7 Helpful Tips for Successfully Passing the #PMP Exam (Updated)

Last Saturday I completed a 7-week course put on by the Orange County chapter of the Project Management Institute that helps prepare those taking the course to pass the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification exam. The course went over the material in the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (or PMBOK® Guide for short), and was supplemented by PowerPoint presentations on each of the knowledge areas covered by the various instructors, additional supplemental materials on some areas, and a PMP Exam Prep book called Achieve PMP Exam Success by Margaret Chu, Diane Altwies, and Janice Preston.

There were several study groups arranged by various members of the class that met during the class, and I organized one of them myself. Based on my observations of our study group, my conversations with those who led other study groups, and my experience of the exam prep class, I have come up with 7 tips to help those who are studying for the PMP exam or those who are contemplating taking the exam sometime in the future. Some of them may seem obvious, so I hope no one’s intelligence is too insulted as the list is read through. Other items may seem controversial, but remember this is based on my own observation as a student and not a seasoned veteran (i.e., someone who has passed the exam) or instructor.

Here goes:

1. Join a class

You can purchase a PMP Exam prep guide and study on your own, but joining a class will give you three important elements to help you pass the exam: 1) access to instructors to whom you can direct questions, 2) fellow students whom you can interact with during class and in study groups, and 3) a regular schedule so that you force yourself to take time out of your busy schedule to focus on the material in the PMBOK® Guide.

2. Form a study/accountability group

In the same way that a truly well-integrated team can come up with solutions that the individuals may not have come up with by themselves, studying in a group can help when you get stuck with understanding a certain concept because there will be times when others are stuck and you just happen to know the answer. It will also act as an accountability group that forces you to prepare the material ahead of time in order to contribute to the group. This, like joining a class, is a way of disciplining yourself to go through the material systematically.

3. Supplement your class textbook with one another Exam Prep Guide

Your class will most likely use the PMBOK® guide as a centerpiece of the instruction, but will have either its own textbook or collection of presentations that the different knowledge areas covered by the Guide.  Our group got a supplemental guide in addition to the Achieve PMP Exam Success  guide we used in class for the end-of-chapter review questions.   That book was the

PMP Exam Prep, Seventh Edition: Rita’s Course in a Book for Passing the PMP Exam by Rita Mulcahy

 Others I have heard used in other study groups are:

PMP Project Management Professional Exam Study Guide by Kim Heldman 


The PMP Exam: How to Pass on Your First Try, Fourth Edition by Andy Crowe

Your study group may decide on a different text, but the important thing is that you ALL USE THE SAME GUIDE.

The reason why these exam guides are helpful are because they a) review the same material you receive in class in a unique way, b) give exercises to practice these concepts, and c) have review questions which test whether you’ve really understood the material relating to each knowledge area.

However, a word of caution: don’t try to use more than 2 guides or to have everyone use a different guide in your group. There is so much material to cover that having to go through yet another guide’s explanations, exercises, and questions may give you diminishing returns, or as I like to term it, “increasing marginal futility”.

4. Data dump

You are not allowed to carry ANYTHING with you to the actual exam, so in the first 15 minutes you get at your testing station before the exam starts, you are given a few sheets of paper and a writing instrument for you to scribble some notes. USE THIS TIME to put down the 42 project management processes that are divided into 5 process groups and 9 knowledge areas by

a) drawing a 5 x 9 grid,

b) putting labels on top of the 5 vertical columns for the process groups: Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring & Controlling, and Closing,

c) putting labels on the left of the 9 horizontal rows for the knowledge areas: Integration, Scope, Time, Cost, Quality, Human Resources, Communications, Risk, Procurement, and d) filling in the 42 process groups in the correct “cells” of the grid based on the scheme shown on p. 43 of the PMBOK® Guide (4th edition).

On the flip side of that same sheet of paper, put the formulas that you need to remember.

The purpose of this is so that you will not forget the formulas during the “heat of battle” of taking the exam. If you study the process groups by constantly referring to the grid on p. 43, you will find that re-creating such a grid on your own before the exam starts will not only give you quick reference to the groups, but will help you recall the other elements associated with those groups, such as the inputs, tools & techniques, and outputs.

You need to practice this beforehand until you get it down to 10 minutes.

5. Flip charts and drawing boards

If you are able to study in a library that has a chalkboard or whiteboard, use it to work out various practice exercises or to make notes on concepts. Sometimes a concept that is fuzzy on paper can be made much clearer if you try to draw a diagram, a table, chart, or some other form of visually representing the information.

If you are at someone’s home, as our study group often was, you can bring a flip chart for the same effect. If you meet a coffeehouse or restaurant, just a simple pad of paper will do. But having everybody visually be able to refer to the same drawing, no matter where it is drawn or on how big a surface, helps tremendously in the brainstorming sessions you have in your study group.

6. Create a Study Plan

Planning is essential to any project, and your success in studying for the PMP exam may similarly hinge on you treating it as a project in and of itself. You need to figure out the end date, or the date you plan on taking the exam, and work out how much material you need to review in X number of weeks. Our class for example took the 12 chapters of the PMBOK® Guide (9 knowledge areas and the 3 introductory chapters on the Overview, Framework, and Processes) and studied it in 7 weeks. If the material is new to you, you may take as much as 7 weeks for your review after the class is done. If the material is familiar to you, you may review concurrently and cumulatively so that you are ready to take the exam right after the class is done. In fact, we just heard from one enterprising class member who took the exam on the Monday after our Saturday class was done—and passed!

Once you have how much material you need to study within a certain number of weeks, for example, 2 chapters of the PMBOK ® guide per week, then you need to do the following for each chapter:

1. Read PMBOK® guide thoroughly

2. Make flashcards for glossary terms used in chapter

3. Review flashcards (between 3 and 5 times)

4. Review PMP Exam Prep guide material

5. Do PMP Exam Prep guide exercises

6. Read PMBOK® guide AGAIN (skimming this time is OK)

7. Do PMP Exam Prep guide practice exam questions (either those printed in the guide at end of chapter or those that come from CD-ROM which accompanies the guide)

8. Go over practice exam questions—note WHY you got them wrong and review sections of PMBOK® guide for clarification

9. If practice exam score for chapter > 80%, go on to next chapter

10. If practice exam score for chapter < 80%, redo review (steps 1-9) until you get 80% or over.

Make an Excel spreadsheet or grid of each of these 10 steps times each of the PMBOK ®

Guide chapters PLUS the Professional Responsibility material which is not in the PMBOK ® Guide but can be obtained from the Project Management Institute. Creating this grid and realistically figuring out how much time you can devote to studying for the PMP exam (your own personal resource allocation) will give you a realistic study schedule.

Once you have the knowledge areas reviewed, you will want to take the full practice exams that contain 200 questions like the real exam will. One place that was recommended for this full practice exam review was Exam Central, which you can register for and join for free at www.examcentral.net.

If you get 80% or over on one full practice exam, you need to schedule your test as soon as possible. Once your registration for the exam is accepted, and you have paid the fee for the exam, you are then directed to make an appointment at Prometric or some other testing facility. Please be aware that it may take up to a few weeks to get an open appointment date.

However, you do it, make sure that the time from the point where you are prepared (80% on practice exams) and the time you take the test is as short as possible.

Don’t be pressured by others who are taking it more quickly than you do, but on the other hand don’t put it off indefinitely into the future. Picking an end date and actually registering for the exam are two different things.

7.  Study by candlelight (UPDATED)

“WHAT?”, you may be asking.  This is a quirky exam tip but I am including it because I have used it to pass other certification exams than the PMP.   It was given to me by a female instructor and she said that if you are studying at home, try studying while you have a scented candle lit.  Obviously you should not ruin your eyes and try to study ONLY by candlelight, but the candle you should have lit next to your study area should be a scented one.  I was EXTREMELY skeptical of this at first, but she said that many people who are studying at home are studying after a long day at work and are physically exhausted. Studying at home before sleeping is good, but how to motivate oneself can be a problem when you are fitting it into your already hectic schedule.

A scented candle does the following:

a) it associates a pleasant, stimulating smell with studying so your brain is more likely to pay attention and absorb the material,

b) through olfactory memory, whenever you light a scented candle in the future, your mind knows that it is time to study, and you spend less time “settling down” to study,

c) you can take some sort of object with the scent on it (a cinnamon stick, for example, if you have been using a cinnamon-scented candle) and put it in your belongings that you must put in your locker. If your mind gets stuck on a problem, take a physical break (however, remember that the exam clock is always ticking) every half-hour or so, go to your locker and take a smell of the scent. You will be amazed at how much of your memories that were imprinted while you smelled that scent during your studies will come back to you.

UPDATE:   I just heard from someone who passed the test at the end of June (the Monday after our prep class ended) that you are NOT ALLOWED to return to your locker during the breaks.   So unless you have some sort of cologne that smells like the scented candle, you can only use your olfactory memory BEFORE the exam starts.   But hey, if it got you in the mood to study for the exam, it will put you in the same frame of mind before you actually enter the exam room.

I can tell you from personal experience that I actually tried this and it worked—not for the PMP exam, but for the CPCU (Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter) certification. It was a difficult exam, several hours long and an essay exam rather than multiple-choice. I went through the exam, and was going to review those questions that stumped me the first time around. I went to the washroom, splashed water on my face, and went to the locker where I had my little cinnamon stick stashed.

By the time I got back to the testing area, I went through the unanswered questions and got all but 2 of them in the second pass.  Now I don’t know how much of that memory refreshment came from the cold water on my face and how much came from the cinnamon stick I held in my locker, but I can tell you that the scented candles made studying so much more pleasant that it helped me study for longer than I could have otherwise.

And, if you study before you go to sleep, your unconscious works on the material while you are sleeping, so sometimes you can look at problems the next day and suddenly understand the solution based on the processing that went on “under the radar”, so to speak.

Well, those are my 7 tips for success. Most are probably common sense (except for #7), but I wanted to tell you these come from empirical observation of several study groups that have met during the course of our exam prep class. Let me know in the comment section if you find anything else helpful for those studying for the PMP Exam!

And to those of you who are either going to taking the exam or are contemplating taking it, YOU CAN DO IT TOO!

4 Responses

  1. Thank you for your sage advice. Congratulations on passing your exam.

  2. […] “Joining a class will give you three important elements… 1) access to instructors… 2) fellow students… 3) regular schedule” – 4squareviews.com […]

  3. Your 7 tips for PMP exam is very useful and insightful! Thanks a lot for the sharing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: