How to Pass the PMP (or any) Certification Exam

Back in high school, I wanted to be a radio personality. In order to get a full-time job, however, you had to pass the FCC 3rd Class Operator exam. I was a decent student in high school, but a little cocky. I perused the book, but didn’t work all that hard at it, figuring that I’d easily pass the exam.

My Dad drove us the 4-hour drive up to the Federal building in Chicago to take the exam. I blew through the test, turned it in, and waited for my results. After about 30 minutes, the clerk called my name up to the front, handed me a slip of paper and said,

“You didn’t pass. Come back at least 30 days later to re-take the exam.”

It was a long, slow ride back home.

Since then, I’ve studied how to take and pass exams, and in the past few years, I’ve collected a number of certifications, including Project Management Professional (PMP), Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP), ITIL Expert, Certified Scrum Master (CSM), Social Media Security Professional (SMSP) and others. In fact, I’ve got more letters behind my last name….than are in my last name (13, if you’re counting).

That doesn’t mean that I’m smarter than anybody else, but it does mean that I’ve learned how to take (and pass) exams. I’ve taught a number of PMP boot camps and coached prospective PMP candidates, learning a number of lessons in the process.

  1. Study for the exam, not your own experience. One of the most frequent reasons that PMP exam candidates fail is that they rely on their own project management experience to answer the test questions. That’s a sure path to failure – the exam doesn’t test your experience….it tests your knowledge of the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). Stick to the exam material.
  2. Repetition is essential to retention. The PMP exam has a number of formulas, multiple knowledge areas and principles to follow. I’ve found that the best way to learn the material is the same way you learned as a child. Break things down into small chunks and repeat, repeat, repeat. If you can still sing the theme to “The Brady Bunch”, you can learn everything on the exam.
  3. To reduce test anxiety, replicate and rehearse the test conditions. One of the most reported problems by PMP exam candidates is test anxiety. The exams take a lot of time for preparation, cost a lot of money to take, and are required for many desirable jobs. No wonder that there’s a lot of pressure on the student taking the exam. I’ve found the best way to reduce test anxiety is to practice the exact test conditions multiple times, which is fairly easy to do with many computer-based exams. Pilots and astronauts swear by checklists and repetition, and it’ll work for you as well.
  4. Use a repeatable process to answer the questions. In my PMP exam workshop, I teach students to follow a methodical process for each question. There’s no great science or secret to it, but it helps break down the questions into manageable steps, and increases your odds of answering the question properly.
  5. Don’t over-think. I’ve seen more students over-think themselves right out of a passing grade more times than I can count. Over-thinking can also cause a student to run out of time, which is just as bad as a wrong answer. If you follow a methodical process for answering the questions, and answer the question exactly as it is written, you’ll likely have the right answer on your first try. If you’re unsure, choose SOMETHING, and mark it for review later. When you come back, change it ONLY if you’re sure you NOW have the right answer.

If you follow these five principles, you’ll find that you can prepare for, and pass whatever exam you are pursuing. Good luck, and get some more letters behind YOUR last name.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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