Slay imposter syndrome while prepping for AWS Certification exams
Author’s note: In the spirit of helping empower cloud-builders everywhere, I present the strategy that I use when trying to conquer any new obstacle. Whether an AWS Certification, a life goal, or any other endeavor, this approach focuses on high-level strategies and processes. For certification exams in particular, the tactical subject-matter preparation will change over time based on exam versions, available resources, and how you learn best. However, a framework for mental preparation can help you achieve your goals, even amidst your own fears and doubts.
None of us can escape academically oriented tests. Like you, I have plenty of experience taking tests, so I—perhaps naïvely—assumed that taking an AWS Certification exam would be similar to those I took in college. I was wrong. Perhaps most people can go into the testing center or log in to their home testing setup and breeze through the questions. Not me. I found myself weighed down with nervousness, anxiety, and concern that despite the hours I studied, it wouldn’t be enough.
To me, this wasn’t a case of test-day jitters. Preparing to take my first AWS Certification exam caused my imposter syndrome to reveal itself. If you’ve never heard of imposter syndrome, it’s the lingering fear that causes you to doubt your own accomplishments and credentials. It tells you you’re a fraud. As I explored test questions about virtual private clouds (VPCs) and Security Groups, I found my mind questioning my skills. Despite having a Ph.D. and a track record of doing hard things, I kept asking myself if I really deserved to be here.
Despite my nerves, I ended up passing the AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate exam and went on to pass four more, including the AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional exam. During my preparation, I realized that prepping to mindfully take on the test is just as important as understanding the subject matter. In this post, I’ll share my personal experience of overcoming test anxiety to achieve five AWS Certifications. I’ll also propose a mental preparation framework that can help you feel confident and prepared on test day.
Step 0: Accept it will be tough
The precursor is acknowledging that what you’re going to do is really, really hard. There’s no shame in that truth. In fact, the acknowledgment that something is going to be a journey is important to make the sacrifices and trade-offs needed to be successful.
For example, when I was beginning to think about studying for the AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional exam, I heard stories about failed exam attempts and months spent studying. I pieced these anecdotes into a collective experience that scared me rather than motivated me.
“But Liz, if anyone can do it…it’s you. You do hard things,” one of my colleagues said to me as I confided in her over coffee one day.
It was true. So true, in fact, that I made a list on a sticky note of “Hard things I’ve done.” On the list: “Get a Ph.D.,” “Complete an Ironman,” and “Move away from your small hometown in Alaska.” All those things took months to years of continued tenacity and dedication. There’s no way any exam could be as hard or challenging as some of the things I’ve already done. Therefore, it was going to be okay, and I was going to try.
I actually kept that sticky note up near my office, and when I’d feel out of my depth, get a low score on a practice exam, or invert public and private virtual interfaces, I’d look at it.
Your turn: Make your sticky note of “Hard things you’ve done”
Step 1: Make a singular goal
You can only have one top goal at any given time.
Initially, I wanted to prepare for several AWS Certifications at the same time. I figured bouncing between topics would provide a nice change of pace to keep me engaged. However, I quickly realized that I wasn’t able to dive deep into any material, and in fact, I’m not multi-threaded.
Instead, I decided to select one exam. That became my top priority, and I shaped my days and habits to support that one, singular goal. I told my friends. I told my colleagues. I told my co-workers. I signed up for the exam four weeks out and told myself that between now and that test date, this exam would be my top priority. It was very, very intense, but knowing that this sprint had an end date was key to keeping my foot on the accelerator the entire time.
Your turn: Sign up for that exam. Commit to the date.
Step 2: Know your why
Why are you getting certified? As someone who doesn’t have a traditional computer science or IT background, I initially felt like somewhat of an outsider working in tech. I came from a non-computer science background, and the more I learned about AWS, the more I wanted to learn. My colleagues were always very encouraging, and I deeply enjoyed diving deep into solutions and building on AWS. However, in my mind, I wasn’t a “real” solutions architect until I had my AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional. I’ll be the first to admit that I was, in fact, a “real” solutions architect from the beginning, but there was something about the swagger and external validation of the certification that made it my top goal.
I didn’t start with AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional. In fact, I made a point to get all the Associate-level AWS Certifications first, which gave me a firm foundation of knowledge to jump to the next level.
As you’re considering your “why,” think about how you want to get there and what milestones you’ll have along the way. Using the Associate-level certifications as a metric to focus my studying, I was able to build my AWS foundation while having tangible validation of my efforts.
As my colleague Nihit Pokhrel said about her AWS Certification journey, “I was able to become a part of the solution architect community because of my preparation. As someone with very limited IT experience, studying for the AWS Certifications prepared me to ask the right questions, at the very least.”
Are you pursuing a certification to be a hands-on practitioner of all functional AWS services? Or perhaps a certain certification related to a professional goal? Know why you’re here. This “why” is very important as you begin preparing. It’ll help you prioritize and triage the knowledge you need and keep you motivated when studying gets hard.
Your turn: Why are you pursuing an AWS Certification?
Step 3: Learn it
Here is the step that most people start with: deep dive into learning the material. For me, I used a wide variety of AWS resources, including whitepapers and tutorials. I also studied early in the morning when I tend to absorb information more readily, drew pictures and doodles, and wrote out most of my notes by hand while following along in the AWS Management Console. These were the same steps I used when preparing for my preliminary exams in graduate school, and the techniques I’d relied on during college.
The good news is that when it comes time to learn the material, there are many different ways to learn the subject matter and gain practical knowledge and experience. You get to learn this material in a way that works with you. Thinking back on my previous experience and ways I’ve been able to learn and master new subjects helped me find successful techniques for my AWS Certification exams.
Your turn: What study method(s) works for you?
Step 4: Fail fast
Okay, action time. Bias for Action is one of my favorite Amazon leadership principles, and taking an AWS Certification exam is a great opportunity to practice it.
I was scared of failing an AWS Certification exam. However, I was also keenly aware that the longer I studied, the more I didn’t have room in my life for other things I wanted to do. There was an opportunity cost of continuing to study. To me, it came down to accepting that I needed to trust myself and my preparation and make a calculated decision. Personally, I would rather act too quickly, fail, and learn. Adult learners learn more from failures than from successes, so failure is a natural part of progress. Read that again. Failure is a natural part of progress. Think back to your sticky note for examples of the many times you’ve been successful.
I took my AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional exam on a Friday at 9 a.m. I also had my calendar blocked off from 9 a.m. until 12 p.m. three weeks after that, and again three weeks after that. My plan B was to learn from my first attempt with grace and humility and try again. In fact, I even mentally composed a LinkedIn blog post about the values of learning from failure. I had both a plan B and plan C in place.
During the test, I was nervous. My hands were shaking, and I purposely closed my eyes and took a deep breath every five questions. When my mind wandered to second guess my answers and abilities, I took another deep breath and imagined physically pushing those thoughts aside. After all, I was prepared to fail, and I was prepared to learn.
When I actually passed on the first attempt, I was surprised because I hadn’t mentally prepared for that outcome. I spent the rest of the day celebrating by eating pizza and watching Star Wars while the cognitive dissonance faded, and I was able to put my newfound AWS Certification into action.
Your turn: How will you know when to trust yourself?
One of my favorite aspects of being a solutions architect at AWS is knowing that nearly anyone can learn the technical skills needed to build in the AWS Cloud. Yes, it can be scary, you may have to feel uncomfortable learning new things and push yourself outside your comfort zone.
AWS Certifications are a way for anyone to showcase their cloud knowledge and help empower diverse communities to learn cloud skills. I believe achieving certifications is a precursor to creating more diverse, technology-focused work environments. Closing the cloud-skills gap is a very large goal. Wide-spread cloud-fluency that cross-cuts through diverse background and experiences is crucial to that goal. Getting there can be scary. The journey to learning the cloud and getting comfortable with being uncomfortable can be very intimating. However, you can face intimating obstacles. You can do hard things. You can take this one step at a time. So identify your goal, know your why, learn it, and GO!