Lessons Learned – Passing the PMP Exam

Having recently passed the PMP exam, I thought I’d offer a Lessons Learned based on my experience. I passed the PMP certification exam the first time (with Above Target in all domains), but before I was able to sit for the exam, my application was audited and I failed my application audit twice. Based on this experience, I have some tips to pass along that might help you successfully pass your certification exam.  I also have some tips on filling out the PMP application based on my failing an audit (twice!) – if you’d like tips on completing your PMP application, read this article too.

Tip 1: Study with a group.

Several co-workers and I scheduled and participated in an on-site PMP certification course at work.  Out of that group, three of us decided to sit for the PMP certification.  For me, this was critical – having a group to study with helped keep me accountable for studying, helped increase my understanding of questions and concepts I got wrong on test questions, and kept me engaged in the material.  We would often make time for talking about how what we were studying applied to situations at work, which both helped keep me engaged and helped me start practicing with scenario-based application of the PMP concepts.

If you don’t have the luxury of studying with a group, find an online social network dedicated to studying for the PMP and use it.  One I personally found to be useful is the LinkedIn group called I want to be a PMP®.

Tip 2: Set a date, and schedule the exam.

For me, setting an exam date was crucial – I could easily study forever, never thinking I was prepared enough to pass the exam.  As a group, we agreed on a range of dates; each of us scheduled our exam dates based on when we felt ready.  It helped that the March 26 2018 exam change looming – the exam changed to reflect a new PMBOK version, and we wanted to take the exam before that happened.

Scheduling the exam can be tricky – you don’t want to schedule too early, as you run the risk of paying a fee to reschedule.  What worked for me was to treat it like a project milestone.  I took a couple practice exams as a baseline, then estimated how long it would take to bring my comfort with the material up to exam readiness and used that as a guide for scheduling the exam.  Of course, that estimate ended up getting blasted away by an application audit, but more on that later…

Tip 3: Focus on the skills for passing the PMP exam, not the skills for managing projects.

If I had to distill my exam experience into three bullet points, it would be this:

  • Think like you own the project.
  • Practice reading exam questions carefully – sitting for a certification exam requires a discrete skillset. Learn how to read the questions, learn the common traps, learn how to quickly recognize obviously wrong answers, learn how to discriminate between answers that sound similar.  You are learning how to pass the PMP certification exam, not how to manage projects.
  • Know the flow of processes and ITTOs – don’t memorize Inputs, Tools/Techniques and Outputs; rather, study and become familiar with the flow of the PMP framework.  Three specific flows I focused on were changes, data/information/reports, and deliverables.
Tip 4: Use a combination of study aids.

I tried a lot of different study aids, and the ones I ended up using all focused on the those three points.  The study aids that were most helpful for me were:

  • Rita Mulcahy’s PMP Exam Prep book.  I read this book twice – once to get the concepts, and a second time after taking some practice exams to hone my understanding and do the book exercises.  Make sure you get the most updated version.
  • Mobile Apps. There are several Android and iOS applications dedicated to studying for the PMP exam. After trying several iOS apps, the ones I used the most are the PMP ITTO GamePMP Exam Prep, and PMP Exam Mentor.  I viewed Exam Prep and Exam Mentor not as practice exams, but more as flashcard-type apps – in other words, successfully passing the questions in those apps would indicate I was retaining the PMP information, not that I would perform well on the actual exam.
  • Practice Questions.  Wow, are there a lot of free and paid resources out there for practice PMP exam questions.  A bank of questions came with our PMP Certification course, and I didn’t pay for any additional ones.  I did use a lot of free exam questions.  The ones I feel like helped prepare me the best are the:
  • Free videos. There are a surprising amount of videos and podcasts focused on studying for the PMP certification exam. The two I found to be most helpful were:
  • My own flashcards. I’m very strongly a kinesthetic learner (more on that later), so I created my own set of flashcards – I listed a process on the front, then the inputs and outputs on the back. As I studied, I updated these cards to include graphs and charts, diagrams, anything that helped reinforce the ITTOs and how each process is used in the context of the overall framework.
Tip 5: Use the PMP practice exam questions carefully.

Practice exam questions are not a good indicator of whether you will be successful when you take the PMP certification exam – instead, they are excellent indicators of how well you are retaining the information, how well you are reading the questions and eliminating answers, and guideposts for what you need to spend more time studying.  Use the exam questions as a readiness indicator of how comfortable you feel with the information, not as a way of trying to predict how well you’ll do on the actual certification exam.

Tip 6a: Pay attention to how you learn, and leverage your learning style.

We all know about those learning styles – I learned there were four, apparently now there’s seven.  Knowing how you naturally absorb information is important to setting up your exam preparation.  I know I’m primarily a kinesthetic learner – I have to do things in order to learn them.  I can’t listen to instructions, I can’t read instructions – I have to try something out first, before I really understand it. Knowing this, I designed my studying around physically doing things:

  • I took LOTS of exam questions.  This may not sound kinesthetic, but it is – practicing to take the exam is important.  I even scheduled my time in such a way that I took a 4-hr, 200-question exam, just to get a sense for how it would feel to be engaged with a test for that long.
  • I wrote out my own flashcards.  The act of making the cards, then taking notes and drawing diagrams on the cards, was more valuable to me than just flipping through them as a memorization tool.
  • I took notes. When I missed exam questions, I categorized them and wrote out why I missed them. When I missed the same questions again, I wrote more complete definitions and descriptions of the concepts I wasn’t getting.  The more notes I wrote and diagrams I drew, the more familiar with the content I became.

Of course, you’ll need to design your studying around your own learning style and what works best for you. There are tons of free resources out there, from YouTube videos to websites with charts to podcasts and more, that will help you reinforce whatever learning style you need to emphasize.

Tip 6b: Don’t ignore the other learning styles.

Even though I have a preference for kinesthetic learning, I didn’t use that learning style exclusively.  I personally found that anything I did to keep myself in a “headspace” of thinking about the PMP exam was useful – even if I wasn’t learning a concept or taking a practice exam, it was still valuable to be listening to a podcast about the PMP certification exam or project management in general.  Anything that kept my brain consciously or sub-consciously focused on project management seemed to help me maintain an engagement with the material I was studying.  Listening to the YouTube videos I listed above or a project management podcast would keep my mind engaged in project management in general; using the iOS apps on my iPhone during short moments of downtime kept my mind engaged in re-remembering concepts.

Tip 7: Use your last two weeks wisely.

I spent several weeks studying for the PMP, and kept improving my study habits as I went.  My last two weeks however, I stopped my normal routine and established a new routine to include:

  • Reading the PMBOK guide and taking notes.  Now that I had a good sense of the concepts I was having a hard time grasping, I re-read the PMBOK and took notes on anything that felt new or not comfortable.  For instance, I was having a hard time understanding the difference between Perform Quality Assurance and Control Quality, so I spent a significant amount of time ensuring I understood the difference.
  • Using my flashcards as I read the PMBOK guide. I began drawing charts and diagrams on the cards themselves to help remember key concepts – for example, drawing a Power/Interest grid on the Identify Stakeholders chart helped me remember not only when that chart is used, but the four quadrants as well.
  • Short bursts of focused exam prep questions. By now, I had taken two 4-hr 200-question exam prep sessions.  In my final two weeks, I focused on short bursts of 10- or 20-question sets, and mostly focused on concepts still not comfortable to me. This reinforced the PMBOK reading.
  • The final day before the exam, I reviewed my notes and flashcards and continued taking short bursts of exam questions.  Some people prefer to take their final day off – I personally felt the need to keep up my intensity.

You may have a different routine you want to use for your final two weeks – the point is, listen to your self and what your gut tells you to focus on for your final weeks heading into the exam.  You may need to establish a completely different routine to ensure you develop comfort with those concepts you’re still struggling with, or to reduce anxiety you may have with taking a 4-hour exam.

Hopefully these tips help you establish your own study routine and lead you to successfully passing the PMP certification exam.  Have a tip or resource that helped you and wasn’t mentioned above, or a question about the article? Please leave a comment – we want to hear about your successes!

2 thoughts on “Lessons Learned – Passing the PMP Exam”

    • Hi Michael, and thanks! I passed on March 13 – I scheduled my exam with enough time that I could re-take the PMP exam once before it changed to the 6th edition, just in case I needed to take it one more time…

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: