The first step with any serious undertaking is to take a hard, honest assessment of your current skills. Know your strengths and acknowledge your weaknesses. Cisco has specifically designed the CCIE practical exam to weed out candidates with little "hands-on" or "field" experience. When you take your personal assessment, be very honest with past experience. This will help you identify the areas that you need to focus on. For instance, many people (unless they have worked with SNA) have little field experience in DLSw. Modeling DLSw in the lab will give you the valuable experience that you need for the practical exam.
The second step is to dedicate and commit yourself to passing the exam. Plan to commit yourself to one to three years of intense training to become certified. You must be willing to read a lot of books and spend months in the lab. You must take your current understanding of topologies and protocols to the next level. You won't be "memorizing" how Spanning Tree works, but you will be "understanding" how and why it needs to work. Anything short of very serious preparation will leave you short when test day arrives.
Perhaps the most critical part of your studies will be the last two to three months. By this time, you should have all of your "formal" or "classroom" education out of the way, and you should be applying it in the lab. You should have read most of your books, and you will be focusing on the advanced elements of the technologies that you are working with. During the last two months, spend as much time in the lab configuring as many different network scenarios as you can think of. Read through all the configuration guides and browse the CD. Make yourself aware of the ways to tune each protocol or feature set. This also will help you become familiar with the configuration guides and CD; they will be your only source of information during the lab exam. You will have this information available; however, the new test is very time-intensive. If you have to look up commands and study manuals, chances are good that you will run out of time during the practical exam.
Finally, if you do come up short on test day, don't give up. Yes, people have passed the lab on the first try, but a majority of us had to come back on another day. Hang in there, and, remember, "Nothing worthwhile ever comes easy."
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