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In February, I took a trip to China, which included a 14 plus hour flight. It’s a little quicker coming back – “only” 13 hours because of the jet stream. Fortunately, the plane had entertainment consoles in each of the chair backs. You can watch many movies on a 14-hour flight, and it’s crazy to think I was hoping the plane would stay in the air just a bit longer so I could finish watching a particularly long one (Lincoln). But in between movies, I played a little chess against the computer. I hadn’t played chess since I was a child and the thrashings the computer were giving me weren’t unexpected. It was probably my imagination, but it seemed like the whole plane was passing time watching me getting beat like a drum.
Being a competitive type, that wasn’t going to do for me. It wasn’t more than a few days off of the plane that I went seeking revenge against the computer. I came upon an online chess site where you can play real people from all over the world. That sounded cool. And the games didn’t have to take days or even hours. Some of the games were called rapid, blitz, and bullet. I dove in and I didn’t find it quite as offensive getting beaten by real people as opposed to a computer. I suppose deep down I realized the computer was a gang of software developers.

Speed Chess and AWS

So how would I define speed chess? Hmmm. I’d say a timed test of your skill in an unforgiving but fair contest. You know where this is going right? It kind of sounds like an AWS Certification test. How do you get better? Study. Practice. Like speed chess, AWS test questions can be difficult enough but then add the concept of time management to it and you have a real test – time management becomes a big factor. Eliminate weaknesses because they will be exploited on the real test.
I’m going to bounce back and forth a bit between AWS exams and speed chess because the parallels are so striking to me. As I got better in speed chess and got to a point where I won more than I lost (don’t be misled, I’m no master), I learned some things about my brain. Most of these things were predictable in hindsight. I’m smarter in the morning. I’m smarter right after lunch. And sadly, my results show that I’m at my smartest when I’m all relaxed and refreshed on Saturday and Sunday mornings (when it’s not doing anybody much good). The point I’m driving at here is that there are good and bad times to be taking highly challenging AWS cert exams. Think about how your brain works and give yourself the best chance when scheduling your exam. Walking into an exam after a challenging 8 or 10-hour day is probably not optimal.
I’ve read that the Russian philosophy of chess is to eliminate your weaknesses and not make the same mistake twice. The parallel that can be drawn here is to take practice exams and do labs to identify and eliminate your weaknesses. It is recommended to pass our Linux Academy practice exam three times before registering for the real test. Take the test, find your weaknesses, study them, rinse and repeat, and soon you will be ready to take the exam.

My AWS Certification exam strategies

So you’ve registered for the exam and it’s test day. Hopefully, you are well rested and have given your mind a break and you are ready to crush the exam. You can be sure that the next time I schedule an AWS exam I will find a place that offers it on a Saturday morning. I win on Saturday morning! Find your sweet spot and crush the exam!
I tend to leave no stone unturned. A quick Google search identifies good brain foods: apples, broccoli, almonds, dark chocolate. Alright, sorry mom, I skip the broccoli. On my way out the door to the exam, I grab an apple. Almonds and chocolate? That sounds like an Almond Joy so I make a quick stop at the convenience store. Does this work? It works if I think it works, so I’m in a good state of mind and ready to crush the test.
Sometimes I’ll be playing an intense speed chess match and a family member will walk in the room and ask a question. If I lose the game I blame it on the family member. Everyone gets a good laugh (except me). When I take practice tests at home, I intentionally have a television on, with the volume on loud. I practice overcoming distractions and sharpening my focus. When I get to the real test and put those sound cancelling headphones on and get complete silence, advantage me!
That may not work for everyone but find what works for you and gives you the best chance for success.

Tips for your AWS Certification exam

My goals when taking an exam are pretty simple. Give it everything I’ve got and focus completely for 90 (or 180) minutes. Use every second I have productively. THIS IS KEY. Worry about the question on your screen, not ones in the past (one caveat here I’ll explain shortly), not how hard the test is, and not how you think you are scoring. I was once playing a chess match against a gentleman from Russia. He started sending me messages in Russian. While the game was going on, I was plugging his messages into a translator to learn he was trash talking to me. Here’s the sad part. I took the courtesy to use Google translate to translate my return trash talk into Russian! Needless to say, I lost that game. Maintain a laser focus. Eliminate distractions. The most important question on the test is the one currently on your screen.


I like to get momentum early and build my confidence. I probably mark more questions than most people. I move fast through a test, but not carelessly. If the first question I see is a long-winded scenario question that doesn’t give me good vibes, I quickly mark it for review and move on (it will be less intimidating the second time around). In this way, I’m picking low hanging fruit early in the test, building my confidence, saving my brain power for later in the exam. This may mean I have ten difficult scenario questions that I’ve marked at the end of the test. No problem! I’ve prepared for these. I’m confident because I know I’ve answered a lot of questions correctly and they all count the same. Instead of going on a mental and emotional roller coaster ride throughout the exam, I’ve saved the hardest for last. I can see the finish line and I’ve already had my eyes on these questions once. They don’t look quite as hard now. Another key point in this strategy – often during the test, you will come across a question that clarifies a key point in another question or flat out gives you the answer to another question. I usually have three or four questions on an exam that I get correct because another question clarified a point I was uncertain about.

Thinking backwards

Another tactic I find useful is to read the last sentence in a question first. I’ve seen long winded scenario questions that end like: Which of the choices below provide a highly available solution? That’s the question you need to answer. The whole confusing paragraph above it is just noise. You don’t need it. It’s a waste of time and energy.

How to slow down time

I want to draw one final parallel. When you first start playing speed chess it is fast and furious and you make mistakes you wouldn’t normally make because you feel the pressure of time and the clock ticking. Eventually, through practice and repetition, the game slows down for you, the pressure goes away along with the mistakes. In preparation for the exam, take practice tests and set milestones for yourself (such as you want to be through a certain number of questions at a certain time in the exam).
Get used to staying on schedule and the pressure will reduce and the “game” of taking the exam will slow down for you.
We’ll be covering more tips and strategies for your AWS Certification exam next week, but in the meantime, check out this practice quiz to start trying out your new techniques:
AWS certified solutions architect practice quiz


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