How to pass the #PMP or #CAPM exam on your first try—6 elements of success


I passed the project management certification exam on Tuesday, and I am talking to our study group this weekend about my overall impressions of how the exam went. However, in thinking about what I found helpful in the past months of preparing for the exam, I realized that there six elements which stood out as crucial to my successfully passing the exam on the first try.

1. Study Plan

I decided to treat studying for the project management certification exam as a project in and of itself and that meant starting off by creating a test study plan. I knew that I was enrolled in a class, and I knew that I wanted to have a chance to not only learn the material, but also to review it.  At the end of this review period, I would practice the exam and see if I was ready for it, and if so, to register for it and take it as soon as possible. That was my general plan.

After I received the textbook in the class and formed a study group, we chose a supplemental exam prep textbook, the one by Rita Mulcahy (there were other study groups who chose different textbooks). Then that gave me a more specific list of things to do for each chapter, which included the following

  • Read PMBOK® Guide chapter
  • Read corresponding textbook chapter
  • Make flashcards of PM terminology introduced in chapter
  • Attend class on PMBOK® Guide chapter
  • Attend study group session to discuss end-of-chapter review questions from textbook
  • Take practice exams for knowledge area covered in chapter (success means 80% or more)

So I then had a matrix of all the knowledge areas (corresponding to chapters in PMBOK® guide) and the various tasks to be done for each chapter. I then figured out how many weeks each phase (class, review, overall practice exams, registration, test) would take.   Having this plan meant I knew the estimated end date of when I should take the exam (end of September).    Halfway through the review period, I registered for the exam and that helped spur me on to complete the review and practice-test phase of my plan.

2. Class

You could study for the PMP on your own using the Rita Mulcahy or other PMP exam prep textbook, but a classroom is an environment where you can ask questions from an experienced instructor in the field of project management. Also, the discussions based on questions people will be posing to the instructor will be instructive in and of themselves. Whether they are voicing questions you yourself had or whether they are voicing questions you never would have thought of on your own, they will reinforce the material in your mind.

3. Exam Prep Textbook

The class discussed in the paragraph above consisted of handouts by the teacher plus some sort of PMP exam prep textbook.  However, it may be best to get an exam prep book that will give you a framework to understand the material, exercises to help you practice what you’ve learned, and end-of-chapter review questions to help you test what you’ve learned.  So I recommend getting a supplemental PMP exam prep textbook and using that either as the basis of your own study at home, or, even better, with a study group.

4. Study Group

You increase your chances of success when you have a study group—I don’t have any empirical studies to back this up, but in the case of a weight loss program called Transformation, Bill Phillips noted that those who participated in a support group were likely to lose more than twice much weight as those who tried to go it alone.

With the PMP exam prep, there were two reasons why the study group was: first of all, it was helpful to discuss the end-of-chapter review questions as a group. Many people discussed related how the material in the chapter impacted their own experience in working on projects for their companies in the real world. So it helps reinforce learning of the material to get other people’s perspectives on it.

The second reason a study group is helpful is that the exam IS difficult, and it helps to have psychological support in attempting something that is stretching you to the limit of your abilities.

5. Flashcards

Even if you do have a study group, the bulk of your studying will be spent on your own, and this is where I recommend flashcards for learning PM terminology and, in particular, the PM processes. I can’t tell you about specific exam questions I encountered on the test, but I can tell you that questions about the PM processes comprised one of the largest group of questions on the test overall. These were questions on the processes, their inputs, tools & techniques, and outputs. Flashcards are indispensable for putting these processes together in your head in a 5 X 9 matrix of process groups and knowledge areas.

They can be used in conjunction with study groups to, let’s say, shuffle the flashcards that contain processes, lay them out on a table and have people reconstruct their correct order.

6. Practice Exams

Although answering the end-of-chapter review questions was certainly helpful, in particular in conjunction with discussions at our study group, I found it helpful for my confidence level to purchase software that gave simulated tests. Again, I chose the Rita Mulcahy version of that type of practice exam software, and found it was helpful because it not only allowed you to practice answering exam questions by knowledge area and process group, but it allowed you to review answering questions on a particular topic, like “Earned Value Analysis.”

I took tests on each knowledge area until I scored 80% or better in each area, and in the final two weeks before my exam, I took practice exams that were full simulations of the final test. I did three of them, and scored 90% or better on the overall exam. I knew I was ready, and therefore could relax the rest of the weekend and the day before the exam.

Looking back on the exam, these were the elements that helped make sure I was prepared to take and pass the exam the first time around!

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