I’m still in pursuit to pass all AWS exams and hold the certifications. I got inspired. Also addicted. This blog post describes some universal tips to prepare for any AWS exam. I use these practices for mentoring others and to learn myself. It contains links to some resources, and describes how you learn and memorize everything a lot better and easier. Of course it is all personal, so give it a try and let me know what worked well and what I could learn from you.


I’ve created a diagram to check how your journey looks like. Check where your main role is positioned, and which path to choose. You can go straight to your target, or like some crazy people, start from the middle and do all associates first, then professional and then the specialties. There is a huge overlap in the exams.

Diagram to describe the certification paths. Start in the center, at the play sign.

1. Just book the exam

So you decided to aim for a specialty right? Because you’re a Data Scientist? Or Security Expert? Well… this specialty exam should not be your first exam experience if you’d ask me. Specialty exams require a broad knowledge of AWS, like automation, security, encryption, networking, authorization etc. It’s also exciting, checking in, sitting in this silent room, clock ticking. My advise; just try an easier exam first. The practitioner or architect associate is generally a good choice to start with. It’s also easier to endlessly postpone the exam if it’s not yet booked. My experience, once I scheduled an exam, I’m highly committed. To learning and to the date that has been set. While I could still reschedule twice and even cancel with a refund.

2. Learn together

Next tip is learn together. Order some food and sit down with peers. Everybody prepares 5-10 multiple choice questions. Vary in topics and difficulty. Collect them in a slide deck and play the deck by showing the question for 2 minutes. Then have a short debate about the question and all correct, wrong, or funny answers. It doesn’t matter when you go a little off topic, as long as it is about AWS and not more than a few minutes. Btw, the 2 minutes is because that’s the average time you have for each question on the exam. Be gentle to yourselves, some questions require more time to read: add 1 extra minute for those.

Other ideas to learn together:

  • Co-create and share a long list of resources to study and to watch.
  • Create a mind map together on a whiteboard or big screen.
  • Get hands-on experience by building workloads on AWS, during a hackathon.

3. Learn by doing

Stop watching and reading endless videos and documents. Go build. Even reading, understanding and deploying CloudFormation examples work better than reading the same sentences over and over. Think of simple use cases that cover many topics. For example: a high available WordPress installation, running analysis on tweets, or to build a short url service like bit.ly with SAM. There are amazing platforms and workshops to facilitate learning by doing.

4. Create mind maps

They are called mind maps, because I think it’s close to how my mind actually works. Start for example with a service, draw a line and write down some important characteristics of the service. Not a list of all supported programming languages that lambda supports natively. Never saw this type of questions. But do remind yourself of the integration with other services. Like: can SQS trigger a lambda? Or does SNS do? Also write down when it’s a recent added feature, or any constraints and limitations. The more details, the better you will memorize. Just two lists of supported and unsupported integrations is hard to remember. Try to match integrations with real-life scenarios. For example: How could I easily copy all my SNS and Kinesis messages to S3 for historical data analysis? SNS require custom lambda, while Kinesis has Firehose. Don’t stop here. By experimenting you’ll quickly find out Firehose often requires a Lambda function too… Knowing this can be tricky for the exam though. Is the question created by somebody who trust on marketing and documentation? Or by someone who actually worked with the service?

I’ve shared many mind maps as part of training sessions. The majority of participants said it’s a good idea, and gave valuable feedback. To really learn and benefit from mind maps, they preferred to create or co-create the mind maps.

KMS mind map by Jerry Hargrove

KMS mind map / sketch note by Jerry Hargrove, more on awsgeek.com.

5. Learn while commuting

This tip is only for the more experienced people. I think we commute about 2 hours a day on average. That’s 10 hours a week and 40 a month. A typical online course takes 40 hours of listening to a lecturer. You just turned waste of time into valuable time. Don’t forget to create or update your mind map immediately arriving at your destination. Just aim for a 10 minutes earlier arrival. If you don’t have a subscription to online courses, use podcast. All re:Invent sessions are available on podcast services. I don’t force myself to always listen. Some weeks I listen to other podcasts, music or even commute in silence. I’ve learned silence also helps to train your brains and become a better student.

6. Watch some youtube videos, and again

AWS published thousands of sessions where to learn from. A few of them are important for almost every exam. Videos about IAM, DynamoDB, VPC design. I watch these videos every time I take an exam. Just as a refresher. AWS reruns updated versions of the talks at re:Invent yearly. The ones I’ve watched a couple of times over the years:

7. Free digital prep courses

In the platform where you book the exams, there are plenty of digital courses available for free. Your first accreditation is so close. Those 4 hour courses, that finish with a small assessment, gives you a nice PDF to show your boss you did a thing. There are also free digital courses for specific services and solutions. The ones I like most are the certification prep sessions. They discuss some practice exam questions. I even saw some practice questions, almost identical appearing on the real exam.

8. Tackle that question with the “QAT-method”

I use the QAT method to tackle questions on the exam. I read about this approach online, but most credits for Thijs de Vries who pointed me at it a while ago. QAT stands for:

  1. Question. Right after the large text a question of one or two lines is there. Read it first. A common question is like: Which two correct answers are most cost effective?
  2. Answers. Scan all the answers, eliminate the technically wrong ones. Maybe even mark the answer that feels right.
  3. Text. Now read the whole text, and try to focus on the sentences that substantiate correct answers or eliminate all wrong answers.

It helps focussed reading and prevent reading texts twice or more.

Example question by AWS, see more example questions on aws.amazon.com.

Don’t use the “flag question” too much. It’s there to review tough questions for the end, but generally you run out of time. Flag at least one. I still don’t know if the overview of all numbers appear when you don’t flag any of them. You could always write down the number on your paper to flag. Soft flagging I call it. If you have much time left, you could go through these written question numbers. Maybe, write down a keyword with it, to recognize the main topic. Sometimes questions further in the exam give away the right answer, or remind you of something.

My cert frenzy so far

At this moment there are 11 exams and one to be launched in April 2020. 1 Practitioner, 3 Associate, 2 Professional, and 6 Specialties. I currently hold all the core certificates. There used to be 5 when I started with AWS years ago, and these are considered the core. Last year, I passed the Security Specialty and the Practitioner. That last one actually just to know what the exam is about, to help people that are completely new to AWS and aim for their first certificate.

My next target is to re-certify a few exams this year, and maybe to get one or two extra specialties. As a free agent, I don’t have a sponsor that cover the costs. Even with a 50% discount these things are pretty expensive. Pro and specialty: $300 each, $150 with a discount you get for your next exam when passing one. And every 3 year you have to re-certify.

I also want stay current with all AWS services, to help people in the early adoption stage. A steep early stage. After that, they will soon outclass me as they are often more experienced developers, data scientists, software architects etc. Then I start learning from them and yet it’s time to onboard others.


We discussed how to learn together. By practicing sample questions and other group exercises. That you should get hands-on experience. Create mind maps. Book the exam asap. Learn while commuting. And where to find useful online resources for free. And finally the QAT method.

If you think a tip is missing, please let me know.

Good luck studying and passing the exams.


Martijn van Dongen
Cloud Evangelist / MCE
Martijn works at Schuberg Philis as Cloud Evangelist and Mission Critical Engineer (MCE). Martijn is an active AWS developer, architect, consultant, and trainer. He is chair of AWSug.nl and recognized as an AWS Community Hero.
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