PMP certification: How to ace the Project Management Professional exam

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.

PMP certification: How to ace the Project Management Professional exam
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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, as well as insights into the layout of the exam, the prerequisites, costs, and tips on how to ace the exam.

What is the 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 the stringent uniform standards imposed by PMI.

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 percent 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 exam standards

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.”

PMP exam content and 2018 changes

The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) Guide – Sixth Edition, released September 2017, has triggered some PMP exam changes. The changes take effective on March 26, 2018. If your exam is scheduled to be written prior to March 26, you will be writing the current version based on the PMBOK Guide – Fifth Edition; otherwise, be prepared for the new exam based on the sixth edition.

The exam material closely references the PMBOK Guide but is not a test of the guide itself. Primary PMBOK changes in the sixth edition include lexicon and terminology changes and closer linkage of process groups, tools, and techniques. Other changes include a chapter on the project manager’s role, including successfully leading projects, core competencies, and the types of experience and skills needed to be effective. Time Management has been renamed as Schedule Management, Human Resource Management has been renamed as Resource Management, and all areas now feature four new sections:

  • Key concepts
  • Trends and emerging practices
  • Tailoring considerations
  • Considerations for Agile/Adaptive environments

PMP certification process

You will first need to meet the “eligibility requirements” outlined below and apply for PMP certification through the PMI website. Supporting documentation is not needed during the application process, but you will be required to send supporting documents if your application is selected for a random audit.

PMP eligibility requirements for the PMP exam

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

Or:

  • 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 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.       

PMP application process

Once you have determined you meet the PMP exam eligibility requirements, you will need to complete the PMI’s online application form. Although the application is straightforward, some people find this step a bit tedious because it requires applicants to detail all of their project management experience. Gathering this information can be a project in itself and can take days if not weeks. The application will ask you for the following information:

  • Contact information (email, address, phone number)
  • Education (school attended, level of education attained, degree date)
  • Domain experience (details of the projects, programs, portfolios you’ve worked on including qualifying hours, dates of employment, role, organization details, reference, and experience summary)
  • Domain education (names of courses completed, institutions attended, dates, qualifying hours)

You have 90 days to complete your application from the moment you start filling it out, and you can save what you've written between sessions.

After submitting the online application, PMI will conduct a full review of your application to ensure it is complete. This process typically takes five business days. PMI will notify you if any additional information is required. 

Make sure to read and agree to PMI’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. When you tick this box, you agree to manage your projects according to very high standards going forward.

Once PMI confirms your application is complete, you can submit the application fee online. You will not be able to take the exam until the fee is paid.

Please note that PMI can conduct a random audit of your application and any submitted information at any time. PMI will contact you by email to let you know it performs an audit. The key is to be honest about everything on your application and make sure to contact any references or people noted on your application to let them know you are applying for the PMP and that they may be contacted to verify the information. Audits typically take five to seven business days.

The final step in the application process once you are cleared by PMI to proceed is to schedule your exam.

PMP certification cost

The cost for PMI members is $405 (U.S.). For non-members the exam costs $555 (U.S.).Where do I complete the exam?

PMP exams are administered by Prometric, a provider of testing services. You will need to schedule your exam on Prometric's website by locating the Prometric office nearest you and finding an available date that fits your schedule. Make sure to schedule your exam well in advance.

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 exam structure

The PMP exam is made up of 200 multiple choice questions, comprised of 25 pretest unscored questions and 175 scored questions broken down by phase as follows:

Exam section Percentage of the exam
Initiating 13 percent
Planning 24 percent
Executing 31 percent
Monitoring and controlling 25 percent
Closing 7 percent

Source: Project Management Professional (PMP) Exam Outline

For a closer look at the PMP exam, see the PMI’s “Project Management Professional Examination Content Outline.”

How you can prepare for the exam?

There are some steps you should follow to make sure you are sufficiently prepared for your PMP 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:
  5. Study the latest edition of the PMBOK Guide. Depending on the date you plan to write the exam, it may be the fifth or sixth edition, as noted above.

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 flash cards 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:

  • The first thing you should do to prepare is to develop study techniques or a process that works for you.
  • Break down the PMBOK chapters and sections over a period of six months and take your time focusing on key points to ensure material consolidates in your mind overnight. This allows the material to “stick” instead of just be committed to short-term memory.
  • Create a brain dump. This is a technique used to create your own personal mini reference table that includes abbreviations of components and concepts to help you commit content to memory. Make sure to 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 check list.
  • Do not try to do other things while studying.
  • Only study for 50-minute blocks and take a break completely away from the material for 10-minute spurts to give your mind and body a breather.
  • Determine your level of preparedness by testing 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.
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