I’m a certification junkie! I’ve been earning IT certifications for over 18 years now, have taken over 35 exams in that time, and I’ve only ever failed an exam twice. In this article I discuss how to pass AWS certification exams first time, every time.
The key to successfully passing AWS certification exams is simply ensuring you prepare adequately.
Preparation consists of the following 5 steps which I’ll be walking you through in this post:
- Practice (hands-on)
- Training (mainly online videos)
- Theory (reading)
- Practice questions
- Taking the exam
The tools have changed a bit over the years and video based training is now very useful but cannot be used in isolation. There’s also a lot of companies selling various resources to help you prepare for your exams but the quality of the materials can vary significantly so it’s worth being cautious about what you use.
Two years ago, I passed all three of the AWS associate level certifications and I’m now studying again to re-certify. I have created this blog to share some of the tools and methods I use to optimize the time I spend and ensure I pass the exam first time, every time.
I’m going to focus on the AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate exam in this blog post, but this advice can apply to almost any of the AWS certification exams. But before we get stuck into the 5 step process, a little background on the exam.
Background on the Exam
Most people who take these exams will have some basic level of understanding of IT. You might find it a lot more challenging if you’re a complete newby and can’t tell a block from an object store, or a VM from a container.
That being said, you don’t need to have deep expertise in the underlying technologies that support AWS, as cloud computing abstracts a lot of that complexity away from you.
Many developers who are not at all infrastructure savvy get on very well with AWS as it provides them the tools they need to do their jobs without having to care about the workings of the layers underneath.
The blueprint for the AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate exam can be found here.
In the exam blueprint, AWS make the following recommendations for AWS-specific knowledge and experience:
- One year of hands-on experience designing available, cost-efficient, fault-tolerant, and scalable distributed systems on AWS
- Hands-on experience using compute, networking, storage, and database AWS services
- Hands-on experience with AWS deployment and management services
- Ability to identify and define technical requirements for an AWS-based application
- Ability to identify which AWS services meet a given technical requirement
- Knowledge of recommended best practices for building secure and reliable applications on the AWS platform
- An understanding of the basic architectural principles of building on the AWS Cloud
- An understanding of the AWS global infrastructure
- An understanding of network technologies as they relate to AWS
- An understanding of security features and tools that AWS provides and how they relate to traditional services
The good news is all of this knowledge can be attained through some hands-on experience and reading freely available articles on the AWS website.
The exam has recently changed to a new format this year and the image below shows the differences between the new and old format (this applies to all of the associate level AWS certification exams).
The AWS technology moves at an incredible rate of change so I would recommend going with the latest exam format if you are starting your studies now, as it will be more closely aligned with the features available today.
Note that there are 10 more questions in the new exam and an extra 50 minutes to do them!. That’s not being generous as much as it is about the increased difficulty of some of the questions on the new exam.
But don’t let that put you off, the associate level exams are not too difficult and there plenty of resources to use to to prepare.
Step 1: It all starts with practice
One of the keys to learning any technology is to play with it. If you don’t work in with AWS don’t worry. Not everyone has the chance to work with technologies they’re studying in a professional context and I’ve certainly passed many exams without having actual on-the-job experience.
With AWS you can setup an account for free and the free tier allows you to use specific AWS services at no cost. Just go to: https://aws.amazon.com/free
The free tier offers plenty for free every month including (but not limited to):
This is a great way to get experience and you can bring stuff up and tear it down again without it costing you a cent. It’s amazing how much you can do in the free tier for a whole year!
Step 2: Online Video-Based Training
Online video-based training is an awesome tool. There are many great online courses for AWS certification that allow you to just sit back and soak it all up. The great thing about video is you have an expert and experienced instructor who can help guide you through the technology and point out useful tips for passing the exam.
Courses can vary from death-by-powerpoint to heavily lab centric and this is where the problem with using them in isolation lies. The courses that are heavy in content can be very dry and tedious, and the more practical courses will be light on content and won’t get you anywhere near ready to pass the exam.
I recently used these online courses:
- A Cloud Guru (affiliate link) – this is a great starting point. It’s quite practical with plenty of labs and is well presented. The theory bits can be very slide oriented with little graphical assistance and in terms of the depth of content this course alone won’t teach you more than 40-50% (max) of what you need to pass the exam
- Elias Khnaser on Pluralsight – this was a good course with a good mixture of theory and practical labs. It’s well presented and there was quite a bit I learned on this course that wasn’t covered by A Cloud Guru. That being said A Cloud Guru had more guided labs
- DolfinED on Udemy (affiliate link)– boy is this one is in depth! There’s over 30 hours of theory and another 30 hours of taking you through the practice questions. This course goes into some serious depth on some topics and will probably prepare you some way towards the Pro exam too. New content is being added regularly and if there’s one video based course that’s going to get you through the exam, this is it.
Step 3: Theory
Some people find this the boring part but there’s no substitute for theory and lots of reading is always necessary. I like to get plenty of hands-on practice with a technology before I get stuck into the theory part which really helps things to make sense (and keep it interesting). It’s important to keep practicing as well as you gain more knowledge – use it or you lose it!
The AWS website has a great amount of information so you can pretty much just use that if you like. There are some books and eBooks around as well but things move fast in the AWS world and they’re generally out of date by the time they’ve been published.
My strategy when learning theory is to take copious notes. When watching online courses, I also take notes of the key facts. Having concise, summarised training notes becomes really valuable when you’re trying to remember thousands of facts, as you can refer back at any time without having to read lengthy articles. Try using a digital note tool such as Microsoft OneNote or Evernote.
A comprehensive list of training notes for the AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate exam can be found on this website here. This is an up-to-date and free resource, and took a lot of time to put together so it would be great to see people making use of it. I’ll be updating the training notes as the technology and exam evolves. Get in touch or add comments if you’d like to provide feedback.
Step 4: Practice Questions
One of the most important tools to use to both learn and evaluate your readiness for the exam is practice questions. Using high quality practice questions helps you to understand the types of questions you’re likely to encounter in the exam and can help you to identify areas of weakness.
The challenge however is finding good quality practice questions. There have always been tonnes of exam dumps on the Internet and various companies serving up low-quality questions (that they generally copy from each other).
These can be incredibly misleading and the questions are often written in poor English, the answers are incorrect, and the explanations (if there are any) are confusing.
Remember, AWS changes fast so the questions need to be up to date. I would steer well clear of poor quality or out of date questions!
I’d suggest testing yourself repeatedly throughout your journey, don’t wait until you’re getting close to exam time. Practice questions should be considered both a learning tool and an evaluation tool and should therefore be used from early on.
Free Practice Questions: check out our free sample practice questions or purchase the full set on our website here. I have deliberately made these questions challenging enough that they at least match and in some cases exceed the level of difficulty of the exam. This is to ensure you’re prepared for the tougher questions you are faced with.
Step 5: Exam Time – Final Tips
Another key to my success with taking IT certification exams is that I never book the exam until I’m sure I’m ready. You need to be getting 80-90% of the practice questions right before you should even think about booking. The actual pass mark is much lower than this but there will always be surprises on the day with technologies you didn’t cover enough in your training.
Once you’ve got some practice, watched a course, done a lap of my training notes, and can ace the practice questions on this site, you’ll be ready. I like to schedule my exams in the morning when my brain is at its best, but not too early that I have to stress about getting there on time. If you’ve prepared adequately you shouldn’t need to cram at the last minute so clear your head of any stresses and turn up fresh.
For each question try to skim read it first and look over the answers. You can develop a knack for this and often you’ll quickly work out what the answer is likely to be. Then, go back over the question in detail and make sure you haven’t missed anything before you make your selection.
Some questions will be single choice, multiple choice with a specified number of answers, or you may need to select “all that apply”. Make sure you don’t get this wrong as it’s an easy mistake to make!
If you get stuck on a question, give it your best answer and mark it for review and come back to it at the end. This is a good way to ensure you don’t get too stressed about it and will hopefully have plenty of time at the end to give it some more thought. Only mark answers for review that you really need more time on.
AWS certification exams are quite well written so there aren’t usually too many confusing questions. If you’ve used some high quality practice questions to prepare you should be well equipped to handle whatever they throw at you on the day. Happy studying and good luck with your exams!