This is a follow-up post to my CISSP Success Story post – this time taking a look at my first GIAC experience – the GIAC Security Essentials Certification (GSEC). I took this course as part of my curriculum for the MSISE program through the SANS Technology Institute, and this was referred to as the most comparable GIAC certification to the CISSP.

Course Format


As I discussed in more depth in my CISSP Success Story post, my training for the CISSP involved self-paced textbook studying. This was effective for me, when combined with my work experience since the content is designed to be higher level concepts, and not hands-on-keyboard testing.


Due to my unpredictable work schedule, I opted for the OnDemand training option through SANS. This was not the classic “drink from a fire hose” 6 day SANS event. I was shipped the six (6) textbooks and the accompanying Lab Exercise workbook, and was given access to the recorded presentations. These were a mix of video recordings with the instructor speaking directly to the OnDemand “audience” as well as some recordings from a recent in-person event.

At the end of each textbook, there was a practice quiz that I found very useful. If you answered a question incorrectly, the feedback told you why your answer was wrong, and which page to turn to in the book for further explanation. There are also Subject Matter Experts online for chat support if needed. I did not have to use this service, but it seems like these SMEs can help both with course-specific issues, as well as issues in the Lab Exercises with the hands-on tools.

You really can’t talk about a SANS course without talking about the Lab Exercises. This was by far the biggest benefit for me. My current role requires taking the security concepts and applying them to the real world – and this course gave many examples of tools and approaches for application. This included a few tools I had not used before, as well as a few new tricks with older tools.

This format worked well for me, as I was able to spread my studying out over the span of two months. I would like to experience the in-person SANS training at some point, as I am sure there are benefits to being with the instructor face to face, as well as interaction with other students. I am looking forward to comparing those benefits with the feedback I got from the quizzes.

The Exam

Both exams were proctored at Pearson VUE locations, so there were a few similarities:

  • Computer-based multiple choice exam
  • Similar time length (6 hours vs. 5 hours)
  • Similar question count (250 vs. 180)

The biggest difference between the two exams was the infamous “open book” policy for GIAC exams. These GIAC exams are all open book and the policy is literally:

GIAC exams are open book format. Workstation space may be very limited, so please plan accordingly. You may bring an armful of hardcopy books and notes into the testing room.

I figured that everything on the exam would be covered in the course materials, so I planned on bringing in the six textbooks and the one lab exercise workbook. I wish I had stumbled across a blog post by Lesley Carhar (Better GIAC Testing with Pancakes) before I started by coursework, because my indexing process was not nearly as organized. Luckily with the allotted time, I was able to work through my outline – but I am looking forward to redesigning my approach.


  • Start early and often! The workload was certainly not unmanageable, but it was more than I had initially anticipated. If you can get ahead on your progress, you will build in additional buffer time for fine-tuning your outline, or perhaps working on an extra practice exam.
  • Read Lesley Carhar’s blog post “Better GIAC Testing with Pancakes” before starting your course. I found this resource about 75% through my coursework, and wish I found it sooner. I plan to implement this for my next course for sure.
  • Dive into the lab exercises head first! This was especially true with the OnDemand delivery method – I didn’t have classmates or the live instructor to casually mention tips or common pitfalls in real time. Make sure you play around with the tools until you feel comfortable beyond the basic lab exercise steps.
  • If the GSEC seems too “hands-on” for your needs, take a look at the CISSP. The CISSP is designed to be less technical and more managerial.

One thought on “GSEC vs. CISSP

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