This past Friday I had the pleasure to sit for the GCFA (GIAC Certified Forensic Analyst) exam and pass with a 94% score. Quite the relief after a summer of (somewhat slowly) making study progress. In May, I attended the SANS FOR508 training at SANS West (San Diego). Shortly after, I took a bit of a break, and since then have slowly studied and gotten ready for my exam attempt. I’ve blogged about the course before, so I’ll try not to rehash anything. The course was my first SANS experience, and this exam was thus my first GIAC exam experience as well.
Did you take the practice exams? Yes I did. In late August I took the first practice and scored an 83% with only about 9 minutes remaining at the end. At this point I was pretty nervous, but I also was not quite done with my study plans, either. A week later I took the second practice and scored an improved 93% with 30 minutes to spare. They were definitely helpful to see the exam format, get familiar with the interface, and also get a feel for the question style and feel. The real exam felt extremely similar, and while the questions were not duplicated, they felt written by the same author(s) and with the same feel as the practice ones. For the second practice, I turned on the ability to see explanations for both correct and wrong answers, while on the first attempt I didn’t know that option was present and just saw my missed answers. Also, I limited myself to my books and my digital index with no spreadsheet searching functions; just scrolling and eyeballing. I also had paper nearby to write down any concepts I missed, or those that I got correct, but struggled with, for review later.
Would you recommend the practice exams? Yes! I probably could have passed if I had skipped them, but they did absolute wonders for allowing me some feedback on where I stood and gave me a chance to gain confidence and familiarity with the question styles. The practice also gave me two chances to test out my index, hone it, and become even more familiar with the books, adding to my efficiency in an exam where time is precious. Most importantly, this whole study process helped me grasp and “get” the content so much better than just the course alone.
Did you have your own index for the exam? Of course! My goal with the index was to use it to not necessarily answer every question for me, but to give me enough information to come to a probable conclusion, and to then point me to the correct places in the materials to confirm that answer. My true place for answers is the books, and I wanted to provide enough context to be able to look up the appropriate information in the right place when I came across a term or subject in the exam. My index ended up being about 45 pages landscape, with 1536 rows at 8 point font. Having it top-bound was wonderful (about $13 printed online at Fedex/Kinkos).
When creating my index, I started out with a spreadsheet tab for each book. I had four columns: SUBJECT, TERM, DESCRIPTION, BOOK-PAGE. In retrospect, the SUBJECT column was never used by me, and I’ll leave it out on future exams. For the spreadsheet tabs, I’d leave the notes in chronological order. On a separate MASTER tab, I would regularly copy/paste the other contents into it and sort by the TERM column to see my MASTER index. This MASTER tab was what I would later print out.
If a term appeared more than once, it would get more than one entry. I didn’t want to squish BOOK-PAGE numbers into a single row at all. For multiple page mentions in a row, I’d make highlighter arrows in the books to prompt me to look ahead if the topic continued. If a topic had multiple terms or an acronym, I’d include all of them in their own entries. I would try not to do the whole “See Topic X.” I did early on, but hated it, and went away from that later (the one time I came across such an entry during the exam, I cursed myself). The goal was to go from Index to Books, not Index to Index to Index. I tried to be complete enough in general in the Index, but invariably questions would ask for very detailed specifics. And I didn’t want to solely trust myself to transpose the terms correctly, so I didn’t try to be exhaustive; as said earlier, get to the books efficiently! I also indexed terms on the blue and red posters. (Both of which I used in the exam, though much of the information can, in fact, be found in the books.)
I initially limited myself to a single line of description per term, but eventually I acquiesced and allowed myself multiple lines (hold Shift when pressing Enter while in entry mode to add a newline inside a cell). My index would have been longer and even more immediately useful had I not decided that pretty late.
I also used sticky tabs at the top of the books to mark key pages and sections. This way I had the option to skip my index altogether if I knew what general section I wanted to flip to. I used them a lot, too, not just during the exams, but when studying as well! I honestly think doing this saved my butt.
To be honest, I’m a natural information organizer. If I were more of a social person, I’d probably be a project manager! I’m also a note-taker, so doing this index was a loving exercise, rather than a chore. It also helps to remember that this index is a one-time use item. It doesn’t need to be perfect or pass muster for inspection by an editor. Everyone has their own level of perfection they need, but I know my index isn’t without mistakes, has holes, and maybe has more or less than it should. But that’s why I wanted to make sure it led me to the books as much as needed; trust myself, but verify the answer!
What was your study plan? After the 6-day course in San Diego, I probably took a good two weeks off. After that, I started going through the course books again. My goal was to read every word of the books (slides and notes). And yes, that took a while. I would highlight orange every tool mentioned in the books, and write it into a separate notebook of mine (my own personal list of tools). I would highlight key topics and statements with a green highlighter. After about two books, I actually started adding key terms, concepts, tools, and topics into a spreadsheet to begin my actual index. I then went back and caught up the first two books with a quicker pass.
Once done reading the books, I accessed the On Demand content to listen to the lectures again, follow the slides, and follow along in my books. This essentially was another pass through the material, and a second full pass to populate my index with things I missed or wanted to flesh out. For instance, I didn’t decide to put full command examples until my second pass. While winding down the On Demand materials, I also started going back and doing the lab exercises again, at least as much as I could (some tools expired). (I did *not* actually include the exercise workbook notes into my index, and I wish I had done so.) Doing all of those above really helped cement the material in my head, but also caused me to really actually *get* it, if that makes sense. Context fell into place, reasons for various things, and it just all feels natural and confident now.
In the day or two before the exam, I limited myself to just flipping through the books. I took the early part of that week off, and doing this allowed me to get familiar with the tabbed sections again, for quick reference and flipping to my tabs.
How was your actual exam experience? Pretty good! I got in early and got going pretty well. The exam itself is a brutal slog of 3 hours, and I definitely made plenty use of it to be as sure of my answers as I could be in a short period of time. Even with my index, there were a few questions that had me somewhat stumped or utterly unsure where to look for that information. Thankfully, in other respects, my index may not have had the proper information, but my knowledge of the books would lead me to the right sections. The exam questions were some of the best-written questions I’ve seen. To the point, clear, proper English, but you still have to read them carefully to pick up on any twists or tricks afoot. Honestly, the questions and answers were wonderful and did nothing to detract from the experience and ability to demonstrate mastery over the topics.
Is there anything with the materials brought on-site for the exam that you’d do differently? Without getting too specific, I think it would have been useful to better document or print screenshots of the output of the tools mentioned. Not all of them, since there’s a ton! But any of them are fair game for questions. Ideally, it should be enough to have used any and all tools during the labs or self-study when re-doing the labs. But that does take effort, as the labs themselves will not use every plugin and tool mentioned in the books. I also am not sure how one would consume such print-outs efficiently while taking the exam, so maybe I was better off without them!