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How Can a PMP Study Plan Help You Pass the Exam?

by Kate Eby on Mar 22, 2017

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It is critical to go into any test prepared. This is never more true than when you’re planning to take the Project Management Professional (PMP) Certification Exam. The Project Management Institute (PMI), the certifying body for the credential of PMP, is known for not releasing certain details about the professionals who take the PMP exam, including the pass and fail rates and the score that qualifies as passing the exam. However, some test preparation companies such as PMStudy and Project Management Academy have run studies with a sample of people who have taken the exam. They companies state that only between 50 and 60 percent of people pass the exam on their first try, and the passing score ranges anywhere from 61-65, depending on the year. If this is accurate, then the PMP is one of the most difficult tests available for professionals to pass. Creating a study plan that you can follow - in the same way that you follow a project plan - is the best way to ensure that you pass.

In the following guide, you will find information about the PMP Exam, what it is, and who takes it. We compare it to the CAPM exam, and cover best practices for studying for the PMP, including identifying what goes into your study plan as well as expert tips. We’ll also cover how to study for various preparation timeframes, including accelerated and “normal” paces. We provide some matrices that you can complete with the appropriate dates for your study plan. Finally, we discuss the main topics you’ll see on the PMP exam and give you a list of resources for choosing your materials.

What Is the Project Management Professional Exam?

The PMP credential from the PMI is considered the highest-level credential project managers can earn. The test for this credential, based upon A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), is widely considered one of the most difficult and intensive continuing education professional tests. The credential is valid for five years, and you can maintain it by providing 60 hours of professional development units (PDUs) every three years. If the continuing education is kept up, you never need to take the exam again.

The PMI states that the PMP certification is the “gold standard” in the project management industry, having been aligned with industry best practices and accredited against the ISO/IEC 17024 standard. According to their Project Management Salary Survey, people with the credential reap about 20 percent higher salaries on average than those without the certification.

To take the PMP Exam, there are some basic eligibility requirements. You must have the equivalent of a high school diploma and five years of professional project management experience, or the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree and three years of professional project management experience. Both require 35 contact hours of formal education. You can gain contact hours through online or classroom courses; the courses can be about anything project management-related, such as a class in Microsoft Project software.

Then, you must apply to take the PMP exam. The application asks for proof that you meet the eligibility requirements, such as a record of the projects that you have led by the number of months, and what specific contact hours of instruction that you took. These courses may be audited, so the Institute recommends you keep a record of the course materials. Additionally, if the PMI decides to audit your entire application, you’ll need to submit copies of your diploma(s) and signatures from your project supervisor(s).

The PMI changes the PMP exam based on a Role Delineation Study (RDS) that they commission every five to seven years. They do this to ensure that the exam is current with the real-world changes in the project management profession. The latest version of the exam was released on January 12, 2016. However, the PMI notes that the most current version of their Examination Content Outline is from June 2015. The PMI also released some details about the exam, including number of test questions, and the proportion of those that come from each domain. Further, they acknowledge that time given for the exam is four hours, without any delineated breaks.

Depending on your test location, you may take the exam on a computer or on paper. It has 200 multiple choice questions across five domains. 25 of the 200 questions are not scored, but you will not know which questions don’t count. The domains tested include tasks and elements of knowledge and skill. The knowledge and skills are not necessarily distinct per domain, as many cross-over. Examples of knowledge and skills include benefit analysis techniques, communication planning, quality standard tools, process analysis tools, and transition planning. The five domains are:

1. Initiating: Thirteen percent of the questions come from this domain. It tests eight tasks and five elements of knowledge and skill. This domain gets your projects off the ground. The tasks include:

  • Performing a project assessment 
  • Identifying key deliverables 
  • Performing a stakeholder analysis
  • Identifying high-level risks 
  • Assumptions and constraints 
  • Helping with a project charter 
  • Getting project charter approval 
  • Conducting a benefit analysis
  • Methods to inform stakeholders of an approved project charter

2. Planning: Twenty-four percent of the exam questions come from this domain, with 13 tasks and 17 elements of knowledge and skill. This domain is all about planning for success with the details. The tasks include:

  • Reviewing and assessing the project requirements
  • Developing a scope management plan
  • Developing a cost management plan
  • Developing a project schedule
  • Developing a human resources plan
  • Developing a communications plan
  • Developing a procurement plan
  • Developing a quality plan
  • Developing a change management plan
  • Developing a risk plan
  • Getting your stakeholders in on your planning
  • Project kick-off
  • Developing a stakeholder plan

3. Executing: Thirty-one percent of your exam is from this domain, and it has seven tasks and seven elements of knowledge and skill. This domain takes all your plans from the previous domain and puts them into practice. The tasks include:

  • Getting and managing your project resources
  • Managing the project tasks
  • Putting the quality plan into action
  • Applying changes and corrective actions
  • Putting the risk management plan into action
  • Communicating with stakeholders
  • Sustaining stakeholder relationships

4. Monitoring and Controlling: Twenty-five percent of the PMP exam is about this domain. It has seven tasks and is associated with 10 knowledge and skill elements. Many of the formulas that you learned for this exam are put into practice here. This domain includes:

  • Measuring project performance
  • Using your change management plan
  • Checking that you are meeting your quality plan
  • Monitoring and assessing risk
  • Using your issue log
  • Starting to put together your lessons learned
  • Analyzing your procurement plan

5. Closing: Seven percent of your exam is on closing out your projects. This domain has seven tasks and eight elements of knowledge and skill, and concentrates on:

  • Final project deliverables
  • Transferring deliverables to stakeholders
  • Closing out all of the financial, legal, and administrative aspects
  • The final report
  • Assembling lessons learned
  • Archiving all of the project documentation
  • Getting feedback on the whole project from your stakeholders

Comparing the PMP with the CAPM

Another credential to earn is the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM). This credential is an entry-level qualification for project managers with less experience (than those taking the PMP) to show they understand the principles of project management. It is also based on the PMBOK® Guide and is valid for five years; however, the professional must sit for another exam if they want to renew the credential. No PDU’s are required. To be eligible to take the CAPM, you must have the equivalent of a high school diploma and 1,500 hours of professional project team experience, or the equivalent of a high school diploma and 23 contact hours of formal education. The application is similar to the PMP exam in that if you are audited, you’ll need to prove your credentials.

The CAPM exam is three hours and has 135 scored questions covering 10 domains of project management concepts. The difference between the CAPM and the PMP exam is the depth of the examination. The CAPM is said to be much more conceptually straightforward than the PMP, which requires a more in-depth understanding of the material, with real-world scenarios. Some experts say that the PMP is meant for project management leaders, while the CAPM is suitable for project management team members. For example, the PMP has a section on professional and social responsibility that the CAPM does not. The CAPM is a good idea for professionals who want to earn more responsibility in project management or manage larger projects.

Best Practices for Developing a PMP Study Plan

Everyone who has successfully passed the PMP recommends that you create your own study plan. The PMP exam is meant to gauge your understanding of the PMBOK concepts using practical examples, so it is critical that you understand the principles and can apply them. Creating a study plan allows you to focus on your weak areas and make the most efficient use of your time. Further, creating a study plan is like managing your own project: your study plan must determine what exactly you will study, what timeframe you will need and use, and how you will delineate the domains. Here are some tips for developing your own study plan:  

  • Use the Most Recent Version of the PMBOK® Guide: The exam changes every three to five years and the PMI is always trying out new questions (with the 25 unscored). This means that studying old guides or information is useless. It is critical that you read this book from cover to cover - not only is the material different every three to five years, but on-the-job training is not enough to teach you all the concepts that it contains. Lastly, the guide teaches you relationships between the inputs, tool, techniques, and outputs (ITTOs).
  • Figure Out How You Learn: If you are ready to study for this exam, you have some idea how to study. But do you know the best way for you? Some people are visual learners, some are auditory learners, and still some are kinesthetic learners. Some people mix and match these methods depending on what they are learning and need to do with the knowledge. The main sensory receiver that you gravitate toward can make your studies more effective and help with retention. You can take a simple quiz at EducationPlanner.org to find out how you like to learn. There are many resources tailored to each style of learning, such as books, videos, flashcards, and in-person classes.
  • Develop Your Study Plan: Seize the opportunity to treat your studies like a project that you are managing. A plan will help you stick to a schedule. Mastery of each of the five domains becomes a phase in the project; a gap analysis helps you identify your knowledge strengths and weaknesses. Practice quizzes become your measure of progress and evaluation. Just like with a project plan, you should:
    • Set a time frame
    • Get materials
    • Set reasonable goals (For example, use a burndown chart to track. A burndown chart represents the work left versus the time remaining on a project.)
    • Benchmark performance with an initial practice test
    • Regularly analyze your performance
    • Celebrate progress
    • Communicate with your stakeholders (family and friends)
  • Define Your Schedule: Just like with projects, you’ll want to design and implement a schedule to study, measure progress, and achieve milestones. For you, does a realistic schedule mean studying daily for 60 minutes or for two eight-hour days per week? Research by Linda Wong shows that a daily study habit is better than large separate blocks on the weekends. Ultimately, being realistic and flexible with your schedule - understanding that life will happen - but trying to stick closely to it will help you succeed.
  • Study the Glossary and Memorize the Terms: PMI indicates that people often fail the PMP exam because they do not understand the basic vocabulary found in the glossary of the Guide. Not only are the terms necessary to pass the exam, but they are a daily function of project management - so practice the terms and repeat. For more information, see The Complete Glossary of Project Management Terminology.
  • Get a Partner: Finding another like-minded person is a key to a successful exam outcome. Many prep courses and online forums offer message boards or opportunities to meet other people doing the same prep. Study groups enable you to sound out the concepts, ask each other questions, and share tips.
  • Take Good Notes: Continuously update your notes as you find new facts and concepts. Many people use more than one study guide, so combining the material and checking your comprehension is a great way to catch nuances that one guide may not supply. Additionally, many people online recommend doing what they call a “brain dump” at the beginning of the exam. This is writing down everything critical for taking the exam: formulas, facts, and certain concepts. This way, you will not have to struggle to recall the formulas when you are trying to apply them. Further, when your brain is fresh these are much more accessible.
  • Other Materials (Other Than The PMBOK® Guide): Although the Guide provides the definitive material that is on the test, it is not an exhaustive book that explains PMP concepts. The book presents some of the materials at a high-level, but you will need extra study materials to fully understand them. There are many books available for study, and some courses even provide guides to help complete your knowledge picture. You’ll find more books in the Additional PMP Study Materials section of this guide. For more obscure questions, you can always scour the Internet.
  • Take the Practice Exams: Many practice exams and simulators are available. You can use simulators for free for a limited number of exams, and pay for more. As a part of your study strategy, practice exams will indicate your progress, and perhaps provide some of the most useful exam prep.
  • The Exam - Timetable and Tips: Prepare and practice your timetable for the exam well in advance of taking the test. You should understand that the exam is not grouped systematically by domain; rather, the questions are organized randomly. Therefore, you should go through the exam once to answer the easy questions first. In an economy of time, mark questions that either don’t seem simple at first blush or that you don’t immediately know the answer to. Next, address the more in-depth questions that require more time or effort to answer. Finally, review any outstanding questions, ensure you’ve answered all questions, and check any answers you felt unsure about. Answer every question - even if you are uncertain about the answer.
  • Use a Study Plan Template: The expression about not reinventing the wheel is appropriate when considering how to study for the PMP. As thousands of people have successfully passed the PMP exam, learning from their materials, guides and experience can only benefit you. Perform a search of other students’ PMP study plan templates. When you find one you like, adjust the plan based upon your own needs. Further, look for other students’ tips and advice - the more current, the better!
  • Use Classroom Sessions Judiciously: If you are going to take a classroom session in your training, consider recording the session for future studying, as there may be concepts that you missed the first time around. Try to take courses that focus on your weak areas so you can get the extra attention you need.
  • Make Examples of the Concepts: In order to make a higher-level concept stick in your mind, always apply a real-life example to it. If you do not have a ready example, make one up that is appropriate or feasible in your work-life. The test is all about the application of the concepts, not the verbatim definitions.
  • Consider Online Training Courses: Online courses have historically suffered a bad reputation for being mills that pass students in and out without any personal touch. These days, however, the online courses have blackboards, online video meetings, and many other communication options if any of the material is out of your immediate reach. They can also work with your demanding schedule, and also provide the external accountability that some students need to be successful.
  • Join (or Start!) a Study Group: No study group in your area? Start one - even if your group is online or a party of two. It will give you the accountability and structure that you may need, and the ability to bounce your ideas and understanding off another vested person.
  • Cautions: The following are warnings about exam day for best performance:
    • Show up to the test early, after locating the testing center the day before
    • Get enough sleep the night prior
    • Take enough time in your planning process so that you are not cramming before the exam
    • Eat well the morning of the test, and bring snacks and water to the exam
  • More Tips: These are additional tips gleaned from around the web:
    • Once you reach a practice test score of 60, seek out more challenging, intensive materials to test your knowledge.
    • Look for test preps that score based on the knowledge areas or domains. That way you can concentrate on the areas that are particularly sticky for you.
    • After you reach a threshold of 80, time yourself for a four-hour block exam.
    • Strive for a score of at least 85.

 

Sarah Meerschaert, a Project Manager with CenTrak Development earned her PMP in January 2017 says:

“I began preparing in October of 2016. I started by speaking with other PMP certified professionals. Based on their recommendations, I found a boot camp class that came with a whole host of excellent resources! I fully read the textbook they offered cover to cover, three times - paying special attention to the glossary. I read the PMBOK guide once. I watched the online video class offered by the course, but didn't find it too helpful. I did find the in-person class extremely helpful. During my class I took a number of short quizzes and full-length practice exams. They also taught me how to create mind maps which I could practice drawing on my own. The class offered audio CDs that I listened to for several weeks during my commute. Based on YouTube videos, I memorized all 47 processes as well as all inputs and outputs as well as a full formula sheet. 

“Honestly, I over-prepared, but it paid off because I passed on my first try! For those studying, I would recommend they treat it like a part-time role, devoting a few hours each day. Much like a language, emersion is very helpful! While a boot camp course is the best way to go, a retreat long weekend spent with textbooks and online resources is also useful. Leading up to that weekend, memorize inputs/outputs, process, and a formula sheet. Since these concepts are fresh in my mind, I now offer my service as a tutor for those in the greater Philadelphia and Princeton areas preparing for the PMP.”

 

Ken Ashe, a Project a Manager at Prudential Financial says:

“I passed the PMP exam in October 2015. I passed on the first try by studying a lot. It’s that simple. In fact, I probably studied too much. I passed with proficient (which means above average) on all five sections of the exam. This is not required, as I know a few people who scored below proficient on a section and still passed. This first thing I did was memorize PMBOK’s the 47 process groups. The PMBOK guide has a specific flow to it, and while these processes many not happen in a certain order, it pays to memorize them by process group and knowledge area. I also read and studied a couple of books, Head First PMP and PMP Exam Prep, Eighth Edition.

“Another thing I did was listen to the audiobook, Conversations on the PMP Exam: How to Pass on Your First Try: Fifth Edition during my commute. I probably listened to the entire series twice. While listening to these CDs won’t be enough to pass the PMP Exam on their own, they are a great supplement to your other studying. They are definitely worth the investment, as I picked up things listening to these CDs that I probably would not have from the books. Lastly, I downloaded a PMP questions app on my phone. I had one where I did ten random questions at a time. At the beginning of my studies, I would get a lot wrong, but as time went on, I improved quite a bit. I even made it into a game by trying to get eight out of 10, then nine out of 10, and eventually 10 out of 10 correct.”

How Long Will Your PMP Test Prep Take?

Whether you decide to give yourself a short studying window or take your time preparing, it is possible to take the PMP exam and pass it in an amended time. For example, some companies may require their employees to take the test quickly. This fast track, although not recommended and extremely difficult, is a feasible option for some who have to get it done quickly. Some of the courses only meet once weekly, and some courses available are boot camp style, denoting that they are intensive and quick.

The Fast Track: Taking the PMP Exam in 30 Days

So, you want or need to take the PMP Exam in a month? It is possible, although not especially recommended. Assuming that you are eligible for the exam, have applied, and have joined the PMI as a member, you need to come up with a plan. First, look carefully at your schedule and determine slots of time where you can slip study in. Does your morning commute lend itself to knocking out a practice test? Is your lunchtime available to practice memorization? Remember, this is only one month, so perhaps you can take the train to work and put off social lunches until you take the test. Once you find time, map out the five domains, and how long you will spend on each. The PMI’s Examination Content Outline tells us the percentage of items on the test for each domain.

You can adjust the following schedule based on your current knowledge strengths and gaps. This schedule leaves you the last day to take your final practice test and ensure that your memorization work is complete by practicing your brain dump.

Taking the practice tests every few days is critical in this schedule. Not only will they teach you concepts, but they will fill in some of your knowledge gaps. It is recommended to take practice tests that break up your material and report your score by domain. It’s up to you to decide when you take the practice tests. Determine whether you will take the tests weekly after you have completed study for each domain, or on another interval (such as the 10-day, 20-day, and 29-day marks). Another recommended practice test interval is taking one daily: 50-100 practice questions each day.

The Faster Track: Taking the PMP Exam in 10 Days

Passing the PMP exam in 10 days does not leave you with many options. There are many advertisements for courses that say they can get you ready in 10 days. For this limited amount of time, experts recommend taking a boot-camp-like course, and studying before and after (between three and five additional hours each day). Most of these courses are expensive, but have a money-back guarantee. Take as many practice tests as you can, as well as the practice test that your course gives you at the end. On these practice tests, tear into every question that you get wrong and figure out why. Your course should also give you a chart with the processes and formulas, which you should memorize. With the ITTOs you need more understanding than memorization, so create a spreadsheet to see the dependencies and relationships. Other test-takers have shared that the questions themselves are easy, but the answer options are difficult to distinguish among unless you absolutely know the processes, formulas, and ITTO relationships.

The Best Track: What Is a Normal Amount of Time to Study for the PMP?

If you have more than a month or 10 days, you should take the time, set up a regular study schedule, and follow it. This way, the material has a chance to become part of your practice. You can find opportunities and linkages in your work that relate back to the information that you are studying. In this way, the PMP certification becomes more than just a certificate: you allow the PMI way of thinking to flourish in your work.

At this point most people ask, “How much time should I allow to study for the PMP exam?” The answer to this depends on your schedule, your experience, and your needs. There is no right answer because some people take up to one year while others do the 10-day boot camp and pass. On average, it is reported that most people take about two months, studying three hours per day. This is still a pretty solid commitment, but is achievable even for the most challenging schedule - especially if you look for opportunities to make time, such as taking public transportation to and from work.

What Are the Main PMP Study Topics?

The following are high-level descriptions of the main topic areas that you will study for the PMP exam. Good preparation for the PMP exam should include a deep dive into each topic.

What is a project? At its most basic, a project is something with a defined start and end. This is in contrast with regular operations that can stretch on, change scope regularly, and aren’t always clearly defined. Projects are carefully defined with the specific results intended and resources allotted. The scope of a project should be spelled out to avoid the dreaded “scope creep” that occurs when projects continually push deadlines, go over budget, and take on lives of their own. Under this topic, students should understand the terms stakeholder, project management, organizational structure, and process domains.

How to Create Project Charters and Preliminary Scope Statements: Project charters lay out the intent of a project, including the goals, task owners, the project manager’s responsibilities, and who is impacted by the project. Most of the time, the charter introduces the project in a company. Preliminary scope statements lay out the parameters of the project (the boundaries that define delivery of the products or services). Under this topic, students should understand the needs and demands of the marketplace, because these factors determine projects. Students should also understand what a statement of work (SOW) delivers, decision models, and be able to explain why the project charter is critical.

How to Develop the Project Scope Statement: A project scope statement is an outline of all of the project’s deliverables (whether goods or services), and the boundaries within which the work must be accomplished. This delineates the inputs (i.e. what the customer supplies), the assumptions to the staff performing the project, and the terms. Everyone involved in a project should agree on the scope before starting the project. Under this topic, students should also understand the planning process and all of the elements that go into creating a good scope.

How to Create a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) and a Communication Plan: A work breakdown structure is a document that breaks down your team’s work into portion-sized components in order to decrease the complexity of the overall project. This allows the project manager to estimate progress and determine where everyone is on the schedule. A communication plan is a formal way of keeping everyone informed about the project and its status. It clarifies who should be told what, how to tell them, and what exactly they can or will be told. This includes not only your internal personnel, but also external stakeholders. Other topics under this section include quality planning and management, cost-benefit analysis, and process improvement techniques such as Lean and Six Sigma.   

What is Risk Planning? Risk planning is a document that foresees risks, impacts, solutions, and anything else that may seem uncertain. This is an opportunity to think through potential project problems. Other topics under risk planning include the risk identification process, risk analyses, probability and impact matrices, and contingency planning. You could also develop a risk register.

What is Resource Planning? This document identifies what your resources should be and are for your project, including the finances, time, and type of labor necessary, the available people, their roles and responsibilities, equipment, and materials. Furthermore, students need to understand the purchase and acquisition process, how to contract with outside organizations or people, human resource planning, how to activity plan, and how to activity sequence.

How to Create a Project Schedule and a Budget: A project schedule is a big timetable. It lays out all the work, responsible parties, and delivery date(s) in order to complete the project on time. Used in conjunction with the WBS, the project schedule should be regularly updated. A budget is all about the money: it shows how funds for your project are used and expended. The project work and its timing are also shown. Other topics to study under project schedule and budget include estimating duration, Critical Path Method (CPM), Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT), Monte Carlo analysis, resource leveling, cost estimating, and cost budgeting.

How to Develop a Project Team: In consideration of the project team, you are beginning the executing domain of the PMP exam material. This is where you start to carry out your project plan. Developing your project team means staying involved in and on top of your process, tweaking it if necessary, and coordinating. Students should also understand the concepts of acquiring a project team, the team development concepts of forming, storming, norming, and performing, motivational theories, leadership skills, and listening skills.

How to Measure and Control Project Performance: The domain that these concepts depend on is the monitoring and controlling processes. This provides a framework for monitoring and controlling change within your project. In this section, students should also know about selecting sellers, quality assurance through auditing, contracting, managing teams and stakeholders, and performance reporting.

How to Monitor and Control Change: Students should start looking at the change control process. Change control means systematically ensuring that unnecessary changes aren’t made and that everything is documented appropriately. Students should also learn schedule control, cost control, and risk monitoring and control. Many of the formulas you learn for the PMP are used to measure control.

How to Control Work Results and Close Out a Project: These are the last groups of project processes to study. Project closeout is one of the most neglected, but nonetheless important processes: it is where you officially close the project and close out the related contracts. A project closeout includes handing it over to the business team, and any other administrative tasks relevant to the project closing. Further, it includes any lessons learned for future work. A student should also know scope verification and technical performance measures for this section.

What is Professional Responsibility? This is making the best decisions based upon your values for the people, resources, and the world, not just in your project but in your worklife. The PMI requires this of their leaders and asks project managers to look at the legitimate interests of the customers and to adequately represent them. Students should also understand integrity as a concept, and how you can keep the confidentiality and intellectual property of the company you work for intact, as well as respect any cultural differences.

Additional PMP Study Materials

The following is a list of books recommended by experts and test takers from around the web, in order of current popularity:

Additional PMP Study Aids

PM Glossary: The Complete Glossary of Project Management Terminology 

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How Can a PMP Study Plan Help You Pass the Exam?

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