How I Passed the 300-115 Switch Exam

One down, two to go on my quest for the CCNP Routing and Switching Certification! Just two weeks after taking my CCDA I sat for and passed, my 300-115 SWITCH exam. Now, there was a lot of overlap between the Switch exam and the CCDA. For example, there was a big focus on spanning tree, of course. Although, the Switch exam is focused on configuration whereas the CCDA is focused on design.

The 300-115 exam is one of three exams required for both the CCNP Routing and Switching certification as well as the CCDP certification. In this article, I will share with you the resources I used to prepare myself for the Switch exam, including my Switch lab.

Start Here

This cannot be overstated. Whenever you’re starting down the path of certification always start with the certification outline. The outline is a list of topics that you will face on the exam. There are even keywords that help clue you into how deep you need to know each topic. For example; on the Switch exam overview you’ll see phrases like “Configure and Verify” for some topics and words like “describe” for others.

In the above screenshot from the Switch Exam outline, you see two topics. The first, 1.7 Configure and verify other LAN switching technologies, and then it lists SPAN, RSPAN. Configure and verify means you should know not only what SPAN and RSPAN are, but how to configure them and then the associated show commands to verify that they are configured correctly.

The next topic, 1.8 Describe chassis virtualization and aggregation technologies, 1.8a Stackwise. Here, describe means you should know what Stackwise is, what it can and cannot do, how it works, etc. But, you don’t need to know how to configure it or any IOS commands related to it.

So, if you cannot go through the entire exam topics list and speak to each and every thing listed there then you probably are not yet fully prepared to take the exam.

If you’re getting ready for the Switch exam yourself, do yourself a favor and grab a copy of the exam topics and keep it handy while you’re studying. You can find a PDF copy of the outline here.

The Book

I’ve become a big fan of the Cisco Press Official Certification Guides. Now, this wasn’t always the case. I tried using them for my ICND1 and ICND2 and I found them both to be extremely wordy. Meaning, the authors sometimes took several paragraphs to say what could have been said in a sentence or two, and this is extremely confusing for anyone new to these topics. But, I used the OCG for the CCDA and I found that to be a great read and I passed the exam because it did cover every exam topic listed in the outline.

Grab yourself a copy here.

In addition to the Official Cert Guide, I also have a copy of the Routing and Switch Portable Command Guide. This is a great companion book to have for studying and to use as a reference later on.

While I can’t speak for all the Cisco Press books the ones that I have purchased have come with access to practice exams found on PearsonTestPrep.com. The questions you face in these practice exams are similar to the questions you will face in the exam. You should study the material to the point so that when you’re taking the practice exams and you read a question and the possible answers and the correct answer just pops into your head. You really need to know the material.

Knowing the material to that degree is going be valuable on exams like the switch exam where configuring and verifying will be part of the exam. You only get 90 minutes for the switch exam, you’ll want the extra time to spend on the sim questions. So, you should be able and ready to proceed through the written portions of the exam with speed and accuracy so that when you get to a sim question you can spend a little bit of extra time configuring and verifying according to the specification.

Self Study…Sort of

Simply reading the book and knowing the material to the degree you need to in order to be successful on any exam is difficult at best. Boot camps are expensive and also challenging – trying to cram all that info into your brain in such a short amount of time.

If you’ve read my previous blog posts on preparing for ceritifications then you already know that I’m a big fan of Pluralsight.com. I’ve successfully used Pluralsight to prepare for my ICND1 and ICND2, my CCDA, and now my SWITCH exam, and I’ll be using it for the rest of my CCNP studies.

Pluralsight has a great CCNP Path taught by Ben Piper. A “path” is a collection of courses focused on a topic, in this case, a Certification. The path is broken up into three courses which are focused on the major exam topics; Routing, Switching, and Troubleshooting.

Ben Piper is a CCNP himself, and if I understand correctly he is pursuing his CCIE. Ben has years of networking experience. In his Switch video series, he uses a lab of four 3560 Catalyst Switches and teaches you everything you need to know in order to be successful on the Switch exam. Ben is very thorough in that from the beginning he always verifies every configuration that he puts on the switch. If you’re following along with him this will help create good habits for you when it comes time to take the exam, and of course while you’re working on production equipment too.

Throughout the course, he approaches labs like they are customer requests and that you, as the viewer, and Ben need to configure the equipment to the customer specification. This is very similar to how the sim questions were presented to me on my ICND 1 and 2 exam, and on my Switch exam.

Lab Time!

When it comes to preparing for the switch exam I don’t believe there is any solid substitute for actual gear. Packet Tracer is great for the CCNA. You can do the majority of the commands for the CCNA using just Packet Tracer. But, in my experience, I found it was best to work on actual switches this time around. The reason for that it that it is difficult, if not impossible, to faithfully reproduce in a simulation what the custom ASICs do in switches. So, turn to eBay and find yourself at least two Layer two switches, so some flavor of Catalyst 2960, and two Layer 3 switches like Catalyst 3750s, 3850s, or 3560s. All of the above are available for very reasonable prices.

In my case, I turned to my good friend who blogs at UCAdministrator.com. He has a collection of lab gear that rivals most production environments. He was looking to make some upgrades to his lab and so I was able to scoop up some gear that he was no longer using.

My home lab.

Pictured above is my home lab that contains:

  • 2x 2960s 48 port Catalyst Switches
  • 1x 3750 Catalyst PoE 48 port switch
  • 1x 3750G Catalyst 48 port switch
  • 2x 3560 48 Port PoE switches

To hold all of the lab gear I have a Startech.com 8RU desktop rack. At the bottom of the rack is a small rack mount PDU. There are many available for sub $50. The master switch makes it super easy to power off the entire lab at once. Just don’t forget to save your configs if you intend to pick up where you left off.

Putting it all Together

So, I’ve got my books, I’ve got a video course with a great instructor, and I’ve got my lab. Time to go to work.

I started by using the Pluralsight videos as a guide. I’d watch some videos in their entirety and while I was watching them I would take handwritten notes. Handwriting notes while studying has proven to be more effective when trying to remember what you’re learning, vs typing notes. I’ll buy cheap one subject notebooks and fill them. While taking notes from videos I leave myself a page or so of extra room between subjects, because after watching the videos I’ll go and read the official cert guide and find more details that either I missed, or weren’t covered, in the videos. I’ve also watched some videos on topics I found harder once or twice and picked up more information each time.

I alternate between watching the videos and reading the book. I lab with Ben during his video lectures. If he gets ahead of me I pause the video and catch up. I also take note of where in the video his labs are so I can easily come back to them later and do them again and again. It’s important to have the “configure and verify” topics down. Before you take your exam you should be able to sit down and configure an LACP EtherChannel, or HSRP on two multi-layer switches without giving it too much thought.

Additionally, I do the practice exams on PearsonTestPrep.com. At first, I keep them specific to the chapters and topics I’m covering to see how well the material is sticking. When I get a question wrong I review the correct answers, and I make sure that the correct answer and the facts supporting it are in my notes.

In the weeks leading up to my exam during the time slot that my exam is scheduled to be, I will put myself in exam mode. This just prepares my mind that during this time I need to be in exam mode and not doing anything else but taking the exam. It creates a muscle memory that I feel, after doing this for several of my certification exams, it better prepares me for what I’m about to do. By exam mode, I literally mean “exam mode” on Pearson Test Prep. In exam mode, you answer a question and move onto the next. You cannot go back to previous questions and you do not see if you got the question right or wrong like you can in practice mode. Afterward, I review my notes, I lab, rinse, repeat.

Everyone Learns Differently

While I’ve shared with you what works for me, it’s important to remember that everyone learns differently. If what you’re doing isn’t working, try something else. Just like everyone learns differently everyone teaches differently too. Find different videos with different instructors – there’s tons of great resources out there! You may find that one instructor that presents the difficult material in a way that just makes it click and all the pieces fall into place.

Well, I hope you find these tips useful either preparing for the switch exam or any exam. Good luck and do let me know how you did!

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