Preparing for the AWS Solutions Architect Associate (SAA-C03) exam
I just sat the AWS Solutions Architect Associate (also known as SAA-C03)... and I did not pass. The threshold is 72%, which I missed by about 5%. So, very close, which is quite on-brand for the exams I've taken in my career so far. But oddly enough, I'm not particularly gutted about it, which I think is ✨growth✨
However, I've identified some factors that definitely held me back from success. I'm transforming those into tips for those who are interested in taking the exam — and for myself to keep in mind, too, should I choose to retake it in the future.
Choosing the right exam
As recounted here, I had a consultation and was advised to do the Solutions Architect Associate exam over the Cloud Practitioner one. Now I really wish I had done the latter (in an ideal world, I'd have gone for the Developer Associate, but that wasn't available). Holding a "lesser-regarded" AWS certification is better than none, in my opinion.
It turns out that the Solutions Architect exam is quite hard — it pretty much expects you to know everything that's on the Cloud Practitioner curriculum, plus how you'd implement solutions in real-life scenarios. Given my limited experience working with AWS, as well as my rather low mental state at the time, I wish I'd made it easier for myself by doing the logical thing and starting from the bottom with a more high-level understanding of the AWS cloud.
It's not as if I didn't seek other opinions. The exam guide itself describes the target candidate as having at least a year of hands-on experience designing AWS cloud solutions. On the other hand, a fellow developer suggested that in the absence of Developer Associate, my skills would be better directed towards Solutions Architect rather than the relatively basic Cloud Practitioner. This was also the prevailing sentiment that I saw in online communities. So, hopefully you can understand why I was confused.
In any other circumstances, the advice to go for the harder exam may well have been valid. However, this did not consider my specific context — which is that I had significant constraints on my learning and study time.
Since I was taking a course at a local college, I was operating under several conditions:
- The course began on 4th October and ended on 3rd November. I think all of us participated remotely.
- Class started at 8:45am each day. (Even when working remotely, I never had meetings this early.)
- We were supposed to be "logged in" for nine hours a day, including breaks. Generally, we would have class time with the instructor until 1pm, then spend the afternoon self-studying. But because of the nature of the time-tracking tool, it wasn't actually very flexible.
- The internal exam, which would produce a certificate, took place on the 2nd November. That's right — after four weeks of learning stuff for the very first time, and just two study days. (I passed the internal exam, at least!)
- We were initially pressured to take the official AWS exam on 3rd November. Yes, the day right after the internal exam. Luckily I was able to reschedule mine for mid-November.
These disruptions to my routine threw me off balance. For the whole month of October, I didn't feel like myself — let alone capable of learning concepts that were sometimes very complex. Even after a couple of weeks of the course, I just felt like a machine that was expected to absorb all this new theoretical information and somehow retain it.
Aside from that, given that most people in online forums say that they prepared for at least two months before feeling truly ready to take the exam, you could say that I was set up to fail. Plus, some online sources say that just <28% of candidates pass this exam the first time.
Of course, there were some positives to participating in a course; it was nice to know you always had an instructor to turn to for questions. We also got access to the AWS labs and some other resources. But I don't think those resources were exclusive to the college. And as described in my previous post, the time leading up to the start of the course was so stressful that there's no chance I could have got a head-start on studying the curriculum, which was crucial, seeing as I was already so "behind".
Access to practical resources
I can't recommend enough that you sign up for your own AWS Free Tier account. This will require a credit card and gives you free access to certain services for one year.
As I mentioned, we did have access to the AWS labs, and the instructor gave us their login, but for me, nothing beats having your own account that isn't going to expire.
To be honest, the AWS offering is so expansive that it's hard to just build something new off the bat if you don't really know what you're doing. That's why I'm glad I did have some guidance — and dare I say it, discipline — in the form of an instructor). But it does offer a lot of free resources and tutorials — for example, AWS Skillbuilder — that can help you learn or practise certain things. The hardest part is figuring out exactly what you want to do and how to piece those bits together, which is why in the past I had sometimes struggled to "teach myself" AWS if there wasn't a specific use case I needed to fulfil.
Since the college course turned out to not be ideal for me personally, I ended up purchasing a basic monthly subscription to A Cloud Guru. This is a site that offers a wide array of video-based courses related to cloud computing and DevOps, including most — if not all — the AWS certifications. The fact it was all in English, my native language, already relieved my brain in a big way (shout-out to everyone out there who's learning stuff in a foreign language). But I could also do the course at a pace that suited me, plus pause and rewind videos, make notes, and so on.
Indeed, as is probably the case for many other exams, I think the key is to diversify your learning sources. Even if I hadn't been doing the subsidised course hosted by the college, I don't think it would have been enough to just follow A Cloud Guru. I definitely would need to also work with some native AWS educational material, find some quality YouTube creators, perhaps even buy a book (of course, the caveat here is that it will date quickly).
I can assure you that stuff came up on the exam that I'd never even heard of, and I had to just make a guess through a process of elimination. Perhaps this is what cost me those precious marks? Or maybe those were the unscored beta questions. In any case, you shouldn't just rely on one course to see you through the exam. Be sure to refer to the official exam guide as a single source of truth when assessing which areas you're weak on, or haven't encountered at all.
While I don't think I'll be retaking the exam any time soon, I'm glad I did it, and I really do think I fared well in spite of the circumstances. For now, I'll be focusing on gaining more confidence with practical use of the AWS skills I've learnt, as this is what's most important when it comes to finding my next professional challenge.