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My Thoughts on the AWS Certified Architect (Associate) Exam.

by Graham Thompson | February 22, 2017 | Training & Certifications

While preparing for the AWS Certified Architect exam, I stumbled on quite a few blog posts that have, quite frankly, bullshit information about the test and the difficulty.  Before I go on, let me tell you my success had absolutely NOTHING to do with reading those blog posts and if I had relied on those as my only source of information, I would have failed the exam – spectacularly at that.

While limiting what I write about the exam due to the NDA one has to sign when taking the test, I can tell you a few things about the exam – In a top 10 format for ease of reading:

1) It is NOT IN ANY WAY an exam that limits itself to Virtual Private Cloud setup. Sure, VPC is a key technology and it makes sense that there would be questions on it, but it is in no way the only focus of the course.  You need to know it really, really well, but it is not the sole focus.

2)  Do you know that various database offerings and how they should be used given a particular use case? If not, you better crack open some whitepapers on the AWS site and get playing.

3)  You know that EC2 screen and the options on the left side? Know every single item inside and out.  As far as I can tell, everything on that screen is fair game for the exam.

4)  You’ve studied the fine details and technical differences between stopping and restarting an instance and the costs associated with each action?

5)  Eventually, all things boil down to money. Know the differences in costs between on-demand, spot and reserved instances, and which should be leveraged for a particular use case.

6)  High Availability is another topic that you MUST (ya, I screamed it) fully understand. What services work together to create a HA architecture, planning, failover, auto removal orders in an auto scaling group, limitations (can they run across regions for example) and troubleshooting are all aspects you must know.

7)  Security, Security, Security. Amazon needs to know you have a solid understanding of the security services available.  I can guarantee you that if you don’t fully understand (and can work with) the security offerings, you aren’t passing the exam.  Simple enough?

8)  IAM Users and Roles. These too are yet another thing you must fully understand before even considering writing the exam.

9)  Limitations: Yes, limitations are subject that you will get asked about.  How many subnets in a particular Availability zone, how many instances in a VPC, how to request for increases.

10)  Networking:  Know it, love it.  What logical network devices are supplied by AWS, how Direct Connect works, cross region vs cross AZ traffic, placement groups, all of it.

The above list isn’t in order because quite simply, I can’t tell you which questions and subjects you will get when your test is generated.  All of these subjects should be given equal priority when preparing for the exam.

Now, as to difficulty…When I took my exam at Re:Invent, people I polled were in one of two camps:  “That exam is really hard” and “That exam wasn’t so bad”.  There wasn’t anyone I spoke to that said it was a joke.  My opinion?  Those who have the certification have deserved it and I don’t think you can pass without having worked with the products.  It was honestly more difficult than I expected, but that’s mostly because there were numerous questions outside of my wheelhouse (would share, but NDA stops me from doing so).  Time wasn’t an issue for me personally.  In the group I was with (about 50 people writing a variety of exams), I would say I finished before half the room. Funny story though, the person sitting right next to me finished (was writing survey) when I still had about 10 questions remaining.  All I heard was a muffled “Shit!”. I think it’s safe to assume she didn’t pass.

Speaking to the success rates, based on very questionable scientific observations, the people that finished before me were nowhere to be found when I exited the test room.  Given that they were handing out goodies and taking pictures of successful test takers, I would have expected to see a few happy faces in the room collecting their new pins, sweaters, bags and having their pic taken…I saw one guy (he passed) and he finished basically at the same time I did.  I also didn’t see too many people collecting swag from the previous group of test takers either.  All to say, I think the pass rate is pretty low based on these observations.

Re-Takes:  If you fail, you go to the box for 30 days by yourself and you feel shame, then you get free to re-write the test (Translation from Slapshot movie quote to English:  30 days between attempts).  I believe there’s also a 3 strikes, you’re out policy (don’t quote me on that).

Preparing for the test:  I know there is official AWS training available and I’m sure it’s great.  That said, all the information you need can be found in the wide variety of whitepapers and blogs (particular shout-out to the AWS security blogs – awesome stuff in there!).  All of these items can be found in the AWS exam blueprint here: and make sure to go here too:

Make absolutely certain that you take the online prep questions there and pay the $20 for access to a pre-test.  I’m not getting into specifics because they too have an NDA, but trust me, understand the pre-test questions and why the answers are what they are and you’ll be glad you did.

Oh, one last thing, and that’s test format.  It’s all multiple choice (single answer) and multiple answer (select 2 or more).  I don’t believe there are any “Select all that apply” questions.  As for the “Are the exam questions an English exam?” question, No.  They are very straight-forward and no double negative garbage to throw you off.  There seemed to be a couple of “oh man, both are right, but which is best” types of questions, but nothing crazy.

If you have any questions on the exam, hit me up on twitter (@intrinsectech) and I’ll do my best to help (and no, I’m not giving out detailed study notes upon request).

Psst…Interested in AWS security?  Check out our AWS security training here.



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