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Is it possible to PASS an AWS Exam without studying?

Aaron Brighton
Founder @ Lockdrop | CISSP | AWS-PSA | AWS Community Builder
Originally published at aaronbrighton.Medium ・6 min read

TL;DR: Yes. Do I recommend it? No. Do you need actual experience in the subject matter area? Of course. Do the exams still validate knowledge? Yes!

Even with our best of intentions, life sometimes gets in the way and things don’t go according to plan. If you’re like me, there’s a million things you’d rather be doing than studying, and so I tell myself, tomorrow, I’ll study tomorrow… and so on, procrastination. Next thing you know, your exam starts in 5 minutes, and you’ve suddenly become the creature in the picture above.

That creature was me yesterday at 9:25 AM, and this is my story of prepping for re-certification of my AWS Certified Solutions Architect — Professional certification.

What‘s on the AWS-PSA exam?

Like many professional certification exams, you’re required to agree to an NDA before starting the exam. Essentially dis-allowing you from sharing specifics about the exam questions with others, for obvious reasons. Therefore, I’ll be purposefully vague…

Abilities Validated by the Certification

(copied from AWS Certification Site)

  • Design and deploy dynamically scalable, highly available, fault-tolerant, and reliable applications on AWS
  • Select appropriate AWS services to design and deploy an application based on given requirements
  • Migrate complex, multi-tier applications on AWS
  • Design and deploy enterprise-wide scalable operations on AWS
  • Implement cost-control strategies

I’ve highlighted a couple of the points above, as the questions that stood out to me on the exam seemed to be heavily skewed towards these two areas.

Everyone who takes the exam gets a set of questions randomly chosen from a large pool, and therefore, this was my experience, YMMV.

Migrate complex, multi-tier applications on AWS

There was a significant number of questions focused on strategies for migrating on-premise workloads to AWS.

Focus was on how to migrate workloads in the most cost-effective way and/or with the little to-no impact to end-users of the applications/workloads.

Design and deploy enterprise-wide scalable operations on AWS

A good number of questions were about large (enterprise?) AWS environments, with multi-account strategies with 100s or 1000s of AWS accounts.

Often these questions were fixated around services like AWS Organizations, AWS Control Tower, and surprisingly AWS Direct Connect.

Overall content and comparison to prior exams / versions

Coming out of the exam I was surprised by how much of it was focused on large enterprise and organizational strategies and data migrations.

In the past I’ve certified under AWS Certified Solutions Architect — Associate, AWS Certified Security — Specialty. I’ve also wrote this AWS-PSA exam previously (older version), three years ago.

Comparing this experience to those prior exams:

While it’s been a while since I wrote the previous AWS-PSA and AWS-ASA exams, if my memory serves (which it probably doesn’t), it seems that AWS may be differentiating the AWS-ASA and AWS-PSA exams not necessarily based on more advanced expertise but rather on a different set of problems.

This exam was almost assuredly more focused on big enterprise problems than the exams in the past. It’s possible AWS-ASA is more focused on smaller/medium sized company problems and AWS-PSA is for larger enterprises. If you disagree with this assessment I’d love to hear it in the comments!

My exam experience

One of the nice things to have become more common due to the reality of the pandemic is being able to write certification exams from your home instead of a stressful exam center.

This necessitates a proctor “investigation” of your room via webcam before they release the exam to you.

Prior to the exam I made sure to remove any questionable items from my desk, and thought this would be good enough:

Exam desk ready to go! Not.

Turns out I was wrong, the first 30 minutes prior to the exam was spent dismantling my desk.

  • Plants had to go.
  • Keys had to go.
  • Cables and USB adapter for my keyboard & mouse had to go.
  • Monitors had to be completely unplugged.
  • Even my water had to go.

After the exam, I double checked the list of rules for the environment where you write the exam, and sure enough… Beverages are listed as prohibited.

In a prior exam I had wrote from home, I remember being interrupted middle of the exam and being told not to cover my mouth with my hand (I think they use facial recognition tech to flag whether you’ve left view of the webcam during the exam).

Thinking with your hand is prohibited!

Time limit

One major part of the experience that if I could warn others about is the time limit! I was given 75 questions, and 3 hours (180 minutes) to answer them, which sounds like a lot of time, but it can disappear quickly! I ended up only getting through 73 questions, and no time left to review the questions I flagged throughout.

“running out of time on exam meme” — Google Images

In the past I’ve heard others recommend using time strategically, and I probably should have followed the advice:

  • Read the answers first.
  • Read the “ask” part of the question second.
  • If you still need additional context, read the actual scenario third.

On the AWS-PSA exam, majority of the questions are scenario based (similar to the practice exams), and you can easily waste time overthinking and trying to visualize/comprehend the scenario when the ask/options don’t require you to.

How did I pass without studying, and why does this still make the exams valuable?

Certification exams validate one thing: knowledge.

There are two ways to acquire knowledge, studying and experience.

I had a couple things going for me heading into this exam:

  1. I passed this exam previously (earlier version).
  2. I’ve been working closely with AWS for more than 6 years.

Value of the exams

If you think about it fundamentally, the exam is there to validate your knowledge and mindset.

If you’ve worked closely with AWS across a range of services successfully for years, it’s likely you’d have soaked up the knowledge and experience to put you in the right mindset to answer architectural questions correctly.

I can prove this point thanks to my own past failings. In 2015, I rushed myself into my very first AWS exam (AWS-ASA), I had a month or two of limited hands-on experience, and I studied no-where near enough. Not surprisingly, I failed this exam. After more hands-on experience with AWS, I retried the next year, the result was much better!

What a failure!

Should you still study for an AWS exam, anyways?

Regardless of your proficiency with AWS and their service offering, don’t do what I did. Instead, study!

It’s nearly impossible (unless someone can prove me wrong) to have experience with every AWS service (there are over 200 as of this writing) not to mention the broad set of features each offer. New services pop-up so frequently which means keeping up to date with the entire AWS ecosystem is darn near impossible.

The end-goal of studying should not be to achieve a certification, but rather to expand the knowledge you have. In the tech industry this is especially critical, as we’re focused on optimization problems and some of the best optimization opportunities are thanks to services we aren’t yet aware of — until you study.

So yes, study.

If you’re planning to take an AWS exam, I’d encourage you to checkout a past article I wrote about resources I used to prep for the AWS Security — Specialty exam: 2020 Preparation Guide for AWS Certified Security — Specialty

In closing

If you’re planning to maintain your AWS certifications and you’ve been working in the industry with AWS services on a daily basis, don’t stress too much.

Definitely set aside time to study, but know this — AWS isn’t testing whether you know how to study effectively. They are testing to see if you know what it is you already do, and that you’re keeping yourself familiar with what’s new.

I encourage you to post your feedback in the comments below! If you found this article insightful or helpful in anyway, feel free to reach out directly, I love hearing from people who find value in my content!

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