Taking the PMP examAs a PMP (Project Management Professional) certified project manager, I often get asked by other project managers (or by others who are interested in getting into the field of project management) what the PMP examination is like, how difficult it is to pass, and how I prepared for it.

Even outside the field of project management, the PMP examination has an almost mythical status – many people that I’ve talked to who work in Information Technology or other project management-heavy fields have heard from friends or co-workers about the many challenges involved with applying to, studying for and taking the PMP examination – but don’t worry; in reality, it really isn’t all that difficult!

While it is indeed a worthy challenge to pass the PMP exam, with some hard work and proper preparation it is an achievable goal. Below are the methods that I used to prepare for and pass the PMP exam on my first attempt.

1. Study a variety of different sources

While preparing for the PMP examination, I consulted a variety of different sources. Below are three of the texts that I personally studied during my PMP exam preparation time; I’m not indicating that these are necessarily the best PMP references by any means – I do not have enough familiarity with the other PMP resources to be able to make that call. What I can tell you is that they seemed to work well for me.

The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK)

The Project Management Body of Knowledge, or PMBOK (pronounced pimbok), is the official source of information for the project management framework managed by the Project Management Institute (PMI). As the PMP examination is based on the information contained in this book, the PMBOK is an essential read when studying for the PMP exam.

Unfortunately, the Project Management Body of Knowledge is rather dry… you might need to down a few coffees during study sessions with this weighty textbook. Also, although the various process groups and knowledge areas are each explained in full detail in the book (with process inputs, outputs, and tools and techniques clearly identified where applicable), PMI’s illustrations of important process flows can be somewhat hard to figure out, and the book is laid out more like a reference manual (its primary purpose) than a teaching tool.

The PMBOK also does not cover all of the information that you will need to learn to pass the PMP exam; some concepts that are tested in the PMP examination (ethics being one) are not covered in detail in the PMBOK. As such, in order to study properly for the exam, you’ll need to consult secondary sources.

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

The PMP Exam: How to Pass on Your First Try by Andy Crowe of Velociteach is a good, basic introduction to the PMI process areas and knowledge groups. In this book Andy lays out the PMI processes in an easy-to-understand manner, and the way he presents the logical flow of the combined processes is more comprehensible than the manner used in the PMBOK.

Andy’s book also features a variety of practice exam questions; however, I found them to be relatively simple, and not up to the level of difficulty that is found on the actual PMP exam. As such, if you find that you are acing the questions in this book, do not assume that you will perform similarly well on the actual examination.

PMP Exam Prep by Rita Mulcahy

PMP Exam Prep: Eighth Edition by the late Rita Mulcahy is probably the best known of all PMP exam preparation textbooks. Rita goes into a great deal of detail when describing the various processes found within the PMI framework. In fact, one of the drawbacks to this book is that it is extremely wordy (and at times perhaps even a bit preachy), and will take you a long time to study. However, the time spent studying this book is time well spent, as Rita will bring to you a thorough understanding of what the PMP exam is all about. She also introduces the concept of PMI-isms; areas that PMI exam creators tend to focus on when creating PMP examination questions that you should understand and focus on when studying for the PMP exam.

Whereas Andy Crowe’s book’s questions are much simpler than those found in the actual PMP exam, Rita’s book features many challenging sample questions that are comparable to those you might find on the exam itself. As such, to get a good idea of what the PMP exam questions will be like when you are taking the actual examination, this is a good book to consult.

Studying all three sources

If I were to study all three of these books in preparation for the PMP examination (which in fact I did), I would recommend that you study them in the following order:

  • First: The PMP Exam: How to Pass on Your First Try (a solid introduction to PMI’s framework)
  • Second: The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) (a must-read that you might find be easier to digest after perusing Andy Crowe’s book)
  • Third: PMP Exam Prep (for a comprehensive understanding of the material, featuring realistic example examination questions)

2. Memorize the PMI processes and Earned Value formulas

Each of PMI’s processes contain one or more of the following:

  • Inputs
  • Tools and Techniques
  • Outputs

These are often referred to as the PMI ITTO (or ITTOs), and if you’re studying for the PMP exam, you will likely spend a great deal of time poring over these. You will discover that some processes are inputs for some processes and outputs for other processes; other processes do not seem to fit together with the rest of the processes very well, and need to be understood as somewhat separate from the others. Confusing, yes – but much easier to understand if you diagram the PMI process flows.

While preparing for the PMP examination I used rote memorization to get two pages’ worth of important information into my head. The first page showed a flowchart of the PMI processes, with arrows indicating how one process might be an output for another process, and an input for a third. The second page had a list of the important Earned Value formulas that you will need to know for the PMP exam: PERT, Cost and Schedule Variance, Net Present Value, and the To Complete Performance Index, among others.

On exam day, when I arrived at the Prometric testing center and sat down beside the computer terminal to take the PMP exam, the first thing I did was write out all of the PMP process flows and important Earned Value formulas onto a blank piece of paper (both blank paper and pencils were provided to by the Prometric testing staff). This is a perfectly legal and in fact recommended way to approach taking the PMP exam – perform a brain dump of all the important information you’re going to need to know for the exam right as the exam starts, and then consult this brain dump throughout the examination. I highly recommend this approach!

3. Answer as many sample exam questions as possible

The PMP examination is a standardized test, and therefore you should familiarize yourself with how to approach it and the sorts of questions it will contain. The best way to do this is to answer a whole bunch of sample questions that are comparable to the questions you will face when you take the actual exam.

Most PMP exam preparation books (and courses) provide sample questions for you to answer; some books provide more realistic questions than others. Even if you only study one or two PMP exam preparation books thoroughly, it’s not a bad idea to hit your local library or bookstore, take a variety of PMP exam prep books off the shelf, and answer a selection of sample questions from each one. Doing this will give you an understanding of how prepared you are for the actual PMP examination, and will show you in which areas you may be lacking knowledge and should allocate further study time.

Is it necessary to take a PMP exam preparation course?

A lot of people may tell you that it’s important to take a PMP certification course before you sit for the PMP exam, and in fact a great many people use a PMP certification boot camp course as their required education hours when applying to take the exam. I personally do not believe that a PMP boot camp course is necessary for passing the PMP exam; my own project management education hours that I used to prove eligibility for the PMP exam came from project management education outside of the realm of PMI’s framework. I found that by studying textbooks and diagramming process flows to come to a thorough understanding of the PMI process groups and knowledge areas, and by taking a series of practice examinations, it was relatively easy for me to pass the test itself.

All that being said, if you’re the sort of person that learns best by taking courses in a classroom setting, you should certainly look into taking a PMP exam prep course. Also note that you do have to have 35 hours of formal project management education in order to apply to take the PMP exam; it just doesn’t necessarily have to be in the form of a course teaching PMI-related project management material.

Preparing for the PMP exam

I hope that I’ve given you some good advice for how to prepare for – and pass! – the PMP examination. If you have any further questions about the test itself or about how to succeed on it, please let me know. I’d be glad to offer whatever advice I can.