Mental Preparation for the CCIE Lab

Carole Warner Reece

This article is directed to CCIE candidates, especially R&S CCIE candidates. As I mentioned in my article on CCIE Lab Preparation and Soft Skills, I believe it is not enough for CCIE candidates to just prepare technically for the CCIE lab, I think you also need test taking skills and mental toughness for successful completion of the lab. My premise is that you need to practice strategies and mental preparation techniques so that you can showcase your technical expertise in the constrained time limits of the CCIE lab exam.

I’ve been talking about some of these ideas with Terry Slattery, and he sent me a Wall Street Journal link to an article by Sue Shellenbarger on the “Toughest Exam Question: What Is the Best Way to Study?” I thought it was a pretty good article, so I thought I would expand on a few of the key points that I think apply specifically to CCIE candidates.

Test Yourself Repeatedly

The WSJ article mentions that testing yourself repeatedly helps to teach your brain how to retrieve and apply knowledge from memory, and that this is probably more effective than just reviewing a technical article or a book. This is probably why successful CCIE candidates run through multiple hours of lab practice on expert level topics, and do this multiple times. They may not know this is part of their learning strategy, but they are establishing a pattern of solving problems.

For what its worth, I also apply a similar idea of practice testing to those Cisco and other IT certification tests – I make up multiple choice versions of key facts, put them in an Excel spreadsheet, put the  the answer key in white in one column, and then review the questions selecting the best answer in another column where I check my results. This process seems to help me prepare.

Remove Novelty and Stress
Sue also mentions you will also want to reduce novelty and stress on the day of the exam. Perhaps you can visit the Cisco office in advance. If you can’t visit it in person, here is an older video from Cisco that provides a look inside:

Even if you can’t visit the exam building in advance, you should definitely practice in as similar an environment as possible. This means using the same tools:

  • Putty not Secure CRT or another terminal emulator
  • Interface similar to the exam site (a keyboard in the test site language, one monitor close to the same size —thanks Daniel!)
  • Practice exam questions all in an electronic format
  • Only blank paper and pens or blank marker boards for starting diagrams

You might also plan some simple ways to reduce your stress, such chewing gum or eating Tums (that really was one of my strategies!!)

Practice, Practice, Practice
You need a ton of hands on practice on gear, CCIE candidates really need to know a huge range of technology as I mentioned in CCIE Roadmaps, Topics, and Blueprints.  In addition to these required technical skills, part of your practice should be test-taking skills dealing with the environment and pacing. Environment can be a factor – there is a higher success rate for CCIE candidates on their second and later attempts. Part of this is probably because they studied more, but part is probably because they have already seen the exam room, saw the actual lab delivery mechanism, and attempted the actual exam once before.

However, you can do some of that practice before you get to the lab day. For the six hour configuration section, I recommend running some practice labs from workbooks from two or more CCIE lab prep providers. For the 2 hour troubleshooting section of the CCIE lab, I recommend running some ticket based labs in a simulated CCIE lab format, such as the Cisco Learning Labs Troubleshooting labs, or the TU portion of the Cisco 360 Performance Assessment labs both available from the Cisco Learning Network Store.

Pacing is another strategy that you need to practice. In the CCIE lab you “just” need 80% in troubleshooting, and 80% in configuration in the allotted time frame. Practice your pace – solve the easy tasks first, and build up a pile of points. You first need to review the entire exam section you are working on to decide what are easy versus hard tasks. Once you estimate that, you should be able to plan whether it is ok to push a task to later in the day, or even completely skip a task if the point value is low, and it does not impact overall connectivity.

The key to passing the troubleshooting section is resolving enough trouble ticket scenarios to pass this section. These tickets may not overlap much, and do not need to be solved sequentially. The key to passing the configuration section of the lab is end-to-end connectivity meeting a sufficient number of the lab scenario constraints– but the lab exam does NOT need to be implemented sequentially.

Watch Your Diet and Hydration
The WSJ also mentions that the week before a big exam, you should eat a balanced diet. Extending that idea, I suggest that during the exam, you work to not exceed your typical coffee intake, by perhaps mixing in plain water to keep you hydrated. I personally think that taking a deliberate brief bathroom break every hour or so also helps with the exam. I feel the few minutes away from the keyboard allows your mind to maybe make some connections, somewhat like when you put together an idea while in the shower.

Visualize Success
Sue’s article also suggests you visualize success, which should help build your confidence and reduce your stress. Cisco could make the lab exam so hard that no one could pass, but I believe they truly want to find folks that can rise above a stressful situation and demonstrate their expertise. So if some folks are going to pass, develop a positive outlook and visualize this time it will be you.

Good luck to all of you current CCIE candidates! Study hard with a lot of practice using a test strategy, keep up the positive outlook, and attack your lab attempt with deep technical knowledge and a strong mental mindset. Let me know if this helps you!

— cwr

13 responses to “Mental Preparation for the CCIE Lab

  1. I will be sharing this link with my CCIE students Carole! I preach four cornerstones of success – 1 – Tech Knowledge 2 – Strategy 3 – Mindset 4 – Physical Wellness

  2. That was a very good article!!! Working on my CCIE R&S for the las 2 years… it has been a journey from practices, theory and strategy development!!! Great!!! Thank’s for your article!!!

  3. Nice article Carole!

    Being mentally prepared is very important. Here are some steps I have taken to prepare.

    Started practicing with Putty right away since that is used for R&S
    Using english keyboard although I’m from Sweden
    Only using one monitor which is similar size to the one at the lab

    Those are the things I can think of right now.

  4. Hi Daniel –

    Thanks, the "keyboard in the language of the test site" is a very good addition!


  5. hi,
    Excellent article on mental preparation.
    I would like to know if tabbing facility will be available with Putty in CCIE lab. If yes, please let me know how to enable tabbing on Putty tool.

    I have been using Secure CRT and now i would like to change as Putty is the only one supported.

  6. In the thread here [url]
    Bruno van de Werve who is on the Cisco CCIE lab team says ‘There is no tab option as we believe it is important to be able to compare multiple windows side by side, which is not possible if they are tabbed.’

    Someone else suggested that you should get used to running devices in separate windows. So I suggest getting used to multiple windows for the devices.


  7. Great article!

    I still have one more question. I wonder how can I prepare for the following situation. Once you are in the exam you have to jump from task to task very quickly. This is hard for me. Especially if there is a difficult subject. I’m starting to stress 😮 . I think this reduces my performance.

    In any other situation if you are in the real world (not in the exam) you can take time, calm down and resolve the problem. In the exam you cannot take any "time". You just have to forget previous task and jump into next task.

    How should I prepare? Should I try to get angry >:( or something?

  8. Kaage –

    I think the best way to prepare for the stress is to be well prepared. Practice, practice, and then practice some more with time constraints and as similar an environment as you can.


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Nick Kelly

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Nick has over 20 years of experience in Security Operations and Security Sales. He is an avid student of cybersecurity and regularly engages with the Infosec community at events like BSides, RVASec, Derbycon and more. The son of an FBI forensics director, Nick holds a B.S. in Criminal Justice and is one of Cisco’s Fire Jumper Elite members. When he’s not working, he writes cyberpunk and punches aliens on his Playstation.


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