OSCP Exam Guide: What to Expect & How to Pass First Time

OSCP Exam Guide

This OSCP exam guide will teach you everything you need to know about the exam, what key areas to focus on, and how to get certified on your journey to becoming a professional penetration tester. 

The OSCP is widely renowned as the golden standard of entry-level penetration testing certifications, and adding it to your resume will set you apart from the competition. 

Passing this exam has become something of a legend. It’s notoriously difficult, tests your hands-on hacking skills to the extreme, and is filled with rabbit holes that could derail you.

Fear not. This comprehensive exam guide will teach you how to pass this and get certified. 

Ready? Let’s go.

What Is the (OffSec Certified Professional) OSCP Certification?

The OffSec Offensive Certified Professional (OSCP) certification is one of the most sought-after hacking certifications on the market. 

It’s highly regarded by industry professionals and hiring managers as a practical certification demonstrating you have the skills and knowledge to be a junior penetration tester. 

However, this exam is challenging to pass and is often considered the most difficult certification to acquire for those just starting in the field. It requires you to battle a real-world, scenario-based exam where you must hack multiple machines within 24 hours.  

This certification is not for the faint of heart. But to the spoils go the victor, with certification holders making upwards of $75K USD

So, let’s find out what you can expect to encounter when going for your OSCP.

OSCP Exam Cost

To tackle the OSCP, purchase OffSec’s Penetration Testing With Kali Linux (PWK) Course, also called PEN-200. This course teaches you what you need to know to pass the exam and obtain the OSCP certification. 

OffSec offers various pricing options, as shown below.

Course & Cert Exam Bundle
$1649
Includes PWK course
90 days lab access
One exam attempt
No additional contents
No access to PG Practice labs
Learn One
$2599/year
Includes PWK course
365 days of lab access
Two exam attempts 
Includes additional content (PEN-103 and PEN-210)
Access to PG Practice labs
Learn Unlimited
$5499/year
Includes all OffSec courses
365 days of lab access
Unlimited exam attempts
Includes additional content
Access to PG Practice labs

OffSec also offers discount programs if you have previous OffSec certifications, are a university student, or if your organization buys an enterprise plan. You can also extend your PWK lab access for 30 days by paying an additional $359.

The Penetration Testing With Kali Linux (PWK) OSCP Course

The PWK course is designed to introduce you to penetration testing and provide you with the knowledge and skills to become a junior penetration tester. 

The PWK combines traditional course material with challenge labs that test your knowledge and skills through hands-on hacking exercises inside a virtual lab environment. 

On purchasing the course, you’ll be given a massive 850+ page PDF document comprising various learning modules and access to training videos demonstrating the material taught in the modules.

The PEN-200 course received a fresh update in 2023, as detailed in this YouTube video from OffSec.

OSCP Syllabus

The updated course includes 23 learning modules, which include:

  • General Course Introduction
  • Introduction to Cybersecurity
  • Effective Learning Strategies
  • Report Writing for Penetration Testers
  • Information Gathering
  • Vulnerability Scanning
  • Introduction to Web Applications
  • Common Web Application Attacks
  • SQL Injection Attacks
  • Client-Side Attacks
  • Location Public Exploits
  • Fixing Exploits
  • Antivirus Evasion
  • Password Attacks
  • Windows Privielge Escalation
  • Linux Privilege Escalation
  • Port Redirection and SSH Tunneling
  • Advanced Tunneling
  • The Metasploit Framework
  • Active Directory Introduction and Enumeration 
  • Attacking Active Directory Authentication
  • Lateral Movement in Active Directory 
  • Assembling the Pieces

OSCP Exam Format

The PWK course prepares for the OSCP exam, a 24-hour exam which a member of OffSec proctors to ensure you follow exam requirements. The exam consists of two parts:

  1. Traditional penetration testing: This part consists of three independent targets that require two steps to compromise. You are awarded 20 points per successfully compromised machine, split into 10 points for low-privilege access and 10 points for privilege escalation, for a total of 60 points. You prove success by taking screenshots and submitting a proof file (local.txt or proof.txt) to your control panel.
  2. Active directory testing: This part includes two client machines and one domain controller. To achieve 40 points, you must fully compromise the domain controller. No partial points are awarded.

The points awarded during the exam are not the only ones on offer. Before starting the exam, you can receive ten bonus points by submitting at least 80% of the correct solutions for every module's lab in the PWK course and 30 correct proof.txt hashes for 30 challenge labs. 

OSCP Exam Report

Upon completing the exam, you will have 24 hours to write a professional report describing your exploitation process for each target. 

This report must document your attacks, including all steps, commands issued, and console output. It should be thorough enough that a third-party reader could replicate your attacks step-by-step.

To pass the exam, you must achieve a minimum score of 70 points, provide sufficient documentation, and follow OffSec’s strict exam requirements regarding exploit code, exam proofs, and exam restrictions.

Failing the OSCP exam will require you to pay for a retake. This costs $249 unless you are signed up for one of OffSec’s annual subscription plans (Learn One or Learn Unlimited).

Now you know the basics. Let’s jump into what you can expect on the OSCP exam.

OSCP Exam Guide: What Can I Expect?

The PWK course material is extensive. It includes everything from creating bash scripts to performing Active Directory and buffer overflows. However, much of this material is not tested during the OSCP exam. 

Knowing what material from the PWK course you will be tested on is important before sitting your OSCP exam. This will allow you to dedicate your time to perfecting these skills, giving you the best chance of passing the exam. 

Let’s look at what is and is not included in the exam.

What is NOT in the OSCP Exam

Here are topics taught in the PWK course that are not included in the OSCP exam.

Bash and Python Scripting

The PWK course includes sections on the basics of Bash and Python scripting. You’ll not be tested on this knowledge specifically, so don’t worry about memorizing syntax, listing language features, or creating scripts from scratch. 

Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)

The PWK course has an entire section on information gathering. This is a vital phase during a real-world penetration test, but in the OSCP exam, you don’t need to gather public information about your targets. You only need to use tools like Nmap to find open ports, services, and vulnerabilities. 

Buffer Overflows

The PWK teaches how to perform buffer overflow attacks against vulnerable Windows and Linux applications. This is valuable knowledge, but it’s no longer needed during your OSCP exam. The Active Directory portion of the OSCP exam has replaced this previous requirement.

Poisoning and Spoofing Attacks

The new PWK course is heavily focused on testing Active Directory environments. You’ll learn how to enumerate and attack Active Directory using various techniques, including how to use tools like Responder to perform poisoning and spoofing attacks. These attacks are common in real-world internal pen testing but are not tested on the OSCP exam. In fact, they are banned. 

Anti-Virus Evasion and Persistence

During the PWK course, you’ll be exposed to material on anti-virus evasion and establishing persistence on compromised machines. These are great topics to know, but they are not tested on the OSCP exam. These topics often are more aligned with red teaming than penetration testing.

What IS in the OSCP Exam

Here’s the course material you should master to prepare for your OSCP exam.

Privilege Escalation

To earn all the points offered during your OSCP exam, you must perform privilege escalation on the machines you target. Escalating your privileges accounts for half the points available, so mastering Windows and Linux privilege escalation is critical for success. 

Report Writing

Although not a traditional “hacker” skill, you must be able to structure and write a complete penetration test report. This is a skill you’ll need if you want to become a real penetration tester and one you must perform to pass the OSCP exam. Once you complete your exam, you must submit a detailed report that details your findings and allows a reasonably skilled third party to reproduce your testing step-by-step.

Web Attacks

Although not strictly a web app penetration test exam, you must often exploit at least one web exploit to gain access to a machine, though not always. This is typically a web application vulnerability like SQL injection, cross-site scripting, or broken access control. Ensure you know how to enumerate and exploit vulnerable web applications before your test.

Enumeration

A fundamental skill to master to pass the OSCP exam is enumeration. Everyone who has ever taken the OSCP will lecture you on the importance of performing enumeration to find all possible attack paths, vulnerabilities, and missing security controls. The main difference between passing or failing your OSCP is learning to perform thorough enumeration.

Enumeration is even more important now that most of the exam focuses on Active Directory. Ensure you learn to enumerate and exploit common Active Directory vulnerabilities, be comfortable using tools like Bloodhound and Mimikatz, and perform attacks like Kerberoasting and pass the hash.

Public Exploits

During your OSCP exam, you must use public exploits to hack machines. These exploits are usually found in places like GitHub or Exploit-DB and require tweaking to match your target machine. Learning basic scripting skills will be helpful, but more importantly, practice finding, tweaking, and using these exploits against vulnerable machines on hacking platforms.

Should I Prepare Before Taking the PWK Course (OSCP Requirements)?

Preparing yourself before starting the PWK course is a good idea. At a minimum, OffSec recommends a solid understanding of networking, Windows and Linux administration skills, and familiarity with Bash or Python scripting. 

However, most people who have passed the OSCP believe you should acquire more skills before tackling the course. 

Cyber Security Foundational Knowledge

A strong foundation in IT, networking, and cyber security is essential. You should know how to troubleshoot IT issues, describe common network ports and protocols, and discuss common defenses used to protect against attacks. 

You better have this knowledge locked down before starting the PWK course material. 

Acquiring these foundational skills and knowledge is described in depth in our article, Best Way to Learn Cyber Security. The following courses also cover this material. 

Additional IT Skills

In addition to the basics, the OSCP exam will ask you to fix exploit code, enumerate Active Directory environments, and escalate your privileges on Windows and Linux machines. 

Performing these tasks requires knowledge of Bash and Python, a comprehensive understanding of Active Directory, and advanced Windows and Linux skills. 

You should try to learn these skills before tackling the course material, as they will significantly reduce the learning curve and help you get through the PWK material faster. To learn these skills, try one of the courses below.

Additional OSCP Training

One of the key benefits of the PWK course is the virtual hands-on hacking labs that let you test your skills in a simulated environment. Unfortunately, your lab time is limited, and there is a lot of course material you need to work your way through. 

This time restraint is often a reason many students go into the course with some background knowledge and experience they can get from much cheaper training options. With the fundamentals covered, these students can get to the hands-on hacking labs quicker and benefit from the PWK course. 

Some of the key fundamentals to learn before starting the course include: 

  • How to use Nmap to scan targets
  • The different types of shells you can use to connect to an exploited machine (reverse shell versus bind shell)
  • How to effectively enumerate a target machine to discover potential vulnerability
  • How to perform basic privilege escalation on Linux and Windows machines
  • The basics of web application attacks, such as enumerating web apps with Burp Suite and common web vulnerabilities like the OWASP top 10
  • How to use Kali Linux

Although the PWK course covers many skills and knowledge required to pass the OSCP exam, this is just one way of performing penetration testing. 

Understanding different hacking perspectives, techniques, and tools can help you pass the OSCP the first time. Check out the courses below for a more well-rounded understanding of the penetration testing process.

The Difference Between Success and Failure

Your determination will be the biggest factor in your success in passing the OSCP. 

If you master the prerequisites, learn all the course material, and practice your hands-on hacking skills, you will pass the exam. The more time you spend on these three things, the higher your chances of passing the first time. 

OffSec is renowned for its “Try Harder” mantra that encourages individuals to push themselves beyond their comfort zones, embrace challenges as opportunities for growth, and remain persistent in their pursuit of knowledge. 

They believe that success in cyber security requires continuous effort, practice, and a willingness to tackle challenges head-on.

At StationX, we believe in many of the same things. The biggest challenge of getting into cyber security is staying motivated, pushing forward when things get tough, and having a rugged determination that sets you apart from the competition. 

Anyone can learn the skills, earn the certifications, and prepare for an interview. What will land you a job in cyber security is your willingness to stick with it.

This is why we built our Accelerator Program, a complete system to keep you on track to landing a role in cyber security. 

It includes personalized learning paths, unlimited mentorships, mastermind groups, and a supportive community where you can share your successes and be held accountable. 

The program goes beyond skills and knowledge. It’ll keep you engaged, motivated, and determined throughout your journey into cyber and help you sustain the motivation to try harder.

Final OSCP Exam Advice

The OSCP certification is a challenging exam to pass. Despite all the time and effort people dedicate to preparing for the exam, many fail and need multiple attempts to pass. With that in mind, here are some final pieces of advice:

  • Spend time enumerating: Discovering exploitable vulnerabilities and identifying attack paths is the most crucial aspect of the OSCP exam. Don’t rush the enumeration step: be thorough and comprehensive.
  • Practice Active Directory hacking: A large part of the new OSCP exam focuses on Active Directory, making up almost half the exam. Practice your Active Directory hacking while preparing and get all 40 points.
  • Take breaks: People often get stuck during the OSCP exam and keep pushing onward, trying the same exploit or attack path. It’s usually more productive to take a little break, refresh your thinking, and approach the problem with a new perspective. Breaks help you form new ideas.
  • Review the exam guide: OffSec regularly updates the OSCP exam guide. Ensure you are up-to-date on what is permitted and what OffSec expects you to provide to pass the exam.
  • Don’t get caught up on one machine: The OSCP exam is notorious for rabbit holes. Limit how long you spend on any one machine so you don’t get caught in one. We recommend spending a couple of hours on a machine and then moving on. You can always come back to it with a fresh perspective.

Check out the official OSCP Exam Preparation ebook for more valuable tips, or watch this great YouTube video.

Conclusion

The OSCP exam separates those with the skills and those still developing them. 

This comprehensive guide explored everything you need to know about the exam, from what to expect to the essential skills you need to master to be successful. It also showcased the best ways to prepare for the exam and bolster your chances of success.

Remember, the main difference between success and failure is your determination. The more time you spend mastering the fundamentals, learning the PWK course material, and practicing your skills, the more success you’ll have. 

Remember to check out our Accelerator Program offerings, including mentorship, study and mastermind groups, and over 1,000 courses and labs to help you pass the OSCP and any other exam on your radar.

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  • Adam Goss

    Adam is a seasoned cyber security professional with extensive experience in cyber threat intelligence and threat hunting. He enjoys learning new tools and technologies, and holds numerous industry qualifications on both the red and blue sides. Adam aims to share the unique insights he has gained from his experiences through his blog articles. You can find Adam on LinkedIn or check out his other projects on LinkTree.

  • PSTP Reclaims says:

    Great article! The OSCP exam guide is a must-read for anyone aiming to pass the OSCP certification on their first try. The emphasis on “cyber investigation services” highlights the importance of practical skills in today’s evolving threat landscape. The OSCP exam’s focus on penetration testing and ethical hacking prepares candidates to become proficient cyber investigators. This comprehensive guide provides valuable insights and strategies, ensuring success in the exam and paving the way for a rewarding career in cyber investigation services.

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