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Recently, I passed my Amazon Web Services (AWS) Certified Solutions Architect—associate exam. While the information was fresh in my mind, I wanted to put together a post on my experience to help anybody else thinking of going for a similar certification.

I’m a technical support engineer at New Relic, and in my previous job I was a DevOps engineer. I have a good deal of experience with Amazon EC2 and Elastic Load Balancing. I’ve used hosted static websites using Amazon S3 and Amazon Route53. Recently I became interested in AWS Lambda and the Amazon API Gateway, and I’ve built a few pet projects using serverless functions.

With that in mind, here are some tips for anyone looking for advice about preparing for and taking an AWS certification exam.

Book the exam, but give yourself enough time

When I first set out to get an AWS certification, I had a few false starts. I’d be good for about a week, putting in an hour or two of study every night, but then I’d allow something to interrupt my routine. Finally, I decided I needed to set myself a hard deadline, so I actually booked the exam. This definitely made me get my a&@ in gear. I was a bit stressed in the days leading up to the exam, but had I not put the pressure of a deadline on myself, who knows how many more false starts I would have had.

Find a study buddy

Getting AWS certified is very much encouraged by our leadership. I have plenty of colleagues who have gotten certified and I picked their brains relentlessly. A few other colleagues were also preparing for certification, so we partnered up to study on occasion, which provided me much more motivation. Also we found that a little healthy and jovial competitiveness pushed us to do our best.

Learn the theory and do the labs

AWS provides plenty of certification prep and training opportunities. I found it tempting to power through all the theory material and come back to the labs later, but it was more effective to do the labs immediately after learning the relative theory. While the exams don’t have any labs, using the labs to get firsthand experience applying the theory improved my mental model and made it easier to recall the material.

Don’t expect to see the same questions you studied in the actual exam

During my exam prep, I answered hundreds of sample questions. And while the themes and required knowledge were similar, never once did I see a practice question on the actual exam. In this respect, I’m not sure learning by rote—practicing the same questions over and over again—will really benefit a candidate. With that being said, the sample questions were vital to my study because when I got one wrong, I went back to the prep material to understand why I was wrong, and thus improved my knowledge.

Don’t hit submit until you’re sure

When actually taking the exam, once you click Submit on a question, the answer zips off to the server and you can’t change it. You can skip around through questions and, as long as you don’t submit them, come back to answer them when you’re ready. If you select an option for a question, though, you can’t skip to another question until you’ve cleared that option.

Skip around if you need to

I did a first pass through the exam and submitted questions where I was sure of the answer. Then I did another few passes to see if any answers became obvious, which some did! Coming back to more difficult questions after I’d answered some I was sure about gave me much more confidence—it’s a strategy I’d recommend. In the end I had three or four questions left that I just gambled on, submitting my best guess.

Think about the options

Have some patience and be sure you’re reading the question AND options closely. The format for the Solutions Architect—associate exam is multiple choice, and I encountered several tricky questions in which the answer options were all very similar. In such cases, I read the question closely, picked up on keywords, and tried to eliminate the options I felt probably weren’t the answer.

What happens after you finish the exam?

I had about 10 minutes to spare once I put the final touches on the exam, so I pretty much used the full 80 minutes. You’ll find out immediately if you passed or not. (Passing scores may vary from exam to exam.) AWS will also send you an email that details how you did in the various areas of the exam.

Useful AWS exam prep resources

Here are some of the resources I used in my prep:

  • AWS Certified Solutions Architect Official Study Guide: Associate Exam

    I read this book front to back, and worked through the questions at the end of each chapter. The book comes with online quizzes and practice tests that were very useful. It is a book though, so it can quickly fall out of date. I’d be careful to choose the latest edition.

  • Linux Academy

    Along with covering all things AWS—from security to storage to application services—this course picked up on some subjects the book lacked, like the API Gateway, AWS Lambda, VPC Flow Logs, and application load balancers. I took the final exam of this course a few times. The Linux Academy offers several very useful videos as well.

  • Whizlabs

    This course provided plenty of full-length mock exams and practice quizzes. I did all eight of its quizzes, taking a break halfway through to study up on my weak areas before I completed the last four.

  • A Cloud Guru

    This was another good, comprehensive tour through AWS, with several videos ranging from 5-20 minutes in length. I completed the course’s final practice exam, which, I think, was harder than the actual AWS exam.

Now it’s your turn

If you’re getting ready to take an AWS certification exam, or just want to learn more about what the exams cover, including costs and formats, check out our post, AWS Cloud Certifications Explained: Which Certification Is Right for You? Remember, you’re not getting certified for the sake of getting the certification; you are doing it to become a bona fide cloud architect!