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.


About tomtsongas
Versatile Program/Development Manager with 20 years of diverse background and experience in managing, defining, designing, developing and evangelizing advanced software applications that exceed customer expectations Current responsibilities include: - Coordinating and monitoring the scheduling and technical performance of company programs - Preparation of proposals, plans, specifications, and finalized requirements of various projects - Researching new opportunities and technologies - Ensuring adherence to master plans and schedules - Developing solutions to program problems - Directing work of incumbents assigned to program from various departments while also ensuring projects are completed on time and within budget - Acting as adviser to program teams regarding projects, tasks, and operations.

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