I failed my first attempt at the Cisco CCNA exam back in 2001. I’d studied for weeks but deep down knew I still wasn’t ready. I had a go anyway and got caught out by several subnetting questions. I felt angry and disappointed, but I had new found determination to pass the next time.
Since that day, I’ve taken around 15 IT exams (and failed a few), but I still get nervous. That’s despite the fact that I’ve been teaching for years, worked for Cisco systems, and written several Cisco manuals. There is a lot of psychological stuff happening when we take an exam, but we don’t have the space to go into it here. I just want to focus on actions to take in the event you are not successful.
There can be several reasons for failing an exam. I’ve taken exams before, and the simulator crashed so I couldn’t progress. I’ve taken exams and been asked several questions which were clearly outside the official syllabus. In these instances, you can often lodge a complaint and get a voucher to take the exam again.
Rather than turn this post into one about exam tips, I’ll cover the aftermath of failure.
It isn’t a pleasant feeling. You usually get a look of sympathy from the proctor who hands you your exam score with ”FAIL” stamped on it. Don’t take it personally; around 50% of students fail their exams and even a dual CCIE who has done a lot of work for me failed his CCNA five times in a row!
First thing is don’t beat yourself up. Just attempting the exam puts you in the category of a high achiever. During my 12 years of teaching, I’ve found 90% of students who start out never even take the exam. They just quit. Most exam failures fall into the categories of lack of preparation and poor performance due to anxiety, which seems somehow to suck the knowledge out of your head so you forget even the most basic of facts.
After every exam, I recommend you write down the subjects you were tested on. Did you really understand them in the detail necessary? Write down what it was about the questions which confused you. Did you understand how the technology worked or did you fall down when you had to actually apply it to a live network?
A large amount of exam preparation is taking practice exams. I’m not sure why, but stuff doesn’t seem to really sink in until you start answering exam questions. It seems to cement in the knowledge.
Armed with your weak areas, you can write up a study plan and book a date to retake the exam. Do not work on your strong areas. If you easily answered questions on subnetting, then why keep drilling it? The key is to work on your weak areas until they are your strong ones.
When it comes to nerves, I recommend a few things. If you are really suffering from anxiety, then get off the caffeine for a while. It can fray your nerves with long term use. Try some herbal teas – or consider Saint John's Wort, a herbal remedy for helping with anxiety.
If you are really worrying about your exam, then consider hypnotherapy to find out where the worry is all coming from. It’s normal to feel nervous, but when it begins to affect your performance, it is something which needs to be address.
Also, remember that it’s just an exam. You will still have your health, family, and job after it. The exam is just there to test your knowledge.