When it comes to studying for IT exams, I’ve seen people who throw money at it. They have several textbooks, memberships to three or four video training sites, they pay for exam prep sites, and even sign up for expensive academy courses from big name vendors. Perversely, these people quickly become overwhelmed and quit.
Some people think that more is more, but when it comes to IT certification often less can be more. While it’s nice to have another source to refer to when studying, having five or six can just get confusing. Add to this the fact that if you have five books, you have to spend five times longer reading them all.
When I was studying for my Cisco CCNA back in 2000, all I could afford was one textbook, so that’s all I used. I suppose it helped that there were no online resources available. My textbook did the job, but nowadays, I tend to use one main study guide and have another one to dip into when I want to compare or supplement another subject.
Here are a few tips if you are studying on a budget.
Use the Free Sites
Some experts create free online study guides to help you prepare for the exams. Quality varies, of course, but they can give you an excellent starting point. Most lack important aspects, such as exam engines, live equipment to use, and challenge labs, though, and many aren’t kept up-to-date since the owners work full-time jobs.
Here is my free CCNA study site.
This is a superb resource for all IT people. If you Google each syllabus topic, you will almost always find a Wikipedia article on it. Bear in mind that most articles are vendor neutral, and in the exam, the vendor will expect you to understand the way THEY like to implement the technology, but even so, it’s an excellent go-to resource.
Most vendors supply comprehensive configuration and troubleshooting information to support their products. Some even offer free certification training for their products, which they see as a great way to get market exposure. Sites with excellent documentation include Cisco, Juniper, and Microsoft.
A drawback, of course, is that sites such as Cisco.com feature tens of thousands of pages of documentation. Bear in mind that every single IOS release for every single product is hosted, so you could spend hundreds of hours ploughing through this scattered material. When commands or solutions become end-of-life or are replaced (such as TLS replacing SSL), you may not be informed of this on the relevant page so may not realize that you are studying out-of-date information.
Vendor forums are also a great way to post questions and engage with product experts. Bear in mind that you may also get answers from novices who can lead you down dead ends, so check the number of posts and the number of “thank yous” from other members.
Kindle Study Guides
I personally much prefer printed books for technical guides. I don’t mind Kindle for fiction, but that’s where it ends. With printed books, you can write notes, highlight important points, and add extra information gleaned from other books or your own observations after doing a hands on lab, for example.
But, if you are on a budget, you should be able to pick up Kindle versions of the study guides fairly inexpensively. Just bear in mind that, for some crazy reason, some vendors charge the same price for the Kindle version as the printed one. This sort of thievery makes me very angry, but it’s their choice. My Kindle books go for around $10 and the printed around $67.
Here is one of my CCNA study guides on Kindle.
Cisco has been slow to allow student versions of their IOS, but there is talk of this happening, possibly in partnership with another company, such as GNS3. Microsoft, on the other hand, usually offers free trial periods for all its software. You can usually install this on a virtual machine, so you are running hosts and servers on your home PC or laptop.
GNS3 offers a great Cisco and Juniper environment, but you still have to source your own IOS.
You can buy used books and equipment on eBay. You might think that this is a cost, but consider it a way of renting everything you need. You can easily buy a used router or study guide for say $30 and, when you are done, sell it for the same price a month or two later.
Rent Online Equipment
Most vendors offer online access to their equipment. Cisco and Juniper, for example, offer low cost access to entire racks of routers and switches or virtual machines running real IOS but on a server. You wouldn’t know the difference.
Other vendors, such as INE and howtonetwork.com, offer live rack access as part of their memberships. As far as I know, INE offers CCIE level racks only, but you can choose to use only part of the rack if you are doing lower level exams.
After teaching many thousands of students over the years, I feel that it’s important to point out a big gotcha. If you can put some top quality study time in, then you should be able to pass exams, such as the Cisco CCNA or a Microsoft MCSA module, in around six to eight weeks.
If you are spending much of your study time slogging through vendor websites or trying to poll multiple white papers, forums, and Wikipedia, you could find yourself spending several months to pass your exam. Much of that time would be wasted trying to pull out the quality information you need.
I’d recommend having one main study guide, a secondary study guide to dip into (one hard copy and the second guide in Kindle format). If you can find a reasonably priced streaming video course, then it could cut your study time in half.
Get access to equipment (if there is a hands on portion for the exam) by getting trial copies or online rack access if you can. If you can’t, then get it cheap from eBay, and resell it when you are done.
My point is that the quicker you can pass the cert, the quicker you can get the paying job or promotion.
Hope it helps.