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How to Study for the PMP® Exam: Your Guide to Passing

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How to Study for the PMP® Exam: Your Guide to Passing

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If you are preparing to take the Project Management Professional (PMP) exam, you may be wondering if there is some secret to getting your certification. Many hopeful PMPs look for quick tricks that will allow them to navigate the study material and the exam itself easily. Some even think these tricks will mean they don't have to study very hard – or at all.

Don't be fooled! Here's your first tip: the PMP exam is difficult and demanding, but if you study diligently, you will be able to pass. The exam is challenging even if you have plenty of experience managing projects. In fact, sometimes project managers need to unlearn things they have become used to doing on the job to learn the correct information and interpret and answer all the questions. Preparation is the path to success.


Develop a study strategy that works for your schedule and write it down. What is a study strategy? It is a clearly-written statement of work that you will follow to learn the PMI® way of doing things. Since you are a project manager, treat this as a project!

Think of your study strategy as a roadmap for your preparation to not get lost or overwhelmed. Before you sit down to study for your certification exam, you need to clearly define your goals and plan how you will achieve them.

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Here is an example of a study strategy:

  • Mondays and Wednesdays: spend 60-90 minutes reading sections of the A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide).
  • Tuesdays and Thursdays: spend 90 minutes answering questions in the Q&A section on the PMA website, specifically in areas where I need improvement.
  • Fridays: take a mock exam from the PMA website.
  • Saturdays: review mock exam answers and adjust my study plan for the following week.

Try different study styles and test-taking approaches to find what works best for you. Remember, having a plan in place doesn't automatically get you your certification; you also need to stick to your plan. For best results, do not stop studying until the final day before the exam!

How long to study for the PMP Exam

The most crucial point you need to cover while preparing your study plan is time. How many months do you have for your preparation? How many hours can you devote to the exam daily? Can you study in the mornings before you go to your office or do you prefer evenings? Figure out what works for you by answering these questions and others like them.

There is no single standard for how long to study for PMP certification. However, most PMPs recommend at least 2-3 months of prep time. How long it takes for you specifically depends on your study habits, how many times per week you spend studying, how many hours each study session is, and how many practice exams you want to take. The best way to start is to divide your syllabus into different tasks and give yourself timelines to complete them.

Get familiar with the PMBOK® Guide

After you've laid out a timeline for your study plan, research the resources you will need. The first and most important is the PMBOK® Guide. This official guide published by PMI will give you the conceptual clarity you need to pass the exam. Make sure you're using the newest and most updated 6th Edition.

The guide may be lengthy and dry, but it is crucial to passing the PMP certification exam. People who cannot clear the exam after multiple attempts have usually sidestepped this guide in their preparation.

A good strategy is to plan to study one knowledge area of the PMBOK® Guide every week, and begin with reading the guide itself before moving onto other study material. This will help you approach the same topic from different angles and better understand the subject. You can even get more detailed and study one process from each knowledge area every day. This will give you daily and weekly study milestones to reach.

Starting your preparation with the PMBOK® Guide will help build the foundation for your studies. Make sure you read through the book at least twice before sitting for the PMP exam.

Get familiar with other study resources

Why do you need study materials besides the PMBOK® Guide – 6th Edition? While it is imperative to study the guide, it is also not exam-oriented. It provides the theory or facts behind the processes, but not how they are linked or how to apply them in real life. Using additional resources and study materials will help you pass the scenario-based questions on the exam.

There will also be math calculations on the exam. The math level is not difficult, but there are too many possible calculation questions on the exam to ignore. The best thing to do is make peace with it and master the level required for the exam. PMA provides our students with a book of exercises to help with Earned Value and Critical Path math proficiency.

Critical Path knowledge is crucial! Similar to math questions, PMI loves to test students on their Critical Path knowledge: specifically, forward and backward pass. After all, the heart and soul of what a project manager does is scheduling, so PMI wants to make sure you can manually accomplish what computer-based schedulers do automatically.

If you have not mastered math, specifically Earned Value and Critical Path calculations, you are not ready for the certification exam.

Leverage your 35 contact hours for Project Management Training wisely

One prerequisite for taking the PMP exam is 35 hours of project management education by the time you sit for the exam. Many people treat this requirement as a task to check off their to-do list. However, those 35 hours can be a valuable learning experience if you use them strategically!

Here are two tactics for getting the most out of your 35-hour requirement:

  1. Build a strong foundation. Use your project management education sessions to overview all the concepts that the exam will test. This will help you identify any weak areas to focus your studies where you need to the most.
  2. Refresh your knowledge. Put yourself on the clock by scheduling your exam, then take the test while your 35 hours of contact training are reasonably fresh. Going through formal training courses and education can help refresh your foundations before test day.

However you decide to fulfill your 35 contact hours, make sure you choose a course taught by an PMI Authorized Training Provider (ATP). Premier level ATPs, such as PMA, are evaluated and approved by the PMI, so you know you're receiving quality instruction and relevant content.

Take practice exams

There are various online resources for practice questions and online mock tests. Make sure to do your due diligence to ensure the quality of the practice material and your sources' reputation before practicing for the PMP exam.

PMP simulators are great for gauging your level of preparation for the exam. These practice PMP tests are hosted online and test you with questions that follow the same format as an actual PMP exam. Use these simulators to become more comfortable with the timing and pressure.

  1. Solve practice questions. PMP exam questions are mostly scenario-based. Practice questions can help you apply theoretical knowledge to various scenarios and help you identify different question types and the best strategies to tackle them.
  2. Simulate the environment. Do not underestimate the stamina required to sit for this extended exam period (230 minutes). Prepare yourself psychologically for answering 180 questions of varying difficulty levels with equal efficiency while taking mock tests. Mock exams will also help you monitor your progress and tailor your test-taking strategy.
  3. Decide how you are going to spend the time allocated for the exam. Ensure you can complete the test within the 230 minute time limit by defining a clear strategy for how you will use your time. You will be provided two, 10-minute breaks during the exam, so be sure to pace yourself and use them wisely. Also, know that if you leave out more than 1/5 of the exam questions (about 36), it is doubtful you will pass.

Figure out a strategy that works best for you! You have an average of 1.2 minutes to answer each question – even less if you need to take an unscheduled break, and less still if you want a chance to re-look at some questions before submitting the exam. Try tackling the easier questions first and coming back to the more difficult ones, then refine your strategy from there.

Remember, if you treat the PMP exam only as a knowledge-based test, you are bound to fail. You need to prepare to answer scenario-based questions and efficiently use your exam time to set yourself up for successfully earning your certification.


It is not enough to just memorize everything. Put in the effort to understand concepts well and study them with focus and concentration. This is critical, as the PMP® exam questions will test how well you can apply these concepts, principles, and ideas. Many questions are situational descriptions of a problem. They contain enough information for you to arrive at the best answer, but they also include irrelevant information to throw you off course deliberately.

Although your study session can be as long as you want it to be, it's a good idea to break it up into smaller chunks to make it easier to retain information. Studies have shown that a person tends to remember the first and last elements of a study session best. Use this to your advantage and divide your study session into mini-sessions approximately 30 minutes long.

After you finish a section of the PMBOK® Guide, take a break before rereading it. You will understand it better with each read, as your mind will already be absorbing the concepts. Be sure to use the latest version of the PMBOK® Guide released by PMI (current version is 6) to understand all the knowledge areas, processes, concepts, and formulas involved in being a PMP.

How to remember PMP inputs and outputs (ITTO)

One of the challenges you will face is dealing with each process's inputs, tools, techniques, and outputs (ITTOs). ITTO questions on the exam will test your knowledge of the tools and techniques used to manage a project. To pass your exam, you may think you need to memorize ITTO facts. However, passing your PMP certification exam takes understanding, not memorization.

Instead of merely memorizing ITTOs, work on understanding why a process is used, what each process is all about, when they are used, and more. When it comes to the ITTOs and answering related questions about them, it is far more essential to understand the relationships between ITTOs rather than memorizing them.

Know your processes, process groups, and documents

The PMBOK® Guide outlines 5 process groups, 49 processes, and 10 knowledge areas. Ensure you have the updated 6th Edition to ensure you learn about the new processes they added more recently! To master these, you should memorize their order and fully understand what they are and how they apply to real project management situations.

You should memorize the Project Management Process Group and Knowledge Area Mapping matrix from the PMBOK® Guide and learn the documents created during the Initiating and Planning stages and know what each one does.

The PMP exam's situational questions will test your ability to identify relevant content and leave out the insignificant information. These tend to be lengthy, so read through each question more than once to help you focus on the correct information. The few knowledge-based questions you may see on the exam will test you on how much information you know. Usually, these will include facts found in the PMBOK® Guide. You may be asked to identify a chart or graph, where processes belong in the knowledge area, or the ITTOs that belong to particular processes.

PMP formulas to memorize

The PMP exam will feature formula-based questions that take more than just calculating a value. There are about 50 PMP formulas that you will have to know, from simple averages to more complicated probabilities and depreciations. You will need to make sure your formulas and calculations are correct to reach the right answer.

When you sit for the PMP exam on test day, you should use some of your time and paper (or the digital whiteboard if you are taking the exam online) at the very beginning of the exam to write out formulas, charts, and other information so you can refer back to this information throughout the exam. This reduces some of the pressure of memorizing the formulas and recalling them on demand during the test.

We recommend using a PMP memorization quiz sheet and testing how quickly you can write it out entirely from memory. Then, you can focus on using your knowledge to interpret and answer questions during the rest of the test.


Keep your anxiety in check

Anxiety is a normal part of the exam-taking process. All students will feel at least a certain amount of apprehension before the exam and on exam day itself. The key thing is not to let it overwhelm you. As you prepare for the exam, focus on understanding the information thoroughly to quell your unease both before and during the exam.

Remember that exam day can be slightly different from your mock tests, even if you were careful to simulate the environment. For most of us, performing well under pressure can be a big challenge, and some of the smallest things could rattle us, such as the restroom being farther than expected or an overly critical exam proctor observing your online exam.

To help you handle exam stress, prepare thoroughly, practice answering questions and sitting through the exam, and plan how you'll use your time to be as efficient as possible. Most importantly, remind yourself not to lose confidence no matter what happens during the exam. Some things will be out of your control, and there are easy and difficult questions spread throughout the test. Don't let a few tough questions shake you!

Know your testing center

For now, Pearson VUE is the only provider through which you can take the PMP certification exam. You can schedule your exam at a Pearson VUE Testing Center, or you can opt to take the exam online using Pearson VUE's OnVUE online proctored testing software. This is a new option that was added in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Pearson VUE administrators are very rigorous in monitoring students, both in-person and online, to prevent misconduct and ensure ethical test-taking. Whether you are taking the exam at a Pearson VUE site or in your home, make sure to review all the test-taking guidelines and get to know the dos and don'ts before exam day.

For example, if you're taking the exam in person, does your Pearson VUE center provide noise-canceling headphones? Do they have lockers, and can you access your locker during breaks? How will you get to the site on exam day? All of this information will make you feel more comfortable and help you deal with pre-test anxiety.

Know what to expect from the exam

  1. Remember how you planned to spend your 230 minutes. As you practiced taking the exams during your weeks or months of study, you should have planned how to use your exam time most efficiently. Stick to this plan as closely as possible to prevent panic or rushing at the end of the exam period!
  2. Watch through the exam tutorial. When you begin the exam, you have the option to run a 15-minute tutorial explaining how to navigate the computer. Once you complete it, you can begin the test timer. We recommend using the exam tutorial so nothing slows you down.
  3. The PMP exam is not adaptive. Some computer-based exams are adaptive, meaning questions may become more or less difficult based on the exam-taker's answers. The PMP and CAPM exams are fixed: all questions are on the computer at the start of the exam, and the order and difficulty do not change while you take the test.
  4. You can brain dump, but not during the exam tutorial. A brain dump is anything you have trouble remembering. Most students start with the formulas. Practice your brain dump every night for two weeks before exam day. Try to write it from memory during the last two nights. Once you complete the tutorial and start the test timer, begin your brain dump immediately without even looking at the first question.
  5. Understand the exam is pass/fail. PMI does not publicize the passing score, but if you can consistently score 85% or better on practice exams, you have an excellent chance of passing. Pearson VUE will tell you if you passed within a few minutes of completion and provide you with a list of areas you were or were not proficient in. You will not, however, be told exactly which questions you answered correctly or incorrectly.

As we mentioned early on, there is no "silver bullet" to passing the PMP examination. But with diligence and hard work, you can ensure yourself the greatest chance of success! We hope these tips help you on your way to PMP certification. Remember, you can reach out to your PMA experts anytime for help or answers to questions.

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