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AWS Exam Preparation: Strategies and Techniques to prevent you from Pulling your Hair Out! - Part 1

LionelPJ
・8 min read

This is a two part post. This article delves into common problems and strategies to overcome them. May be in the process save you some hair loss. In Part 2 of this post, we will see some answering techniques that will help you through taking the exam.

To set the stage for the problems we face, imagine that you have finally reached…

The Day of the Exam

So you get to the exam and start answering questions; you are trying to settle down. It's not always that you are calm and ready to go. This article is about problems that you may face and how to prepare, so you are ready when you face them.

Common Exam Problems

Let's go through some of the issues frequently faced on exam day. In this section, we will see how we can prepare ourselves based on this awareness.

Racking your brains

The exam is hard!

Is it? Or are the questions bordering or infringing on topics you are not aware of? Some questions can be hard and needs more focus. Knowing your content and following the syllabus as you study will help. Take a deep breath - by this time you must be prepared for this!

Answer impulsively

Have you had the feeling that you can't read anything and your mind is set on what the problem may be or you pre-judge that this is the option? You stop reading or you scan for words related to the option you have in mind? Are you sure that is what they are asking?
The problem is that you can't shake it off. What if I tell you that even if it doesn't feel this way, you practice this every time you take a practice test, especially when you have seen a variant of this question. You do not stop to re-evaluate if this is true? It gets harder when you have possibly seen the answer earlier and it clouds your judgement.

Trick questions

AWS makes it a point to really test your knowledge. The tricks span across multiple ways.

  • Using the keyword not in the question - To make it complicated out of the 4 options there may be 2 or more answer options also containing the word NOT. Double negatives are very hard to digest. The other positive answer options do not help. Why? Because you go between positive and negative - back and forth making it confusing!
  • Common and repetitive phrases - This makes it hard because you have to closely watch what is different among them. In a hurry it's very easy to miss them and answer wrong.
  • Verbiage - The sentences are tricky thanks to the English language; and
  • Technical Knowledge - It can also be tricky when your question infringes on the border of your knowledge and you do not know what is this really about leaving you guessing.

Overconfidence

Many years ago, I was preparing for the Sun Certified Java Developer exam along with a friend. While I carefully worked on the project, my friend felt he finished the project and was about to submit the exam to be graded. I appreciated his confidence, but begged him to let me write a simple program to test his code. After a lot of convincing him to let me verify his solution, in 30 minutes or less, we found that his code failed - miserably! and if he would have submitted the solution, he would have failed. How is this relevant to this exam? The concept is still the same. Don't be overconfident. Let your tests speak for itself. You will know if you are ready when you are getting 3 consecutive scores of 90% or above.

Sickness

Let me say this. If you know that you are sick or feeling sick postpone the exam - please! Don't attend it. Give yourself a chance to heal. If you feel horrible on the day of the exam, call Pearson or PSI and ask what are your options. If you still decide to take it, remember the risk is higher.
When I wrote my solution architect associate exam, I had a severe headache that morning. Knowing that I could not concentrate with a heavy headache, I tried some sample tests about 45 minutes before the exam, to get used to the feeling and to warm myself up. This helped me in the exam. My headache remained throughout the course of the exam, but I still passed it.

Imposter Syndrome

This is very real. This is when you start doubting yourself and you feel you are not worthy. It has happened to me twice on two of the Azure exams. I had this constant thought stuck in my head that I am not an azure architect. Of the 7 exams that I wrote, I failed on these 2 when I doubted myself. Postpone if you are not in the right space of mind. Do more hands-on activities. When you are ready schedule again.

Strategies and Techniques

Now let's talk about common strategies to handle these problems.

Studies

Actually read the syllabus

The most common and the most important foundation is to gain a complete understanding of the syllabus. Know it well. I would suggest that you go through it more than once. The first time you gain familiarity. On the second pass, you may find gaps or better understanding.

Make Notes. Remember, it should be very short or you can't read these before the exam. No one wants to read a novel before the exam!! Try to write a phrase or a sentence that reminds you of the concept.

Benchmark your progress

I have been teaching AWS within my company for multiple students for the last two years. The first thing we always do is to take a sample test before we start learning for the exam. The deal is to never ever get a lower score again as this becomes the threshold. Every time a new benchmark is taken, the new score becomes the benchmark. Do as many benchmarks as you see fit. I would suggest that you do this at the beginning and after you finish 2 rounds of learning content.

Test often

That is right. Test often! Find gaps. See if you can find patterns and relate it to domains. If you do badly at the domain, read or watch those portions again. If these are specific topics, then learn them with an intention to understand what it does and when it is used. This will take you a long way.

Learn using different styles

While some of us love to watch videos, some like to read books. My suggestion - try them all. Each one of the styles comes with its own unique advantages. And sometimes by this practice the topic gets deeper and you may understand even better. Some of the techniques may include -

  • Watching AWS re:Invent videos on YouTube
  • Watching premium content courses. In my case, I was introduced to Adrian Cantrill a few years ago when he worked for Linux Academy [now a part of A Cloud Guru]. I followed him along and now he has his own site learn.cantrill.io. He is a person who really built my foundation and helped me on my AWS journey and I would recommend this to anyone who also wants to learn and become better at their craft.
  • Reading the official guides by AWS that can be purchased from Amazon or read on O'reilly if you have a subscription.
  • Joining live event sessions on AWS. As an example, if you have a subscription with O'reilly, you can attend any of the advertised live events with guest speakers.
  • Watch or attend AWS events. They often post articles on LinkedIn or other social media.
  • Watching or reading material on aws.training
  • Reading white papers
  • Hands-On - a lot of it!!!
  • Do a project on topics you like. For example, I authored a liveProject for manning.com called Automating Infrastructure for an E-commerce Website with Terraform and AWS. This builds a network from scratch, then I made a website from scratch using ECS, automated it using CodePipeline and performed some backup strategies using serverless concepts. This option can really help you in real life where you have to apply what you learned!

Practice Answering Techniques using logic not memory

Make this a point. The real exam doesn't test your memory. They want you to evaluate the answers. So, while you do those practice exams, don't memorize. Use your logic, even if you think you know what the question is about. The art of answering and the constant application of figuring out will help you in the exam.

Tricky as Jenga

Additional Notes on Common Problems

The Exam is Hard - How can I handle this?

This is something that you must prepare for ahead of time. Some of the common tips are -

  • Download the exam guide from this site. Understand how many domains exist in your exam and how the weightage varies across the domains.
  • Go through the whole syllabus at least 2 times.
  • Don't assume you know it all. Try a test to gain some quick feedback on how much knowledge you have retained. Please don't memorize. Instead, use logic to figure out your answers. Your main exam will not have these questions verbatim. So don't waste your time.

I am driven by Impulses - How can I handle this?

Let me tell you this - the real exam is not about memorizing those answers. During the exam, the toolset you need to bring to the table is - the ability to figure it out. To do this well in any exam, you need to take it back to that same practice test where you thought you got this - and think along the following lines -

  • Why is this option right? or
  • Why are the options wrong? or
  • Are there keywords in the question that justify my answer choice?

I find the exam tricky - How can I handle this?

  • When you see the word NOT - it's time to really figure out if you want to fall for this kind of trap. It's best to first flag the question before you attempt any further. Then go about figuring what are they really asking Translate this to simple words in your mind. For each option, if you translate it to the negative or the positive version of it and answer if this is a possibility? Would this be a candidate? And then remove choices that are noisy. Finally, sweep again to match keywords from the question that helps you qualify the right answer. Personally, I like to translate it all to a positive statement as it's easy for me to wrap my head around it. We will see examples of this later in one of the answering techniques.
  • Common phrases in questions have no additional value. Ignore them. And really look at what is different in each option. We will also look at an example in an answering technique called Answers First
  • The classical tricks include adding a lot of disruptors or noise in the question or answers or both. It's all about figuring out what do they really want?
  • The tricks around technical knowledge really verify your understanding of the service. Do you know your subject well to spot these errors?

If you want to see some of these as examples, please read the second part of the post, where I show you how to handle each of these scenarios [coming soon].

[about Lionel Pulickal]

Lionel is a Cloud Infrastructure Analyst who has worked in the IT industry since 1997. He has all the 3 AWS associate level exams and the solution architect professional exam under his belt. He loves hands-on and always loves to share the knowledge he has gained over the years.

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