Advice on Taking the AWS Solutions Architect Associate Exam From Someone Who Just Passed
TL;DR — You don’t need an expensive online course!
Hi! My name is Quinn Vissak and I recently passed the AWS SAA exam! Not only is the Solutions Architect Associate certification well-regarded in the software industry, but learning the material is directly applicable to most software engineering roles. Whether you are seeking a way to distinguish yourself from your peers for a promotion, or looking to “hop”, the certification and the process of getting the certification will help further your career.
Having just studied and completed this test, it is my opinion that you don’t need tens of hours of structured online videos that may cost hundreds of dollars. With the right method of studying, the cost of preparation for the AWS SAA-02 exam can be quite low and may even take significantly less time than the recommended 80–120 hours of studying.
How can you get started preparing for your exam?
Commit to an Exam Date
Sign up for the AWS Solutions Architect exam here. I would highly recommend signing up for a date within the next few months to act as a motivating factor for your studying.
My first attempt to prepare for this exam failed. I started talking about wanting to get certified nine months ago, and even started an online course. I quickly abandoned the course, however, because I hadn’t committed to a test date. I procrastinated and prioritized other work over studying since there was no deadline. Once you sign up, you will feel compelled to prepare — it keeps you accountable to a strict timeline.
Allocate about 40–60 hours of study time however you see fit prior to your test date. When I restarted studying in February, I signed up for a mid-March test date. I studied for a handful of hours the first two Sundays, but it wasn’t until the two weeks prior to the exam that I started to study every day. The looming test date compelled me to study. Whatever your study strategy, just don’t cram in too much the night before!
Prepare for the Test
Although online courses definitely help tons of people pass the AWS SA exam — especially if you enjoy structured video learning — I found them less than helpful. The courses I looked at spent countless hours focused on how to navigate the AWS console. While this might be helpful for research and development, as a software engineer, very little of my time is spent using the console. Tools like Terraform and AWS CloudFormation eliminate the necessity for a user interface; they can be used to provision, modify, and destroy resources. The exam itself does not require any knowledge of the AWS console.
I found that the best way to study for the exam was through self-directed learning using resources such as:
1. Practice Exams
Udemy’s AWS SA-002 practice exams were the main reason I passed the exam on my first attempt.
I began my exam preparation by watching a few hours of structured learning videos, focused on the AWS SA exam. Even on 1.5x speed I got tired of the monotony, so I took the first Udemy practice exam recommended to me by a colleague. I was shocked at my poor performance — it was remarkable how little I had learned from the structured learning videos. My problem was simple — I didn’t know what I didn’t know — and thankfully, the practice exams highlighted that immediately.
Take the first practice exam and treat it as your baseline. For this first exam, review both the questions you got right (it may have been by chance) and wrong by writing down concise yet detailed notes about each service or feature mentioned in the multiple choice options. This will feel tedious, but subsequent exams and reviews will take less time as a result of your initial diligence. It is not necessary to review questions you got right in additional exams, unless you don’t feel confident on the topic (exam questions are categorized by topic). Each exam answer key explicitly describes why a selected answer is right, in addition to why other answers are wrong. As you work your way through, star any concepts that do not make sense even with the explanation, and move on to review the next question.
Exam Tip: eliminate choices by thinking through why an option would be incorrect, not just selecting a response that seems correct. Many questions have multiple acceptable answers, but you’ll only receive credit for selecting the best one.
2. AWS YouTube Channel
Next, revisit the starred concepts and look for relevant videos on YouTube, preferably on the official Amazon Web Services channel.
I found it extremely helpful to be able to visualize some of the concepts I was struggling with. The topic I had the most difficulty with — likely due to my inexperience — was VPC. Additional topics I needed to review were mainly services that I had not used — or even heard of — before taking the practice exams, such as Redshift, Spectrum, EMR, Glue, SQS, SWF, Kinesis, and Firehose. The videos also demonstrated how the AWS services could be used together. Since questions on the exam are use-case-centric, they typically involve the integration of more than one service. The YouTube clips mainly differ from the structured learning videos in that the clips focus on a specific topic in depth, so your misconceptions can be corrected in much less time.
To maximize my study time, I would use my commute each day to listen to a video about an unfamiliar AWS service. Although a few main AWS services make up most of the exam, many of the multiple choice answers will list other (less common) AWS services. It’s a good idea to at least familiarize yourself with their intended usage in order to narrow down your answer choices.
3. Cheat Sheets & FAQs
After watching a video about a service on YouTube, and learning how it fits into the AWS ecosystem and its intended use-cases, the cheat sheets provide specific details on pricing, limitations, and tradeoffs with other services. Understanding service pricing will pay immediate tangible dividends in your day-to-day position as a software engineer.
It is important to take notes on:
- The pricing model for each service, and understand how price increases with additional infrastructure or throughput (i.e. Spot EC2 pricing).
- Limitations of a service (i.e. AWS Snowball has a storage limit of 80TB).
- The behavior of services given certain conditions (i.e. how an ASG decides which EC2 to terminate during scale down).
- Comparison of services (i.e. Snowball vs Snowball Edge).
The Amazon FAQs are an additional resource to gain the depth of knowledge required to pass the exam. Many questions on the exam incorporate content that’s covered in the FAQs. For example, there will be questions about S3 VPC Endpoints in the practice exam and they are explained in the S3 FAQ.
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
Repeat steps 1 through 3 for each of the six practice exams. Remember, you do not have to review questions you got right for practice exams 2–6. Each exam and review session should take about 3–5 hours, depending on your preparedness to that point.
Good luck preparing for the exam!
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