by Cornelius Fichtner, PMP

How to Prepare for the PMP Exam Part 5: Study Tips and Techniques

Nov 15, 2010
CareersCertificationsProject Management Tools

The amount of material you need to master to pass the PMP certification exam may see overwhelming, but it's possible to accomplish provided you follow a simple, four-step process for studying for the exam.

Studying for the exam toward PMP certification requires a tremendous amount of time and diligence. This is not a test you can pass by “cramming” with one overnight study session. I know many project managers who have devoted two hours a day for three months toward studying for the PMP exam. I am one of them.

If you are established in your career, it may have been years since you last had to study for any kind of a test, let alone one as rigorous as the PMP exam, and your study skills may be rusty. Fear not: It is possible to master all of the material required to earn PMP certification; you just need to take a systematic approach toward studying for the exam. In this article, I’ll give you an effective, step-by-step process to follow, as well as study tips and techniques.

Editor’s Note: Given the interest in project management certification, and PMP expert Cornelius Fichtner have prepared a series of how-to articles designed to help interested parties prepare for the PMP exam. This article is the fifth in the series.

Four-Step Study Process

I recommend applying the following basic study process to preparing for the PMP exam.

1. Survey: At the beginning of each of your study sessions, survey the material you’re supposed to cover. Review all the charts, graphs and headings in both A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) and your prep book. Familiarity with the topics you need to cover will give you a better “map” of where to find specific concepts in the books, both for your initial study and later review. It will also make it easier for you to put the information into a sensible order that you can more easily retrieve from your memory.

2. Motivation: Identify your motivation: What do you want to learn from the day’s material? If your particular PMP preparation material has recap questions or study goals, read them first. If you are reading the PMBOK Guide, create your own questions.

3. Read: Don’t start reading until you have a set of questions in mind pertaining to what you want to learn. This transforms you from a passive reader to an active researcher, which is particularly helpful while you are studying the very dry PMBOK Guide.

4. Disengage: People tend to best remember the first and last elements of any study session. Make the most of this fact by breaking up your study sessions into smaller chunks. For example, if you’ve set aside two hours to study, do so in four, 30-minute increments, with short breaks between each increment. Periodically disengaging from your studies makes it easier to recall what you studied. I also recommend disengaging at a point in your reading that you find particularly interesting. Doing so will make picking up where you left off that much more inviting.

Tips and Techniques for Studying the PMBOK Guide

Since the PMP exam is based largely on the PMBOK Guide, use the structure of the Guide as your roadmap for your studies.

Plan on studying one PMBOK Guide Knowledge Area each week. First study it in the Guide itself, then study the same topic in all of your other study materials . This will increase your comprehension because the other study materials will present the same concepts from different angles.

You can further break down your studies of the PMBOK Guide Knowledge Areas by studying one Process from each week’s Knowledge Area every day. Doing so gives you a clear daily and weekly focus and allows your studies to progress at a reasonable and achievable rate.

It is not enough to simply read the study materials. Go through everything with focus and concentration. Internalizing each concept is critical because the PMP exam consists of 200 questions that will test how well you apply the principles and ideas found in the PMBOK Guide. Many questions are situational descriptions of a problem. These situations contain enough information to arrive at the best answer, but they also include irrelevant information to purposely throw you off course.

If you don’t adequately study the principles of the PMBOK Guide, you will be unable to identify the concepts illustrated in the exam questions. You may also find it particularly difficult to determine exactly what is being asked and what information is applicable to the answer.

Since the PMBOK Guide can be so boring, you may need some extra help staying motivated to study. To that end, I recommend keeping a log file or a burn-down chart. These visual representations of your progress show you where you are on your path. Seeing your progress—and the distance from where you are to where you need to go getting smaller and smaller—will keep up your morale and motivation.

One last suggestion: Once you have studied the PMBOK Guide a first time, you must study it a second and possibly even a third time. You will understand it much better the second time, and it actually gets easier to read. It is so important to know how to apply PMBOK Guide concepts because the PMP exam questions test your ability to recognize situations and apply the right concept.

In my next article, I will give you tips on how to use PMP exam sample questions in your preparation.

Cornelius Fichtner, PMP, is a noted project management expert with nearly 20 years of project management experience in various industries. He has helped over 11,000 students to study for their PMP Certification with The Project Management PrepCast, a downloadable and portable exam prep video workshop. A former PMI Chapter president, Fichtner is currently an active volunteer in his local PMI chapter and a member of PMI’s New Media Council. He is also the host of the Project Management Podcast and the PDU Podcast.