Friday, October 30, 2009


The Project Management Professional (PMP) designation is one of today’s highly-sought and credible certification. It certifies that the person who possesses it has accumulated at least 4,500 hours of project experience—whether as a team member or project manager—within the past eight years. In addition, it certifies that the individual is sufficiently proficient with the best practices endorsed by the Project Management Institute. PMI is the dominant world body that oversees the profession.

In this post, I shall share some of the lessons I learned from preparing for and successfully passing the exam. For brevity, I shall omit many details (such as candidate requirements) that are easily found elsewhere.

Observations about the exam and testing facility:

Watch out for old nomenclature: several significant improvements were made in PMBOK-4 over PMBOK-3. Two processes, for instance, were deleted: Develop Preliminary Scope Statement and Plan Scope. To my surprise, I encountered two questions that involved the first deleted process. One question mentioned it in the body of the question. The other question provided it as one of the four possible answers to that question. Like many others, I was under the impression that PMI had completed the transition of nomenclature for several of the most important Earned Value (EV) measurement terms. The transition began in PMBOK-3. Since PMBOK-3 was the standard for five years, one would think that its successor, PMBOK-4, would complete the transition and refer to those important EV terms by their new names. I’m referring to these terms:
  1. The new name of Planned Value (PV) instead of the old name of Budgeted Cost of Work Scheduled (BCWS).
  2. The new name of Earned Value (EV) instead of Budgeted Cost of Work Performed (BCWP).
  3. The new name of Actual Cost (AC) instead of Actual Cost of Work Performed (ACWP).
Well, to my surprise again, the old terms appeared in the exam. They had not been put to pasture yet!

The test uses an adaptive heuristic: I strongly suspect that the exam is adaptive. Expect the first 20 or so questions to probe your knowledge. If the testing algorithm detects incorrect answers in a certain area, expect more questions from that area to come your way. This is not my first certification exam. I took quite a few back in the 1990s. Back then, adaptive heuristics were already being applied. I had a study partner for this PMP. He took and passed it two weeks ago. He noted—with some annoyance—that he had to face a lot of questions about procurement and contracts. I did not. I’m fairly certain that the flood of procurement questions that he faced was not random at all. Rather, I suspect—as I told him—that he probably erred on several contract-related questions at the start of the exam. Those errors triggered the testing algorithm to dole out contract-related questions. The test designers did not adopt this heuristic in order to be mean. Rather, they want to ensure that the candidate will meet the minimum standard in all aspects of the knowledge being tested.

The testing facility: I took the exam at a Prometric center. You probably will as well. Do not bring a lot of things when you report to the facility. You will not be allowed to bring anything inside the testing room except your primary form of Identification (typically your Driver’s License). Pens, papers, mobile phones, watches, water bottles, and snacks cannot be brought inside. The testing facility I used had 20 seats (it was nearly full when I arrived). There were about 20 small lockers for personal belongings in the outside office. The Prometric staff will provide you with several sheets of scrap paper and two pencils. I asked for and received two sheets of tissue paper. They will require you to return everything including the tissue!

Perform a “brain dump.” As soon as you can, write down on the sheets of paper that were provided all of the formulas and tidbits that you memorized as part of the exam. While it is essential to understand the subject matter, some pieces need to be memorized. The latter is the purpose of the brain dump. The brain dump helps ensure that you don’t freeze over questions that require those memorized pieces during the exam simply because you could not retrieve these bits due to tension.

Do your best to calm down as soon as possible. Test center procedures were described in order to set your expectations. Take my study partner for example. To drink from his bottle of water, he had to sign out. To re-enter the testing room, he had to show his ID card and sign in. This protocol flustered my study partner. It hindered his ability to calm down and focus on the questions.

It will take several questions to get into the groove. All test questions follow a multiple-choice format. There are always four choices. The wording is tricky. Read the questions carefully. Read all of the answers even if you’re sure that you’ve already identified the answer. Ensure that you really comprehend the question. Assume nothing. Some questions are lengthy and end abruptly. Some end ambiguously and leave you perplexed. The four answer choices may give you a clue but it may take some time for your mind to pick up the theme of the question. When I was stumped, I selected my best guess and marked the question for later review. When I returned, most of the questions made sense. (Some of them never did though and all you can do is tell yourself that you tried.) My study partner said that most of his questions were situational. I think that only about 40% of mine were. Situational questions are challenging. The situation that is described may or may not be relevant to the real question. Either way, this type of question is more difficult because it will take up more time.

Today’s Prometric experience was better than the one I recall. First, the cubicle is larger and, thus, more comfortable. Second, the flat screen gives you more elbow space than the CRTs of old. Third, the typeface is easy on the eyes. I did dislike one thing. It was the red color of the scratch paper (which, by the way, consists of two large sheets that are folded in the middle, stapled, and, thus, is turned into a booklet). The pencil marks do not show up well against the red background.

At the end of the exam, you will receive an official test result. Ensure that it is embossed by the testing staff. Your proficiency level will be noted for each domain name. These domains are the five process groups of Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring & Controlling, and Closing. The sixth domain is Professional & Social Responsibility.

The proficiency levels are rather vague but that may have been intentional. Your results are either Proficient, Moderately Proficient, or Below Proficient for each domain.
  • “Proficient indicates that your performance is above the average level of knowledge in this domain.”
  • “Moderately Proficient indicates that your performance is at the average level of knowledge in this domain.”
  • “Below Proficient indicates that your performance is below the average level of knowledge in this domain.”
My experience: I was very pleased with my results. I attribute that to extensive preparation in addition to significant personal experience, of course. I knew it was going to end well because I was comfortably ahead of the schedule. I was 40 minutes ahead of schedule by the time I finished the last question. After taking a brief break, I spent the next 20 minutes reviewing the 17 questions that I had marked (for review) earlier. After the review I submitted it (still a good 15 minutes ahead of the four-hour mark). This experience took place two hours ago.

I hope this helped. Good luck!
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Anonymous said...

Thanks for your input.

I'm curious to read your comments on your preparation...

Anonymous said...

Good post.Thanks !!

Reji said...

Hi, Could you please tell me the score that you got? I am keen to know the minimum score required to pass PMP exam in 2010.

Nathaniel @ project management institute certification said...

This PMP guide is great! You also have included the lessons you've learned that we will surely use as we are preparing for the PMP exam.

Thanks for sharing. Keep it up!

Alex Pronove said...

It's nearly been four years since I passed the PMP exam.

There were five sections. I scored "Proficient" in three sections and "Moderately Proficient" in the other two.