Friday the 13th was the day that I passed my PMP exam on the first try. I’d like to share my experience with you so that you know what to expect.
First and foremost, the PMP exam is supposed to be a very difficult one, says PMI and its affiliates. It is meant to test your knowledge and experience in project management. Personally, I used to see the PMP certification as a cult because of the way the Professional Development Units (PDU) can be obtained. You need to obtain 60 PDU’s at the end of every 3 years in order to maintain your PMP status. Each PDU translates to an hour of some sort of learning activity, whether it be through a webinar, presentation, or conference. But the fact that there can be so many different companies offering to sell these PDU’s makes it a bit suspicious. Granted, they sell you PDU’s by providing you with PMP-related content to watch and self-learn but I was hoping that PMI does not discriminate against individuals who do not have the free money to “buy” these PDU’s. Just to be fair, there are free PDU’s you can earn by being a PMI Chapter member (which by itself costs you some $$$) where you can attend locally-organized events to earn PDU’s for free (usually 1 PDU at a time).
Preparation for Exam
I submitted my application around Halloween and took the exam on 11/13, which makes it roughly 2 weeks. But before that I had gone through Rita’s Exam Prep book cover to cover once. I am a slow reader. In fact, I hate reading. This makes studying for the exam quite difficult since you actually need to study to understand. Some people online say that the exam is based on your PM experience. As a Project Manager who’s done the exam, that’s NOT the case. You really need to think the way PMI wants you to think. On top of that, you need to study the PMI-specific terminology and how each process group and knowledge area work together. The good thing is, even if you’ve never done any PM work, and you’ve never read a single PMP book, out of the four choices in each question, you should be able to eliminate two right away. Now, for the remaining two, even with a lot of studying, can both seem to be correct. This is in fact the case. A lot of questions have multiple acceptable answers, and you need to pick the “best” one. This is the difficult part.
Step-By-Step Study Guide
- Forget the PMBOK. I did not read this at all for the exam. This is not to say that I didn’t try. I did, and every time it took just about 5 minutes into reading before I fell asleep. Even though the bulk of the exam material come from this book, the way it’s written is extremely difficult to follow, so forget about it.
- Do read the Rita Exam Prep 9th edition (for exams based on the PMBOK guide 6th edition). You need to read it cover to cover at least once. This book pretty much turns the PMBOK into “story mode” so that you can actually understand and follow the logic. It gives you lots of real-world examples through on how to handle certain situations. It also provides a good number of practice exam questions at the end of each chapter. Let’s be clear, you will not pass the exam by reading this book alone. But after reading it at least once (even if you don’t remember or understand everything), when you start doing prep exams, that’s when everything starts to connect and make sense.
- For the exam simulation, I downloaded the “PMP Exam 2020” app on my iPhone. There’s a charge of $2.79 CAD per week, or $16.99 CAD for unlimited access. I found the pricing to be fair compared to the more famous PM Exam Simulator that costs $139 USD with no cheaper package. This app contains 3 sets of 20-question exams for each of the knowledge areas, plus 5 sets of complete exams (200 questions each). Don’t jump to the full exams quite yet though. Here’s the sequence on how you should do it.
- After reading the Rita guide at least once, you can do the 1st set of questions in each of the knowledge areas. The purpose is to give you a feel of the type of questions to expect. Disclaimer, you WILL feel depressed and frustrated because you likely failed every single one of them. But don’t be discouraged, this is normal. Again, this first set is your first chance to see how the exam questions might be asked.
- Obviously, after the first exam, you will need to review all of the questions that you did wrong and carefully read the explanation of each. This is a lot more important than reading any traditional material. This is the chance for you now to go back to the Rita guide to start filling in the blanks. This time go through it one chapter at a time. At this stage you should not need to read the materials with the same focus as before. You should only need to fill in the gaps you found during the prep tests. After each chapter, you will now do the 2nd set of the sectional questions. This time, things should start to make a bit more sense. You might still fail the exam. But this time when you read the answer explanation you would at least be able to understand why you chose a different answer. You’re now learning that the wording of the question greatly affects your approach to selecting the “best” answer.
- Repeat the above one more time and do the 3rd sectional exams. You might even repeat the first 2 exams to see if you “remember” what you’ve learned by reviewing the explanations for wrong answers.
- Complete the 5 full exams. You can do it once a day and review the incorrect answers carefully. After you’ve done the 5 full exams and understood the answers, by now you should be able to “pass” the exam even without doing anything else.
- From now on, you can look for other prep exams on Google. The more you do, the better you will score. Even though after the last step you should be able to pass the exam. By doing more prep exams, you give yourself more buffer against accidents, which could happen. In short, doing prep exams is probably the best way to help you pass the exam.
Tips & Tricks
- Read the questions very carefully. A lot of questions are written in a way designed to trick you. For instance, what’s the purpose of something vs what’s the key benefit, these are different! Asking you what you should do, and what you should’ve one, these are different! And depending on which process group you’re in (i.e. Planning vs Execution), your answer would be different. These seem rather obvious but while you do your prep exams, you will be surprised how many answers you could’ve gotten right had you read the question carefully.
- The PMP Exam 2020 iOS app referenced above, in my opinion, the questions are actually harder than the actual exam questions. As you go through the prep questions, you will find that it’s expecting you do simply memorize the PMBOK. Some explanations to the answers don’t even make perfect sense. The good news is, you should find the actual exam questions much easier to understand. Roughly 90% of the questions are situational where you are the PM, and you need to figure out what you should do, or should’ve done. The questions are much longer, but they will give you more context to allow you to understand what’s happening.
- There are a lot of PMP-specific terminology that you must memorize, and there’s no way around that. The good news is, once you’ve done so many prep exam questions, by reading the explanations to the answers, you should be able to build up this area.
- When you review the exam questions, you will start to pick up “keywords”. For example, when a question is on “Agile”, the possible answers usually include keywords such as: “predictive”, “time-box”, “prototype”, etc. When you see the phrase “how much money per meter”, or square-feet, the estimation technique should be “parametric”. Whereas if there exists reference projects, or that you don’t have much information, the estimation technique should be “analogous”. When you see the phrase about 2 variables, the answer would probably be “scatter diagram”. As you can see, after you pick up these keywords, this is how you can significantly speed up your progress.
- Don’t worry about the calculation questions. There should be no more than 5 on the exam that require you to calculate anything. For the ones that do, the numbers will usually be round numbers where you wouldn’t need to use a calculator. Reviewing the sample calculations in Rita should be more than sufficient. But on the network diagram, do remember to practice the forward pass and backward pass a couple of times just to make sure you can do it. Reading it from the book certainly makes sense. But when it comes time to do it yourself, you’d be surprised how you might feel a bit stuck.
- Here are some specific tips based on exam questions:
- The project sponsor approves the charter not you. Unless there’s something fundamentally wrong with the charter or the business case on which it is based, you rarely need to escalate something to the sponsor.
- Whenever there’s an issue, the “first” thing to do is usually to record it in the issue log. If it doesn’t say “first”, you must enter a change request before it’s processed through the Integrated Change Control process. In short, you never just make the change, at least for anything specifically related to the baselines and the Project Management Plan. An example to demonstrate the exception: for the Communication Plan, if the question says that an update is not required, then you can simply go ahead with the update without a change request.
- When there’s a problem, unless the question states the project MUST meet certain need (i.e. schedule), you don’t typically escalate, you need to “work it out”, either by meeting, negotiation, etc.
- Again, I can’t stress enough the importance to read the question carefully. If it says someone is doing an “inspection”, you know you’re in Monitoring & Control, and you’re in the Quality Management area, then of the choices, you can usually eliminate the ones from other process groups / knowledge areas.
- Sometimes you don’t even need to read the question to answer it. Let’s say of the 4 choices, 3 of them are data gathering techniques, and 1 is data representation, you know the odd one is the choice to pick. Or, if 3 of them are enterprise environment factors, and 1 is not, it becomes obvious.
I hope that you find this guide useful and I wish you the best for your PMP exam. Passing it on the first try is not as hard as you think. But of course, to do well you will need to invest a lot of time into studying the materials to make sure you minimize the knowledge gaps. Study hard!