Some Thoughts On Passing The AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate Exam

The AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate is currently one of the most popular IT certifications. I usually avoid certifications, as a lot of the exams don’t test hands-on skills and knowledge. The AWS exams are different. The AWS exams are the real deal and have a nasty reputation for exposing your weaknesses. The pass rates aren’t great. People fear taking the exams. You WILL be thoroughly tested on your hands-on skills and knowledge of AWS.

The bonus to passing a AWS exam and getting your certification? You earned (and I repeat earned) a certification that has real value in the marketplace. A quick Google search will show you how valuable the AWS certs are in the marketplace – they’ve been the highest paying IT certifications for a few years now. Given AWS’s dominance of the cloud computing space, and the continuing growth of the cloud, it makes sense to get an AWS certification if you’re professionally invested in the AWS ecosystem.

I decided to get the certification (I also plan to get more) because it will help me grow my data services business. It also helps solidify and demonstrate my expertise in the AWS ecosystem. Studying for the exam definitely made me a better solutions architect. If you choose to study for an AWS exam (you can also choose AWS Developer or AWS SysOps), you’ll also very likely become far more effective in your career. There is zero downside to taking an AWS certification exam.

Exam Day

Showing up at the testing center that afternoon, I signed in, then sat in the waiting room next to a guy who was sitting for his third attempt at this exam. Note that you can only take an exam three times in a year; he had a lot of pressure going into this exam. He commented how the questions kept changing on each exam, and he had no idea how to continue studying for it. He looked defeated. He got up from his chair and walked into a room to take his test. Poor guy. I just sat there trying to stay chill and focused on what I came to do – pass the exam on my first try.

Preparation

Let me rewind a bit and discuss my preparation for the exam. You WILL need to study for the AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate exam. You may have a lot of experience with AWS products, but your experience is almost certainly with a subset of the ecosystem. The exam will test your knowledge in all areas of AWS, as well as their best practices. Remember, there’s your way of doing things, and there’s the AWS way of doing things. The exam obviously focuses on the latter.

One thing to note – there are currently two versions of the exam for AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate (old exam) and AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate (Released February 2018) (new exam). Until August 12, 2018, you can take the old exam, which seems more focused on specific technologies and lifting and shifting from on-premises to cloud. The new exam seems to focus more on higher level best practices, with an emphasis on serverless and newer approaches.

For the sake of doing so, I took the practice exams for both the new and old exam, and passed both. Because I studied for the old exam, taking the old exam was the lower risk option. But I did feel the newer exam may have been easier, at least based on the questions asked on the exam.

For more details of the differences between the two exams, click here

Which brings me to preparing for the exam. This is tough, as I think everyone gets a different exam. My study materials consisted of:

Read the required materials, as they will be covered in the exam. But use the exam preparation materials merely as suggestions on where to steer your focus. Keep in mind the materials are probably out of date, or won’t reflect the test you’ll take. Do not rely on the exam quizzes or practice tests to mirror the questions on the exam. Avoid memorizing question banks. This is a waste of time. The people who write the AWS exam know you’ll do this, and have already acted accordingly. A sure path to failure is try to study by drilling test questions.

Also, remember that AWS may test you on anything released in the last 6 months. Basically, anything related to core AWS is fair game on the exam – VPC, servers, databases, security, etc. What’s not covered in the old exam materials are the newer offerings around data science or IOT; I’m unsure if the new exam will cover these technologies, but given the attention AWS is giving to these areas, you should expect it at some point.

Bottom line – There’s no substitute for experience. Get your hands dirty with AWS, and really understand the first principles of the platform.

The Exam

I’ve heard mixed things about the difficulty of the AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate. Nobody says it is easy. The sentiment around exam difficulty ranged from “it sucks” to “I’d rather die in a fire”. Either way, it isn’t a joyride.

Because your exam will likely differ, here are the notes on my exam.

80 minutes, 55 questions. From what I’ve read, the pass rates seem to range from 58% to 70%+. I opted to try passing with at least 70%, just to be safe. This leaves 16.5 questions to get wrong. Round to 15 for argument’s sake 😉 You can flag the questions you need to review, and come back later. Unless you’re a savant – or get lucky with an easy version of the test – you’ll likely need to review your answers. Try to knock out your questions with a good cadence on one per minute so you have enough time for review.

Nothing I studied for specifically prepared me for the exam questions. Some questions were straightforward. Many were tricky. Some were absolutely frustrating. Definitely read between the lines of what you’re being asked. Always remember the first principles that AWS emphasizes in their suggested study materials. The obvious answer may be the wrong one.

There were lots of questions on Dynamo, API Gateway, ECS, Direct Connect, everything related to VPC, on-prem hybrid with VPC, everything related to high availability – ELB, Auto Scaling, Lambda, NAT gateways, Kinesis, EC2, and much, much more. The material was very comprehensive about the AWS ecosystem.

Just pace yourself, remember first principles, stay focused, and you’ll do fine.

Aftermath

I clicked “End Test” and all I could see was “Congratulations!”. Dazed. I just got up and walked out of the test center. It reminded me of finishing a fight. No emotion. Just glad to be done. When I got into my car, my happiness bubbled up. I did what I came to do. And I’m just glad I don’t have to be like the poor guy in the test center waiting room. Because I’m not exactly sure how I would study for another test.

What’s next? I’m already studying for my AWS Big Data Specialty and AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional exams. The latter is supposed to make your brain melt. It’s notorious as AWS’s hardest exam. A friend of mine has all 5 AWS certifications and dreads when he has to take this exam for his AWS certification renewal. But I’m game. Taking the AWS Certified Solutions Architect was well worth it, and I’m excited to keep pushing my skills and knowledge around the AWS ecosystem.

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