The Full Guide on How to Pass the AWS Solution Architect Associate exam on Your First Try

What materials to use and how to study for the SAA C02 Exam

Materials Used:

Note: Since these are the materials that I used, these will be the ones that I’m reviewing. There may be lesser-known, equally good courses available elsewhere online — let me know in the comments, I’d love to check them out!

Brief Overview

The exam is made up of 65 questions, and has a time limit of 130 minutes. You need to score at least 720 out of a 1000 points to pass the exam. The questions are either multiple choice (choose one out of 4 options) or multiple response (choose 2 or more options out of 5), and are predominantly scenario based, tasking you with finding the correct service or feature for the given scenario.

Here is an example question:

You are running an application on 5 EC2 instances in the us-west-1 region; the application requires the use of a DynamoDB table that is in the us-east-1 region. The connection between the two must not leave the Amazon network, nor should it use a public IP for communication. How would you configure a connection in this way?

A. There is no way to configure private inter-region connections.

B. Use Cross Region replication to place the Dynamo DB table into us-west-1. Use a VPC peering connection to connect the replicated table to the EC2 instances

C. Configure an inter-region VPC endpoint to connect the Dynamo DB table

D. Enable inter-region VPC peering and create a VPC endpoint for Dynamo DB in us-east-1

Don’t worry if this already sounds very daunting — with a little help from my AWS friends you are sure to understand the nuances of these questions with no problem!

Answer: D. Enable inter-region VPC peering and create a VPC endpoint for Dynamo DB in us-east-1

The test is loosely broken into 4 Domains:

  • Design Resilient Architectures: 30%
  • Design High Performing Architectures: 28%
  • Design Secure Application & Architectures: 24%
  • Design Cost Optimized Architectures: 18%

In my experience, I found that these domains manifested themselves in the form of a couple of key phrases that were found in nearly every question of my exam. Here are a few examples:

millisecond latency, serverless, managed, highly available, most cost-effective, fault-tolerant, mobile, streaming, object storage, archival, polling, push notifications

The key is to focus on what’s important for each service — particularly understanding the different features, and trade-offs related to the 4 domains listed above.

NOTE: you aren’t going to be tested on the intricate technicalities of implementing the software, such as which buttons or code to type to set up an API Gateway, or whether you should be using a T2 or T3 EC2 instance. HOWEVER, you should understand them on a practical level, such as knowing which tier of S3 storage you should be using to optimize cost & security, while also considering the frequency of retrieval and the importance of the data being stored.

My Personal Exam

To offer you a bit of a case study, this was my personal experience of the exam. I can’t promise it will be like this for anyone else, but hopefully this gives you an idea of what to expect.

I studied for the C02 exam, but took the C01 Exam, and passed with a 890/1000. My test was heavy on EC2 & EBS (10–15 questions), S3 (10 questions), KMS & different types of encryption (7–8 questions), RDS (6–7 questions),SQS (4–5 questions) and VPCs (12–15 questions). I had a bunch of really tricky Cloudfront & ELB questions peppered in there too, as well as 4 nearly identical questions on VPC endpoints.

There were no questions that asked for the actual commands to run things, but there were questions that required you to know the fundamental differences between the following:

  • EC2 vs ECS vs Lambda
  • S3 vs EBS vs EFS
  • CloudFormation vs OpsWorks vs Elastic Beanstalk
  • SQS vs SNS vs SES vs MQ
  • Security Group vs nACLs
  • The different S3 storage types vs Glacier
  • RDS vs DynamoDB vs Elasticache
  • RDS engines vs Aurora

I took my exam during quarantine so, as you can imagine, it was a little more complicated. I had to take it through Pearson OnVUE, and, long story short, I wouldn’t recommend it. After two hours of staring at my own face on the screen with no proctor in sight, I gave up on the first exam and asked for a refund. The second occasion was marginally better, with only 30 minutes of nervous anticipation before my exam began. In short, for the sake of your sanity, after a couple of hundred bucks and however many months of studying, I would opt for the in-person examination where possible.

The Best Way to Study for the Exam

I probably could have taken a better route to passing this exam, but 2020 wasn’t exactly on my side. But here I am to make sure you learn from my mistakes. My study was spread across five months and three different learning courses: you should stick to one main course and one main set of practice tests, and almost definitely aim to complete that course in three months or less (1–2 months is definitely do-able).

My study pattern was also intermittent, I went from watching videos non-stop for a month, to nothing for a month, and intense studying for the final two months, so I had to redo almost all of the material from the first month, because I had already forgotten so much. I don’t recommend!

Top Recommendation: Udemy — Jon Bonso and Stephaan Maarek

I highly recommend using Jon Bonso’s practice exams, and Stephaan Maarek’s SAA course on Udemy. Jon Bonso’s exams are constantly updated and reflect the exam the most accurately (almost too accurately). Stephaan Maarek is AMAZING at explaining highly technical concepts in layman’s terms and his teaching style makes it extremely easy to remember key concepts for the exam. Jon Bonso’s Udemy course also provides access to his Tutorial Dojo (AWS cheat sheets) website, which is extremely helpful for cramming for the exam. He does a great job at synthesizing information into a couple of sentences that cover all the things that you need to know about that specific feature.

ACloudGuru: Solutions Architect Associate

I actually started with Acloudguru’s AWS SAA course, as one of the most well known resources, but found that it explained the services at too basic a level, especially when compared to Stephaan Maarek’s. They also were missing key features of services on the exam, saying that learners should read the AWS documentation to fill in the gaps of knowledge that their course doesn’t provide. While reading some documentation is important to understand the language that AWS uses and the voice of the exam, when I pay for a course I expect it to comprehensively cover every topic on the exam, or at least let me know what topics I need to research for myself. I would say about 70% of my actual exam was covered in the AcloudGuru course.

As for their practice exams, I was actually quite surprised to find that several of the questions at the end of each section had spelling errors, and some of the answer options were blatantly wrong (and not nearly as difficult as the actual exam).

However, in its defense, this course was good for understanding the fundamentals of AWS (especially their 10,000 Foot Overview of Cloud Technology), and their interactive labs provided experience using the actual services, which was extremely important for developing practical skills in AWS (not simply theoretical).

I had access through Trek10’s launch program to the entire Acloudguru platform, which allowed me explore different facets of the cloud world. Acloudguru also recently acquired Linux Academy, which has made them the largest offering of cloud tech development courses & labs. A platform like this is invaluable when it comes to gaining actual experience in cloud, even if it isn’t the best course for passing the Solutions Architect Exam.

Whizlabs SAA Practice Exams

The Whizlabs exams were very good, but were almost a bit too difficult when compared to the actual exam. However, their explanations of why an answer was right or wrong were perhaps the most valuable things to look at when studying for the exam. I personally went through all six of these exams, and scored between 65% & 84%, the higher scores being only a couple of days before the exam.

Whizlabs also provides short quizzes on different key concepts of the exam. These were really nice to use when I thought that I was missing knowledge about a specific topic; I would take the tests, study the correct answers, and then repeat the quiz the following day, and found this to be very effective. Whizlabs’ exams were useful, and if you are able to spend a little extra to insure that you pass, I suggest getting these as a supplement to Jon Bonso’s practice exams.

Make Use of Subreddit

About a month out from taking the exam I highly suggest browsing the AWS Certifications subreddit. Here you can find test reviews that discuss each user’s personal experience with taking the exam & how they went about studying for it. These reviews provide valuable insight into the exam and the general types of questions they were asked.

In Sum: Make A Plan

Perhaps the most important aspect of your studying is how much you immerse yourself into the world of cloud. If you only passively watch the videos for an hour a day, aren’t taking notes, and aren’t thinking about the cloud outside of that hour, it’s going to take you A LOT longer to pass the exam. Make a plan to watch your course’s videos every day for at least 1–2 hours and take detailed notes, while using the console to get more familiar with how the different technologies work together. If you are using Stephan Maarek’s course instead of Acloudguru’s, regularly search on Youtube to find labs and/or supplementary videos about the section that you are learning. Follow AWS Social media to stay up to date — my favorite AWS influencers are Forrest Brazeal & Corey Quinn.

After your first run through of all of your material, take one of Jon Bonso’s exams and, most importantly, review all of his explanations for each question — whether you got it right or wrong. After that, go back into your course and re-watch each section where your knowledge was missing, then take the second exam and repeat the process. Instead of then moving to the third exam, go back to the first exam, and make sure that you can recall everything that you learned. Only move forward to the next exams once you have successfully gotten an 80% or higher on the first two exams. Continue this process until you feel comfortable taking the exam: I wouldn’t take it unless I were achieving higher than 80% on at least three of them.

If you follow this course of study YOU WILL pass on your first try.

Most people score 5% — 10% lower on Jon’s practice exams compared to the actual exam. As you get more comfortable with your knowledge, switch over from reviewing your full course, to Jon Bonso’s Tutorial Dojo AWS Cheat Sheets. These sheets are smaller, more concise, and operate on the basis of you knowing the foundation of each main service. These sheets are great for cramming last second before the exam.

What Now?

It’s important to recognize that the exam is only the beginning of your cloud journey. After you pass, take some time to gain more experience in the Cloud! Do some cool projects and keep learning. As a pragmatic next step, I strongly suggest doing Forrest Brazeal’s Cloud Resume Challenge (I am doing this as well, so I should have a blog post about this soon…stay tuned!) Remember, a test doesn’t not equate to experience, but rather potential. 🤓 Good Luck!

TLDR

To pass the exam on the first try, use Stephan Maarek’s Solutions Architect course on Udemy in unison with Jon Bonso’s course on Udemy. Both provide you with the foundational knowledge needed for you to pass the exam. Go through the entire course once and take one of Jon’s exams. Review the explanations for all of your answers, regardless of whether you got them wrong or right. Go back to your course and review your weaker sections. Take the 2nd exam only after reviewing the first, following the same process. After the 2nd exam, instead of moving on to the third, go back and test your knowledge again with the first two, only allowing yourself to move on if you get an 80% or above!