The AWS journey to AWS Certified Solutions Architect
One of the most in-demand qualifications for cloud engineers now is the AWS Certified Solutions Architect — Associate certification. While the focus of this article will be on exactly how to pass it, especially if you are not a cloud engineer, it is important to note why this certification can be so valuable.
While there are other players in the public cloud space, Amazon Web Services certifications are the most sought-after because Amazon holds the largest public cloud market share. Whether you are a hands-on engineer or a consultant by trade, having this on your resume is extremely beneficial.
AWS Certified Solutions Architect — Associate is not an easy exam. It is not a test where you can simply buy a stack of practice exams, run through them over and over, and expect to pass. The exam is very scenario-focused. Anyone wanting to know how to prepare for AWS certification should note this well: AWS writes their questions in such a way that only someone with true hands-on experience and an understanding of their services can pass.
Steps to Passing the Exam: AWS Certified Solutions Architect Exam Tips
And now for the details of exactly how to go about AWS Certified Solutions Architect exam preparation even if you do not have any formal engineering or AWS training.
1. Earn the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner Certification
Yes, this article promises steps on how to earn your Solutions Architect — Associate certificate, but if you do not have prior AWS engineering experience or knowledge, I would strongly recommend passing this first. This exam is just a 1,000-foot overview and can be passed in just two weeks if you study daily.
Honestly, even if you do have prior experience with AWS, it may still be good to take this as the certification exams cover AWS services that you may have never actually used.
Here’s what you need to pass this exam in only two weeks:
- Take the A Cloud Guru (ACG) Certified Cloud Practitioner course. You will want a full subscription to this — not just the standalone Udemy version — because you will need to use ACG heavily for the AWS Solutions Architect exam. ACG also has a section of hands-on AWS labs that are incredibly helpful for passing the exam.
- Take these practice exams. Note: These practice exams represent only the most difficult questions on the exam. If you are struggling on the practice exams but still close to passing, then you should do well on the actual test itself. The actual test is much easier than these.
TIPS FOR PASSING
- Take notes throughout the course and organize them so you can use that as part of your study guide for the Solutions Architect exam.
- Re-watch all of Ryan’s summaries on the day of your exam at 2x speed. This is incredibly helpful to recap everything you need to know.
2. Complete ACG’s AWS Certified Solutions Architect — Associate Course
While this course alone is not enough for a complete newbie to pass, it is still an incredible course and will be the foundation of your exam prep. It covers everything on the test, in one way or another, with some gaps here and there (we’ll get to that).
TIPS FOR THE COURSE
- Take detailed notes and build an organized study guide.
- Use the A Cloud Guru app and download the lectures for offline listening. Play lectures and summaries over again while doing things like driving or walking your dog. My prep strategy involved a lot of daily immersion, like this.
- Do not skip the hands-on labs. In my opinion, using AWS is the best way to learn AWS. This will really help internalize the content from the lectures.
3. Deep Dives on Specific AWS Services
As mentioned above, the ACG course lectures alone are not enough for most people to pass. There are a few services that will come up on the exam a lot, and you will need a strong understanding of them in order to pass. The best way to learn what you need is to just use them with hands-on labs.
The areas to deep dive are as follows:
I struggled with an overall understanding of VPCs initially, and Cole Morrison’s article and its analogies helped immensely. I strongly suggest reading it if you are confused about VPCs. Also:
- Complete the ACG Hands-on Labs for VPCs. These are outside of the course from step #2, in the Hands-on Lab section. Filter on “AWS” and “VPC” and complete each lab. They are only a few minutes apiece but are incredibly helpful.
- The exam is very heavy in VPC questions. Learn to build one from memory.
- Understand the differences between using a VPN and Direct Connect.
Take parts of the A Cloud Guru S3 Masterclass course. You do not need to take this entire course for the exam, just a few areas that come up often, including:
- Bucket policies vs. access control lists
- S3 encryption options
- Storage types
- Lifecycle policies
Take the ACG Intro to RDS course, with a focus on areas that come up often, which include:
- Multi-AZ Replication
- Read Replicas
- Understand snapshots
Be sure that you understand AWS Analytics and data warehousing tools at a high level:
- Kinesis: Streams vs. Firehose vs. Analytics
- Kinesis vs. Redshift vs. EMR (you will get scenario-based questions with these)
- Athena’s differences from Kinesis
AMAZON LAMBDA AND SERVERLESS COMPONENTS
Take the ACG Intro to Lambda course but focus on:
- Events and what services are generally used with Lambda triggers
Serverless will probably show up more and more on AWS exams over time, so you’ll want to know this.
4. Read the AWS Storage Services Overview Whitepaper
You will get many scenario-based questions about what kind of storage to use. You’ll want to know the differences between them and when to use each (e.g., EFS vs. EBS, S3, DynamoDB vs. RDS)
5. Learn the Test-taking Strategies for This Exam
When presented with a scenario-based question, read the kicker first. Scenario-based questions always start with a large paragraph, followed by a “kicker” that actually asks you the question. Read the kicker and then read the scenario. Example:
“You are building a transcription service for a company in which a fleet of EC2 worker instances processes an uploaded audio file and generates a text file as an output. You must store both of these frequently accessed files in the same durable storage until the text file is retrieved by the uploader. Due to an expected surge in demand, you have to ensure that the storage is scalable and can be retrieved within minutes.
“Which storage option in AWS can you use in this situation that is both cost-efficient and scalable?”
The kicker here is the last line. Pay attention to exactly what they’re asking. Many times, they’ll present multiple solutions that would work, but you have to select the ones that meet the specific requirements (in this case, cost efficiency and scalability).
Use process of elimination for every question. Questions will almost always have one or two options that are definitely not the answer. If you can get rid of these right off the bat, your odds of selecting the right one will improve. While this may seem obvious, it is really important to use on the AWS SA exam because in many cases, they will try to trick you. Look for the obvious tricks and mentally cross them out.
Read questions twice. Most of the questions are designed to be tricky. Do not just glance and then answer immediately. One small nuance in the wording can easily change what the right answer is, and if you go too fast, you can make the wrong choice.
Use the “Mark for Review” feature. The real exam will allow you to mark answers for review and then go back at the end to check them again. When a question is tough, select the best choice and then mark it for review at the end based on how much time you have left. Use this feature.
Use questions to answer other questions on the real exam. This is one of the main reasons to use “Mark for Review.” In many cases, one question can actually give you the answer to another question. On my exam, I noticed this a few times and was able to go back and adjust a previous answer because of that. This is why you want to “mark for review” anything you are unsure of.
6. Take Udemy Practice Exams
Purchase this set of Udemy practice exams and work through them. Note that these practice exams are incredibly difficult and represent the most challenging questions you would be presented with on the exam. The actual test is easier than these.
As a rule of thumb, if you are passing these practice exams (even just barely), you should be good to pass the real thing with room to spare.
7. Optional: Take this Udemy course to fill in the gaps.
If you are finding that there are still some gaps in your knowledge and you can’t pass the practice exams, purchase this course. I would not go through this entire course, but rather focus on the areas where you have knowledge gaps. The practice exams will show you where these gaps are.
Udemy courses also have a very cool feature where you can simply search for a keyword, and it will show you everywhere in the entire course that this word is mentioned, which you can then click on and listen to that portion. So for example, if you keep missing questions about AWS KMS, you could just search that in the Udemy course, and it will show you every section where it was discussed.
As with Cloud Practitioner, be sure to rewatch all of the ACG Solutions Architect Summary lectures on 2x speed the morning of your exam. This helps a lot with recapping everything you’ve learned.
AWS Certified Solutions Architect Exam Prep: Practice Makes Perfect
As with any test, studying will ensure success, and the AWS Certified Solutions Architect exam is no different. While it may take up some of your free time, the benefits are worth it. Besides validating your technical skills, this certification will foster your expertise, making you more attractive to potential recruiters, which will only continue to advance your career in the long haul.
Good luck, and please reach out with any tips you’ve found helpful!
Blog by Ross Bowman