PMP Exam Prep – Suggestions and Tips

For those within the project management space, there is probably no greater staple credential than the PMP. The ‘Project Management Professional‘ certification offered by the PMI institute has been in existence for many years and has fast become one of the most sought-after credentials in the industry.

To date, there are (roughly) 400,000 individuals that have attained the PMP, coming from various industries and spectrums. From software, IT, hardware, construction and government services, the flexibility and associated prestige of the PMP credential gives the individual much more flexibility in their career and a little more resume padding than someone who lacks it.

The PMP credential itself, unlike some other certifications, does require a fair amount of prep. It’s not simply something even the most seasoned project manager can simply waltz through. The exam itself is challenging and carries a fairly high failure rate for first timers. PMI doesn’t publish the statistics, but I’ve heard that the failure rate can be as high as 30-40%. So needless to say, it’s not an exam to take lightly.

With all the aforementioned being said, here are some key tips I would suggest for anyone looking to tackle the PMP exam:

1. Do Not Rely on Your Own Work Experience

A common fallacy for many project managers is making the assumption that their own work experience is adequate for passing the PMP exam. While experience helps, the PMP is designed around the core fundamentals of the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). As such, the exam is focussed on the attributes listed in that framework. A good analogy is that you wouldn’t walk into the GRE or GMAT based solely on your existing math or writing skills. Remember, like any test, the idea is to practice for the test itself.

2. Find a Good Study Aid

Depending on your preference, some individuals learn better in a private environment, utilizing a good reference book. Others prefer a training class style option that is instructor lead. Whatever your preference, choose the one that suits you. For my own case, I preferred the former, whereby I studied on my own at my own pace. The book I (primarily) used for studying was written by Andy Crowe and was titled ‘How to Pass the PMP on Your First Try‘. It can be purchased through Amazon:

For those of you that may purchase (or have purchased this book), let me itemize the study strategy I used:

  • Read the entire book from start to finish and use a high-lighter on key points. Do NOT attempt the practice questions at the end of each chapter on your first pass.
  • Re-read the book a second time, focussing on the highlighted areas. Perform the practice questions at the end of each chapter but do NOT perform the final exam at the end of the book.
  • Re-read the book for a third time, again focussing on the highlighted sections. This time, complete the final exam at the end of the book.
  • Access the Velociteach website (link is in the book) and go through all the online training materials, including the practice questions and the final exam. You get a free week of access with the purchase of the book.

Note: some people insist on purchasing the PMBOK guide itself and reading it. I actually did just that for my training but frankly, the study guide was more than adequate in my opinion in covering all the key topics that appeared on the exam. But for thoroughness sake, one can also choose to read the PMBOK as well.

3. Pick an Exam Time that Best Suits You

Some of us are morning people, others function better in the afternoon. Whatever the case, exam times for the PMP are pretty flexible so one should opt to pick a time that suits their personality type the best. It is also advantageous to not try to cram the exam into days where you have other obligations. Don’t work in the morning and write the exam in the afternoon. You won’t have any idea what your work day might be like and any problems could throw you off your rhythm. So choose a day where you have no other obligations, whether it be a weekend or a PTO day during the work week.

4. Allocate Adequate Study Time Prior to the Exam

A good rule of thumb is that you give yourself at least three months of prep time ahead of the PMP. That should give you adequate time to cover all the necessary study materials and perform plenty of practice questions. Remember that you are far better off taking more time to study than you are taking less. And if you find you have covered all your training materials and still have time to spare, you can always purchase more practice tests from other sources to further hone your skills.

5. Memorize Formulas

While there are not a huge number of formulas that one must be aware of for the exam, there are some. (Like PERT, Earned Value, etc) Make sure you have these formulas well memorized and on immediate recall. A good rule of thumb is that once you are in the exam, immediately write all your formulas down on scratch paper that is made available. That way, you won’t have to be worried about a mental block during the exam that causes you to either forget or inaccurately recall a key formula.

6. Aim to Pass by a Wide Margin

The current pass requirement for the PMP exam is 61%. While that may seem easy enough to achieve, the high failure rate of the exam itself indicates it is certainly not trivial. You will get a good gauge of your performance with practice exams, but do not be satisfied with just achieving a 61% success rate in practice. Remember that the exam experience is outside your home comfort zone and additional stress factors will be in play. As such, you want to aim for as high a success rate as you can in your private practice. So if you are reliably scoring 80+% in practice, you will likely be in excellent shape for the same. (Of course, 90% is even better!)

7. Take a Day Off Prior to the Exam

This is of course optional. But many are surprised by just how effective this strategy is. Having a full day of just relaxation prior to a big exam is very beneficial for the mind and body. It is also important to not perform any additional studying on your ‘relaxation’ day. Take time for yourself and do things that you enjoy.

8. Bring a Snack for the Exam

The exam itself is set to take four hours. Now you may not require the full time slot to complete the exam, it’s important to go under the assumption that you will be there for the full duration. As such, it is a good idea to bring a small snack (power bar, fruit and a drink) that you can munch on during one of your breaks. Remember that the mind needs energy and you may be surprised how many calories you are burning during a difficult exam.

9. Take Breaks

You are permitted to take breaks as you progress through the exam, so take advantage of that. I understand some individuals prefer to just gung-ho their way through the entire exam in one fell swoop. But most are more comfortable tackling the exam in stages. With that being said, do not be afraid to give yourself a breather when you need one.

10. Pace Yourself and Answer ALL Questions

There is no penalty for incorrect answers for the PMP exam. So make sure you answer all questions. The system also allows you to mark questions for review later on if you choose, so take advantage of this feature. But do NOT leave the question unanswered even if you are going to review it again. Time may become a factor and you want to make sure you have at least answered all questions to the best of your ability even if you are going to revisit some of them.

In closing, the PMP exam is certainly no picnic. But on the flip side, it’s not exactly an exam on Quantum Mechanics either. Like most computer-based standardized tests, the key is to recognize that you are studying for the test. Like exams such as the GRE or GMAT, the tests are designed to essentially gauge your ability on the test itself. So approach the PMP in the same fashion.

Project Management Myths – Top Five

As humans, we generally have many preconceived notions regarding aspects of our day-to-day lives. Periodically, we inject some form of personal bias into some of our key decisions. That bias can be benign or based on some loose understanding of the key fundamentals of whatever we are working on. In other cases, the bias can actually lead the individual down the completely wrong path since the bias was based on pieces of information that were fundamentally flawed or outright false.

This is of course, certainly true within the project management space. There are some key ‘myths’ that have been percolating that need some debunking, and they are itemized as follows:

Myth # 1. Planning is a waste of time and leads to too much bureaucracy

This is a pretty common fallacy amongst many organizations, especially those that pride themselves as being more dynamic or following the mantra of ‘disruptive innovation’. Don’t think about it, just do it! Well, as one takes a step back, the absurdity of this myth becomes more obvious. Does anyone actually conduct their day-to-day lives that way? If you are renovating your home, do you just ‘do it’? Is a major car purchase just done on a whim? (Well, sometimes!) But the reason this myth has become so pervasive is because individuals often find the planning phase as being too long and too bureaucratic. And while that can be the case, it does not in any way invalidate the planning itself. All important projects need some level of upfront planning. How much or how little is to the discretion of the team. But to simply discard the idea of planning all together is a recipe for problems with the project downstream.

Myth # 2. Project estimates have to be exact

I’ve seen some project managers bring out unbelievably complex math and formulas for project estimations. The kind of formulas that would make Sir Isaac Newton scratch his head. Now while it is true that the accuracy of a project estimate is important, anyone who has spent even five minutes in the project management space recognizes that it is certainly not an exact science. More often than not, estimates are the aggregate of opinions of the senior team members on the project. And like any opinion, they will not always be based on sound logic. There is also the notion of ‘anchoring’, where a previously used estimate was used frequently and the team members generally gravitate towards that number regardless of the task itself. In any sense, project estimates are just that: ESTIMATES.

Myth # 3. You don’t need a Project Charter

In a previous post, I discussed the project charter and its inherent value to the overall project plan. (For reference, please read the post: The Project Charter) The Project Charter is essentially the ‘what’ with regards to the project; i.e. what exactly are we doing or building? Now while it may seem somewhat redundant or maybe even un-necessary, project managers often discover the hard way that not everyone is always glued into what exactly is being created. Expectations about what will be part of the project can vary widely amongst team members, stakeholders and the project manager. Without an upfront document specifically outlining what EXACTLY is being worked on, situations can arise where a project is nearing completion and everyone discovers they are not on the same page with regards to what was done. Needless to say, this can be very disruptive and leads to lost time, wasted effort and burned money in certain situations. Defining the project charter up front can avoid this kind of situation and as such, time should be spent on its creation.

Myth # 4. There is no need to perform a Risk Assessment

Risks are naturally difficult to define. No one has a crystal ball. For that reason, the whole notion of performing an upfront risk assessment is often simply overlooked by the project manager. But this can have far-reaching ramifications down the road and lead to situations where problems that could have been avoided manifest themselves. Now while risks themselves are difficult to define, it is by no means an impossible task. Certain risks are actually pretty self-evident for certain project types. (resource constraints, budget, etc) So regardless of the project, some amount of time should be spent on performing some level of risk analysis. Often times, an effective and fun way to achieve this is to perform a brainstorming session with the team itself and the stakeholders. Getting the idea juices flowing with regards to project risks can at least allow the project manager to itemize them. Even if not all risks can be dealt with of have an action plan associated with them, at least being aware of their potential is half the battle. (For further reading, please consult the post: Project Risk Management)

Myth # 5. Never add scope once the project is underway

There are certain project managers that take a very firm stance when it comes to scope creep. In many cases, they will state that all features should be itemized up front and additional changes should not be sanctioned. For that reason, scope should not be added during a project’s implementation phase as it will be disruptive. Good idea in principle, bad idea in practice. It’s simply a fact of life that scope may need to be re-visited for any project. Design changes, market changes, resource changes and copious other factors will affect the scope of any project. Now while the project manager is meant to be the gatekeeper when it comes to scope changes, they should not be dealing in absolutes. Declining a change in scope can actually affect the project more than adding it would have, such as in cases where a key customer wanted a particular feature. And not receiving that feature caused them to go with another vendor. That is money lost for the company. So while being diligent about scope is important, some degree of latitude is always necessary.