How I Passed The PMP (So You Can Too)
To my pleasant surprise, I recently received the news that after several months of diligent preparation, my hard work had paid off in passing the PMP exam. I had my doubts along the way due to the intimidating PMP boot camp, the under performing pre-exam scores, and the balance to study between work, family, and other personal demands (Admittedly it was difficult to control my will power for going to the gym after work, playing fantasy football, and watching Netflix).
Starting From Scratch
So my prep started back in February 2017 when I enrolled in a week long boot camp which counted towards my 35 hours of project management education. Allegedly I was told you should schedule your PMP exam shortly after completing the course, but it seemed as though the instructor was breezing through the course material at warp speed while my brain was trying to keep up. I recall our class covering around a thousand slides in five days! Feeling overwhelmed, I thought no way was I ready to conquer this exam. However, as it’s pertinent in all project management activities, I needed to develop a game plan in studying for the exam. Fortunately, time was on my side in my preparation. My employer offered me a year to take a the exam since they were footing the bill.
Not knowing how to plan my strategy for studying, I decided to summarize all the slides that were given to me by hand writing all the important concepts, terms, and processes on notebook paper. At the time, I was making notes on about one knowledge area per week, and after several weeks my notepad was filled from front to back. Looking back at my notes just recently, these were brutal to comprehend and learn off of. How am I going to digest this material? I had received the PMBOK 5th edition, but was overconfident to think my notes and power point slides were enough to take me across the finish line. Not knowing what to do next, I decided to dedicate a month’s worth of taking practice exams that were given to me during my boot camp. This would serve as my baseline to give me an understanding of where I stand score-wise, in addition to know which processes and knowledge areas I need to focus my attention towards. The exams were tough. I believe after taking all of the exams given to me during the boot camp, it was estimated that my average exam score was around 50%.
Now what do I do? Admitting that my hand written notes was not going to cut it, I was better off typing my notes in MS Word. Rather than typing out my old notes verbatim, I decided to focus on the detailed answer sheets that were handed to me during the boot camp. These explanations were crafted in a way which would make it easy to learn and could referenced at any point. I felt these notes would benefit me over the long run. But there was still plenty of work for me to do to reach a comfort level where I can walk into the PMP exam and pass with flying colors. A recent PMP examiner at my company suggested to read the PMBOK from cover to cover to give me a taste of all the terminology and processes in a comprehensive fashion. Though I didn’t think this was a bad idea, this would mean pushing back my original hopes of taking the exam by the end of Summer. As mentioned a few paragraphs ago, time was on my side and my thoughts at this point were to consider all sources available that I could get my hands on. After speaking with educators in the field and reading numerous blog posts, you simply can’t just show up to the exam and pass with ease. Even though I didn’t exactly have the exact exam date planned out, there were certain requirements that I set for myself:
1. Read the PMBOK 5TH Edition entirely.
2. Take numerous practice exams.
3. Go back and review the knowledge areas that are giving me the most trouble in the PMBOK, as well as my notes.
4. Retake any practice exams that I had previous scored low on.
Now it was time to research and find the best PMP exam prep material that would assist with my studying. At the time, I was just looking for practice exam questions which would help:
1. Give me mental repetitions of how long I should be spending on each question. Am I taking around a minute on most questions or am I taking 2-3 minutes?
2. Give me an idea what some of the calculation questions will look like. That is, questions regarding earned value analysis, float time, and critical path.
3. Show me which knowledge areas I need to improve.
4. Improve my mental capacity in answer exam questions under duress.
So as I researched the best prep material on the market, some of the popular names that stood out were Rita Mulcahy's PMP Exam Prep 8th Edition & Kim Heldman’s PMP® Guide. There are numerous resources out there and some are better than others. In fact, here is an article that written in 2015 comparing Rita’s & Kim’s guides:
It basically comes down to what your needs are and the type of budget you’re on. If you’re trying to stretch a dollar, then you’ve come to the right place. In the end of I decided to go with Christopher Scordo’s PMP Exam Prep for it contained 1000’s of exam questions and explanations. You can find reviews and purchase the guide below:
Reading the reviews was interesting because much of the backlash were editorial and grammar mistakes in the explanations, but these were far few and in between in my opinion.
Before I dove in and starting taking all the exams in Christopher Scordo’s guide, I wanted to be fair to myself and read the entire PMBPOK. So throughout the entire month of July 2017, this is all I did. Even though I do try to read a book per month in my spare time, I would not consider myself a speed reader by any means. But if you stick with it, you should be able to read the PMBOK in a month. Since you’re really studying this book and not reading, I did have my highlighter(s) readily available and wrote in notes wherever necessary.
Once I absorbed the entire PMBOK like a sponge (sort of), it was time to move to Christopher Scordo’s exam guide starting in August 2017. This guide is structured in 18, 50 question increments, along with 11, 10 question quizzes. As a newbie taking exams at the time, I thought taking 50 question exams was fair starting point. As I got comfortable taking a 50 question exam in an hour (approximately a 1.2 minutes per question), I would move on to 75, 100, 100, 175 question practice exams. The 10 question quizzes were designated for each knowledge area which admittedly were less difficult than the practice exams. With all of this being said, this is how I scored taking each exam during the first run:
Mock Exam 1 68% Time Mgt 80%
Mock Exam 2 59% Human Resources Mgt 60%
Mock Exam 3 60% Project Framework 50%
Mock Exam 4 64% Risk Mgt 90%
Mock Exam 5 52% Scope Mgt 60%
Mock Exam 6 76% Quality Mgt 70%
Mock Exam 7 75% Stakeholder Mgt 80%
Mock Exam 8 64% Cost Mgt 70%
Mock Exam 9 66% Procurement Mgt 80%
Mock Exam 10 61% Integration Mgt 60%
Mock Exam 11 74% Communications Mgt 80%
Mock Exam 12 64%
Mock Exam 13 68%
Mock Exam 14 50%
Mock Exam 15 64%
Mock Exam 16 72%
Mock Exam 17 62%
Mock Exam 18 66%
Average Score: 65%
It’s All Mental
I didn’t knock it out of the park as you can see above, but in seeing the silver lining, I was able to get practice working under the pressure of a timer as well as see what areas needed improvement. Averaging 65% across the board isn’t going to get you a passing grade (allegedly), but there was still time and hope to correct my mistakes. Probably one of the biggest mistakes was not reading the question clearly. One word in the question could make a difference in a right or wrong answer. Knowing myself and reading blogs of recent test takers, my mental approach would be key in taking practice tests or the real exam. It would be critical that I:
• Be well-rested when answering exam questions.
o This is tough to do when you have four and five year old boys, as well as a full work schedule. My mind was racing constantly, especially in the middle of the night. Sleep was not my best friend.
• Have confidence. This comes through repetition and practice.
• Have a clear head, but be able to concentrate when reading the exam questions.
o Being well-rested helps promote this, but I can’t state it enough not to burn yourself out during exam prep. Pulling all-nighters days before your exam is not going to do you any favors. If after a few hours of studying and you reach the point of no returns, TAKE THE REST OF THE DAY OFF.
My Game Plan
Going forward, I made it a habit to study all exam answer explanations (even for the questions answered correctly) and referred back to the PMBOK for further clarification. Then anything worth referring back to would be included in my hand typed notes. Below would be my ongoing process for the months leading up to the exam:
1. Take practice exams.
2. Review answers.
3. Study explanations in PMBOK.
4. Update hand typed notes.
5. Repeat, repeat, repeat. After taking several mock exams, the three knowledge areas where I was struggling the most were the Procurement Management, Integration Management, & Communications Management.
For these areas, I would read the PMBOK chapters again as well as study exam-related questions. Now that I’ve gone through the run of practice exams through Christopher Scordo’s guide, I needed to know what other sources were out there which would benefit me in my prep. Since it is known that about 75% of the exam comes from the PMBOK, I needed to found where the other 25% can be obtained from. Some books that I came across which PMI will cover in the exam are:
• Project Management Jumpstart By Kim Heldman
• Project Management, A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling and Controlling By H. Kerzner
• The Project Manager’s MBA: How to Translate Project Decisions into Business Success By Dennis J. Cohen & Robert J. Graham
Lots of the guidelines in the PMBOK are shared in the books above, but there is still an abundance of information here which will serve you well in your project management career. Since my demanding scheduling did not allow me to read multiple project manage text books, I decided to expand my knowledge of project management by finding any online exams available and make notes of topics not covered in the PMBOK. There are many online exam options available, both for free and purchase. Fortunately you don’t have to search far for the free exams. But don’t look past the paid exams by any means. Most of these types of exams use simple analytics to pinpoint the process groups, knowledge areas, and specific processes you are scoring proficiently and those that need improvement.
So when I started researching exam resources, as anyone would do, I started with a google search to see what free resources are out there. One of the sites that drew my attention was www.edward-designer.com, which not only gives you a list of sites for free exams, but also a list of study tips, free resources, and study notes. I would certainly take advantage of this site. Edward Chung is a bright educator, as well as a working professional whom I refer back to his site from time to time for review.
For those who are on the go and have 5, 10, 15 minutes to spare at a time, an app you can download on your mobile device is PMPro which includes all earned value analysis formulas, dictionary, flash cards, all ITTO processes, as well as practice exams. There are a few free 50 question exams which are given, but the full 200 question exam costs $9.99 USD. In my opinion, the 200 question exam was much tougher than the 50 question quizzes. Some of the perks of using this app were the explanations for the correct answers were excellent and you can pause the exam at any point to resume at a later time.
Another method for convenient studying is taking several screen shots on your mobile device of charts that needed more attention in preparation such as decision tree analysis and power/interest grid with stakeholders. I would save these in my lock screen and wall paper then review them constantly until they were memorized with ease. Then I would move on to other topics to focus on.
Personally, I am into listening to podcasts, but unfortunately there are not a lot of options to choose from in the market. Many of the episodes in the Parallel Project Training podcasts are 5-10 minutes long and will give you a synopsis of PMP concepts. You will have to go through the episode feed to see which episodes are relevant to your studying. Another podcast worth checking out is Free Project Management Videos. These are in video format which simulates a classroom setting. The critical path overviews in these videos are excellent! The only downsides of these podcasts are the episode catalog is not directly related to PMP certification and the episodes are not updated on a frequent basis. Regardless, much of the PMP terminology has been unchanged going several years back.
At this point, my notes were nearing 70 pages which still made it accessible to track explanations and concepts which the PMBOK might not have covered. I’ll say this again: these notes were instrumental in passing the exam due to highlighting areas of emphasis. In addition, I created a reference sheet to focus on areas that were being repeatedly being mentioned in my exams. Note the page # in the PMBOK:
Fixed Price Contracts pg.362-363
Cost Reimbursable Contracts pg. 363-364
Earned Value Management pg. 224
7 Basic Quality Tools pg. 236-238
Design of Experiments pg. 239-240
Critical Path Method pg. 177
Cost of Quality pg. 235
These notes gave me the necessary repetition to focus on the areas where I was under performing. As September 2017 rolled around, I had reviewed and re-reviewed my under performing areas several times through Scordo’s exam material.
Moving forward, I decided to extend my test taking endurance from 50 to the 75 to 100 question range. To my surprise, taking additional questions under duress did not hurt my scores. This gave me slightly more confidence, but more importantly, made me hungrier than ever that failure of PMP exam would not be an option. For the trial exams I took, here were my scores after the initial run (starting in August 2017):
Oliver Lehmann – 75 questions: 52% (roughly)
Ed Wel – 75 questions: 76%
PM Prepcast – 120 questions: 62%
Head First Labs – 50 questions: 68%
Still wasn’t performing good enough to earn my certification (my goal was to score 80%), but I was still remaining optimistic due to my glass is half full nature. In my mind many of mistakes were correctable and there was still time for me to focus on my under performing areas. As mentioned before, I went through my 5 step process as mentioned on page 4. At this point I wanted to go ahead and schedule my exam so I could target a date and manage my studying as needed. I came to a point where the continuous studying did become mundane as I was looking forward to putting the exam behind me, regardless of pass or fail. As Summer had ended and Fall was on the horizon, my confirmed exam date would be October 31th, 2017.
The Final Countdown
Since I felt my base knowledge of the PMBOK was adequate, my game plan for the next five weeks was to:
1. Continue to take any exams I could get my hands on. It would be considered a bonus if these exams were at least two hour duration or 100 questions.
2. Re-take exams to measure my improvement over time.
3. Study my notes and the PMBOK to processes that were giving me trouble. By far the process group which was giving me the most trouble was Monitoring & Controlling.
4. Take a deeper dive into topics which were still unclear to me. I came across many of these such as positive vs. negative float, resource leveling vs. resource smoothing, the three different types of PMO’s.
My confidence continued to grow when I retook a few of Scordo’s exams, particularly the exams which I scored poorly the first time. See the improvements below:
1st Attempt 2nd Attempt
Mock Exam 5 52% 76%
Mock Exam 14 50% 72%
Mock Exam 18 66% 80%
• And for those wondering, my improvements weren’t based on memorizing specific answers on low-scoring questions, but by applying better logic between the question and given answers.
I also retook the practice online exams to measure my progress from the last few months and here’s how I performed:
1st Attempt 2nd Attempt
Head First Labs – 50 questions 68% 74% (90 question version)
Oliver Lehmann – 75 questions: 52% 69%
It’s All Mental
Over the last few months, I felt like my breadth of project management knowledge had expanded to levels which seemed impossible six months ago. Personally I was very proud of my improvement, but knew that moral victories were not going to get you PMP certified. I was honest with myself and thought it was basically a coin flip whether I would pass the exam or not. It was obvious to me what my strong and weak areas were. It was possible my final exam could resemble the mock exam where I scored 96% or the Oliver Lehmann exams where I initially scored 52%. At this point I could not leave any stone unturned and made it a priority that my weak areas were addressed and my strong areas did not lose ground.
A week leading up to the exam, I did some mental exercises by imagining some scenarios that I could come across during exam. This could be any of the following:
• What do I do if the exam is more challenging than expected and feel that several of the last questions answered are incorrect?
• What if my mind is racing (nervousness?) and my mental focus is preventing me from reading the questions clearly and completely?
• What if I’m cruising through the exam and feel a strong majority of my answers are correct, is this too good to be true? Should I go back and re-read some of the previous questions again?
• How many questions are too many to mark for review later and will I have time to review them all? • What should be my strategy if I’m in a time crunch and there are still many questions left unanswered?
Even if you didn’t pass the PMP exam the first time, I think it’s a great idea to imagine some worst case scenarios and draw up some contingency plans in overcoming these. Besides being proficient in project management standards, a large part in passing the PMP exam is psychological. Being bogged down by work and life demands can play a key role whether you’re ready to go on exam day.
One Last Push
Two days before exam day, I took Oliver Lehmann’s 175 question exam timed at 3 hours 30 minutes as my final warm-up. I wanted to get as close to the real exam experience as possible and knew from taking the 75 question exam version, Oliver Lehmann would show no mercy. In fact, reading various PMP blogs, many of them indicated Oliver Lehmann’s exam were tougher than the real exam. I thought this exam would humble me a bit, which would be preferred as opposed to walking into the exam over-confident. One of my biggest fears was expecting to “breeze” through the exam, then after the first 10 questions, seeing the dear in the headlights look on my face. I expect this is common for examinees unfortunately. Moving along, I proceeded with the 175 question exam. If my memory serves me correctly, I used about 2 pages of paper for notes, formulas, eliminating obvious incorrect answers for some questions, in addition to marking about 50 questions for review. I completed the 175 questions with 8 minutes left to review my marked questions, not a whole lot of time to review but there were 4-5 questions which I did change my answer. When finally tabulating my score after my 210 minutes ended, I ended up scoring 117 out of 175 questions correct = 67%. If curving this against the real exam, I was hoping this would be enough to successfully pass. As mentioned a few paragraphs ago, my confidence level in passing the exam was comparable to a coin flip.
The day before the final exam, I reviewed some most of my answers from the previous day but didn’t dive in too much. Honestly, I was still exhausted from answering 175 questions. It was best that I decompress by clearing my head and try to get a good night sleep. Tomorrow will be here sooner than you think.
All of the work that I had set aside for the last nine months had come down to this day. If planning had been better in the beginning, my studying could have probably been done in 3-4 months, but I digress. The anxiety of the exam left me restless that day, but I wasn’t going to let that dictate my performance. My studying in the morning wasn’t too rigorous, just reviewed my cheat sheet (mentioned back on page five). Just hours before driving out to the testing center, I did some relaxation techniques to clear my mind, drank some hot tea, and watched a little bit of television.
Scheduling my exam at 1 PM worked better for me since I don’t label myself as a morning person, but was early enough that my brain is somewhat fresh. I left my house about 90 minutes before exam time to give myself enough time to eat lunch and allow for any other circumstances (i.e. traffic, weather, GPS malfunctions, large meteor strike, zombie attack, etc.). Fortunately these became an non-issue.
When arriving at the testing center 12:26 PM, I signed in and took a seat in the waiting area. If you weren’t aware, you’re required to be at the testing center 30 minutes before your scheduled exam time. A few minutes later my name was called and I was given a locker to places my belongs. You’re not allowed to bring in your wallet, mobile devices, keys, or other belongs into the testing rooms which should come to no surprise. Next I was escorted to another room where I was patted down to ensure I wasn’t hiding anything that would give me an advantage on the exam. The staff gave me the check-in/check-out procedures, a couple of pencils, and some scratch paper. I had to request a calculator, otherwise, this would not have been given to me. When the staff showed me to my computer, I did a few pre-exam checks such as:
• Adjust my seat according to my liking.
• Move the computer monitor as close to me as possible to enhance my focus level for each question.
Maybe I got accustomed to studying with distractions at home, but one of the first things I felt grateful for would be four hours of exam time without any interruptions. As you probably know, the exam time to complete 200 questions is four hours, but you are allotted a 15 minute awareness session. You can use this time to get comfortable with your surroundings or play around with the functionality of the computerized exam. However, your best option is to dump all the information you have absorbed over time onto your scratch paper. For me, this included the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, all of the knowledge areas, the processes for time, scope, and risk management. In addition, I included the most important earned value analysis formulas, communication channels formula, and power/interest grid.
Now it was go time.
Grinding Through The Exam
When pressing the start button, the timer initiated, and I was focused and dialed in. The first ten questions covered mostly project management framework and integration management, nothing too strenuous or any brain teasers. I was able to read the questions clearly and completely with ease so far, which even though seemed small, was a key win for me. Now the key was to sustain this for the four hour duration. Even though I’d answered the initial questions unscathed, I did mark some questions for review just to play it safe. I stayed the course and marked questions for review as needed and made sure I stayed roughly within the minute fifteen second window for each question. Of course you can’t receive your scoring during the exam, but my bullish projection had me scoring at least 70% of the questions correct. Pretty good, but still had a long ways to go. Most of the earned value analysis questions were very straight forward, simple algebra that you learned in grade school. There were a few critical path questions, nothing too complicated, although there was more wording than needed. It seemed much of the exam was focused on Monitoring & Controlling. Make sure you’re comfortable with the processes that occur before and after a change request is approved. This applies within knowledge areas such of procurement management, scope management, and human resources management. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. There were many ITTO questions even though the level of difficulty was low to medium, meaning for each of these questions, there were two or three answers you could presumably eliminate.
Every 20-30 questions, I would take a step back and breathe in and out slowly to clear my head. At the 100 question mark, I needed a brief change of scenery to grab some water. Since the testing center is designed like Fort Knox, I had to sign out, sign back in, and show ID to leave the testing room. So now that I am half way done, it was time to buckle up and keep my foot on the gas pedal metaphorically speaking. I was thinking with all the hard work and sacrifices made over the last several months, do I really want to come back to the testing center to retake the PMP? Of course not!!!! Time to put my effort in overdrive.
The second half of the exam, I continued to work through the exam similar to a runner who was grinding out a marathon. Questions were marked which I was unsure of, mostly around the Monitoring and Controlling processes. At this point, I got the impression about 85% of the exam came straight from the PMBOK. The other 15% were more common sense questions which came from tribal knowledge. Luckily, I didn’t run across many questions outside the PMBOK like constrained optimization or Journey to Abilene theory.
As it’s natural for fatigue to set in at some point, the last third of the exam it was taking me longer to answer the questions. Not that the questions were necessarily tougher, but my mental stamina was starting to wear thin. For what I was hoping to have 40 minutes or so to review my marked questions, I would probably only have 25 minutes to spare. However, this was better than not having any time at all for review. I had probably marked 50 questions for review once it was all said and done. I was at least relieved the entire exam had been answered, which was a moral victory in itself. Most of my questions were marked during the first third portion of the exam, not sure why, maybe lower confidence or fear of the unknown. Since I only had 20 or so minutes to re-check 50 questions, time was not on my side. It turned out that I got to only review about 25 of these questions, maybe 8 of these I had changed my answer. With only 10 seconds left, I went ahead and submitted my exam. The four exam time had completed.
Right when I submitted the exam for evaluation, many thoughts were racing through my head. First off, I was proud of myself for giving my best effort in completing this challenging exam. Many people could have given up after the boot camp, while reading the PMBOK, or taking practice exams, but I stayed the course and showed perseverance during my studies. I compare it to the football coach who practices his team to death during the week, where the games on Saturday or Sunday are a cake walk. Not that the final exam was a cake walk, but it could have been more challenging honestly. Many examinees will say this is the most stressful exam they have even taken and they’re correct to a certain degree.
Before receiving your score, you’re asked to take a survey which asks about your test experience and the testing center itself. I was thinking, “well that depends on whether I pass or fail, right?” But I decided to avoid such bias and answer honestly. So when submitting the survey, I received my highly anticipated exam score and it read:
Congratulations! You have successfully passed the PMP exam!
Not sure if those were the exact words, but seeing “Congratulations” was all I needed to know. A huge, relieved smile was shown on my flushed cheeks as if I had just completed a 20 hour heart transplant operation. In reality I knew the PMP certification was not going to turn a mediocre project manager into an exceptional one over night, but this was still a huge milestone for my career. The most immediate benefit would be the time given back to me to focus back on my family and career. Even weeks later, I still smile at my framed PMP certificate that is hanging in my cubicle.
Saying What I Just Said
I know reading this is somewhat long winded, but at this point you should have a pretty good idea of what it takes to pass the PMP on your first, second, or dare I say third try. Some of this might sound cliché, but hopefully there are some tactics you can use no matter where you are in your PMP journey. More importantly though, hopefully I drove some inspiration for those on the fence on whether to pursue the certification or not. The exam is passable, but you have to put in the work, no question about it. In closing, here’s a list of tips that can help you in your preparation:
• Spending 2 hours per day during the week and 3-4 hours per day during the weekend should be sufficient to cover all PMP-related topics. However, I would begin your studying no later than 3 months before your planned exam date. Depending on your proficiency, this should be an average. Some might need more, some less.
• If you’re one of the fortunate ones that studying for the PMP exam is their full time job, it is probably not wise to spend every waking moment reading the PMBOK and taking practice exams. Taking breaks to digest the information naturally is more healthy long term. However, there are people who are used to cramming at the 11th hour and can perform exceptionally under pressure. Those balancing a full-time job and providing for their family, I would shoot for two hours a day during the week and use the weekends to dedicate for practice exams which take longer than an hour. Enjoy the journey.
• When taking practice exams, measure your progress to ensure you’re ready come exam time. If you’re averaging around 55% on your exams, you probably needs a couple of months to study and review your lacking areas. Consistently scoring 70% to 80% should make you feel pretty good. Also, be aware of the processes and knowledge areas where you’re under performing. Take time to re-read the PMBOK and review the exam questions focused on these areas.
• I won’t go back into the details on mental preparation, but during exam time, having a positive and up-beat attitude makes a difference rather than being Debbie Downer for four hours. Make sure your life demands are put aside leading up to the exam, which may mean giving your manager, spouse, or those in your inner circle your aspirations for being PMP certified. If these people are on your side, they will give you their support.
Well that’s about it. Let me know what you think of this write-up or if I can guide you in your PMP journey. Anything regarding tips, tactics, or that extra drive of motivation that you’re looking for. You can contact me on LinkedIn or my email at email@example.com. I enjoy freelance writing about professional development and other random stuff, so stay tuned for other fun things in the near future.