A couple of weeks back, I sat and cleared the AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional exam. Thought it would be good to share how I prepared for the exam so here it is.

I was originally planning to take the exam a lot earlier than how it turned out it in the end. Various life events and workload caused for it to slip down the priority level. The workload effect wasn’t too bad actually as being in engineering, I am pretty hands-on with whatever we do so it was all practice and pretty important for the exam. However, having such a gap between the Associate exams and Professional means one may need to revise and tune one’s head back into exam taking mode.

If you’re planning to take the exam, the first thing to do is to head out to the AWS’s own excellent “Prepare for AWS Certification” Page. Most of us can’t afford to do “Step 1: Take an AWS Training Class” but if work is paying, why not? In my case, I usually replace that step with “Step 1: Start the relevant A Cloud Guru Course”. If you are thinking about taking this exam, I hope you already have a subscription but if not, go here and get one. The courses are great, are excellent value and very exam focussed. That said for this particular exam, I found the course to be a bit lacking in detail, especially in terms of the quizzes offered.  I felt I needed more to understand the reasoning behind choosing the various services a bit better.

For that extra knowledge, I went to Linux Academy. If you’re after in-depth knowledge on this exam or other cloud technologies, this is the place to go (in addition to A Cloud Guru, of course). Now it’s so good that I would recommend their subscription as well, which is also good value and if your goal is to focus on being a well-rounded Cloud Architect, it’s money well-spent. If you want to try it out first, you can go for the trial version. The one drawback is that you won’t be able to take the hands-on labs which are quite useful if you’re not hands-on regularly. As this exam is not one that you would be able to pass by just cramming, I highly recommend you do hands-on, either this way or via a regular account. It will help you understand the options better and with that knowledge, you may be able to eliminate certain answers easily.

Now back to the course. Linux Academy’s course gives you more in-depth knowledge about the various services and why some options are different. A Cloud Guru also talks about such things but skips on the reasoning in places. This course covers most of it and for the rest, you’ve got whitepapers. Two very useful features with Linux Academy are the Practice Exam and Flash Cards. Once I finished the course, I went through the most downloaded Flash Cards deck a few times and only after going through the whitepapers first, went back and took the practice exam. Time allowed is 3 hours (in line with the actual exam) and there are 80 questions. You have to pass it 3 times to mark it complete, though, the questions are the same, bar a few. Good thing is that for all the answers (right or wrong), there’s a good amount of explanation.

At this time, I should recommend a hugely-important extra step: Prepare by not only knowing all relevant services, where to use them and why one might be better than the other (patterns) but more importantly, also know the “Anti Patterns”. There might be questions where things can be done using two services but one will be better than the other; sometimes due to cost and sometimes, due to simplicity or security etc. Knowing Anti Patterns will help you eliminate the other option quickly. An extremely good resource for that is: Architecting for the Cloud – AWS Best Practices This whitepaper is worth its weight in gold when it comes to this exam or when architecting for AWS in general. Another pretty good source is the AWS Well-Architected page and whitepapers listed, especially the “AWS Well-Architected Framework” whitepaper.

I am a big believer in not going through any practice or sample questions until I’ve done the studying, including any relevant whitepapers etc. It might have an impact on my study duration but gives me the depth of knowledge and more confidence while attempting them. So, that’s when I went through “Sample Questions”. Don’t be fooled by the lack of text in those. The amount of text in this would barely make two questions in the real exam. However, it does give you a good idea of what sections you might be weak on. If you can answer all those questions confidently and have gone through the whitepapers as well, I would recommend taking the “Practice Exam”. It’s not full-length but does give you an idea of the newer interface (as the exam authority may not be the same as when you cleared the Associates) and the style of questions that you can expect. It’s not hugely expensive so worthwhile taking to make you better prepared.

I agree with Linux Academy in that if you have a deadline in mind and have the luxury of time, prepare first and then book the exam. There’s no point spending all those hours in that exam, only to fail it or even pass it barely. It puts unnecessary pressure on you. That said, it works for some people so you’re the better judge on that.

Once prepared enough, I booked and took the exam. You know the result already. I had to prepare a little extra as having an enormous amount of text in the questions with “almost” identical answers makes it extremely difficult for me, given English is not my first language. There’s a lot of translating, processing and making sense getting in the way. To be able to clear, I had to be well-prepared but fortunately, I had a very good amount of hands-on to back me up on that and that was just about enough. I finished the exam just over 20 minutes ahead of time which gave me the chance to go back and review the answers I had marked.

Everyone has their own technique but in my case, I read the question properly as there was no chance for me to come back and read all the questions again when reviewing. So, my aim was to answer the question at first attempt and the best answer I could think of at the time. Then I asked myself the question: Can I answer this question any better? If I was certain about the answer, there was no point in marking for review. If the answer was maybe, then I marked it and moved along. I always go for the mornings for an exam and the earliest slot possible so I was only the second person in there. Concentration was affected later as more people came in but the technique mentioned earlier worked for me and I actually didn’t have to change any of my answers on the review so it worked well. Your mileage may vary.

Hope this covers all but will update the post if anything else comes to mind. If you’re thinking of taking this exam and have just cleared “the Associate(s)”, I’d say carry on as you have got momentum and don’t book before preparing properly. That said, don’t underestimate the value of hands-on practice for this exam and if you consider the tips I’ve given above, you should be able to clear it the first time.