I recently gave a presentation to a local PMI chapter class that was studying for the PMP exam. I had taken the class myself at the beginning of the year as a way to jumpstart my studies. I highly recommend doing this if it is offered in your area. A good place to see if it is offered is through your local PMI chapter.
I had taken online courses before I signed up, so had an idea of what I was in for regarding the class, but regardless, it was helpful to get feedback from fellow project managers as well as the instructors.
So, after I passed the PMP exam (first time, thank you!) one of the instructors asked me to speak to the current class on how I went about studying for the exam. I thought a few of the things I shared might be helpful to others who are getting ready to study or take the PMP exam.
First off, just accept that studying for the PMP exam is going to take a big chunk of your time and this means the free time you have after work and personal commitments. You can’t skip out on work (obviously working as a project manager is what allows you to be eligible to take the test) so for the time you carve out to study for your test, you may have to limit your personal commitments. If you can’t do that, then I would advise making your study time longer. However, you don’t want to wait too long as the material should be fresh as you take the test. Remember, you have been working as a project manager, but the key to passing the exam is to think like PMI wants you to think, regardless of how you may operate in your current work environment. The core principles are the same, but the PMI nuances are what you need to nail to pass the test. After I finished the class, I submitted my application, which I had worked on for the length of the class – about 7 weeks. My application was accepted right away, no audit. However, I had already lined up my audit materials and spoken to my supervisor in case I did get audited. You don’t want to waste time gathering that material. Get it ahead of time. As it turns out, I didn’t need it but had it ready.
I then did the most crucial thing. I scheduled my exam and I scheduled it exactly for three months to the day of completing the class. I think this is essential. You are a project manager, you have just given your project your drop dead due date. You now have your schedule. And since you want a PMP, you have to make a schedule and stick to it.
One of the first things I did with my schedule was to figure out how I felt about the material and how much I knew I had to dedicate to studying each day. I then factored in my other commitments, work, personal etc. and came up with a time every day that I would devote to studying. I also think that is the key. You won’t pass this test by cramming on the weekends. You must study every day. There is a lot of material, and again, there are the PMI nuances found in the PMBOk that you just have to know to pass. I had read that some people advocated taking a day a week off from studying, but I didn’t do that as I realized I had two personal obligations I couldn’t miss and one would require a full weekend out of town and no time for studying. So, I marked those dates off my study schedule. I also had a deadline at work that I realized would take some time away from the days of the week I could devote to studying around it, so I made that reflect on my schedule as “light study days”. Now that I had looked at my schedule for the next three months and marked it accordingly on my schedule, I knew how much I had to cover an how much time I had to devote to it.
When I was giving this outline to the class, someone asked me if I could share my study schedule. While in theory I didn’t mind doing that, I felt it might be counterintuitive to their development of their study outline they needed to make. Basically, I just used a spreadsheet and had marked every day for the next three months on it. I blocked out the time as mentioned above to start. Then I went by each knowledge area and seriously thought about the ones I needed more time to concentrate on than others. For instance, HR and Communications came easily to me. I do a fair bit of Procurement in my job now, so that wasn’t difficult for me, nor was Stakeholder Management or Integration. Even though I obviously had to study these KAs, I knew I could take less time with them than those that were more structured, and those that had more formulas. So in my study schedule, I started by marking these five study areas out on my spreadsheet. I then knew that other than the dates I had marked out, I could give three hours a night to study and about 6 to 7 hours on Saturday and Sunday. So I was basically committing about 29 to 30 hours a week to study for the next three months.
That might sound like overkill to pass a test. I am sure I could have actually gotten through the exam part without this much time, but I may have had to take it twice. But more importantly, I wasn’t studying to pass a test. i was studying to understand the more formal structure of project management. I wanted to understand the methodology of how PMI views the profession. So, that is what I committed to.
I then broke my spreadsheet out by marking these five “easy” KAs out by concepts that I thought I needed to concentrate on in each KA. I marked those as bullet points in my spreadsheet. That took about a month of my plan. So, I know had two months to study the remaining KAs and I left Cost for last, as the formulas and that concept in general were the hardest for me to wrap my head around in class. I then did the same for these five KAs; I broke out the points I struggled with the most on my spreadsheet by day.
So, I explained this when I gave my presentation, but I didn’t actually want to share my own spreadsheet but rather have the people who thought a study spreadsheet that may be helpful craft their own. What I could study and what I found difficult was going to be completely different than what another student might find, and I actually think seeing what someone else did may impede you in seriously sitting down and thinking out what you needed to do. This is your project and you need to think about what you need to study and how much time you can give to it. Just like your “brain dump” that you use for the test itself: that will be unique to you and seeing someone else’s would probably hinder you more than help you. So, rather than concentrate on what was actually in my schedule, I hoped that my thought process behind it may be more helpful to the class.
Finally, one thing I hope I imparted upon them was that the last two weeks of my schedule, right up to two days before the exam, I took practice tests. Full tests. Four hour full tests. You need to be able to sit for four hours and take the test. Yo need to know how to pace yourself. You also need to be familiar with how the questions may be worded. You also need to be familiar with charts and formulas presented to you without shock when you are sitting at the testing center. I took 7 full practice tests in that last two week time period and I can honestly say that more than anything that helped me pass on the first try. It gets you used to how to take the test as well. What you mark and come back to later, what formulas you work out on one question that can be reused on another question, 60 questions later. It helps you budget your time for each question (you roughly have a minute per question). It helps you answer the “low hanging fruit” questions in a matter of seconds so you can spend more time on more difficult questions down the road. I hope I adequately stressed the importance of the practice tests. I found them to be the key in those last two weeks that brought all that I had previously studied together. It completed the project life cycle for me, if you will.
The last bit of advice I had to give was that the day before the exam, don’t study. I had been told this, but had thought to review some items for several hours. I actually took the day off work to do that. I studied for about two hours and realized that previous advice was solid. I stopped studying and took a nap. My brain was full and ready and needed just a bit of time to decompress. I then went in the next day, took the test and passed. Best day ever.