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Notes on my AWS Certification Experience

I passed. Oh my lord, I passed the AWS Certified Solutions Architect Associate exam. Thank God, because I did not want to go through that again – and my husband didn’t want to go through that again! “That”, for him, being “dealing with a neurotic tightly-wound Virgo with test anxiety who cries at the drop of a hat”. I’m going to share how I prepared for the exam and what it was like, but first, let’s go back to a paragraph I wrote the night before the exam.

The Night Before

It’s Tuesday, June 22nd, the night before the exam. I have so much nervous energy right now that I have to come here, to my safe space – to writing. I have to put my thoughts down on the (digital) page to find some calm in this anxiety storm. On the one hand, it’s “just a test”. On the other hand… it’s a test I’ve been preparing for ridiculously intensely for seven months. I’m sick of it, and if I fail, I’m still trapped in this cycle of studying, of focusing on and learning only¬†these things, more distance between myself and the multitude of other things I want to learn. Not to mention my professional progression is stunted. It’s less time I get to spend with my family. So yes, it’s just a test, and yes, there are plenty of more important things going on in the world… but in my personal world, it eclipses everything else. I want to get it over with and I want to put it off forever. I need 72% to pass. If I get 71% I’ll scream.

How I Prepared (courses, flash cards, practice tests, and a video)

The AWS Certified Solutions Architect Associate exam is designed to be taken by people who have at least one year of experience with AWS cloud services. When I first started preparing, I had zero years. We used Cloud 9 at my boot camp, and that didn’t even make an appearance anywhere near the exam. That’s it. I knew a few things I’d gathered from hearing them discussed at work, but for all intents and purposes, I was a blank slate.

I started with this Learning Path, a collection of courses taught by Tom Carpenter. This was a fantastic overview of the different services, with a focus on what you’ll need to know for the exam. I filled two notebooks with notes, mostly bulleted lists, along with some drawings of diagrams. This required a lot of pausing and rewinding and replaying of the videos, so you don’t want to know how long it took me. No, seriously – it’s not a pretty number of hours. Or months.

Next, I made flash cards. Not the funky digital ones the kids are using these days, the ones where you grab a couple packs of 3×5 index cards, write the name of a service on the blank side with a marker, and then cram as much information as you can on the lined side with the finest pen you own in the tiniest handwriting you can manage. I read back through my notebooks to create the cards, but if I did it all over again (which I’ll have to in three years when my certification expires) I would do the note-taking and the index cards concurrently. I drilled with the cards in sections of about 20-30 cards at a time, going through them, shuffling, going through them again, until I didn’t miss any. Doing the same with the next stack, then shuffling it together with the “completed” stacks, and going through them all again. Repetition, repetition, repetition.

Then, practice tests. Absolutely take some practice tests. Cloud Guru came highly recommended, but I couldn’t afford them. Whiz Labs was also recommended to me, but I had my reasons for not choosing them, which shouldn’t deter you – by all means do your own research into all the available options! I went with this Udemy course of six practice exams, which I think was $19.99 when I purchased it. Udemy is always having sales, as you probably know by now, so get in there while the getting is good. I think these practice tests prepared me well for the formatting of the questions, the timing of the exam, and quite a few key concepts that showed up. In the interest of full transparency, at least one question/answer combination was out-of-date (and had been flagged in the comments by other users months previously), although they did update the exams multiple times in the 6-week period I used them which was awesome. For me personally, I didn’t feel that the support offered by the course creators was helpful because I couldn’t get a direct answer to my question, but I’m happy with the course overall. I will also note that the course creators recommend taking their suite of practice tests multiple times until you can consistently get 80-90%, which I did.

This was my practice test process:
1. Take a practice test
2. Review answers – read the full question and correct answer of every single question, and for the ones I got wrong, read the explanations for why the right answer is correct and why the answer I chose was wrong
3. Make a bulleted list of “major takeaways” – notes that would serve like bumpers on a bowling alley lane to guide me to the correct answer in the future, such as “HTTP/HTTPS = Application Load Balancer, TCP/UDP = Network Load Balancer” or “When you hear HPC, think EFA”. I eventually compiled all of the bulleted lists into a study guide.*
4. Before taking the next practice test, review all of the bulleted lists from all of the previous practice tests.

* You can download my study guide here. Disclaimer: I make no promises about its accuracy, currency, alignment with the actual exam, or usefulness to you. I recommend its use only as far as giving you an idea of how you might format your own study guide, which I encourage you to make based on your own understanding, weaknesses, knowledge gaps, and the other study materials you are using to prepare.

Finally, the video. Another user taking the Udemy course shared a link to this amazing video in the comments, and holy cow I am SO glad I found it! It complements the practice tests nicely, filling in some gaps I still had and just really tying it all together perfectly. I downloaded it to my iPod (yes, I still have my ancient iPod) and listened to it once on the drive from San Diego to Ventura and again on the drive home. I also watched the video the night before the exam, as is recommended. I found myself shouting out answers before they were stated in the video, which felt good. I’m sure there were some drivers on the 405 who weren’t expecting to hear an instructional lecture blasting from the speakers of the Subaru beside them, punctuated by a future DevOps engineer screaming “S3, bitch! ‘Durable storage’ equals S-to-the-mother-effin’-THREE”, but I say, have fun with it and don’t worry about what anyone else thinks of your exuberant study habits!

The Test Itself

Traditionally you’re required to take the AWS certification exams at a testing center, but due to COVID you have the option to take them remotely as well. I chose to go to a testing center anyway, because I didn’t want to have to worry about any technical difficulties or distractions; I had enough to be anxious about without worrying about having that one car in the neighborhood that is always blasting Sia’s “Chandelier” roll up right as I’m trying to work out what a policy does, you know?

So anyway, I went to the testing center. You can’t take anything inside with you – like, they’d probably require you to take the test naked if public indecency laws weren’t a thing. No water bottles, no sweaters, not even jewelry (although I was allowed to keep my wedding ring on). As someone who is freezing 99.9% of the time and also can’t focus on anything when uncomfortably cold, the sweater rule had me worried. It was cool in the testing room, but not so cold as to be a problem. Lockers were provided, but I just gave everything to my husband. Quick shoutout, he took time out of his workday to drive me so I could study on the way, and again to pick me up, and took me for celebratory burritos and boba afterward. He’s truly the best, and I am incredibly grateful every second of every day to have him in my life. <3 Now, back to the test-taking experience.

They played a recording of all the things you can’t bring into the testing room, took my picture, and then walked me to the room and told me my assigned station number. A headset, earplugs, scratch paper, and a pencil were provided at my station. There was a calculator as well, but I cannot think of a scenario where you’d need one. You can use the restroom or go get a drink of water, but you can’t pause the test to do so. I had 130 minutes (that’s 2 hours and 10 minutes for my mathematically challenged friends – wait, maybe the calculator is for calculating how much time per question you have left? If you find a way to use that calculator on the exam, please let me know) to answer 65 questions.

This was my question-answering strategy: go through the whole test first, and answer each question as best as I could. If I was struggling/doubting my answer, I wrote down the question number on my scratch paper and the letters of the options I was deciding between (I can’t remember if they actually had letters or if I just went based on the order they were in). After I answered the last question, I went back through the questions I made note of in order. If I still wasn’t sure, I circled them to come back to a third time. I meant for that third pass to be the final one, but I will admit there were two questions I ended up bouncing between and changing my answer to. I finally had to acknowledge that I was never going to be confident in the answer I chose, so my best guess would have to do. I finished the test with about five minutes remaining, because I was only going to psych myself out worse if I continued until time ran out.

I found the UI clear and easy to navigate. You can flag questions to return to, but I liked writing them down by hand because it’s how I’ve been taking standardized tests since elementary school, and I needed that familiarity to feel more comfortable in the situation. Once I submitted the test, it immediately displayed the “Pass”, but I didn’t receive a detailed score report until a few days later.

Good luck!

If you’re preparing to take any of the AWS Certification exams, or any other certification exam for that matter, good luck! I sincerely hope you crush it. If you have any questions about my exam experience or just need a pep talk, you can reach me on Instagram or Twitter, I’m @codecopycoffee on both.

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[Photo credit: Varun Gaba via Unsplash]


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