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Tips & Tricks: Taking an AWS Certification Exam

Posted on January 3, 2017 by THaslettTHaslett

You have spent months studying, watched hours of video lessons, and passed all the quizzes and practice exams. You can run through each Live! Lab scenario with your eyes closed and can recite every note card front-and-back from memory.
You are feeling good, even confident, as today is Test Day. You finally get to reap the benefits of all your hard work, and in a few short hours, you will have that shiny new AWS certification.
Then things start to go awry…
There is traffic on the way to the testing center. You start to think that maybe you will miss the scheduled start time. You rush into the testing center, thankful that you just made it in time.  You are handed piece of paper to sign, and told to read it word-for-word. Legal terms, NDA requirements, and cheating consequences suddenly cloud your thought process. Everything you brought with you – keys, cell phone, purse, wallet, watch – all get locked away. You are asked to turn out your pockets to prove you aren’t hiding anything to cheat with. And finally, you are escorted into the quietest room you have ever been in. As you walk to your testing station, you pass others taking exams and you can feel the tension in the air. You were already anxious from the traffic and sign-in procedures, and before you had a second to relax and breathe, you are now sitting at the exam terminal. Finally trying to collect your thoughts and get into an exam mindset. You hit the “start” button on the exam, notice the timer in the upper corner start to count down. You read the first question and have no idea what the correct answer is – and panic sets in.  The next thing you know you are staring at the results screen, with the worst word in the English language staring back at you – failed.
How did this happen? You spend months studying, you knew all the terms, definitions, processes, concepts, and passed all the practice exams. As it turns out, you forgot one very important thing – a game plan for test day.

Game Planning

The scenario described above is fairly grim (I know); however, it does represent real-world things.
To help avoid any of these potential downfalls, I am going to outline my test day game plan, and a few tricks I use to give me an edge on the exam.

1.) Getting to the Testing Center (Arrive Early)

Oh, someone telling me to arrive early – I haven’t heard that a million times before. If you are saying that to yourself right now, that’s fine. This piece of advice is so cliché that I should be laughed out of the room just for mentioning it. However, I take a slightly different approach with it. I don’t show up at the testing center early. I put my physical location within a five minute walking distance (of the testing center) one hour early. It allows for two things:

  • I have a large time buffer if something goes wrong (i.e. traffic, flat tire, bus/subway delay, or the random Stay Puft Marshmallow Man attack).
  • Assuming my buffer time wasn’t used due to an issue, I find a café/restaurant, sit down, order some coffee/light food, and relax. You can use this time to review notes for the exam or just clear your mind. And do NOT drink more than 8oz of fluid 1 hour prior to the exam.

Now I have no worries about being late. I don’t have to rush.   And I can focus on what is important – the exam.

2.) Walking in the Door (Arriving at the Testing Center)

I still aim to arrive at the testing center about 15 minutes before my scheduled start time. However, before I check-in I do one (very) important thing – go to the bathroom. However much (or little) you have, just get it out.  So whatever happens, you should be walking into the sign-in area 5-10 minutes before your start time.

3.) The Check-In Process (What to Expect)

If this is your first time taking a proctored exam, this all may seem a little weird. When you check-in, you will need to provide your government issued ID, and a testing “code” that will have been provided to you via email when you registered for the exam. So you will need your wallet/purse and the code with you at this point. (I have prematurely locked my wallet in the provided lockers, only to have to go get my stuff again for this step. So don’t be a noob like me). Next, they will hand you a form to sign with a lot of legalese regarding NDA, cheating, etc. If this is your first time, read it, sign and return the form. At this point, you may have a few minutes before being called into the actual testing room. Use this time to put ALL your personal belongings into the provided locker.  At this point – go the bathroom again (if you need to or didn’t earlier). Then wait to be called.

4.) Entering the Testing Room

When your name is finally called, several things will happen. First, the proctor will ask you to turn out your pockets to make sure you don’t have a cheat sheet hiding in there. Second, you will be handed two pencils and several sheets of blank paper (these items are key to success – more on that in a minute).
When you enter the testing room, things will be eerily quiet. Others may be taking exams – or the room may be empty. Regardless, follow the proctor to your terminal.

5.) The “Mind Dump” (Pre-test Pro Tip):

When you sit down at the terminal (after the proctor leaves), on the screen you will be asked to verify your name and the test you are taking. Afterward, there will be another lengthy disclaimer form that you can read before choosing to start the exam.
It is here where we have an advantage…
At the very least, you are provided with a few minutes to read the test instructions/disclaimers before starting the exam. You have anywhere from 5-10 minutes (but I have never pushed it that far before starting the exam). What I do during this untimed period before I start the exam is “dump” as much information as I can onto the sheets of paper that were provided to me by the proctor.   Formulas, limits, step-by-step procedures, architectural diagrams (yes, I memorized and hand drew the entire basic VPC architectural setup). I really focus on getting all of the memorized numbers and procedures onto the sheets of paper. Now I have my own study/cheat sheet I can use for reference, and I did it all without using any of my allotted testing time.
Once I have my notes flushed out on paper – I then click the button to start the exam.

6.) Taking the Exam (Managing Stress and the Timer)

Ok, it all comes down to this. You clicked the button to start the exam, and now there is a little timer on the screen counting down the time you have remaining. All I can say about the time is this – don’t be afraid of it. It may be really intimidating at first, especially if the first few questions take a long time to answer. But all you need is a few quick questions (which there will be), and you will have time in the bank to burn on harder questions. If you can’t answer questions after a minute or so, mark it for review and move on. You can always come back to it at the end and give it another shot. And you may find that you know the answer when you come back to it.
After you have answered all the questions, you will have the opportunity to go back and change the answer of any question. The questions you have marked for review will be highlighted.
Once you are done with reviewing, submit the exam, and wait for what feels like an hour (but is only about 5 seconds) to see the result.  Hopefully, you will see the words you have been preparing all this time to see – Passed.


Image of Shani
3 years ago

Great article, thank you very much Thomas! 🙂

Image of Sunil
3 years ago

We are never given pencil and paper to use during the exam

Image of pratik ganapavarapu
pratik ganapavarapu
2 years ago

Usually it if’s an individual exam, you are not allowed to use any paper. But if it’s a classroom exam with an invigilator, then you can have a pen and paper.

Image of A H M Rezwanur Rakib Chy
A H M Rezwanur Rakib Chy
3 years ago

I find this very interesting. People generally write about how to prepare for the AWS exams, not what to do on the exam day. I’m saving this to read again on the day before test day.
I just toke your AWS Solutions Architect course on udemy. Looking forward to learn more from you.

Image of rosebk
3 years ago

It’s always so sweet and also full of a lot of fun for me personally and my office colleagues to search your blog a minimum of thrice in a week to see the new guidance you have got.

Image of Rahul Pisal
Rahul Pisal
2 years ago

I cleared my CSA Associate exam last month. Your blog helped a lot on the day of the exam, as I experienced a machine reboot midway through my exam !! Luckily the support team at the exam center was able to reach Amazon support and get it resolved in time for me. It did increase my stress levels as I was 1 hour into the exam but came out successful at the other end.
Looking forward to take more courses and attempt more certifications in the future. Thanks for all the help.

Image of Michael Fuller
Michael Fuller
2 years ago

Great tips. Not being to answer the first question or two can be unnerving. But as advised skip it and move on to those you can answer. One, you’ll relax and regain your confidence. Two, sometimes you’ll find the missing answer within other questions.

Image of Nikolay Volkov
Nikolay Volkov
2 years ago

Thank you! Wish you all best at your next challenges 🙂 Hope you are doing well.

Image of clovis
1 year ago

I just took the exam today.
I receive no paper and no pencil. They allow only the mouse & keyboard and your hands on the desk. They are watching you all the time using the camera.
And at the beging of the exam they show a message ALERT in RED stating that they allow nothing on the table besides mouse, keyboard and your hands.

Image of Machine Learning
Machine Learning
9 months ago

Thanks for sharing such a great blog Keep posting.

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