How to pass the AWS Solutions Architect exam—from people who did it

By Nicola Wright


If you’re thinking about taking on the AWS Solutions Architect – Professional exam, you probably already know that it’s a tough nut to crack.

AWS conceived this certification to test and validate the skills of experienced Solutions Architect with upwards of two years of hands-on practice at designing and deploying cloud architecture on AWS.

Those sitting the exam need to have a wide range of in-depth, practical knowledge of the AWS platform.

You need to be able to prove your ability to design and deploy scalable, highly available, and dependable apps on AWS, select the right AWS tools for the job at hand and migrate complex multi-tier applications. And that’s just for starters.

To help you pass the AWS Solutions Architect – Professional exam with flying colors, we spoke to some certified AWS superstars from leading AWS partners Mission and Stelligent who’ve already smashed it.

They’ve shared their experience, advice, and some top tips to give you a head-start on becoming a certified AWS Solutions Architect.


Meet our certified AWS experts

Trevor Sullivan is an ex-Amazon veteran of the software industry since 2004 and has published over 200+ articles and 60+ technical training videos online.He currently holds seven AWS certifications.

Throughout his career, Trevor has fulfilled the roles of Founder, Engineer, Consultant, and Solutions Architect (Sales).

Between 2014 and 2018, Trevor was awarded Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) for PowerShell and Cloud & Data Center Management, and Docker Captain in 2016.

Darren Ybarra is a DevOps Automation Engineer at Mphasis Stelligent. Equipped with more than eight years of IT experience and an insatiable desire to learn new technologies and demonstrate his mastery of technology through accreditation, he holds ten tech certifications across AWS, Google Cloud Platform, Linux, Kubernetes, databases, and DevOps.

Darren has a passion for bringing DevOps principles, practices, and tools to accelerate business goals and facilitating a DevOps culture of learning, sharing, and measuring success.

Currently a DevOps Automation Engineer at Mphasis Stelligent, Trey McElhattan holds six AWS certifications and has experience with CI/CD, Docker containers, and infrastructure deployment on AWS. He’s a big believer in “Infrastructure as Code” and automation through secure, resilient, and codified solutions.

Trey regularly contributes to Stelligent’s blog, sharing insights on topics like AWS CodePipeline Approval Gate Tracking and AWS CodePipeline.


Q: What was your studying schedule like?

Trey: I studied on and off for almost two months. Typically it would be a couple of hours a day, a few times a week, but it would be in between doing other non-related internal work.

I started to put a lot more hours into studying for it when I was about two weeks out from my scheduled exam date. For the last week before my exam, I’d say I was putting in about six hours per day of studying right up until the night before my exam.

Darren: I studied for about five months during lunch hours and after work at night, almost every day. I tried to learn something new each day, especially on days when I didn’t have a lot of time to study.

Life always gets busy between work, family, and other priorities, but when you set a goal and focus on getting better every day, anything is possible.

The small steps that turned into big leaps for my studying process were finding pockets of time to watch a certification training video on ACloudGuru or Linux Academy, read an AWS Whitepaper, or watch a past ReInvent session on YouTube.

I listened to videos in the car on my commute, or read a whitepaper while eating my lunch.

From my past experiences of taking certification exams, you never feel 100% satisfied with your preparation. A good indicator of exam readiness is how well you perform on practice exams.

Linux Academy, ACloudGuru, and WhizLabs all have excellent practice exams that I took multiple times before I felt ready to sit for my exam.

Trevor: While I was working at Amazon as a Solutions Architect, I took an earlier version of the AWS Solutions Architect Professional exam in September 2017.

At the time, I had prepared primarily with hands-on experience with AWS and online video training from A Cloud Guru, who recently announced that they are merging with Linux Academy.

My recollection of the exam was that it wasn’t too hard, and I’ve been actively working with AWS since then, so I honestly didn’t spend much time preparing for re-certification. After taking the exam and passing, I would strongly advise against going this route.


What kind of salary increase can you expect once you’re certified?

Find out the latest salary averages for AWS professionals across the world with the Jefferson Frank Salary Survey; the ultimate guide for anyone looking to build a rewarding career in AWS.

Download the survey


Q: What resource did you find most valuable when studying?

Trey: I used several resources for studying, including a course on A CloudGuru for the AWS Solutions Architect Professional exam, some of the AWS white papers, and WhizLabs for practice exam questions.

I would say I found the WhizLabs practice exam questions to be the most valuable because the package contained 400 practice questions that closely emulated what questions would be like on the exam.

For each practice question, there was usually an in-depth explanation of why the correct answers were what they were, and sometimes included links to external resources for further learning on the question’s topic.

Darren: I believe that diversifying your sources of knowledge is vital to passing the AWS Solutions Architect Professional exam. A good life principal I live by is always to get multiple opinions from several trusted sources to master a concept.

Linux Academy, A Cloud Guru, WhizLabs, AWS Whitepapers, and AWS documentation are my trusted sources for everything one would need to know for passing this exam.

 

 

“It would’ve been much more difficult to pass this exam without learning the different perspectives provided by multiple experts in this field. I think of all of these sources as pieces of a puzzle that gave me a clear ability to think as an AWS Solutions Architect.”

Darren Ybarra

Trevor: Hands-on time spent with AWS is invaluable to certifying. Although conceptually, a lot of AWS services are simple to understand on the surface, the actual implementation of these services becomes very complicated.

To reliably obtain a certification, especially the Solutions Architect Professional certification, it’s crucial to understand how services interoperate.

Q: Which areas would you suggest people focus on?

Trey: I would suggest getting a strong understanding of architectural designs and solutions for using AWS Lambda + API Gateway + DynamoDB for applications, and being able to troubleshoot those types of applications.

 

 

“I would strongly suggest getting familiar with different solutions for importing and exporting data, databases, and servers from on-premise locations to AWS Cloud and vice versa.”

Trey McElhattan

That includes understanding AWS Database Migration Service and AWS Server Migration Service. Learning how access control works within AWS at the organizational level is essential too, so read up on AWS Organizations and Service Control Policies.

Darren: Some key areas to focus on are the use cases for each service in AWS: understand when certain AWS services are favorable over similar services given a particular scenario.

Common scenario factors that show up on the AWS Solutions Architect Professional exam are the most cost-effective, most efficient, or quickest solutions.

A successful exam result is dependent on the test taker’s ability to distinguish when to use an AWS service over another based on factors given in the question. The AWS Whitepapers provide great insight into when certain AWS services are favorable over others based on circumstantial factors.

The AWS documentation dives deeper into the capabilities of each AWS service, which is valuable information for understanding the strengths and limitations of a given service.

Reading and understanding the concepts, overview, and limits of each service in the documentation is more important than understanding how to implement the solution.

Trevor: Amazon CloudFront, API Gateway, S3, DynamoDB, and Lambda, are all common discussion points on the AWS Solutions Architect Professional exam. It’s essential to understand how these services work together.

You’ll also need to have a solid understanding of AWS account management with AWS Organizations, Service Control Policies (SCP), and of course, IAM.

I did notice some questions around Elastic Beanstalk and Auto Scaling, but I wouldn’t invest too much time going into depth on these services. AWS Systems Manager (commonly known as SSM or EC2 Systems Manager) came up once, specifically around patch management for Linux and Windows systems.

You should go into the exam expecting to have a working knowledge of the entire suite of Systems Manager services, though, just in case, including Parameter Store, Run Command, Session Manager, and State Manager.

Top Tips: Areas to study

  • AWS Lambda
  • API Gateway
  • DynamoDB
  • AWS Database Migration Service
  • AWS Server Migration Service
  • AWS Organizations and Service Control Policies
  • IAM
  • AWS Systems Manager
  • Amazon CloudFront
  • Amazon S3

Q: Which questions did you find most challenging?

Trey: I would say I found the areas around migration from on-premise locations into AWS Cloud the most challenging, and topics around finding the best design solutions for optimizing cost control as well.

Darren: The questions related to the section on migrating complex, multi-tier applications on AWS. The questions around migration strategies, migration tools, and managing complexity in migrations were the areas that I struggled with the most according to the feedback that I received on the exam.

When I reflect on how I allocated my study time, I would say that topics related to migration were the subjects that I focused on the least out of all of the exam study material.

Read as many AWS Whitepapers and watch as many AWS ReInvent videos as possible around migrating applications on AWS. If you make that a priority, you will increase your chances of success on the exam.

Trevor: Due to the complexity behind setting up AWS Direct Connect, I found this topic to be the most testing. I’ve never had hands-on experience with Direct Connect, aside from playing with the AWS APIs.

To be honest, I didn’t expect to see Direct Connect on this exam, as it’s more of a specialty networking topic. I would, of course, have expected Direct Connect to show up if I were taking the AWS Networking Specialty exam.

Check out our latest AWS Solutions Architect jobs

Q: Is there anything on there that might surprise people?

Trey: There was a pretty broad range of topics covered on the exam, but I think one area that would surprise people is that there were still some questions about using AWS Elastic Beanstalk.

Darren: One of the surprising aspects of this exam is that AWS Elastic Beanstalk played a relatively significant role, especially as it pertains to scenarios that require the quickest or most-efficient solutions.

Another surprising aspect of the exam was the length of the questions and multiple choice answers. Many of the questions and answer choices were a paragraph each, which was both surprising and exhausting.

By the end, I could feel the wear and tear of having to read through all of the scenarios and decipher what information was important and what was unnecessary.

Be prepared to read a lot and read at a quick pace. Practice exams will help, but the actual AWS exam was lengthier than the majority of the practice exams I came across.

Trevor: Some technical exams are easy enough for experienced people to walk in and easily finish with extra time, for example, the AWS Cloud Practitioner exam. The Solutions Architect Professional exam is a polar opposite of that profile.

 

 

“The length of the questions can be daunting when you first get into the exam room. Reading comprehension skills are essential to take advantage of the limited 180-minute period that you have to finish the exam.”

Trevor Sullivan

You’ll need to be able to quickly scan through several paragraphs of text, pick out key points for consideration, and identify which information is extraneous and irrelevant to the question being asked, before picking the best answer and moving onto the next question.

Looking to take your AWS career to the next level?

Register today and let our AWS staffing experts match you with the perfect role.

Get started

Q: What are your top tips for anyone thinking about taking this exam?

Trey: There several things you need to make sure you’re prepared for on this exam.

Read the questions very carefully and always be looking out for phrases like redundancy, cost-effectiveness, fault tolerance, simplest setup, fastest way to set up, high availability, scalability/most scalable approach.

Look out for situations where the question asks whether or not they want to FULLY migrate to AWS or maintain a HYBRID architecture; that’s AWS and on-premise together.

My biggest tip would be to focus on time management. Some of the questions were very long—two to four paragraphs with between four and six answers to choose from—and I found it all too easy to get caught spending too much time on some individual questions.

For a lengthier question, if you start reading it and are immediately not confident on the topic, I would suggest flagging it for review and coming back to it later after you have reached the end of the exam. Don’t leave any questions unanswered.

Take lots of practice exams in the days leading up to the real exam (WhizLabs helped a lot) and try to time yourself to make sure you can complete the exam with time to spare.

 

 

“Much of the real exam is about endurance and just being able to finish the entire thing on time—I submitted the exam with 30 seconds left out of the full 3 hours they give you.”

Trey McElhattan

Darren: My top tips are to schedule the exam once you’ve taken at least five or six different practice exams multiple times. You should take the practice exams once you’ve read as much material as possible that covers all key points suggested by the training course(s) of your choice.

I took the practice exams once I felt like I had acquired enough knowledge to take the actual AWS exam. I did this so that the practice exams could be reasonably accurate in terms of my exam readiness.

Make sure to understand why you missed a question on a given practice exam and read the associated documentation or whitepapers on that topic. Turn your weaknesses into your strengths.

My last top tip is to be confident in yourself. Confidence is an underrated but essential aspect of passing this certification exam. Let your confidence come from your preparation: proper preparation prevents poor performance!

Trevor: Make sure you are fully prepared mentally before scheduling the exam. You will most likely have very little time left by the end of the exam, so don’t let yourself get hung up on challenging questions early on.

Make good use of the flagging feature in the test-taking platform, so that you can circle back to harder questions at the end, provided you have time leftover. Even as an experienced AWS professional, I only had about 25 minutes remaining by the end of the exam, and I did not feel confident that I was going to pass re-certification.

My score was only slightly above the passing score of 750; one or two extra wrong answers would have put me into the failing category. Remain skeptical, don’t be over-confident, and use flashcards if necessary to test yourself. Linux Academy has a flashcard feature, so if you have a subscription to them, make use of it.

I’d also recommend taking some practice exams ahead of time. When I ran through my initial AWS certifications back in 2017, I found some inexpensive mobile apps that helped me improve my knowledge and confidence level.

If your employer will reimburse you for these tools, you might as well use them, too.

Top Tips: Advice from the experts

  • Take practice exams again and again; use them to highlight gaps in your knowledge
  • Use flashcards to help you remember what you’ve learned
  • Read the questions carefully
  • Manage your time–flag any questions you’re not sure about and come back to them later
  • Don’t leave any questions unanswered

Q: How has earning the certification benefited you since achieving it?

Trey: Since studying for and taking this exam, I’ve developed a better understanding of good practices for designing architectural solutions on AWS. On top of that, having the AWS Solutions Architect Professional certification looks great on a resume.

Darren: This certification propelled my career into the stratosphere. I was able to increase my salary by an overwhelming amount and step into the job of my dreams working remotely.

After taking ten very highly sought-after certifications in IT, the AWS Solutions Architect Professional exam is the hardest, most rewarding exam I have ever taken.

This certification demonstrates one’s ability to take a problem, analyze it at a bird’s eye view, and use best practices to provide the right solution to ensure the success of an organization’s goals.

 

 

“This is my proudest accomplishment in terms of certifications. I hope that this advice will encourage you to take and pass this exam to help your organization, improve your salary, and give you the confidence to overcome any obstacle you may face in your career.”

Darren Ybarra

Trevor: With the Solutions Architect Professional exam being a very challenging one, it has earned me two-way respect between my peers who have also passed this exam and me.

Each of us shared our perspectives after achieving the certification and were able to provide unique insights into what we found challenging, and dive into the specifics around the questions we encountered. This experience helped to sharpen all of our skills and provide direction for future research and training needs.

Aside from my team’s shared experiences, passing this exam has also uniquely positioned me to stand out from the crowd in the private sector.

Combining this certification with my lengthy social media tenure has allowed me to be selective about my future employment opportunities and negotiate a much higher compensation plan, with more responsibility.

Good luck!

Your next great AWS job is waiting for you.

Check out the latest AWS jobs and sort by location, skillset, salary, and more.

Browse jobs

AWS insights now

Get the latest AWS news and views delivered straight to your inbox

We'd love to send you Jefferson Frank’s AWS insights and tips by email, phone or other electronic means.