by Moira Alexander

PMP certification: How to ace the Project Management Professional exam

Dec 30, 2020
CareersCertificationsIT Skills

Approximately two out of five people fail their first attempt at the PMP exam. The following overview of the PMP certification will help you ace the exam on your first try.

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Preparing for the Project Management Professional (PMP) exam can be challenging. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), project professionals spend on average more than 35 hours preparing for the PMP exam. Even this amount of preparation is no guarantee that you will pass on the first try.

Following are details about the PMP certification and why it is so valuable and insights into the layout of the exam, the prerequisites, costs, and tips on how to ace the exam.

PMP certification

The PMP certification by the Project Management Institute (PMI) is the most industry-recognized certification for project managers. Project managers who earn the PMP certification meet global project management standards and are connected to other PMPs worldwide. PMPs bring formalized training and tested knowledge that provides employers with peace of mind, knowing that their project managers are held to PMI’s stringent uniform standards.

PMP certification cost

The cost for PMI members is $405 (U.S.). For non-members the exam costs $555 (U.S.). You have one year to take your test, and you can take the exam two more times should you not pass it the first time.

PMP certification requirements

There are two possible sets of requirements for the PMP exam:

  • Secondary degree (high school diploma, associate’s degree or the global equivalent)
  • 7,500 hours leading and directing projects
  • 35 hours of project management education


  • Four-year degree
  • 4,500 hours leading and directing projects
  • 35 hours of project management education

Project management experience hours are the number of hours an applicant spent leading and directing project management-related tasks. Applicants do not have to have been a project manager but must have played a significant role in the portion of the project in which he or she was involved and must have led or directed project tasks.

It is important to note that you are not required to be a PMI Member to apply for and take the PMP exam, but there are some financial benefits to becoming a member, including:

  • A significant discount on the PMP exam application fee that is greater than what it costs to become a PMI member
  • A free PDF of the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) Guide to help you prepare for the exam

Many local PMI chapters also offer discounts on their PMP exam prep workshops to PMI members.      

How to get PMP certification

If you meet the PMP exam eligibility requirements, complete the PMI’s online application form within 90 days. PMI will conduct a full review of your application to ensure it is complete and notify you if any additional information is required. Once PMI confirms your application is complete, you can submit the application fee online. Then the final step in the application process is to schedule your exam.

PMP certification exam

According to the PMI, the PMP certification is aligned “with certification industry best practices, such as those found in the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. The PMP credential is also accredited against the internationally recognized ISO 17024 standards.”

The PMP exam is made up of 200 multiple-choice questions, comprising 25 pretest unscored questions and 175 scored questions broken down by phase. Studying the latest edition of the PMBOK Guide is essential to pass the exam.

PMP salaries

The PMP certification offers a rewarding career, greater flexibility, potential for growth, and a salary boost. In fact, PMP salaries are on average 20% higher than those of uncertified project management professionals, according to PMI’s ninth edition salary survey.

To find out more about project management pay, see “Project management salaries: Talent gap reveals long-term growth.”

PMP certification training

PMI provides a list of approved training providers, previously called the Registered Education Provider (R.E.P.) Program. In January 2021, it will be replaced with the PMI Authorized Training Partner Program in all regions except China. Individuals can find authorized project management training partners by searching PMI’s database. Groups can request distance and face-to-face training and request training using PMI’s Training Request for Proposal (RFP) Form. PMI Authorized Training Partner Program ensures all partners meet all of the necessary requirements, including the following:

  • Training shows demonstrated alignment with PMI standards.
  • Partners are pre-approved by PMI to offer PDUs.
  • Qualifications are verified before acceptance and every three years after that

     through PMI’s quality review process.

  • Every project management course registered with PMI is reviewed by an appropriate and valid PMI credential holder.
  • The focus of courses and learning outcomes is verified.

PMP certification courses

PMI also lists searchable courses and upcoming on-demand webinars. In addition to PMI, there are other providers of project management PMP exam training and courses, including these free project management training courses. Not all providers are PMI authorized, so it’s important to do your homework on these or other providers before signing up and paying for training courses. Also, pay attention to whether courses are available virtually anywhere as some may require physical attendance, which may not be an option for you.

How you can prepare for the exam

PMI offers these suggestions to ensure you have adequately prepared for the exam.

  1. Thoroughly go through the PMP handbook that PMI says “objectively assesses and measures experience, education, and professional knowledge—the foundation of competent practice as a project manager.”
  2. Review the current PMP exam content outline
  3. Become familiar with the PMP sample questions
  4. Take a formal study course. Here are just a few PMP certification prep options: PMI chapters or PMI accredited Registered Education Providers (REPs); PMP PrepCast exam simulators; iTunes and Android PMP exam prep apps are also a great way to study on the go.
  5. Study the latest edition of the PMBOK Guide.

It’s important to establish a daily study schedule to help you keep on track, as this greatly enhances your chances of passing the PMP exam. Set aside study time on your calendar for each day, and organize your study materials so that they are ready to go when you are. You should also set weekly study goals that are reasonable, taking into account the amount of material you hope to cover each week, and select a suitable location to study. Studying in a place where you feel energized and can concentrate is critical to your success.

It’s also worthwhile getting support from your family, friends, and co-workers. Make sure they understand why becoming PMP-certified is so important to you and why you need to devote some time away from household or social obligations to prepare for the exam.

PMP exam preparation resources

There are numerous other resources available to help you prepare for the PMP exam. Because everyone has different preferences for learning, here are several options to explore:

The PMBOK Guide: Some people pass the exam using this essential resource alone. While you can use it in conjunction with other materials, exam prep books, prep courses, and workshops, it is a must-have to be successful.

PMP exam prep books: Prep books strive to explain the PMBOK Guide in plain English, systematically take you through its concepts, provide you tips about what to expect, and may also offer some sample questions.

PMP exam prep workshops: If you prefer a classroom setting and need one-on-one interaction, this is a good option. It is important to confirm that your instructor is PMP-certified and that the presentations are based on the current PMBOK Guide and current exam.

Online PMP exam prep workshops: This option tends to be less expensive than in-person workshops. Some online prep courses may be self-paced and others may be a bootcamp style that delivers content at a very rapid pace.

Downloadable PMP exam prep videocasts: PMP exam prep videocasts are portable, powerful learning tools that reinforce concepts from the PMBOK Guide through audio-visual training. You can download them to a mobile device so that you can study on the go.

Online PMP exam simulators: These practice exams help you get a feel for the exam setup and environment. They present you with the same style of questions you’ll find on the PMP exam so you can get comfortable with the pressure and timing associated with the exam.

Flash cards: Flash cards are tried, tested, portable, and cost-effective. You can create your own or purchase them. The benefit of using flashcards is that you can have someone test you on them. They work well if you know someone who is also studying for the exam and you both want to test one another on the material.

Tips for acing the PMP exam on the first try

In addition to taking PMI’s advice for studying, the following tactics will help make sure you are amply prepared to pass the exam on your first try:

  • Develop study techniques or a process that works for you.
  • Break down PMBOK chapters and sections to cover over a period of six months. Focus on key points to ensure material consolidates in your mind overnight, ensuring it “sticks” instead of just being committed to short-term memory.
  • Create a brain dump. Put together your own personal mini reference table that includes abbreviations of components and concepts to help you commit content to memory. Factor in at least these things: formulas; values, such as 1, 2 and 3 sigma and estimate ranges; acronyms; powers of a project manager; conflict resolution and sources of conflict; motivators; project closing checklist.
  • Do not try to do other things while studying.
  • Only study for 50-minute blocks and take a break for 10-minute spurts to give your mind and body a breather.
  • Test yourself of these types of questions.
    • Situational questions: Lengthy questions that test your ability to identify the relevant and ignore irrelevant content.
    • Formula-based questions: These questions test you on the many PMP formulas as well as how to perform the calculations.
    • Knowledge-based questions: Questions that require you to know the PMBOK Guide facts.
    • Interpretational questions: These are questions that test your ability to deduce a situation or condition.
    • Specific technique questions: Questions like these cover a tool or technique and ask you to provide information on various elements.

Maintaining your PMP credentials

Qualifying for the PMP and preparing for the exam can be time-consuming but well worth the effort. But passing the exam is only the beginning. PMI requires certification holders to follow PMI’s “Continuing Certification Requirements (CCR) program and earn professional development units (PDUs).” This amounts to paying the annual membership renewal fee, and earning and reporting 60 PDUs every three years.

There are many ways to earn free PDUs and hundreds of resources that offer them. One of the most rewarding ways is to earn free PDUs is by volunteering at your local PMI chapter. Another great way to earn free PDUs is by listening to project management-related podcasts.

Make sure that you read about the five categories of PDUs as outlined in the PMP Credential Handbook. There are some limits on the number of PDUs you can claim from each category.

Documenting your PDUs

You can document your PDUs online using PMI’s Continuing Credential Requirements System (CCRS).

PMI offers a PMP Credentials Handbook as well as additional information on how to maintain your certification and how to earn and report PDUs to help you remain in good standing.

Three years may seem like a long time, but it will pass in the blink of an eye. Don’t wait until year three to start accumulating PDUs. Once you’ve earned your PMP certification, set out a three-year plan to accumulate your PDUs consistently over the next 36 months.