Tapping into a more productive mindset for AWS certification exam preparation

Having AWS certifications comes with many benefits. But it does matter how and how long we prepare for the exams. The way we see this question can be different for everyone.

1. Why do I think I’m authentic enough to talk about it?

It’s known that AWS certifications validate our cloud knowledge and show that we have some experience (depending on the level) in the AWS ecosystem.

I’ve been working with AWS services for six years. I got my first certification, the Solutions Architect (SA) Associate, in 2019 and took my last exam (Solutions Architect (SA) Professional recertification) 10 days ago. But, my exam preparation process and my mindset about the certifications is different now compared to years ago.

I currently hold seven certifications, including both professional ones. Some people have reached out to me asking for advice on how to prepare for exams. What courses do I recommend? How long does it take to prepare for an exam?

So, I decided to share my thoughts and perceptions on the certifications and the exam preparation. This post is not a collection of specific tips and tricks. Instead, it’s about a general approach to the exams that made my preparation process more fun and gave me more free time.

The mandatory disclaimer before moving on. The approach below has worked for me. I can’t guarantee that it works for you. Do what suits you best when you prepare for any exam.

2. You don’t need to get the perfect score

I always knew it, but it took me some time to become mindful of it. I didn’t want to accept it earlier because I have always been a perfectionist and wanted to score as much as possible.

I liked being proud of the work I gave out of my hands regardless of what I did. But the harsh truth is that I didn’t get much benefit from it most of the time. I wasn’t assigned any large project or a promotion because I produced high-quality code. In fact, my manager told me that my velocity could be improved.

So, I started forcing myself to accept the less-than-perfect, which proved to be an enlightening experience.

Again, you don’t need a 100% score to succeed in the exam.

The pass scores for associate and professional/specialty levels are 720 and 750 out of 1000, respectively. It’s what you need, nothing more.

Would you study five months to get 950+ points or two weeks for 820? (The numbers and durations are arbitrary.)

I now choose the latter.

But it wasn’t always the case. For many years, I studied hard and long because I wanted the perfect score. But it never came, no matter how much effort I put into my studies. There was always at least one question that I couldn’t answer. A configuration I didn’t remember or forgot to check. I felt it was outside my control.

But then I discovered something. No one had ever asked what my scores were. People around me at work didn’t care. Chances are it won’t matter to you either.

So now I do my best to find the right amount of study to pass the exams. With this approach, I found that preparation takes less time, and I achieved the same certification with more fun and less stress. I don’t spend late nights and weekends studying. I did enough overtime and weekend work in my career. I can now enjoy more time with my family and hobbies, and I’m still getting the same results (the certifications) as earlier.

You might ask if I study for a lower score and am happy about it, won’t my knowledge have gaps?

The intuitive answer seems yes, it will, but I don’t think this way. As of this writing, the SA Pro exam guide lists 128 services candidates should be familiar with. There are superheroes out there who know all of them and score 1000.

But I’m an average person, not a superhero. I admit I’m not familiar with all services, settings and configurations. Of course, I look at them to see what they do. But I will dig deep into them when I start working on a project that requires a more detailed understanding.

I could have never stopped studying if I wanted to be familiar with everything. I will forget a large chunk of it after the exam anyway because I don’t use it. Instead, I focus on the certification-specific core services and want a good knowledge of them. It has proved to be enough for me.

3. Be ready

I only book an exam when I am ready. This seems obvious again, but there is a difference between being and feeling prepared.

Actually, I never really felt ready for an exam. But I was prepared since I passed all, so my knowledge was enough even if I thought differently. The mindset shift began when I realized that being and feeling ready are different.

It relates to the previous point, i.e., you don’t need the perfect score. Once I realized it, I had the guts to book the date even if I didn’t study months for a professional or specialty exam.

4. Get practical experience

I found that hands-on experience increases the probability of passing the exam. It also reduces the time I spend studying. This point might again sound straightforward, and you might not understand why I’m writing this.

When I got my first certification (the Cloud Practitioner didn’t exist back then), I didn’t have much AWS experience. I just started to get my feet wet. I decided to take the SA Associate because I wanted to learn how AWS and the cloud in general work. I studied for six months, almost every night after work and on weekends.

Finally, I got the certification with a high score, but I wouldn’t do it this way again.

I now go to my account and come up with some exercises or follow workshops. I still read the documentation and listen to videos. But now I do more practice than studying in the areas I’m less familiar with. I try various configurations and, of course, make mistakes. I occasionally write blog posts on these exercises. :)

As a result, my scores are not in the high 900s anymore, but I enjoy the process more. And, as stated above, you don’t need 100%. The pass score is sufficient.

5. Walk the ladder

AWS doesn’t require that candidates have the associate certification before they take the professional exam. But I wouldn’t skip them, and here’s why.

5.1. Have solid foundations

Associate-level concepts provide the foundations for the specific path (architecting or DevOps). I started to study for the DevOps Engineer Professional exam years ago without having the Developer Associate or the SysOps Administrator Associate. I gave up after a few weeks because it didn’t make sense.

Now, I aim to have solid foundations first. For example, I plan to take the Machine Learning Specialty exam later this year or early next year. But want to be better at data engineering first. I want to know the basics.

How am I planning to get the knowledge? Through practice.

Years ago, I would have enrolled on a course, studied it through to get the paper, and then forgotten almost everything because I didn’t use it. I’ll now build projects, which will be fun! Then, the actual study process will be shorter and less stressful. If you are in a role where you use the services daily, great! The practice field is provided. If not, like in my case, I’ll build something for myself and write some articles about the process.

AWS Skill Builder has great learning plans, and not only for architecting. You can get deeper in storage, SQL databases, serverless and many more. I love them, and many plans come with labs (need a subscription) and will give you a badge, too. I found them useful when I prepared for the professional exams.

5.2. Get the associate certifications with the professional ones

Another reason to have the associate (and Cloud Practitioner) certifications is that you’ll automatically get them extended if you pass the relevant professional exam.

If you pass the SA Pro, you will also get the SA Associate, provided you have it already. In this case, both will be valid until the same day.

Similarly, if you succeed on the DevOps Engineer Professional exam, you’ll get the Developer and SysOps Administrator Associate certifications. But you have to have them already.

I only need to retake three exams and will get all seven certifications I have now!

5.3. Two or more birds with one-and-a-half stone

The professional and some specialty exam requirements have a significant overlap.

For example, the concepts you need to know for the DevOps Engineer Pro can be reused on the Solutions Architect Pro exam. If you study for the DevOps Engineer Pro, the SA Pro will be a few more concepts and services away. It’s the same with the Security Specialty. It’s a low-hanging fruit, and it’s not worth waiting months or years to take the other exams.

I now allocate some weeks I use for intensive study. I could take both professional exams in two weeks. In fact, there are people out there who sit them on consecutive days. I chose to go slower because I wanted free weekends and nights. The point is that I used the momentum and, with not too many extra hours invested, I could get another valuable certification.

6. Summary

In summary, a change in my mindset towards exam preparation led me to get the same outcome with fewer study hours. I enjoy the journey better compared to earlier years because I do many practical exercises. I also do my best to build a solid foundation in the main topics before I attempt to take an exam.

I hope you can use something from this post. Please let me know if you are interested in reading (or watching!) similar content. All the best to your AWS certification journey!

7. Further references

Explore all AWS Certification exams - Everything about the certifications at one place

AWS Workshops - Collection of hands-on exercises

Free exam retake - If you book your exam until 15 April 2024