A Successful Method to Study for the PMP exam

by Paula Moran in


Thinking about taking the PMP exam?  Not sure how to start preparing?  Read below and use the advice and methods to customize your own study method.  I developed this independent method by combining study strategies I teach and advice from experts in the Project management field.

Studying is a skill developed and honed by each individual.   Please note that this article is meant to give ideas and guidance but will not guarantee your PMP exam passage.

Part 1: Time

Studying for true understanding (which is what you need for the test) takes time.  I estimate I spent approximately 90 hours preparing for the test.  Once you are approved.  Figure out how to fit 90 hours of studying into your schedule.  If you can give 2 hours a weeknight you’re looking at 9 weeks to study.  But it would be in your best interest to schedule 10-11 weeks to prepare to accommodate for unforeseen schedule changes and that night you just need to sit and unwind from work.  I am a fairly fast reader but the texts took me longer than normal to read because they are a little on the dry side.

 Consider timing your early study periods to enable a more accurate estimation for how long it will take you to study all the material. 

For those who plan on studying for extended periods of time, here’s a trick to keep your mind sharp.  Set a timer and study for 50 minutes.  Then give yourself 10 minutes to do whatever unrelated to studying.  Pace your living room, stare at the wall, text friends, have a snack, etc… just don’t do anything related to studying.  Giving your mind that break will enable you to effectively study for longer.  For those with shorter attention spans consider 25 minutes studying with a 5 minute break.

Part 2: Materials

I used the following things:

1)      PMBOK 4th ed.

2)      PMP Exam Prep by Rita Mulcahy, PMP 6th ed

3)      PM FASTrack exam simulation software version 6

4)      Paper (preferably in a pad to keep everything together)

If you join PMI you get access to the PMBOK in pdf form.  Due to the discount on the PMP exam with membership, along with other benefits, I encourage membership.  If you’d like a paper copy of the PMBOK beware it’s about 450 pages.  Bound and printed copies are available on amazon.com starting around $40.

I found the PMP Exam Prep book the most essential piece of preparation material.  Make sure to get the 6th edition of the book.  PMI made some changes to the PMBOK 4th ed.  and those changes are reflected in Mulcahy’s 6th edition.  At times her tone can be slightly condescending but she does a fantastic job explaining concepts.  The largest  value of her book is the exercises.  Her exercises are constructed to utilize upper level thinking skills in which users must apply, synthesize, and work with information in new ways.  Cognitive exercises of this nature do create stronger and more durable understandings.  For more on how this works and why such exercises are important to understanding see Bloom's Taxonomy the cognitive domain. http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/hrd/bloom.html does a good job explaining this concept.

The FASTrack software is available both for download and via CD.   The download is available on http://www.rmcproject.com/ and on amazon.com.  On Amazon you can purchase used copies of the software for significant savings.

Part 3: The study Plan

My core of the study plan consisted of 4 parts

1)      Read a chapter in the PMBOK

2)      Read the corresponding chapter in PMP Exam Prep

3)      Take the Practice test at the end of each chapter in PMP Exam Prep

4)      Score my answers and write a sentence explaining why the correct answer was correct for those questions I got wrong

Note: these 4 steps are a time consuming process.  I recommend timing how long it takes you to get through the first few chapters.  Multiply that time by 12 chapters and you have a rough estimate for how long it will take you personally to work through the material.  Make sure to add a few hours for review and practice tests between finishing PMP Exam Prep and taking the exam.

If you did not go through business school one hurdle you may face is the vast amount of vocabulary involved.  While you may understand project management, you need to understand it using PMI’s terminology.  If you did not go through business school I would recommend doing the PMP Exam Prep in the following order Chapter 1, 2, 5 through 13, 3, 4 then 14.  Chapter 3 and 4 reference a great deal of terminology and will be easier to handle once you’ve used the terminology in Chapters 5 to 13.

As you go along be sure to keep out a pad of paper.  Jot down questions, important info, things you need to review again and things you don’t understand.  Periodically go back and review what you have written down.  These are your weak areas and deserve a little extra review.

Once you have worked through both the PMBOK and the PMP Exam Prep it is a good time to review that information which you understand the least the first time through (your chapter test percents should indicate your strong and weak areas).  Mulcahy recommends skimming material a second or third time but not necessarily reading everything word for word again.

At this point you should begin reviewing material in a “disjointed” way.  When you did your first run through of the books the material is organized by topic.  On the PMP exam questions are organized at random and you have to be able to access any part of the body of knowledge at any given time.  Mulcahy recommends you retake all the Practice Tests at the end of each chapter in the PMP Exam Prep.  To adjust my mind to accessing information at any time I retook the practice tests in random order and only did a page from each chapter at a time.  I totally randomized the test taking by using dice to determine the order I would retake the material.

The last piece of the study plan is to take the practice exams via PMFASTrack software.   The software recommends that you take a maximum of 2 practice tests, more than that and you’ll start to see repeat questions.  My one criticism of the process is that after taking the end of chapter Practice Exams in PMP Exam Prep there were many questions repeated in the software.  The software will time you and you only get 4 hours to complete all 200 questions.  Be prepared for this.  It is also good practice to sit and experience 4 hours of test taking before the exam itself.

Scoring a practice exam only takes the software a minute or two.  Once again it is beneficial to review your answers and write a sentence explaining why the correct answer is correct (just like in step number 4 in the core study plan).

As a final review I recommend reviewing the notes you made as you went along through the chapters and your sentences from step 4 of the core study plan.

Part 4: Test Day

Do not cram study right before the exam.  Within 48 hours of the test you either know the material or you don’t.   Last minute memorization and cramming with just frustrate and frazzle you. 

The evening before your exam prep a bag with materials you need to bring, ID, confirmation print-out, glasses, etc.  If you are taking a computer based exam at a testing center the computer program will supply you a calculator and the testing center will give you pencils and paper.  I took a computer based test and the testing center only allowed me to take in my ID.  All my other belongings were in a locker for the duration of the test.

Get a good night’s rest before the exam.  Sleep deprivation can affect your brain in similar ways as alcohol.   If you are too exhausted your brain will lock out some of the higher level thinking skills you need to analyze the situational questions in the exam.

Know your eating schedule and make sure you eat a snack before the exam.  Using your brain for this period of time will exhaust you mentally and physically.  My preferred pre-exam snack is a cup of tea and a snickers bar.  It provides sugar, caffeine and a little protein.  Warning!  If you do not regularly drink coffee do not have a cup right before the exam.   If others have suggestions on what worked for you please share in the comments section below.