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63% of test takers fail this AWS exam on their first-attempt. How I passed on my first try (barely)

A few months back, a colleague recommended that I earn my AWS Solutions Architect Associate Certification (SAA-C03). After 3 months of regular study, I passed the exam on my first try. After passing, I found out the pass rate for first attempts is 27%! ...I am so glad my friend opted not to tell me that until afterward. Braggy-blog-title-for-clicks aside, I figure my strategy and process may be of use to those of you seeking certifications and/or are studying for exams.


  • 140 hours of study, May 1 - August 10 Mon-Fri
  • Passed on August 11


  • Adrian Cantrill's SAA-C03 course (1.5x speed, pausing to take notes) (fee)
  • Tutorials Dojo SAA-C03 practice exam collection (fee)
  • AWS docs (free)
  • YouTube videos and random googlefu explanations (free)
  • Flash cards on phone while vacationing (Quizlet app free version, found collections made by other users) (free, but no offline access)

Exam: August 11. Studied roughly 3 hours a day usually using the Pomodoro technique (25min study, 5min break, repeat). Basically spent 95% of the time just going through Cantrill's course and taking notes. I would go in to Tutorials Dojo to reinforce the topic I learned with quizzes and reviews. And Googling often when I didn't understand concepts or how different services connected. For the last 5 days after I finished Cantrill's course, I focused on the Tutorials Dojo full practice exams, all timed. I would then review what I answered incorrectly and then retake the same exam to get a 95%+. I did each exam twice in a row and completed two new exams a day. During a vacation during my study period, I brought some flashcards on my phone found on Quizlet to just keep the content close in mind, but not study heavily during the break. I burned out a few times and took a 3 day weekend here and there, as well.

I had to reschedule the exam twice after realizing I did not allot enough time to get through all the Cantrill material (I honestly ended up skipping some demos towards the end just to get through the content). However, I have revisited many of the demos for reference during development - don't skip them if you have the time.

In terms of the actual exam, I found that the content and questions were overall pretty difficult and not exactly what I practiced on Tutorials Dojo. However, hammering out quizzes/exams over and over gave me the ability to break down the questions and logic out the answers drawing from what I learned studying. I think it was very valuable that I reinforced Cantrill learnings frequently with quizzes and Google research related to the studied topic. I never had issues with the exam time running out, my issue was really just mainly absorbing this massive amount of info and actually being able to understand each component and connect the dots.

Overall, the content and certification exam was difficult, but entirely doable on the first attempt if you use your resources and stay consistent. Something else that always helps me to stay accountable is to track your study hours on a spreadsheet -- clock in, clock out, how many hours per day, etc. Good luck!

What's Next? The AWS Cloud Resume Challenge...

Photo by José Ramos on Unsplash

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