Guide: CCNA 200–301
I attempted and secured my CCNA in September 2021, I went from knowing nothing about this exam to passing it within 40 days. This article is about how I prepared for my exam, I will also cover my study plan and resources below. If you have any questions/doubts do drop them in the comments below or reach out to me on my LinkedIn.
CCNA stands for Cisco Certified Network Associate and is hosted and designed by Cisco Networks as an entry-level certification in the computer networks domain. This exam has been updated multiple times since its inception the latest 200–301 version was launched in early 2020 and has significant changes in exam structure. The older versions included some simulations and lab work, but this has been changed to only MCQ-style questions.
Name: CCNA 200–301
Register: Pearson Vue
Exam duration: 120 minutes
Number of Questions: 40–60 questions
Score to pass: >835/1000
Question Type: Multiple-Choice & Multi-Response Questions
Language: English / Japanese
Validity: 3 years
Cisco has a very well-defined structure to its networking certifications. The base starts with CCENT which stands for Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician, this is an extremely basic certification for people who have just started getting involved in the field of technology. Next, up is CCNA, which again is a little more evolved with the basics of many complex protocols involved in modern networks. To increase the complexity further they have CCNP which stands for Cisco Certified Network Professional, this is a professional level of certification that is much more hands-on and complex. CCNP is where you can start specializing in different domains like security, cloud, data center, etc.
CCNP is also where there is a base exam plus and a domain-specific exam. Further up the pyramid, we have CCIE which stands for Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert, this is one of the most difficult examinations in the networking domain out there and not to mention expensive. This is not for the faint-hearted, it needs at least a year's worth of preparation time even for professionals. One needs to pass both theoretical as well as a practical exam to win this certification and of course, there are different domains/specializations to choose from.
Who is this exam for?
First things First the CCNA certification is primarily for students, engineers, technicians, and analysts who are in the networking computer science of the telecommunications domain. If you are in the computer networks sector this certification can be used as a fundamental study course. Of course, this does not implicate people cannot survive with the certification but it helps. Additionally, I would recommend the CCNA to anyone who is trying to study for higher-level certifications like the CCNP or CCIE. Many assume that this certification will miraculously increase their pay scale, but in my opinion, a basic certification like CCNA is not good enough for a pay scale hike. It does help to have an industry leader company certification on your resume. Many of the HR folks might need the certification either just to look fancy or for compliance.
The certification itself does not have any specific prerequisites but having basic IT fundamentals helps. The certification and many of the courses online do start from the basics and are quite helpful for someone who is just starting and needs a little bit of spoon-feeding and hand-holding. But if you are a professional who has been working in the IT domain for a while or you are a student with a degree in Computer Science or Information Science/Systems CCNA feels much easier. Understanding the lingo and not having to learn the basics helps. My friend and I were in a similar scenario where I had my basics sorted due to my bachelor’s but he had to struggle as it was all new for him.
In my opinion, CCNA has a healthy mix of basic networking concepts with a few evolved topics to set the pace for higher certification and a few modern or in-trend topics to keep things fresh. The questions in the exam are almost equally distributed from these domains, making sure not a single domain is overwhelming. The syllabus is divided into six domains which are listed below. The exhaustive list of subtopics is list can be found here.
Domain 1: Network Fundamentals — 20%
Domain 2: Network Access — 20%
Domain 3: IP Connectivity — 25%
Domain 4: IP Services — 10%
Domain 5: Security Fundamentals — 15%
Domain 6: Automation and Programmability — 10%
Note: Even though the list above is quite elaborate, it does not mean the questions will be from these topics alone. In my case, almost 15% of the questions were not directly listed in the ‘syllabus’. This can be difficult and nerve-racking as it's almost certain that some topics will be out of the topics.
A. Subnetting: this is one of the most important concepts for anyone in networking. Understanding Subnetting like ABC's has proven to be extremely helpful throughout my CCNA journey. It's not just important for the exam but it also helps in the cybersecurity domain. Many people find it difficult to grasp the concepts but in reality, it's not that difficult. I have added some resources/games/exercises for the same below.
B. TCP/IP Stack: Like subnetting understanding, the TCP/IP stack with its protocol is critical for a networking engineer. There is a healthy amount of questions based on many TCP/IP protocols. Many of the physical hardware is based on TCP/IP concepts. Having a solid understanding of the protocols and MAC concepts with different uses and appliances in each layer has helped me a lot. Youtube has tons of videos on this.
C. Cisco Command Line Interface (CLI): To get any practical experience Cisco Command Line is a must. CCNA concepts are much easier to grasp when we see them in real life. Just like the command-line interface on Windows or Linux systems, Cisco is configured using the Cisco CLI. One should understand how to use the show commands to examine interface settings, check routing protocols and switching configuration, view mac address tables, verify configuration details. The debug features are also very useful to develop a deeper understanding of how routing and switching devices work. I have included my list of CLI commands below.
D. Study resources: Having access to accurate resources is very important for exams like CCNA. As it is the list of topics is huge, you do not want to waste time on stuff that might not be asked about in the exam. This does not mean I recommend only the official material from Cisco, but make sure to check the validity of the content. There is no shortage of CCNA resources online since this certification has been around for a while. Freely available resources are more than adequate to pass the exam. I have listed my resources below.
E. Laboratory Experience: Like I mentioned above, having access to physical devices is quite helpful. This solidifies the theoretical concepts being thought of in the videos/classes. I understand that getting access to real word devices might not be an option for many, that's where the simulators come into play. Cisco’s Packet Tracer, GNS3, and Boson NetSim are some of the most popular ones out there. Finding the right cisco devices even for the simulators is a bit of a pain sometimes.
F. Study Communities: Since CCNA is such a famous certification and has been around since forever, someone or the other has already been through any problem you can think of or come across. Joining communities and chat forums on StackOverflow, Reddit, Facebook, Telegram helped me a lot. These communities can be Q&A types, discussion forums, or just plain study groups.
G. Learn > Review > Retain: CCNA has a vast syllabus no doubt! It can even more overwhelming if were you in this for the first time. The best way to retain all this information is to learn a set of topics every day consistently. Before you begin learning new topics the next day, make it a habit to first glance through and revise the topics you learned the previous day. Only when this process is repeated for a month or two do you start retaining all the topics. Additionally, take as many mock exams as possible, it is just foolish to not test your knowledge before the real deal. These mocks can be found online, make use of ‘dumps’ too! Paid ones can be helpful as well. The videos and courses can be a drag at times, getting through them and understanding the concepts are difficult. Being dedicated and enthusiastic about your study is critical!
Full CCNA Course:
GitHub — Lab Practice:
Hardware (If available):
Terminal Server: Cisco 1100 Series
Switches: Cisco Catalyst 2960/3560/3750
Routers: Cisco 2800 series Routers
USB to Serial Cable
My Study Plan:
It always helps to set deadlines for such self-paced study exams. So the first thing you want to do is set a date and book the exam first, only then you will be motivated to put in the time and effort each day. It’s extremely important to make and maintain your own notes! This can make or break your study planning as you know best how your mindmap works, and putting it down in your notes is very helpful.
I managed to pass the exam with about 40 days of preparation, studying about 3–5 hours each day. Many of the concepts in CCNA are very familiar to me as I have a background in Computer Science, but the study time might vary depending on your background and capacity to retain information. Regardless, even if you have limited background in IT, CCNA preparation should not take more than 12 weeks for a dedicated student. I divided my study plan as follows:
For week 1, I studied the basics like TCP/IP stack, OSI model, Subnetting, MAC, IPv4 & IPv6 Addressing. This is covered in Domains 3 & 4. NetworkKing’s Video series on YouTube was really helpful and I really liked his explanation, also practice your subnetting skills using the websites mentioned above. Take your time and soak in all the information as this is the foundation. It took me only a week as I was familiar with many of these topics. Do not hesitate to extend this to two weeks if required.
Now that I better understood the networking lingo, I started working on Domains 1 & 2. This covers a lot of topics from routing protocols, hardware configuration, Cisco CLI, and much basic operational information about Cisco routers and switches in specific. While studying the theory make sure to also try and complete the labs created by Jeremy in his amazing video series on YouTube linked above. Again, it took me a week as I was familiar with many of the routing algorithms from my time at uni. These two domains might take more time as it has fairly evolved topics.
Domains 1–4 cover the basics of networking and IP stack, now we can start focusing on security and automation which are Domains 5 & 6. These topics are quite basic and should take more than a week to cover. These two domains were added just to keep the certification topics trendy. They are topics that barely have any depth in them and are quite easy to grasp. Having just a theoretical idea about these domains will do just fine for the CCNA exam.
The theory is now almost done! The focus should now be to improve your practical skills. I did a lot of parallel studying with theory and lab, but having a week's time just for practice is critical. This really helped me drive home and grasp the concepts at a deeper level. At this point, many of the commands should almost be second nature just like bash commands.
At the end of week 4, I had completed the list of subtopics from the exam topics and was only left with revision, clearing doubts, and mock tests. Fortunately, I had access to real hardware and made use of them to the fullest. was also quite active on StackOverflow and Reddit and the community was really helpful in solving my doubts and quires. I went through at least two mock tests every day of the week and made sure I scored and timed myself. In my first mock, I was able to complete only 60% of the questions in the 120 minutes of exam time and got 90% of the answers right in the 60% I attempted. I was slowly getting accustomed to sitting for two hours straight and concentrating throughout that period. Later that week in my last few mocks, I was able to cover 95% of the question with 80% of them being correct. This was a great boost to my confidence and was sure I would do fine in the real exam.
I personally feel the last week is the most difficult, this is where your patience is really put to a test with all of the knowledge you have gained in the past few weeks. Seeing yourself fail in the mocks can be quite disappointing and dropping self-confidence is dangerous. I would recommend just keeping to it and continue revising your notes and eventually, your scores will improve.
My CLI list for CCNA:
I have created a list of commands I used most often in my practical lab practice. This is in no way an ‘all you need’ list, but it does cover 70–80% of the commands needed for the test. I will keep adding to the list as I see fit. Do check out the latest version here.
That's about it guys! Do keep an eye out for offers and discounts on this certification, Cisco offers a 50% discount on CCNA multiple times a year. Feel free to reach out to me if you need any help/guidance, happy to help. Do let me know if this guide helped you pass the exam, for everyone who has just started preparing: All The Best!