Exam preparation guide 1 - Take notes by hand

Preparing for an AWS Certification exam is time consuming and often not easy. I have passed all three associate level exams and decided to write more in detail about some preparation and study tips. In this post, I'll discuss how handwritten notes helped me study for the exams. Part 1 of the series.

Some people reached out to me and asked how I prepared for the AWS Certification exams.

I have passed all three associate level exams and I’m proud to have the Solutions Architect Associate, the Developer Associate and the SysOps Administrator Associate certifications.

So I’ll write some posts on the techniques I used while preparing for exams.

I have also decided to take the AWS Certified Security - Specialty exam next and will write about my progress and preparation every week hoping that it will help someone in their study.

1. Too many concepts and facts to remember

All three associate level exams cover many different concepts. It’s nearly impossible to remember everything in the depth they are featured in the exam.

You must often read the official documentation to clarify how a specific service works and what happens when you call, for example, the GenerateDataKeyWithoutPlaintext API in KMS (it generates a data key without the plaintext key in case you want to encrypt something at a later point of time).

You might also decide to listen to some video courses where the necessary services are covered in detail.

Even if you have a broad experience in AWS, these exams will challenge you with services you don’t use every day.

You’ll need a way to organize the vast amount of information you read and hear about.

2. Handwritten notes

I’m an old-fashioned guy. When I went to uni, I studied from books and my notes.

This habit of mine hasn’t changed since then. I still take notes by hand in an A4-sized notebook and read them several times. I didn’t use my computer for taking notes; instead I got a pen and the notebook and wrote down everything I thought was useful.

I took detailed notes after reading the documentation, doing a lab or tutorial or finishing off a section in a video course.

Although it might seem that I’m stuck in the last century, taking handwritten notes has several advantages.

Copying by hand is still a recommended way to learn how to write great copies. Great copywriters use this method until today so that the necessary panels stick in their mind.

By writing down what I think is important helps me learn the concepts. I could much easier recall them when sitting the exam.

2.2. Need to think about it

When you write down what you read or heard you’ll need to think about it and chances are that some additional research will be needed for the full understanding.

There’s no point writing down something that doesn’t make sense. When I don’t understand something, I’ll go and find out more.

When I listen to a video, I finish off the lesson first (unless it’s more than 9-10 minutes long) and try to remember what I heard. I write down some words during the lesson but usually don’t write long sentences because I can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.

When the video is finished, I write down what I remember and rewind the video if necessary. If I don’t think that the content in the video was enough for me to understand the concept, I’ll go and read the documentation about it.

Creating flowcharts and write explanations to each block is also an excellent way to learn even while writing, especially if you are of a visual type.

2.3. Can learn it later

When you have written notes, you can take them any time and read a summary of a longer piece. You won’t need to play the video or go through the documentation again to find the correct answer.

You can take your notes with you when commuting to work or read them before you go to bed.

2.4. Talk out loud

To activate more senses and increase the efficiency of learning you can talk out loud when you study for the exam.

I always did that and do it until today when I want to learn something. I always use my handwritten notes for this procedure.

I imagine that I’m a teacher - it’s not hard :) - and I need to explain the concept like the principle of least privilege to others. Teaching is one of the most efficient ways to learn and the lack of audience shouldn’t be an issue. I just imagine that there are people around me.

I create sentences from the words I wrote down and try to make it such that it makes sense. Eventually it will be like a story.

Just simply ignore the comments of the people living with you. You will get a certification and they won’t. You are allowed to seem to be a bit odd and it’s worth it.

You can teach a concept like this multiple times until you feel confident about it.

I can nearly double the efficiency of my memory when I add this technique to taking handwritten notes.

3. Update on the Security Specialist exam preparation

I took a week and a half off after I sat the SysOps Administrator exam and then I started studying for the Security Specialty certification.

I started with the Ramp Up Learning Guide for Security program offered by AWS.

They have a mix of courses, whitepapers, re:Invent videos and hands-on labs in the program, which consists of four phases (plus Phase 0 but I didn’t do that because it’s very basic).

Last week I covered Phase 1, which was a good revision for me. Although I didn’t learn anything new, the course put the already familiar services in new perspectives. It was also interesting to read about AWS’s renewable energy plans and see how they secure their data centres.

Phase 2 is coming this week and it will be a bigger chunk, so I don’t expect to finish it off in one week.

Thanks for reading and see you next time.