Solutions Architect Associate: how I passed
Maybe there's some useful tips in here for you
I passed! I got my AWS Solutions Architect Associate (SAA-C03) certification 🎉🎉🎉 You can even see it if you really want to. There is something extremely addictive to me about collecting these silly little badges. It makes all the nerves and anxiety I was feeling beforehand worth it somehow. I know, weird right? Before I sat the exam, all my bravado was gone and I was thinking "I don't want to do another certification ever again". As soon as I found out I'd passed, I was looking up which one to do next (thinking Developer Associate, in case you were wondering). So bizarre and ridiculous.
Anyway, enough about my brain. I thought I'd write up some notes about what I did that got me that pass in the hopes of giving you some ideas if you're in the middle of studying for yours. I also wanted to write some suggestions for future me about how I could do things differently next time, so there will be some discussion of that in here too.
I did a course. Or two.
I started studying for SAA-C03 not long after I did my Cloud Practitioner exam. I started off doing Stephane Maarek's very thorough Udemy course (I get access to Udemy for free through work, but this course normally costs £59.99) and pretty much finished it. Somewhere along the line, I lost interest in the entire certification process - I was busy at work and in my personal life and I just didn't have the capacity. When I came back to it, I was looking for a different course to do as I didn't really want to do the same one again.
A colleague had recommended A Cloud Guru, so I gave their Solutions Architect Associate course a go as well. I picked up a subscription during a half price sale so I managed to get their Personal Plus plan for £17.99/month, but normally it costs a fair bit more than that so I can see why people balk at it. I must say that I found the whole approach of the course really suited my learning style, especially with the added practical labs that you get with Personal Plus. Every section has an "exam tips" overview and I found watching through these the day before my exam especially helpful. The word associations the course plants in your brain also served me really well - "if you see Cassandra, think Keyspaces", that kind of thing.
I read the exam guide carefully
Every AWS certification has an exam guide and SAA-C03 is no different. It has a list of all the services you should know (and ones you don't need to bother with), as well as whitepapers to read and AWS curated training you can do (some of this is paid). So yes, look at the exam guide and prepare the things it suggests. It should stand you in good stead. If you've never done an AWS certification before, you might also want to do an exam readiness course as it tells you what to expect and what to focus on.
For my Cloud Practitioner certification (the foundational one), I created physical revision cards for each of the services mentioned in the exam guide. There was quite a bit of overlap between the services for Cloud Practitioner vs Solutions Architect Associate, which meant I only had to write revision cards for the extra ones, but I still ended up with 74 revision cards total. I'm not sure whether I will repeat this process for the next one - it was a lot of manual work. Mind you, the process of physically writing things out really helps me commit things to memory so just from that perspective I found it useful, plus then you have revision cards to look through to remind yourself of what all these things do.
I took copious notes
Talking of writing things down, I took many many notes. As well as doing the Udemy and A Cloud Guru courses, I bought the official AWS Solutions Architect Associate study guide and went through each chapter, converting the text into shorthand notes. It seems laborious and many times during the process I was questioning whether it was really all that useful, but it seems to have helped commit things to memory for me. If I were to do things over again, I'd start taking notes earlier in the revision process as passively watching videos doesn't really work for me. I'm finding myself feeling a bit embarrassed about using such an antiquated study method but hey, if it works, don't knock it I guess!
I did hands-on labs
As mentioned previously, the A Cloud Guru course came with hands-on labs, so I did almost all of the ones in the course, just to practice actually doing the things that I was watching videos and reading about. Next time, I would like to do a lot more of this because actually going through and setting things up yourself is so much more valuable than watching someone else do it. I realised way too late that you can also just spin up a clean playground AWS environment in A Cloud Guru, allowing you to provision whatever you like without worrying about costs. The lab ones normally come with some resources already set up for you so it was nice to know that you can start with a clean slate and do whatever you like. It seems like a very useful tool for reinforcing whatever you're learning.
I... bear with me... built an app
So this is a slightly odd one, I admit, but I built a little app specifically designed to get the many acronyms that AWS uses committed to memory. You can have a go if you like! I set up a more basic version of this when I did my Cloud Practitioner exam and built on it for Solutions Architect Associate, so it wasn't as much work as it seems. Through collecting all the acronyms and writing up the descriptions, I learned a lot about the different services and terms. "Playing" the acronym game is quite addictive too so I quickly found that the acronyms were sticking in my head.
So yeah, maybe consider building something? Or just play the one I made, up to you!
I read the Well-Architected framework whitepaper
If you read one whitepaper, make it this one. It seems a lot longer than it actually is - I thought it was 500 odd pages long for ages and it was really putting me off reading it, but most of that is just lists and lists of revisions. The actual whitepaper part is only actually about 45 pages so a lot more digestible. I went old skool and printed it out and read it, marking useful phrases with a highlighter, because that works for me. I find reading these things digitally very difficult somehow.
Here is a link to the well-architected framework whitepaper in case you haven't come across it yet.
I did practice exams
I didn't really do enough of these to be honest. I did five A Cloud Guru exams, the official AWS practice question set and then the practice questions that are on the exam webpage. I was feeling pretty confident after the A Cloud Guru exams - I was acing them by the time I finished revising. Then I tried the official AWS questions and things went a bit awry. I only got 55% and it was all because there were a lot of questions on there on topics I already knew I hadn't covered enough. So one big piece of advice is to make sure you revisit topics you aren't as sure about after every practice exam. Don't put it off like I did.
A big bone of contention for me with the AWS exams is the phrasing of the questions. And the answers to be honest. Just the way everything is worded is so cloak and dagger that it feels like they are trying to trip you up. I was finding that with the official AWS questions more than with the A Cloud Guru ones to be honest, so do make sure you try those to get used to the format. The question can often be a paragraph long and digesting it all and then figuring out which answer is the best match is all such very hard work. In the actual exam, I got a double-sided card to write on (I sat mine at an exam centre) so for the trickier questions, I wrote or drew out what the question was talking about just to try and reason over it a bit and that helped a lot.
I built a VPC just before the exam
I did this on the morning of the exam and I do not recommend that. Sure, it meant everything was fresh in my brain, but it was very stressful! Ideally, you'd do it from memory but I tried that and couldn't get past the Internet Gateway part and I wonder whether that was sheer jitters. I followed along with the A Cloud Guru tutorial on building a VPC after that and that did help a lot. I got right to the end and my NAT gateway wasn't providing internet access to instances in my private subnet and I couldn't for the life of me figure out why. I must have missed something, but I couldn't see it - again, probably nerves.
So yeah, do this the day before the exam or something, but definitely do it. VPCs are an important part of the exam so if you can do that, it'll stand you in good stead.
This all seems like a lot of work
As I'm typing all this up, it's occurring to me how much preparation I did for this exam and how incredible it was that I went in feeling so nervous. Part of it is that I don't do a lot of AWS stuff in my work. I tinker with ECS, write a bit of CDK, maybe fiddle with some S3 buckets and CloudFormation, but that's it. If you do the practical stuff more regularly, you probably don't need to do as much prep as I did. I spent about a year and a half (on and off) preparing for the exam, but that's only because I was taking it slowly and kind of had to have a big break in the middle. If you're committed to it, you can probably do it in a few months and I'm sure there's articles out there telling you how. This post is more about what my approach was, in the hopes that it helps some of you.
Anyway, if you are studying for your exam right now, good luck and you got this!