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Tips for AWS Certification Exams

Being an AWS consultant, an “All-Fiver” (this was cool before re:Invent last year), as well as a technical trainer, I’m often asked about tips for getting AWS certifications. I wanted to capture some of my thoughts in a more public medium which will hopefully be helpful to some of you out there preparing for AWS Certification Exams.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with AWS Certs, there are currently 7 certificationsalthough I’m 100% positive more will follow. There are 3 tiers of certification (Associate, Specialty, and Professional) and each certification demonstrates competency in a given section of AWS.

Associate Certifications

The starting point I recommend is an AWS Solutions Architect – Associate (SA-A). This offers the broadest overview of the AWS services and will demonstrate that you’re conversational in AWS’s core offerings and have some idea of available resources and best practices. The SysOps Administrator and Developer Associate exams cover about 80% of the same material as the SA-A, but approach it from slightly different angles (e.g. more in-depth monitoring and troubleshooting questions for the SO-A).

Specialty Certifications

The specialty exams represent an area of focus for your AWS experience. Have you spent most of your time auditing and advising security postures that certain architectures take? Try the upcoming Security Specialty. Are you a transit VPC guru, who knows all about complex network topologies in AWS? Take the Networking Specialty. Do you have formidable experience with data engineering or building data workloads? Go for the Big Data Specialty (1Strategy’s Alex Graves was among the first to pass this certification exam). These exams represent a noteworthy level of knowledge in any of these areas, and show your ability to dive deep into certain topics. The breadth of these exams is much narrower than the Associate or Professional certifications, but depth covered is much greater.

Professional Certifications

Depending on what you want to be when you grow up (AWS Guru, Enterprise Builder, Test-taking Masochist), the Solutions Architect – Professional and DevOps – Professional may be appropriate for you. Obtaining a Professional certification demonstrates that you have a pretty good understanding of how the core AWS services tie together, you’ve built some solutions on AWS, and have had to figure out some of the trickier aspects of services (pre-signed URLs anyone?). I can tell you that these exams (such as they are currently) aren’t easy. Having earned both not long after school, I will say these are probably the hardest exams I’ve ever taken. The questions can be tricky (here are 4 right answers, choose the “most correct”), and can be a slog to get through because of all of the often unnecessary detail.

Preparation Tips

Build, build, build. Most of the learning I’ve acquired has been from actually trying to build systems using AWS services (contrived use-cases work just as well as production workloads).
Look online. There are plenty of great online resources to help you prepare for certification; my colleague Doug Ireton has a great list hereI would add the following sites to that list as well:

Sadly I don’t get kick-backs for referring them, but’s exam prep teaches to the associate tests very well.
Take the practice exams, more than once if you need to. This will get you familiar with the pacing, types of questions, and types of answers. I would recommend approaching the practice exams as study guides; they will help you identify the areas you need to focus on improving—totally worth the $20-$100.

General Exam Tips

Don’t create a solution to the problem while you’re reading the question, wait until the end and see what options you have. This is perhaps the most important tip I can give. The new SA-A exam is currently in beta, so I’m sure that the exams will be brought up-to-date soon. However, the current exams are very dated, meaning that there are newer AWS products and features that would be a better fit for the problem, but until that happens, accept that you’ll be using old “hacks” to get the right answer. The time that you’re thinking to yourself, “WHAT THE HECK?! I would never build it this way. I would use Lambda, Glue, and Kinesis Analytics. This is dumb!” is time you’re NOT spending answering other questions.
Don’t dwell on any particular exam question. You either know something or you don’t. Mark them and move on. You can go back IF you have time at the end.
Read the question first, then go back over the setup. Read the question at the end of the 3 paragraphs of set up first, then go back and read all the details, this will help you pick out the important bits.
E.g. <2 paragraph set up>
What is the most cost effective solution to this? ← the important part
If all else fails and you have no idea what the right answer is, try to eliminate wrong answers. This is a time honored test taking strategy: if you don’t know the right answers, maybe you can identify enough of the wrong answers that you can increase your odds of guessing the right answer.
If an answer is way too short, it’s probably wrong. Another sophisticated test takers hack: if one of the answers is significantly shorter than the others, it’s wrong*.
*almost always 🙂
Manage your time properly. If you’ve taken your two minutes, move on. Perhaps obvious, but you have a bajillion questions to get through and not a lot of time to do it (actually, on the professional exams there are 80 questions in 170 minutes, which maths to ~2 minutes a question).
Know EC2, VPC, and Direct Connect backwards and forwards.

SA Exam Tips

Understand LDAP and Security Token Service (STS) and how to use them with on-premises. I’ve never had to manage an LDAP or AD server, so this took some additional work.
Spend time with CloudFront. CloudFront can be a critical piece of any scalable web architecture and can be a little confusing, so learn to love it. Or just learn it.

DevOps Pro Exam Tips

OpsWorks, OpsWorks, OpsWorks. Apparently 2-3 years ago AWS had nothing but OpsWorks to do change management on AWS. Spend A LOT of time with it.
Know Beanstalk. It’s also covered a lot.
Did I mention OpsWorks?

In closing

Presumably if you’re reading this, you’re looking to get a promotion or that new job you’ve been eyeing. Certainly having certifications is helpful, as AWS is a “hot field” to get into right now.
That said, the rest of your skill set is probably going to be more of a factor. I’ve worked with engineers with no certifications who were easily as competent, if not more so, than engineers with tons of certs. Furthermore, if you’re looking to get hired as an AWS SA/Engineer, any company looking to hire someone for their cloud team is going to have their own requirements (e.g. Are you a good culture fit? Do you have a background in Java? Python? Can you fly solo? Or do you need to work well in a team?).
While you’re waiting for that position, I will reiterate my suggestion to keep building things on AWS to get valuable experience. Having interviewed dozens of AWS SAs/DevOps Engineering candidates, I will say that you can tell pretty quickly who is a practitioner and who just passed the tests.
Maybe someday AWS will re-write all of the certification exams (maybe very soon—more on that later). Until then…
If you or your team is looking to level up your AWS skill set, reach out to me or our team ( and we can discuss our training offerings. You can also refer to previous technical blog articles for help on specific topics.