How to Make an Index for an Open-Book Exam

The one post on my tiny little blog that get’s way more than attention than any other is my post on passing the GPEN. With that said, I didn’t quite feel comfortable sharing an index with people (so I didn’t). To be honest, I feel that the act of creating the index itself was what prepared me for the exam vs having one provided for me. Therefore, I want you to succeed. I will show you exactly how I created my own open-book index.

For complete transparency, the majority of this is 100% ripped off from Lesley Calhart’s write-up on her Pancakes Index System. You can basically see…it worked for me. I encourage you to stop reading here, and move over to her write-up. It’s more concise and TBH a better read.

However, if you’re still here and if you want to follow along, I’ve created two template documents to build your index from. Always be careful when downloading stuff from the internet folks. Even from me.

First thing you need to do is change your way of thinking when reading through the course-materials. Think of it this way, if you were making an index, would you turn to this page to reference this topic? If so, then tag it. Tag it with the highlighter. You can’t highlight enough. You’ll be going back through the book again shortly, so don’t worry if you miss stuff. Just go through looking for the content you’ll want to document later.

At this time I started tabbing up the book. I wanted to align the tabs to the table of contents or whatever manageable chunk you think is appropriate. I found that the bullet points aligning to the course roadmap in my GPEN course worked well. Be sure to alternate tab colors so when I you need to revert quickly back to a particular book, on a particular page, It will help in quickly zeroing in where you need to go. This will help greatly . I liked these stick-on tabs. I was surprised by how many I used, so buy a couple packages of them.

Once you’ve marked the chapters, , this is when we start logging pages in the index. I used the naming convention of X.Y
X = Book Number
Y = Page Number. So that when I mark Security Administrator’s Tool for Analyzing Networks (SATAN), I’ll mark 2.154 and highlight it red as it’s under the Vulnerability Scanning tab (also red). Just keep doing this until you’ve plowed through the entire book.

You can tell some pages and subjects had more key points than other based on the amount of color.

Using that method, I’d log each page and the key topic I wanted to take note of.
What I liked to do here is also mark the color of the tab being used to mark the page. It seems like a waste of time now, but it comes in handy later on when trying to zero-in on a key topic in a short amount of time.

When you’re scanning pages for key words and topics vs actively reading the concepts, it goes a lot faster than you’d think. I was able to build the full index in about a week. It took me roughly a book a night to plow through all the books.

Once you have the books all tagged up like the mane of a beautiful unicorn, you need to concatenate all your books into a single master index worksheet. At this time, just copy and paste every book into that spreadsheet. It’s a work of art, so just save that tab and mark it “Combined Sequential”. Keep that so you can look back on it after you pass the test. I’ve used my index on multiple occasion even after passing the exam when I need to quickly reference something.

At this time, duplicate the “Combined Sequential” worksheet however you like, this time name it “Combined Alphabetical”. Rather than sorting by page number, this time, sort by Column B. This time it will look a little different. These are the colors you’ll be searching through on the exam,

Now, you need to make this actually readable during the exam. Putting this into a usable format requires importing this valuable data into Word. I found creating a 2 column Word Document with minimal margins allows you to maximize the limited real-estate and pack in as much info as possible. Mine turned out to be about 7 pages of awesomeness that really helped with crushing the exam.

Seriously, that’s it. Nothing more. Honestly, by this time you’ve logged every nugget of info in your books, you probably don’t need to reference the index at all. That for me is the benefit of creating the index. The act of building one concretes the concepts in my mind for the exam. As long as you’re allowed an index, this method works. Let me know if this is remotely helpful to you and just how well you passed your exams.


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