CCIE Pursuit Blog

September 2, 2007

CCIE Lab Strategy

Filed under: Cisco,Cisco Certification,Lab Tips — cciepursuit @ 7:17 am

One more excerpt from “So, You Want To Be A CCIE?”.   This time Scott goes over lab strategy.  Again, I encourage you to read the entire article.

CCIE Lab Day

This is it. It’s game day! And what a long, strange journey it’s been! So, what things make the day better? Well, it actually starts the night before. If you’re traveling to the lab, arrive early the previous day (or even a day before that). This will give you time to adjust from traveling (or possibly a time-zone change!).

The night before the exam, have a good dinner. Briefly review some notes of the important things to remember (you did make these, didn’t you?). Emphasis on the word briefly. You aren’t going to cram for a test like this. You won’t learn or retain anything new from the night before. Get a good night’s sleep. Go to bed early. Dream of the CCIE certification plaque.

On game day, hopefully you woke up well rested! Now, go join all the other candidates in the trenches! At this point, let’s review all the psychological pressures you need to relieve and erase before engaging the enemy — the CCIE lab exam.

First, remember that during the lab, you are responsible for you and only you. Whatever anyone else is doing is not important (unless they throw something at you, those jerks). Do whatever is necessary for you to ignore the people around you. I recommend earplugs or a noise-canceling headset.

After entering the exam room, you’ll be told all the rules about time and break room and bathroom access. You know, the important stuff! After that, you’ll be assigned a desk, pod of equipment and a lab book. Your lab book is likely going to be different than the person next to, in front of, or in back of you, so don’t even bother letting your eyes wander.

Read the entire exam first! Yes, the whole thing. Jot down some notes that might help you throughout the day. Start getting a feel for the lab, where it’s going and what problems may arise. Judge how one task impacts another. Nothing operates in a microcosm, so you need to be able to identify these things. Bruce Caslow, of training provider NetMasterClass, refers to this as “spotting the issues.” See the problematic potholes in the road before you run into them.

The reason you do this is not only to plan your attack but also because the beginning of the day is the only time your mind will be clear. Later on, when problems do arise, you’ll be so deep into OSPF or BGP, or whatever else, that you’ll lose sight of the big picture. So, look ahead for those problem areas.

Create yourself a diagram of the lab. Yes, they already give you one, but it may not have everything you want, and you’re not allowed to write on it. Draw your own: quick and easy. You should also consider marking things in multiple colors to differentiate them easier. It may be messy, and that’s fine. When you’re taking an exam, it’s function over form. You’re not making a work of art.

By the way, if the exam was good enough to read once, it’s a good idea to read through it a second time. Check your drawing and notes and everything before typing anything. This whole process should take between 20 and 30 minutes. This is why earplugs, or noise-canceling headphones, are very important. Even though you know it’s a good idea to plan and read ahead, you’ll hear other candidates madly typing away not even five seconds after sitting down. No matter how much you tell yourself this planning is important and worthwhile, some part of your brain will attempt to sow doubt in your mind saying you’re falling behind and too slow. The stress can be maddening, but don’t give in. Carefully map out your plan of attack.

The lab will be presented to you in point sections. Each point section may have multiple tasks listed. There is no partial credit. That means if there are three tasks in a section worth three points and you complete two of them successfully, you still get zero points for that section. One thing I’d recommend doing during the lab is to make yourself a checklist of the point section titles. For example:

Basic OSPF (2 points)
Multi-area OSPF (4 points)
OSPF Filters (2 points)

As you complete all tasks within a particular point section, check it off on your list. This will give you a running total at any time during the day of how many points you believe you have. This will help you adjust your battle plan throughout the day. As the day goes by, and time runs short, don’t try to tackle the hard things that you aren’t as experienced with. Work on the things that are sure to give you the most points!

Ask plenty of questions! Make sure that you understand what is being asked of you. Remember also, though, that the proctor can’t feel that they’re revealing too much information. So ask questions such that you demonstrate your knowledge level but that you only desire clarification.

Dissect the scenario pieces. Find out which parts are core to building the network and which are more just “fluff” on top. When you start to understand the relationships between the pieces, this will be easier to spot. Look for things at the end of the exam that are destined to affect something you did earlier. Make a note so you don’t forget!

In the end, only 80 points out of 100 are needed to pass the CCIE lab. It might be a B- in high school but here it’s difficult to achieve! Your ability to adjust your game plan on the fly (like a quarterback calling audibles in American football) and knowing where you stand at any point during the exam will help you greatly! If you find you’ve reached 80 points, don’t stop there! Just because you think you’ve accomplished a task doesn’t mean that something wasn’t missed in between! Aim for 100! Accept nothing short of perfection! (Just kidding, but do try your best!)

Quick Lab Performance Checklist

1. When you get your lab, avoid the urge to jump in and start configuring the routers. You are not in a race with anyone but yourself. Read through the exam more than once.

2. Because you’ve been studying lots and regularly updating your notes, you should be able to spot issues and potential pitfalls during the lab exam. Use colored pens to diagram the network, connections, network addresses, routing protocols and anything else important — anything to help you remember later!

3. Make a checklist of the various exam sections and how many points they’re worth. Check off sections as you fully (and correctly) complete them. There’s no partial credit within a particular point section, so if you miss the instruction to name your switch “Bubba” instead of “Rack1Cat1,” you’ve already lost points. The small things can, and usually do, kill you.

4. As you go through the lab, assume that something won’t work right or something new will come up that you don’t remember. Whatever the issue, work logically and try to “think” like a router does. Although the software is very powerful, the routers themselves are not very bright. Often just “thinking like the router does” will give you the necessary perspective.

5. Don’t spend a lot time trying to fix something. If you spend more than 20 to 30 minutes on a problem, it’s time to move on. Sometimes changing focus lets you see problems in a much clearer light. Stand up and stretch or get a drink, wander down the hall … The only thing you can’t do is call Cisco TAC from the CCIE lab! Unlike the TV show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” there’s no Phone-A-Friend option!

What’s Up DOC?

I came across this article that Scott Morris wrote for  It’s from 2005, so it is a little dated, but well worth reading.  I encourage you to read the entire article, but I wanted to repost part of the article that deals with the importance of knowing how to use the Documentation CD during the exam:

What’s Up DOC? 

The Documentation CD is your friend. It’s the only reference you’ll have available during the lab, so you had best know it well!

Let me share with you a little anecdote. Back in 1999, when I was studying for the Routing and Switching lab, I went through all of these steps. I played with everything, I studied and labbed it all up! My goal was to practice on labs more bizarre than the actual test lab would be so that I could know everything possible and be one of the few who passed on the first try.

That was the goal anyway! And, I studied a lot to get there. Well, needless to say, they came up with something on the lab that I hadn’t thought about. Right then and there, that messed up my game a bit. Also, I’m one of those people who’ll beat something to death in troubleshooting until I figure it out. A great habit in real life, not so good under the time pressure of the lab!

They threw the kitchen sink at me, but I figured it out. However, I ate up a lot of time in the process, and I was unable to finish the whole exam because my bad management of time. Not cool.

Between my first and second attempts, I didn’t touch a router. The only thing I did was become more familiar with the Doc CD. By the time my second attempt came around, there were some things on the test I hadn’t thought about (they’re good at that!). But instead of blindly stabbing away at it, I took a more methodical approach with the Documentation CD and found answers faster. On this second attempt, I even finished the exam early—so early, in fact, it scared me! Fortunately, this time, I was successful.

So, remember, you have to have a strategy about how you’ll handle things and stick to it. Time management is a critical: Every minute you spend idling away or typing uselessly is 1/480 of your test, and it’ll go by fast!

Realizing this will also help you with answering, “How much of everything do I need to know? How can I memorize that much?” The answer is don’t memorize. Learn it. Once you know the basics, you can look up the details. If you know the basics, and you are familiar with the Doc CD, you’ll have plenty of time to fill in the blanks. Personally, I try not to memorize things, because commands may change from version to version of IOS. But conceptually, I know what I’m looking for so the details can be found in the Doc CD. In the very unfortunate case you don’t have a clue about something on the test, you can find out about it on the Doc CD: It covers everything on the test. Just be careful how much time you spend on it!

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