Earlier this month, I took the PMP exam and passed it on the first try, scoring above target in every domain. These posts will describe what I did to prepare, and what it was like for me taking the exam. While everyone’s experience will be different, reading this should give you some insight into what to expect and greater confidence that you can succeed as well.
Every project has an outcome, a goal it seeks to deliver. A good project manager works backwards from that goal to define what needs to be done.
If one’s project is to earn a PMP, one must pass an exam. Prior to that, one must apply, have one’s application approved, and schedule a timeslot to take the exam. And in order to apply, one must have completed a minimum level of education, experience, and training.
In this post, I discuss my experience taking the exam. Other posts will cover my training, the application process, and scheduling the exam. A final post will serve as the lessons learned register, summarizing the tips and tricks from these posts.
Taking the Exam – Challenges
There were three challenging aspects about the exam: questions were situational, the situation changed for each question, and there is a strict time limit.
The first challenge I mentioned was that most questions were situational: the exam presents a short story or situation and asks what you would do, given four options? Many times there appeared to be multiple good answers, and I imagined contexts in which each would be better than the others. This challenge is to understand the situation and decide within a minute or so which option was overall the best.
The second challenge was of changing contexts. Each question presents a new situation, and one must quickly discard the prior scenario and pick up the new one. PMI states that the exam covers people, processes and business environments in predictive, agile, and hybrid situations. Figuring out the context for each new question meant I was rapidly mentally switching between these different combinations and discerning which details in each question were most relevant. It is a lot of analysis. Scott Payne’s method, which I discuss in my post on training, helped me here.
The third challenge was the time limit. I had four hours to answer 180 questions on a computer. That works out to about 1 minute 20 seconds per question. You cannot afford to spend five minutes pondering a question; you will run out of time and leave other questions unanswered. Make your best choice quickly and move on; every unanswered question is a missed opportunity.
Taking the Exam – Positives
The exam developers created some nice features to mimic what you might do on a paper exam booklet: you can flag questions to return to later, and can highlight or strike out text on the questions or the answers. These can be helpful if you have narrowed down a question to a couple options but are not confident of your answer and want to review it after answering other questions. I also appreciated the keyboard shortcuts they developed; I think those saved me time. Pay attention in the tutorial at the very start of the exam to learn how these features work.
PMI built two breaks of up-to-ten minutes into the exam, and if you take them, the clock stops for the duration of the break; they do not count against your time for the exam. These are excellent opportunities to stand up, stretch, walk, focus your eyes on things besides a screen, and get the blood flowing again. I highly recommend taking them. Here is how the breaks work: the exam is in three parts of 60 questions each. After you answer the first set of 60 questions and complete any reviews of them you wish, you can take a ten-minute break before going onto the second set of 60. The same is true after completing the second set and before starting the third set. If you need a break at any other time, or take longer than ten minutes for your break, that will count against your time for the exam.
Taking the Exam – Results
If you are at a test center, you will receive your preliminary exam results on your way out the door. Expect to be tired; your brain has worked very hard during the four hours of the exam. Plan to rest and to celebrate your new PMP status somehow. PMI will email you the official results in a few days, at which time you can access and print out an online certificate and claim a digital badge to connect to your LinkedIn profile. Look at the online Exam Score Report, which shows which tasks you were stronger or weaker on in the exam, a useful guide to your continuous improvement and future learning.
Taking the Exam – Questions
Any PMP prep course that claims to know the questions you will encounter is either deceiving you or violating PMI’s code of ethics. A good prep course is more likely to tell you, “Expect some questions on this topic,” because they are aware of PMI’s published Exam Content Outline. Please do not ask anyone who has taken the exam what questions they encountered. I cannot tell you any details about the content, and neither should they.
There are many reasons why; here are six. First, it goes against the ethics pledge I signed when I took the exam. Second, you would disqualify yourself from taking the exam, per that same ethics pledge. It is considered cheating. Third, it would short-circuit your learning experience, which is meant to be training and preparation for the real challenge: living what you learned. I don’t want to set you or your future employer up for failure by cheapening your learning process. Fourth, if people compiled and shared the PMP questions, when it became known (and everything becomes known at some point these days), this would tarnish the value of every PMP’s credential in the eyes of their peers and their employers. Fifth, I expect that PMI does not give everyone the exact same 180 questions to assess their competence; computer-based testing makes it easy to draw from a large question bank, so you might get completely different questions than I did. And finally, I don’t remember the details of the questions; I was focused on understanding and answering each one in turn within the time allotted.