A+ as well. This is because Network+ is considered more valuable, but not that much more advanced than the A+ certification. This means that if you had an intermediate or advanced certification, such as the CompTIA CASP but didn’t have any other certifications or experience, employers would probably question your ability and if you have the practical knowledge and background you really need. But because Network+ is so close to A+ in level, it doesn’t have this same risk of being your first certification and causing an employer to question your true ability.
Network+ and Security+ – Your path to a cyber career
I’ve mentioned that the key to entry level cyber security employment is more likely to be the combination of Network+ and Security+ instead of A+, and that’s because these two exams are positioned really well to show an employer you have a solid foundation in cyber knowledge and are ready to get working. Let’s take a look at the advantages of this particular two-certification approach.
Advantage #1: Network+ and Security+ overlap a good bit. It seems that in recent years CompTIA has been merging the content of the Network+ and Security+ exams more and more. Network+ now has a substantial security component, and the Security+ exam now asks questions about networking concepts and components, including ports, protocols and equipment. Since studying for a certification exam takes so much effort anyway, and these two certifications only require one test, we can get pretty far by studying for these exams and knocking them out in short order.
Advantage #2: An understanding of network systems and how to secure them goes hand in hand. And that is exactly what these two exams are designed to verify you know. Having one without the other leaves gaps and doesn’t make your knowledge base as well rounded as it should be.
Advantage #3: Taking both makes passing the Security+ easier. Yes, I have seen students jump right to the Security+ exam and pass, but I haven’t seen those same students get hired. Passing Security+ is doable, but the solid foundation of networking knowledge that Network+ provides is undeniable. By getting the Network+ also, you’re building that solid foundational knowledge you’ll need for Security+ and many other certifications down the line.
Should I take Network+ or Security+ first?
After you’ve gotten a solid understanding of CompTIA A+ knowledge (but not necessarily to the level needed for certification success), your focus should be on the CompTIA Network+. You’ll want to take the Network+ before the Security+ because the information in Network+ is the basis for the Security+, but also because CompTIA wants you to, and they certainly have written the exams with the assumption that you are going in that order. What that means that when sitting for the Security+, CompTIA is assuming you have the networking knowledge expected, so their exam style and questioning will assume that as well. If you aren’t solid on that prerequisite information, you’re making the exam harder on yourself.
Taking the Network+ first also has a nice side benefit, and that is that getting your Network+ positions you for an entry level cyber security or networking job pretty quickly, so you would have more internship and job opportunities right away by knocking out the Network+. Since Security+ aligns to a higher skill set and a higher job classification, employers will probably want to see more qualifications than just the Security+ certification alone before they give you that level of responsibility. What that means is that, at the entry level, Network+ may very well get you hired faster, which is why it’s nice to get it done first.
How do I know when I’m ready to sit for a certification exam?
There is a solid process I have outlined in other posts for anyone to follow to prepare for a certification exam, but the basis is really about three things. If you check off these three items, you should be ready for exam success.
Prep Item #1: Review multiple sources. Reviewing only one certification resource is probably not going to be enough to ensure you know any certification topic well enough. Different authors and teachers explain things in different ways, and learning from more than one is your ticket to understanding a certification topic from every angle.
Prep Item #2: Review several hundred exam questions. Reviewing exam questions is helpful because it can quickly tell you where your knowledge is lacking. Since most certification exams at this level will be about 50 or so questions, you will probably want to review four times that, or at least two hundred questions in order to assure you’ve seen just about anything they can throw at you.
Prep Item #3: Teach it to others. Take some time to attempt to teach a topic on the exam to someone else. You should be able to explain the topic in full detail and answer any questions they have, without any difficulty or hesitation. When you can do that, you’re just about ready.
Now, get started by heading on over to the library to check out a Network+ book!
Where do I take the certification exams? CompTIA’s exams are offered through Pearson Vue, which has authorized testing centers just about everywhere. Check out pearsonvue.com to do a testing center search for your area.
How much do the CompTIA certification exams cost? Most are about $300 or so, but they do provide educational discounts if you have a .edu email address or are a student. Check out specific rates for each exam at comptia.org.