Passing the AWS Solution Architect Associate Exam

3 minute read

Today I passed the AWS Solution Architect Associate exam, and I wanted to share some thoughts on the experience and tips, while I can still remember how it went. I’ve been using AWS for years professionally, so I had a lot of practical experience to draw on, but I feel the steps taken in preparation were key to the result. Day to day usage of AWS is very different from covering things at the level of detail needed for an exam.

I finished the exam in 47 minutes, with a score of 98%, or 59 out of 60. Trying to figure out which one question I got wrong has been torturing me ever since. Being that close to perfection and falling short almost makes me want to take the test again, but not quite.

Preparing for the Exam

I used the online training by A Cloud Guru. It was very well done, and an extremely good value. The material covers the fundamentals of what is on the exam. I didn’t use any other exam-related materials to study except that course, and info on the AWS web pages.

As recommended in the training, I did spend time re-reading the FAQs of key services such as EC2, S3, CloudFront, SQS, RDS, VPC. This was very helpful. Many things that were clearly answered in the FAQ came up on the exam.

The only downside to the A Cloud Guru course was the quality of some of their quiz and practice exam questions. Many of these were multiple choice without stating how many answers were valid (or even if more than 1 was an option). This is very different from the exam. The exam clearly states when the correct answer is more than one option, and in those cases how many answers need to be chosen. Specifically their practice timed exam included questions that were much harder (or more poorly worded as to be vague) than the actual exam. My scores on the mini exam and final timed practice exam were 40% and 67% respectively. A long way off the 98% I scored on the actual exam (and that was only a day later with little time for extra studying). So if anything, don’t let poor results on their exams get you down and dissuade you from taking the real exam, you’re probably in better shape than you think.

Taking the Exam

The exam questions range from the extremely simplistic, which ask you which service to use for a particular need, to the more complex that involve scenarios. It was a fair exam and didn’t focus on memorization of things like default hard/soft limits (i.e. 20 EC2 instances in a new account) or maximum sizes of various items like S3 objects or SQS items.

There’s plenty of time to get through the exam, so don’t be too concerned about running out of time. If you do the simple math there are 60 questions to answer in 80 minutes, giving you 1:20 to complete each question. But at least 20 of the 60 questions are so obvious and simple they can be each read and answered in under 15 seconds. That leaves nearly 2 minutes each to answer the remainder of questions.

Some of the questions really need to be read a couple times and digested, including the possible answers. There are times where 2 or 3 answers seem right, until you read them through multiple times and catch things like an implication that Security Groups apply to a VPC, and not to an instance, even though there would be instances inside the VPC a wording such as that can make the question “less correct” than other options. This isn’t a big concern though, since in the exam I counted only 10 or so questions that required that level of attention.

Key areas of focus:

  • VPC - you need to know this very well. Understand routing, peering, and how network ACLs work. As is mentioned in the course, NAT instances are covered repeatedly, despite most users moving to NAT Gateways now.
  • Understand what happens when EC2 instances are stopped and started, how this effects storage volumes, IP addresses (elastic and VPC private), and what actions can and cannot be taken on an instance in various states.
  • Know EBS volumes, encryption and security, as well as the behavior of snapshots and what can and cannot be done with them.
  • Understand S3 and how to secure content on it, both encryption options as well as access control.