A certification as Project Management Professional PMP® is tough and costs money. So it would be nice if it would work on the first try. In this article you get my tips how you can get certified directly and without detours and with success.
[Update September 2019: Please consider that I wrote this article in October 2016. Since then, the conditions might have been changed.]
What you need
I have been certified by the biggest project management organization, the PMI®. The so called prerequisites for a certification are quickly summarized.
If you have a university study, so a master or something similar, you have to prove 4,500 hours working as a project manager over 3 years and 35 hours of specific training.
If you “just” hold a high school diploma or anything else below a master you will need 7,500 hours and also 35 hours of training. But you have 8 years to complete these 7,500 hours.
Concerning your jobs or your assignments you should not cheat. The PMI will control randomly the references that you have to give, and if then or later on it comes out that you lied you will lose your certification as well as your membership and all the work would have been for nothing. In the case you don’t yet have the 4,500/ 7,500 hours of project management working experience I suggest that you go for a CAPM® -Certification (this means Certified Assistant in Project Management). As soon as you will have acquired a sufficient amount of experience you can go for the PMP®.
Concerning the training you don’t need to get crazy about it. Anyway, you will need a preparation course for the PMP® test. And if you use a certified provider for this you will get the 35 hours accredited and affirmed by the PMI.
One more thing: If you do the test with the PMI you will need excellent English knowledge. Why? I will explain this in the paragraph “Don’ts”. So if English is not your cup of tea, then I suggest you go for another certification institute where you can do the test in your mother tongue.
The right order
Often you hear that its best to do the preparation course first and then request the certification. This is truly correct if you have no sufficient training that you can prove. However, there is one serious disadvantage.
If your request for certification goes under review then you will have to send in additional documents and your references will be checked. This can take up to 90 days.
Normally after the preparation course you will be fit to pass the test, or at least you should be. Then you find yourself in a waiting loop and in the same time you will have to keep up your motivation. That’s not simple. I had that problem due to the summer holidays in France. I was in a waiting loop for 4 weeks and it really got on my goat. It’s like a tennis match was scheduled for 3 pm and when the players are ready to start you leave them waiting in the cabins until 6 pm because it rains cats and dogs.
So if you have the necessary training then I suggest that you first request the certification. You will receive an acknowledgement accepting your request. The you pay the certification fee and you will receive a so-called Eligibility ID. With this number you can book your test later on. And now you start the preparation course. If you receive the ok that you can do the test you have 1 year to complete it. That’s more than enough.
You will do a lot of test exams and as soon as you get over 80% then you book your exam date at the test centre. Now you are at your best and you can go for the exam and you will make it.
The right preparation
The saying goes, a good preparation is half the battle. And there is a lot of truth in that.
A good preparation consists in 3 parts:
1.) Go through a preparation course
Strictly speaking, you don’t need a preparation course. You could just try with reading the PMBOK®, the Project Management Base of Knowledge. This door stopper which is available for free for PMI members as a downloadable PDF is – to put it mildly – a bone dry read. In its current version No 5 it is over 600 pages thick.
So booking a good educational course makes absolutely sense. If you want to do it online or as a physical training somewhere in a school that’s up to your preferences, your wallet or your place of residence. I have done the course online and it worked. But as the questions from the test exams were very different from the final exam test questions I can’t recommend the provider simplilearn® even if the course itself was very good on the educational level.
There are some things you really need to consider:
- The course should be proposed by a certified provider. So you can be sure that the content of the course will be in line with the PMI recommendations.
- The course has to be based on the current version of the PMBOK®. The modifications between the different versions can be very significant.
- The course should be in English so that you can get used to the vocabulary. After the exam you may download the PMBOK® in any language you like. But for the exam English is the standard.
- The course should contain at least 5 test exams with 200 questions each so that you can really exercise and train yourself how to get through the test within 4 hours as requested. If needed you can also by additional test questions at the PMI.
2.) Read the PMBOK®
What now? First he tells me I should do a preparation course and now I must read the door stopper anyway? Yes, unfortunately its true. I’m sorry for that. In the 35 hours of the preparation course you will only get the rough structure and the most important topics. But only after your reading the PMBOK® from A to Z you will have a complete overview.
As a project manager part of your job is also reading thick specifications or requests for quotations. So this task is not a punishment, it’s just an exercise. 😉
It makes sense to develop a mind map or another structure so that you get a feeling which process is in which process group and in which know-how area. Also, you need to know the main inputs and outputs. You will need this kind of information for the exam.
Just to read it again for the non-native English: You have to read the original English version of the PMBOK®, not the translation in any other language. In the exam it won’t help you at all to know the terms and definitions in your native language.
3.) Do test exams
When you have finished step 1 and 2 you can start doing test exams. As soon as you pass the test exams with at least 80% or better in under 3 hours you’re ready to go for the exam. In the final exam you will have to complete the 200 questions within 4 hours but the excitement and the preliminaries will cost you precious time. And a small buffer to search for errors can do no harm. And perhaps you will also not be able to hold out 4 hours without going to the rest room?
A word of warning. On the internet you will find thousands of test questions for free. Unfortunately, there is rarely any indication to which version of the PMBOK® these questions relate to. Also unfortunately, the list of the modifications between the different versions of the PMBOK® is long and an answer which was correct for version 4 can be completely false for version 5. So keep your hands off!
Ok, you have done your test exams and you feel fit for the final exam.
When you have received your Eligibility ID you can register for the exam. The exams are provided by Prometric. On your myPMI Website you’ll find a link to Prometric and you can look for a test centre.
I recommend that you do the computer based test because then you can see directly after the test if you have passed or not. You look for a day and a time and then you will be asked whether you want to use the language help, for example if your mother tongue is German you could chose the language help in German. I highly recommend that you don’t take the language help. Read more about this in the paragraph “Don’ts”.
Prometric will send you an email to confirm you registration and the date and place of your exam. They will also invite you to call the test centre to get driving directions and additional information. If you need this then do it immediately. The test centres are everything else but easy to join and an email to the Prometric support is as efficient as throwing a pebble into a lake. Nothing will happen.
The big day
I recommend you to plan your trip in order to be on site 1 hour before the exam. Especially if you had no possibility to check out the test centre beforehand.
Put on comfortable clothes. This is no beauty contest and you have a 4 hour battle in front of you. In addition, you should bring a bottle of water and some little things to eat with you.
To check in for the exam you will need the confirmation email and an ID cart or passport with your photo and signature.
After the check in you will be requested to put everything, really everything into a locker. You even have to take off your watch. You are allowed to take with you a handkerchief (which you will be requested to visibly leave on the table (Ugh!) and your spectacles. As you will have no access to the locker during the exam you will find a table in the control room where you can put your water bottle and cookies so that you can eat or drink something during your break.
Now you will be shaken down and all the pockets of your clothes will be checked. Finally, you will be provided with sheets of paper, pencils and perhaps a calculator. And then the invigilator will lead you to your place to complete the exam.
After having made yourself comfortable on your desk you start the tutorial. In the tutorial you will get the information how the software works, how to answer the questions, how to strike through or mark text. The tutorial takes about 5 minutes. The exam starts as soon as you ether close the last window of the tutorial by clicking on ok or automatically after 15 minutes.
Important: Do not confirm the last window of the tutorial by clicking on ok but leave it open. Now you have about 10 minutes time that you can (and should) use to write down from memory the most important formulas or a scheme of all the 47 processes. This will help you when you are getting excited or confused.
Tips for the exam
There are some things that you might want to consider to enhance your chances of success:
- Draw a scheme of all the processes and write down the most important formulas.
- Try to stay in a frequency of one question per minute in order to leave some time for breaks and for revisiting questions where you were unsure.
- Plan your breaks strategically. You should at least take one break within the 4 hours. The problem is that the time continues to count down even during your break. If you take your break then don’t only go to the rest room but also drink and eat something so that you have done everything in one break. At the beginning of each break you will need to check out at the control room and at the end of your break you will need to check in again, even if you don’t leave the control room. This procedure alone will cost you 2 to 3 minutes.
- Work the questions strategically
- First read the question itself so that you know which information in the text is important and which is not.
- Read the complete text of the question.
- Answer the following questions for yourself:
- Where am I in the project, which process group am I in?
- What is the subject, is it cost, quality, time management, etc.?
- What is the problem?
- Read all 4 answers
- Eliminate the wrong answers. This seems counter-intuitive but works perfectly.
- Between the remaining answers chose the answer which seems the most suitable to you.
How to find the WRONG answers
In the tips for the exam I told you to eliminate the wrong answers and then chose the best one from the remaining answers. But how to find the wrong answers?
You can use the following criteria:
- A „Do nothing“ answer is always wrong. Always! Example: “As long as I have no written confirmation I can’t do anything.” FALSE!
- Never escalate. Never! Example: „I discuss the problem with the general management and ask them for their indications.“ FALSE!
- Always treat your team members well. Example: „I’ll give him a difficult task so that he fails and I can replace him against a more competent team member.“ FALSE!
- If the question is: What is an input for this process? Then look for answers about tools and techniques as well as outputs to this process. These are answers you can eliminate.
Now what are the CORRECT answers?
Now you have eliminated the answers that are definitely incorrect but there are still some answers remaining that could be right. The question is now, how to find the only correct answer between the remaining answers. Some additional tips for this:
- Always remain conform to the laws and rules of the PMI.
- Always avoid conflict of interests.
- If planning makes sense then this potentially is the correct answer.
- Always run to the problem.
Don’ts! 5 things you should avoid by all means
Here are my top 5 of things you should avoid on any account:
1.) Use old tests to prepare your exam
Do not yield to temptation as I have done it in the beginning. You could google “Free PMP Test questions” and you will find tons of websites providing free exam questions.
But as long as you are not 100% certain the questions and answers relate to the latest version of the PMBOK you do yourself a disservice by using these questions.
The modifications from version 4 to version 5 of the PMBOK take 20 pages. In version 5, just to name one major modification, the knowledge area of stakeholder management has been created.
2.) Learn with the PMBOK in your native language
It seems easier at first sight. And it doesn’t cost a dime. If you are a PMI member you can download the PMBOK in any language available for free.
If you have to work yourself through a door stopper of 600 pages of bone dry reading it is tempting to do it your mother tongue. That’s understandable. Don’t do it!
As the language help in the exam is absolutely bad and rather hindering you will have to know all the terms and definitions in English! So reading the PMBOK in Italian for ex. will not help at all but puzzle you.
3.) Take the exam on the first date after the holidays
Never take the first exam date after the school holidays. First, the test centre will not be reachable for you if you have any questions. Second, and that is even worse, the centre or the building where it is located will not be in use yet.
I have taken my exam on the first day after the French summer holidays. The test centre is located in a building of the university which had been foreseen to be fully operational only 2 weeks later. That means the rest rooms have not been cleaned for 3 months and there was no toilet paper available. And that was really disgusting!
4.) Wear clothes with many pockets
During your initial check in and every time you take a break and have to check out and in again the procedure is identical.
All pockets are controlled. If your clothes have many pockets this can take time. And time and patience is not you have tons of in this situation. I guarantee.
5.) Request the „Language help“ for the exam
The idea sounds charming. If English is not your mother tongue you could request a so-called “Language help” in your mother tongue. Don’t do this!
The translation is on the level of Google translator. No offense to Google. The problem is that you will miss the subtleties which discern the right from the wrong answers.
But what is even worse is that your screen will be divided horizontally to display the language help. That means that most of the questions and answers do not fit on one page anymore and you will have to scroll up and down all the time. This is especially disturbing with questions where you have to calculate as the entry values often are displayed on top of the page and you can’t see them anymore when scrolling down to the answers.
This will cost a lot of time and nerves. Therefore I highly recommend not to use the language help.
Now it’s your turn!
Now you have read all my tips and tricks on how to pass the certification. Do you have anything to add? Then please write it into the comments or send me a message via our contact form. I will personally answer all questions.
If you have decided to go for a certification then there is only learning, learning and learning and doing tons of test exams.
I keep my fingers crossed that it works out for you and that you will get the advantages out of the certification you are longing for.