I recently passed my AWS Solutions Architect Professional Certification on the first attempt. I wanted to share my experience of preparing for the exam as well as the actual exam day tips and tricks I learnt. I'll also talk about what to expect and approaches to navigate the challenges.
Getting an AWS certification is important for your cloud ecosystem career. Any role including DevOps, Data Engineer, Software Engineer, Architect would immensely benefit from this certification. This certificate demonstrates your ability to analyse and evaluate architectures.
I've been a full stack developer for 15 years. Worked in small and large organizations across domains. I started my cloud journey with AWS, working on the very basic services such as EC2, VPC, ELB, R53, S3; 8 years ago. My primary focus has always been on AWS with 20% time spent on evaluating and working with cloud vendors like Google Cloud Platform (GCP). I've built large scale, distributed, real-time systems in various domains and seen them through growth and chaos.
I passed my AWS DevOps certification a few years ago. I am an AWS Community Builder, which is an amazing platform for AWS enthusiasts.
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The AWS SA Pro is one of the toughest and sought after certifications in the cloud ecosystem. The primary reason is, the certification not only tests your knowledge but more importantly your experience.
AWS tries very hard to ensure that candidates DO NOT clear this certification by sheer repetition or memorization. Unless you can demonstrate experience and the ability to evaluate situations this is a hard exam to pass.
Does that I mean I cannot pass without experience?
Of course you can, but according to me, cramming for a professional certification and passing it is a waste of your time. You're better off studying the associate certification. Follow that up with real world experience to get to the professional level. You and your peers will appreciate it more.
To clear the exam, it is important to understand the mechanics. They will help you be aware of what AWS expects out of each question. AWS goes into painstaking details to make the exam fair, clear and reliable. Their focus is to test your knowledge and experience at every step.
My notes on the research:
- There are no trick questions. No one is trying to confuse you
- Several options (keys) are distractors. Distractors are answers which may be wrong but seem perfectly plausible
- Very rarely will previous questions/answers aid your next ones. Stop wasting time to find clues
- You get about 2.5 minutes per question. Each question is verbose and takes time to read. Learn to skim over (more on this later)
- Many answers are right, you have to pick the most appropriate one given the requirement
- At the Professional level, the questions require you to Analyze and Evaluate. This means you need to understand the scenario and pick one based on several factors. Even the most obvious and straightforward answer will be wrong because it is not cost-effective
- Questions will only test you on one area at a time even with multiple systems
- Do not make assumptions about the scenario. If it isn't written, then you have to ignore that factor
- Questions will not test you on UI, numbers, math, etc. You do however need to know the limits of services to select the right answer. For e.g. API Gateway has a timeout of 29 secs and an answer that uses APIGW but runs for 35 secs will be wrong
- Scores are scaled. Each question does not have the same weight. This will impact your total score.
- There is no penalty for wrong answers
I spent over two weeks of rigorous study time prior to the exam. I continously work on projects that require me to interact with AWS (most common services), this helped. Some of the questions are recall level, which means they test your ability to remember services and their characteristics, and continously working with AWS will help you answer them.
Give yourself at least 1 month to prepare even if you are an AWS expert
Like any certification exam, passing the SA Pro, requires a bit of everything:
- Knowledge - You absolutely must be well versed with AWS and all the services it has to offer
- Experience - You must know how to solve problems using a combination of AWS services and have solved at least a few in the past
- Scope - Understand what the certification will test you on, before you start studying. Go to at least more than one source to get latest information on what to cover
- Skill - The questions are long, designed to test your focus and need time to read and comprehend. Picking the right approach is key to solving all questions. Come up with your own strategy using the practice exams
- Time Management - Learn to manage your time. I cannot stress enough how easy it is to run out of time. This happens primarily because we cannot let go of a question
There are many courses and prep tools out there for the professional exam. I did a cursory search on the internet and asked experts around for the recommended ones. You should do your own research and pick a few.
The two I ended up using were:
- AWS Certified Solutions Architect Professional Practice Exams 2021 by Tutorials Dojo
These exams are the holy grail of practice. They are continously updated and Jon Bonso (a fellow AWS CB) is looped into the AWS ecosystem. The team keeps the questions updated and very relevant to the exam. If there is one service you pay for to pass the exam, this is it.
Jon and his team are great and will help you every step of the way.
How to use Tutorials Dojo
- Do these exams at the end of your learning schedule
- You only get 4 or 5 exams. Do not waste them by taking them unprepared
- Go thru your study material and then follow up with the exam
- Prepare yourself for 3 hours each and take one exam at a time in its entirety. If you try and take the exam in breaks you will lose a significant advantage
- Do this as close to the exam date as your schedule allows. Doing them close to your exam date will keep the rigour
- Use the review mode repeatedly. Even if you answer the question correctly, go over the others and read why they are wrong. The reasoning reinforces your choices
- Ultimate AWS Certified Solutions Architect Professional 2021 by Stephane Maarek (Udemy)
Stephane Maarek is one of the best fast paced trainers out there for AWS certifications. If you have significant experience with AWS, then his courses will walk you through the exam oriented aspects of the services.
How to use Stephane's course
- This is a slides only course. No UI or demos
- Follow up with self guided practical sessions to understand the details which Stephane skips over
- His course runs about 500+ slides. Go thru all of them
- Review the slides before the exams. It'll take you up to 2 days to review. Plan your schedule
- This is a long course, playback at 1.25x or 1.5x to save time
- Go through all the services whether you have used them or not
- Write down characteristics and limitations of every service (e.g. EBS is 3IOPS/GB, Lambda can run for max 15 mins, Lambda vCPU increases with RAM)
- Map services to keywords. e.g. NLB = expensive, fast, millions of connections, SQS = decouple services. Questions revolve around these keywords and if you use process of elimination as a last resort, these keywords will see you through
- Take notes, lots and lots of notes. I filled an entire book with simple one liner notes as the course was going on
- There are many services with similar names but different purposes. Clearly write their attributes to distinguish e.g. Different types of storage gateway options (file vs volume vs tape)
Almost all questions are scenario based and require you to read them quickly. I devised a strategy that worked for me.
After the first 120 minutes, I had gone through the entire set of questions, completely skipped 5 cause they were too long, and had marked 12 of them for review. This gave me a full hour to review the ones I wasn't sure of.
The strategy is as follows:
- You get about 2.5 minutes per question. Do not watch your time while reading the question. Focus only on the question especially the keywords & requirements
- If the question is long or has answers that are long or involve multiple services - Mark it for review and skip it
- Get through all the small ones first. Small means you can read it quickly and do not have several services involved
- With each question:
- Read the scenario and requirement two times. Pick up keywords and pivot your answer around them. Read aloud to yourself if you have to. I can't count the number of times I ignored the main requirement (cost-effective, low overhead, speed, on-premises)
- Eliminate the wrong ones immediately. Wrong ones have clear issues e.g. Archive data to ephemeral storage
- Questions can have single word differences, read each word carefully e.g. instance-data vs user-data
- Once an answer is chosen, read it and map each requirement to the scenario and requirement. Sometimes the obvious answer will miss the requirement
- If you don't know the answer at all, work through process of elimination. Remove the obviously wrong ones and pick the one closest. There will almost always be clues that will lead you to the most probable answer
I personally recommend you choose the morning slot. This exam unlike the associate ones is not about memory, it is about being alert. Stick to morning timings depending on the commute you have to the center. Try and wrap up the exam before lunch so you won't get hunger pangs at the fag end of the exam. I chose the 10:30AM slot which gave me ample time to do a mock test, get ready and travel.
I woke up early on exam day, after a small run, I took the final timed exam from Tutorials Dojo.
- Have a good breakfast. You'll be in the exam for 3 hours, you need the energy
- Have a quick walk/run
- Use maps to know the traffic and location of the center. Call the center if you can't find the way on maps. Ask about parking before hand
- Try and reach at least 20 minutes earlier
- Relax yourself, with deep breathing
- There is no set exam time/batch. Once you arrive, they log you in and off you go
- You cannot carry anything in the exam center (no watches, wallets, keys, etc). They'll probably give you a locker for your valuables
- Don't forget your ID cards and other prerequisites as mentioned in the email
- Bathroom breaks are allowed but the exam timer does not pause or stop. Best to take care of things before the exam starts
- Exam centers generally have smaller monitors and uncomfortable chairs & keyboards. Be mentally prepared to not be physically comfortable
- Ask for a pen & paper to write notes. You can only mark the question for review, not the choices. I avoided using the comments feature of the exam. Instead I wrote down the choices I was confused between, on paper and revisited them after I got done with other questions. The questions I skipped I wrote their numbers down in big bold letters
- Remain calm. The first few questions and minutes can be overwhelming. Once you start answering your pace picks up (TD exams will also help pace you)
- There is no penalty for wrong answers, so make sure you attempt all of them
- If you finish early, review only the most ambigous questions. I tried reviewing the majority and wasted a lot of time
- One of the issues I had was, if I had to review a question, I had to go thru it again, losing precious minutes. Train yourself with practice exams
And that's it, if you've practiced and read enough this should be a breeze. You'll see a PASS grade immediately.
Best of luck!