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My near-disaster AWS Solutions Architect Professional recertification experience

Scott Pletcher
Scott Pletcher

Preparing for a remote-proctored AWS certification exam? In this post, Scott Pletcher shares his near-disaster experience with AWS Certified Solutions Architect Professional recertification, some things you should know before taking an AWS online-proctored exam, and tips for taking the challenging AWS CSAP exam.

“Ok, deep breaths… I’ve been here before. I teach the course for goodness sake!”

I quietly reassured myself as, for the fifth time, I plowed head-first into the notorious AWS Certified Solutions Architect Professional exam. But this time, it was different — very different.

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How hard is the AWS Certified Solutions Architect Professional exam?

The AWS Certified Solutions Architect Professional certification is supposedly one of the most challenging exams — not just among AWS certifications — but in all of information technology. 

I’ve cleared some other challenging credential exams like PMI’s Project Management Professional and ISC2’s Certified Information Systems Security Professional and, at least for me, the CSAP (or CSA-Pro or SA-Pro or however you want to shorten it) easily tops both of those.

The AWS Certified Solutions Architect Professional exam is daunting for several reasons. 

  • First, it covers an extremely wide range of AWS services and products — and not at a superficial level either.  
  • Second, the exam questions are worded very carefully and subtly to truly test your understanding. Exam questions intentionally include what AWS calls “distractors” — these are plausible but incorrect elements literally designed to flush out those who have incomplete knowledge. 
  • Third, the exam itself is physically and mentally grueling. While 75 questions in three hours may not seem that bad, it takes absolute focus on every detail of every question. Mathematically, you’re supposed to average about 2.4 minutes per question, but you can easily get stuck into a question for 10 minutes before you realize it. Every time I’ve taken the exam, I’ve used every minute of that 180 minutes.

My First Time

My first run-in with the CSAP exam was back in July 2015. I had just passed my CSAA (or AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate) and was full of swagger and confidence. 

“Sure, sign me up for that CSAP!”  

I failed miserably. 

I wasn’t sufficiently prepared for the depth and breadth of knowledge required and my time management skills were a mess. As I had sailed through the Associate exam, my mistake was in thinking the CSAP would simply be slightly more obscure Associate-level exam questions.  How wrong I was…

For the next seven weeks, I poured myself into the AWS console, whitepapers and any resources I could find. My preparation was all self-taught. Classroom training was way too expensive and there just weren’t any good online training courses at that time. (Coincidentally, around the same time, Ryan Kroonenburg came to the same realization and decided to do something about that…)

In September 2015, once more into the breach I stepped. This time, I passed quite comfortably.  

In the six years since, I’ve had to recertify three times. AWS used to have a shorter CSAP Recertification exam that was required every two years, but now they make you take the full exam for recertification every three years.

This Time Around

Around June 2021, I started getting nervous as my certification expired in October. Given my role and my courses, it would be something between “highly embarrassing” to “absolutely scandalous” if I, of all people, let my certification lapse. This just exacerbated my nervousness.

Yes, I still get nervous for this exam. In fact, I get nervous before any exam, live stream, webinar, Discord stream, or public speaking engagement. Every time I turn on my camera and stare into that little black circle, I get nervous. There’s a bit of social anxiety there but mostly, I blame imposter syndrome. With practice, I’ve learned to cope with the nervousness, but it’s still there lurking beneath. I mention this here because I want you to know that it is completely normal to have nerves and a feeling of self-doubt going into situations such as this exam.

After procrastinating for just about as long as I could, I decided to book my exam. My preference was at a testing center, as those are usually quiet, comfortable places that allow me to focus.  Alas, neither PSI nor Pearson testing centers near me had any in-person appointments for months.

Remote proctoring, here I come!

Strangely, only PSI offered the CSAP remotely. Pearson had every other cert available but was missing the CSAP on their scheduling site. (I’m not sure if PSI is the exclusive administrator for this remote exam or if there was just some temporary glitch on Pearson’s side.) 

I booked my three-hour block of mental endurance with PSI for a day and time when I knew the house would be quiet and I wouldn’t be competing for bandwidth against streams of bad reality TV or kids’ shows.


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Sitting the remote-proctored AWS CSAP exam

On exam day, I arranged my testing area according to the guidelines provided and downloaded the PSI exam software. The exam software checks your system for bandwidth, a webcam, microphone and verifies that you have only one monitor connected.

During the exam, the webcam is always on. 

The testing software displayed a live feed of my webcam in the upper right corner. The image had a green circle superimposed on the video which was apparently doing facial tracking. I’m guessing that it makes sure you’re looking at the screen versus looking around the room at potential cheat sheets. 

Another theory is that it might make sure that the test taker’s face matches that of the identification provided. I suppose one could verify themselves then somehow a “ringer” could dip in and take the exam instead. I certainly don’t recommend trying either of these things as it will land you in big trouble, not to mention forfeiture of your exam fee.

Once all the automated validation tests were completed, I activated the testing session. In less than a minute, I was greeted by an anonymous proctor via chat. All interactions from my side with the proctor were completely handled via chat, but the proctor could see and hear me. 

After verifying my identity against my government-issued ID held up to the webcam, we moved on to validating my remote environment.  

The mysterious proctor asked me to maneuver my camera around and under my testing location to demonstrate that I wasn’t hiding any contraband. 

I had to show my arms and both ears to the camera to ensure I wasn’t wearing any devices that might feed me information. 

If I were wearing my glasses, I would have had to hold them up to the webcam for inspection.  

At one point, the mystery proctor mistook my docking hub for a speaker and requested that I remove that from the desk. It took several attempts to explain that it wasn’t a speaker but a docking hub that allowed me to use a full-size monitor with my laptop. Eventually, the anonymous proctor accepted my story and allowed me to proceed.

My very own testing center!

Whatever the reason, that testing software was maxing out my MacBook Pro something fierce.  From the moment I started the software until the waning moments of my exam, my laptop fan was screaming. It could have been the facial-tracking feature or they could have been using my CPU for crypto mining for all I know, but it was taking some serious CPU… which as I would soon learn, culminated into near disaster.

And Here We Go…

After successfully proving my identity and the integrity of my testing space, the proctor allowed me to proceed to the actual exam. 

Now, don’t expect me to spill any details on the exam contents — that’s just not allowed. I will say that every time I’ve sat for the exam, I’m always impressed by the level of complexity and nuance.

Here’s how my first few minutes went…

“First question… Hmm… not sure about this. Let me flag and come back. Second question… Eeep! Not seeing a clear correct answer… Flag. Question 3… Nope — flag.”

I went through the first five questions before arriving at one that I could answer straight away without even considering the other options. 

Was this really happening? Was I going to flub this exam?!

Turns out, it just took those first five questions before I was able to calm my nerves and settle into a routine.  

My strategy (which you can read more about in-depth in this post) is always the same: quickly scan the question and scan the answers. If I can rapidly identify the correct response with certainty, I mark it and bank the time. If I need to dig further, I mark my best guess for an answer and flag it for later. My goal is to be through a first pass of all questions with around half my time left. In my case, I had flagged about 30 questions for a second look.

My laptop fan was still racing, and I could only imagine what sorts of things this exam software was doing behind the scenes. It was also about this time that I realized I could collapse the top part of the exam client so I didn’t have to watch a video of myself with a green tracking circle superimposed over my face. My laptop fan still roared at top speed!

During the second pass, I was able to confidently answer about half the questions I had flagged during the first pass. 

Sometimes it was just having a chance to re-read the question and answers. Other times, I had encountered something in another question that triggered my memory on a given detail for a service. More commonly, it was just some obvious little thing that I had overlooked in my rapid first-pass scan.

After the second pass, 15 questions still had me doubting my initial answer selection, so I spent the remaining time waffling on these. As time was winding down, I made my best-educated guess on those questions.  With 5 minutes to spare, my mouse and laptop suddenly became very, very laggy. 

LOW BATTERY 5% LEFT!  What the heck?

Of course, I was using my power adapter and wired network connection for this exam to rule out any power or Wi-Fi issues. (I almost dug through my tech graveyard for an old wired mechanical keyboard and mouse but decided to risk it.)  

Despite being on AC power the whole time, my laptop had somehow drained its battery, creating a perilous situation.  

My theory is that the exam client was so CPU intensive that it was consuming power slightly faster than the laptop could recharge. Over those three hours, the battery eventually gave all it could give.

Must… click… submit… exam!!  

It was like trying to run underwater!  

My heart pounded and my palms sweat! I’d move my mouse and it would lazily respond 10 seconds later. I too had heard the nightmares of people having the exam software crash during the exam, leaving them in some tragic limbo waiting for tech support. Eventually, I lagged over to the Submit button and somehow managed to register a click. And we’re don–

But wait, there’s more! 

I was then presented with a survey on how I liked the exam process. NOOOOO! I can’t recall how I responded to all those customer satisfaction questions, but I’m pretty sure it was slanted toward the negative at that moment. “LOW BATTERY!” flashed again on my status bar. My mouse was still lagging and my laptop fan was racing. Please just let me finish this exam!

And then on to the results…  “Congratulations! You’ve passed this exam.”  Oh, thank goodness.  

The stress and panic of the last few minutes melted away, and I exhaled in relief. Eventually, the mysterious remote proctor came back into the chat window and told me that my result had been recorded, and thanked me for my patronage. With that, I signed off the exam application, sat back, and watched my laptop power off.


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How to prepare for AWS recertification

To get me warmed up, I used the A Cloud Guru Exam Simulator for the CSAP.  (Logged into your ACG account? You can check out the CSA-Pro practice exam here.)

In my very unique case, it wasn’t as helpful as it would be for you. Why? Because I had written most of the questions in that bank, so I could vaguely recall the particular trick or nuance I had included — it was kind of like trying to surprise myself in the mirror.  

However, keeping focus for a three-hour chunk of time is something that takes practice. If nothing else, taking the exam simulators helps train for those extended periods of focus.

Next, my work on AWS This Week helped a lot. While new services have to be generally available for six months before they have a chance of showing up on an exam as a scored question, just hearing updates helps me recall all the services and their purpose. I encourage you to work in AWS This Week as part of your routine if you’re aspiring or maintaining a CSAP certification.

Most definitely read the whitepapers. You don’t need to read EVERY whitepaper as there are probably hundreds of them by now, and there’s LOTS of overlap between them. I focus on the “Best Practice” ones as those are typically fertile ground for exam questions.  

Day to day, I don’t work much in the networking space, so I read all the VPC and Networking papers as a refresher. As I work much more commonly with compute, serverless, and databases, I didn’t spend much time on those whitepapers.

Finally, if you have questions on this or any other certification exam, do feel free to drop into our regular “Office Hours” on the ACG Discord server.  You can usually catch me or our other Training Architects just hanging out and happy to give some advice. You can also subscribe to A Cloud Guru on YouTube for weekly cloud news, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.

Thank you, CSAP Exam. See you in three more years!

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