Personal Study Tips of a Time-Strained Cert-Seeker

Let me start out by stating I am no expert with studying, and the art of study is different for everyone. However, I have come up with a couple of tips which have helped me go from 0 certifications to CCNA, CCNA Sec, CCNA Wireless and CCNP all in under a year while working and going to school full time. This post is equally a call to everyone to also comment/post your own tips for the community.

1: Make and keep a scheduled list

All right, I admit this is just as much a time management tip as it is a study tip, but those two things are in some cases the same thing! Make a list of every major task you have for the day, week and month along with a due date. Whether it be a Google/Outlook calendar, a smartphone app or good old fashion notebook, writing down what you need to accomplish in your studies really helps. This is especially important in regards to self-study where there is no boss or professor checking to see if you are keeping on task. This doesn’t have to be very detailed; in fact, it shouldn’t be. When you know the amount of work you need to do in a day to accomplish all of your goals, it is a great way to make everything seem more “do-able.”

Something I really suggest in regards to certification studying is to print off the “Certification Outline/Blueprint” from the certification’s website. This is a pre-made list of everything you need to know for the test. Break it into sections and work your way through it. Nothing feels better than crossing off a list item that once seemed daunting.

1.B: Set goal “due dates” for major projects. And set reminders! If you want to master a certain topic or finish reading a certain book by a certain time, write it down! My fellow procrastinators know that it is amazing what you can accomplish when you are up against a hard deadline. Use that to your advantage and create realistic time frames for major projects. This will also give you great insight into how you’re doing in your studies.

2: Perfect the art of “true multitasking”

What do I mean by “true multitasking”? I mean multitasking where your studies are not negatively affected while completing a separate task. Focusing 99% of your attention on whatever topic you are studying while your body habitually takes over to accomplish something else. This is an important distinction. Bad multitasking can be equally hurtful. Don’t multitask studies with ANYTHING that requires a large amount of mental attention. Don’t study and watch TV for example. Want a few examples of good multitasking situations? Sure!

  • Listen to networking/certification lectures while driving! I must admit I didn’t find the Packet Pushers podcast until recently, and am enjoying listening to the backlog on my daily commute. The INE audio series is also a great driving companion.
  • Read/watch while exercising: I am a visual learner, so products like CBT Nuggets and similar video lectures and labs are amazing resources for me. (I have probably spent more time with Jeremy Cioara than I would like to admit.) The 10th of October will actually be the 1 year anniversary of when I decided to get healthy, and I am confident that the year I have spent in on the treadmill exercising body and brain has been the most rewarding and educational of my life. “I don’t have time to workout” and “I don’t have time to watch a 50 minute lab on IP multicast” were the two biggest excuses I would tell myself. So, kill two birds with one stone!
  • Study on your lunch break: Do you really need to pay much attention when you’re eating? No. You have done it three times a day for your entire life! So while at work, rather than having awkward conversations about the weather with co-workers, pull out a book to feed your mind as well as your body.

3. Mix it up

Variety truly is the spice of life.  Don’t stick with just one book or lecture series. As I said previously, I am a very visual learner. But I can’t just watch lectures. So you’re getting bored of that dry “manual like” Cisco Press book? Fine! Crack open a lab manual. Watch a lecture series, make flash cards, go over your notes…you get the point. Not only does only using one single resource for study get plain boring, but also it will not cover everything. You cannot trust one book to cover all topics. You cannot trust one book to cover a topic in the best way. Using multiple tools to prepare for the same certification help to give you a full and broader area of study as well as keep things interesting.

4. Repetition

Simple and short. Don’t be afraid to re-read things even if you feel you understood it the first time. Comprehension and memory retention increase drastically when you read something a second time.

5. Work together

With the wonderful communities available online at great websites like this, there is no reason to go it alone! Join a study group and work with others. Take advantage of nice people who have taken the test before you. Ask questions on topics you’re struggling with, and always be willing to answer someone else’s question. To test if you truly understand a topic, explain it to someone else. You will quickly find out how thoroughly you understand it.

6. Don’t be afraid to take a break – NOTE! This doesn’t apply to the CCIE! ;-)

We all get frustrated. Sometimes it is better to put the book down for a little bit and do something else. The book will be there when you get back. If you feel like studying is becoming more of a self-inflicted torture, it may be time to give your mind a day or two to settle down. Go for a walk, call up a friend – just don’t kill yourself. We (hopefully) do networking because we like it and are interested in the field. Don’t forget that.

7. Don’t read about it, do it

This is nothing you haven’t heard before, but it really is the most important point. Reading about a technology can only get you so far. Fire up GNS3, buy a home lab and actually do the stuff! Why do you think the CCIE is so highly regarded? You need to know how to DO the things you read about! This will help you retain the information, understand it better and build confidence. Being able to give a textbook definition of an OSPF Totally Not So Stubby Area or a virtual link is nowhere near as valuable as being able to sit down in front of a CLI and actually set them up.

8. A “quickie” is better than nothing!

Don’t think that 15 minutes of study isn’t worth it! Take advantage of study materials which are built to be used in short bursts. Putting flash cards on a smartphone is a great example of this. Look for those 10-20 minute chunks in your day when you normally accomplish nothing and wedge a little study time in. That 15 minutes while you are waiting for your meeting to start can be an excellent time to check on how well you retained what you read last week. Also work to segment studies. Make and save several networking topologies in GNS3 with a base config. You are much more likely to jump into a pre-made config and just do a simple double-checking of a specific topic than you are if you need to start from scratch.  The more segmented studying requires less prep, and therefore less time.

Well, I’m sure that as soon as I submit this post, I will think of 10 more tips. So for now, we’ll call this “Part 1.”  What are your tips? I could have devoted an entire article just to tips on time management, apps/tools for study and study resources. (In fact, I hope to.) But until then, what am I missing, guys and gals? Surely some of the CCIEs out there can share a few of their tips to develop the god-like study habits the CCIE requires!

Alex Clark
Alex Clark is a 21 year old college student from Ohio who was lucky enough to discover what he loves early on in life: Networking, Cisco, Linux and other nerdy activities. He works as a network engineer/analysts and is working towards his next certification whenever there is free time. He has earned his CCNP, CCNA: Security, CCNA: Wireless, CCDA and CCNA. He is actively working on the CCIE R& S and hopes to sit the lab before 2014. In the more immediate future, he is finishing his CCDP.
  • http://northlandboy.com/ Lindsay Hill

    When studying for CCIE, the most important thing for me was to sit down with my wife, and work out how we were going to manage it. We came up with a plan that allocated study time and non-study time. That way she knew when I would be busy, but conversely, it stopped me from studying all the time, and ensured that I spent some time with friends/family/etc.

    This year I got into creating/using flashcards, after previously having just used a combination of reading + lab and practice questions. As I generally use public transport, I would use that time for either flashcards, or flipping through Ruhann’s RoutingBits handbook. Flashcards helped a lot with configuration speed, which is a huge part of CCIE these days.

    Other bits of my life have changed too, to be more organised – e.g. I have used RSS readers for a while, but recently I got more diligent about cutting out noisy feeds. I also started using Instapaper, so that when I saw links I wanted to read, I could fire them off to Instapaper, for later consumption. Much better for skimming through content. I’m thinking about using Cream sort through my feeds a bit more too.

    Previously I did some task management, but I’ve become more disciplined at it now. Rather than a simple list, I’m using software to help with it. This is partly driven by my changing job role, and partly by the need to manage my CCIE studies. I think it’s helping.

    • http://twitter.com/cjinfantino CJ Infantino

      What are you using for task management?

  • James L. Dumas

    I love #8. Some of my best studying sessions started from forcing myself to studying for “just 15 minutes” and then I couldn’t stop.