My Background

I’m sure you’ve read a thousand of blog articles on passing the exams, but most of them focus on WHAT to study.  This is going to be a little different.  I want to focus on the strategies for taking the exam and how to maximize your chances of passing.  How do I know about this?  Because in my past life I was a mathematics teacher in college, middle school, and high school.  I’ve written s for a living and helped hundreds of students take s and strategize for maximizing scores.  Further, I’ve taken and passed all 5 (non-beta) AWS exams in addition to the VCP4 (VMWare 4 Certification) from my “on-prem” days.  Before I get started, please note that all examples below are made up.

AWS Certification Exam Strategy

A good place to start is understanding the AWS ing strategy.  These are well designed s.  Yes, they have some questions that could be worded better, and their “” exams leave much to be desired, but those are small nitpicks.  Why do I say they’re well designed?  The biggest reason is that they utilize long-form scenario based questions.

I have yet to encounter a question like “What is the max networking throughput of a t2.micro?”  These types of questions are quite typical in other certification exams.  The VCP exam was a litany of “How many VMs per host?” type questions.  Not only is that type of information generally useless, it’s also usually invalid by the time the is live.  You’re left memorizing old maximums that don’t apply.  Long-form scenario based questions get past the rote memorization of maximums and get you to a real judgement on the understanding of the platform.

Further, the questions are interesting and engaging.  In many cases, I find the questions sounding like something I’ve experienced with a client.  Lastly, scenario questions make it harder to cheat.  Memorizing 500 vms per host is easy.  Memorizing an entire story about a three-tier website and the solution with reduced redundancy S3 is hard.  The harder it is for people to cheat, the more authenticity and respect the certification will retain.

Breaking Down the Questions

Understanding the type of questions AWS uses in their certification exams helps us to understand how to prepare for the exams.  The questions generally come in two major and two minor parts:

The Question (which I break into two parts)

1. The scenario.  This is where the story is told regarding the setup of the problem.

2. “The kicker”.  This is the crux of the problem and the key to the right answer.

The Answers (which I also break into two parts)

3. The answer instructions.  This tells you how many of the given answers to choose.

4. The answers.  The potential answers to the questions.  Sometimes more than one is right.

The scenario is the first part of every question.  This usually involves a setup for a problem.  A company recently had an outage and wants to improve their resiliency, they want to be more agile, they want to redeploy their app, etc.  These can be a bit wordy so it’s best to skim this portion of the question.  It’s great to have a good idea of the problem, but this isn’t generally the most critical piece of information.  Skimming through the scenario you’ll finally come to the kicker.

The kicker is the key piece of the question that defines the problem.  Something like “if architecting for highest performance” or “in order to save the most money” etc.  This line defines the most important aspect of the answers you need to look for.  Next comes the answers.

The answer instructions tell you how many to choose out of the available.  This would be VERY important except that the WEBESSOR software literally won’t let you mess this up.  Just keep in mind that you cannot move on to the next question if you have too many or two few questions selected.

Finally, the actual choices for answers.  Picking the right answers is the whole point, but also important is the formatting of the answers.  One of the things you’ll notice with long form answers is that they commonly follow a pattern (like 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B).  For instance, the answers might follow a pattern like this:

A: Use EBS for saving logs and S3 for long term data access

B: Use EBS for saving logs and Redshift for long term data access

C: Use CloudWatch Logs for saving logs and S3 for long term data access

B: Use CloudWatch Logs for saving logs and Redshift for long term data access

Now, even if you had no idea what the scenario is, if the kicker is “How can the company architect their logging solution for lowest cost?” you can simply choose the answer that gets you the best cost savings (C).  And many of the questions are like this.  You can determine the right answer by looking at the pattern of the answers and comparing that to the kicker.  Further, you can generally eliminate two answers right off the bat.  Note that while this is a very common pattern, there are other patterns the answer might follow.  What’s important is to notice the pattern and use it to eliminate wrong answers.

The Power of Elimination

Consider this.  Let’s say that you’re taking a with 80 questions and the passing score is 70% (AWS does not publish the passing score; this is just a hypothetical example).  In this example, you’d need to know the answers to 56 questions to pass.  Using the process of elimination, you can reduce the number of questions you know are right to 40 and STILL likely pass.
(The math: Subtract 40 correct questions from the original 80 and you’re left with 40 unknown questions.  If you can eliminate 2 of the 4 answers on these questions, you can coin flip the remaining 2 answers.  Statistically, you have an 87% chance at guessing better than 16 out of 40 questions with two answers.,+p%3D0.5&x=0&y=0)

“But Coin”, you say, “how can I be guaranteed to eliminate 2 of every 4 answers”?  While you likely won’t always be able to eliminate the wrong answers, the trick is to study the kickers.  What I mean is that in understanding each AWS service, you need to be able to articulate “How can I make it more X?”  More cost effective, more performant, more highly available, more resilient, etc.  Each certificate exam will have its set of kickers.  So, when you’re studying for each of the exams, pay special attention to how the service can be customized to meet a goal and which services meet which goals.

S3 for example:

Cheaper: lifecycle policies, reduced redundancy, IA, Glacier

Resilient: versioning, s3 replication, regional replication

Performant: CloudFront (for web), regional S3 endpoints, hashing key names

Secure: VPC endpoints, encryption at rest

Hopefully you can see how a kicker that asked “How can the company make S3 more performant?” would allow you to eliminate 1 or more answers with “Glacier” as the strategy.  Further, having a deep understanding of these concepts for AWS services will allow you to spot answers that don’t exist.  If a company wants to “design for a more affordable BI solution?” which is better:

A. Implement reserved instances for Amazon EMR

B. Utilize spot instances for Redshift Nodes

The answer is A.  You cannot (currently) utilize spot instance for Redshift.  Understanding how each service can be customized will allow you to spot these false answers and eliminate them quickly.

How to Study and the Practice Exam.

You’ve probably seen the same advice everywhere.  Go through a video session with or and read the whitepapers.  This is certainly effective, but while you’re consuming that information, keep in the back of your mind that you need to understand the kickers for each service as it relates to the exam.  Once you have gone through the study materials, I highly recommend taking the practice exam.  Don’t worry, you’ll likely fail it.  You’re not taking it to pass the , you’re taking it to get a feel for the formatting and pacing.  These are very important to your success because if you run out of time in the real exam, you’re chances of passing sink fast.  Unfortunately, the AWS practice exam is not a good representation of how you’ll perform on the actual exam.  Your main goal is to feel comfortable with your time, work on identifying the kicker and eliminating wrong answers.  Think of this like interviewing for the job you don’t want just for practice.  If you score well, that’s even better.

AWS Certification Exam Tricks

Finally, here are several good recommendations around the logistics of taking the exam.

1.     You should take the exam during YOUR peak time.  That’s not the same for everyone.  Schedule it for the time of day you’re most alert.  If you’re not a morning person, don’t take the at 8am.

2.     If you come to a question and you’re lost or confused, immediately mark it for review and skip it.  If you have time at the end, you can review it and try to eliminate some answers and make your best guess.

3.     If you’ve picked an answer for a question, but you’re not sure, mark it for review and move on.  The prevailing wisdom that “your first guess is correct” is not supported by any studies (that I can find), but running out of time because you labored over a question is a losing strategy.  If there’s time at the end, go back and review your answers.

4.     Lastly, remember this is an AWS certification exam, so answers that suggest you use non-AWS solutions should be viewed very skeptically.


Hopefully this will provide you with an alternate view of how to effectively study and take the AWS exams.  As I mentioned before, these s are very well done and honestly a lot of fun for me.  Try to enjoy it and good luck.