Acing the PMP® Exam

Passing the PMP® Exam

Passing the PMP® Exam

Determined to take the PMP® Exam once, I set out to create the best test strategy known to man… a strategy complete with the rigid study times you read about, cut-throat test-taking tactics and every piece of literature Rita Mulcahy had to offer. Buuuuut, yeeeah – life happened. I realized I wouldn’t have the strict reading schedule I wanted nor the patience to convert what non-PMBOK® guides had to say about the PMBOK® guide.

I would have to read every single page of a very dense PMBOK® and learn it my way. It was the shortest path to success. These are my musings.

Inputs & Outputs & Tools & Techniques
The inputs, outputs, tools & techniques your PDU instructor talked about are considerably valuable during the examination. Knowing cornerstones like the Risk Register is required to plan Procurement & Quality Management was valuable. You’ll want to know concepts like the Risk Register is produced only by identifying risks. And that diagramming techniques & SWOT analysis (among others) are mechanisms used to create it. Knowing these intricacies will make for a far more comfortable 4 hours. Staying on top of your I/Os is the difference between each question being a land mine or a goldmine.

Do not take these modules in your PMBOK® lightly. I found even knowing a detail like the Charter being required to plan Scope, Time & Cost (and no other process) was incredibly useful. Sound familiar? It should. These are the typical 3 constraints that pretty much shape every project so it would stand to reason that the DNA of a project – its Charter – would be necessary for these particular knowledge areas. Further, those knowledge areas’ outputs then act as key inputs for the remaining knowledge areas.

The Matrix
Your understanding of the material must be such that you see actual processes as you read the questions. Verbs like “performing” or “audited” need to immediately translate to “Executing” or “Monitoring & Controlling”. Stay so close to the material that. In the same way attorneys leave law school with an innate litigious nature to see lawsuits where others see an innocent spill you must also see processes.

In order to do so your command of the material should enable to you redraw page 61 of the PMBOK® if you had to.

That said, bare witness to my own OCD tendency: It took me a full 9 minutes but I sat down at my testing cube and penned a 3-page brain dump; complete with formulas, Maslow & friends and yes, the world famous page 61. It felt like I might be breaking some type of rule it was so thorough. It was like my own little pre-test.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
There are dark corners in the material most will be intimidated by. Hidden in the DNA of the tools & techniques are bullets that will sneak there way into your exam whether you like it or not.

It’s not enough to know that Communication Methods and Communication Models are both tools & techniques of Managing Communications. Easy, right? After you’re prepared that’s a distinction you won’t blink at. Though what will be tricky, and almost assure you success on the exam, is knowing when to use push communication or what type of communication is needed to ensure feedback is provided. That means you have to have a command of the material that only comes from hours of absorption.

Read it. Retain it. Absorb it. Be able to recite it.

(L)Earned Value
The formulas were in full effect and Earned Value prevailed as the most valuable formula.

Here’s the actual cost, here’s the earned value, now what’s the cost variance? Too easy? Well here’s the SPI and cost variance, what’s the Earned Value? Now we’re talking. The concepts of Earned Value, Standard Deviations and Forward Pass are not just numbers floating on the page waiting to be greeted with calculator punches. You’ll need to decipher what’s relevant and carve the question down to actionable numbers.



Even the Gizmo of formulas, Communication Channels, were worded in such a way that you could miss if you’re not paying attention. For example:

“5 team members in Brazil, 7 in Prague – one of which is moving to Sao Paula where there are already 10 communication channels. How many communication channels do you have?”

And, yes, assume you are included (unless otherwise notified) in the above numbers already. It’s not a trick question. Maybe you’re Sao Paulo transplant. 

This was a favorite of mine. First 10 channels means there were 5 people in Sao Paulo ((5*4)/2 = 10). But remember there are now 6 people in Sao Paulo. Add the 5 from Brazil and the 6 from Prague. Your n is now 17. And (17*(17-1))/2 = 136.

I made this one up but I definitely noticed more than a couple of these questions. And all involved some kind of catch. Stay alert on these.

Separately, I didn’t see any of the dreaded NPV or IRR questions, which surprised me, but you shouldn’t be surprised if you do. Actually, as a Solutions Architect I often dealt with NPV & IRR scenarios where we balanced the true value of a project’s approach I enjoyed preparing for these questions. The takeaway with NPV/IRR formulas is that they should be second-nature to feel comfortable on test day. Otherwise, you might find yourself losing 2 or 3 precious minutes per question. Before you know it, your time remaining is 00:09:13 with 20 questions left.

Learn the formulas.

Knowing the formulas will save you several minutes and buy yourself time to go back through the questions you’ve marked to revisit later.

I’ll Have the Elephant, Please
One of the professional tenets I pride myself on is decomposing tasks into unassuming, manageable chunks. Shrinking problems down to their solvable pieces is one of the sexiest ways to spend your time as a manager. But it also to test-taking.

Just 30 seconds into the exam and I looked at the remaining time paired with the remaining questions and wondered “What did I sign myself up for?”. I had to immediately calm down. You know this material. So I decided to draw myself a quick little time ruler. “04:00:00 – 00:00:00” on the bottom and “0 – 200” across the top. “At 02:00:00 I need to be done with at least 100 questions” and “at 01:00:00 I needed to have 150 questions answered.”

As it stands, even with spending 10 minutes on my brain dump and my makeshift timer/question controller I finished with 30 minutes remaining to check answers.

This is an example of breaking the entire process into bite-sized pieces. In both studying and taking the exam you have to learn to break the huge systems into pieces you can conquer one at a time.

It’s daunting but you have more control than you think. You need a 35 PDU course. You need your history as an exceptional project manager. And you need to schedule a practical test date that includes your total time budget not just your time baseline.

You are… NOT… the answer!
The hyperbole of Maury Povich’s paternity tests has, despite your TV-watching moral compass, made for great television. Check the ratings. Suspense is exciting and stimulating. And so might your PDU instructors idea of the frequency of questions with NOT and TRUE and FALSE.

“Which of the following falsehoods is actually TRUE but only when accurate?“

What? Not a fan of these types of questions. Further, I feel they are a waist of time in that they are impractically worded more often than not. But alas, I prepared for them anyway.

Then something beautiful occurred. I literally didn’t see any questions like this on my exam. As helpful as these types of questions may have been in preparation they were not present on my exam.

While you may see these questions I, Adolphus Nolan, III, am testifying, in open court, on this day of our Lord, I did not.

Moot Myth
So let me get this straight, there are 25 moot test questions that are used to test new ways to test tentative test takers… Really? That sentence was just as unnecessary as it is to know that there are 25 questions on your exam that will not be scored. It’s pointless to even be concerned with the idea that some questions are worthless to your score.

I’ll go against the grain here and encourage you to take every question seriously. Don’t get trapped in thinking a convoluted question might be ignored later. Don’t assume you know which questions these will be because you will not.

Apparently this is quite common on standardized tests. The notion is interesting – not only am I being tested on what I know but I’m being tested on what others “might” not know later. Got it. At any rate, I studied and took every single question seriously. DO NOT think there will be 25 questions on the test you can just phone in.

1001 Questions
I used the PMBOK® Guide and these 3 apps to pass my exam.

  1. PMP® PMBOK 5 Exam Prep 2015
  2. PM Formulas (PMP exam prep)
  3. PMP® Exam Prep – Free
The railroad gun Heavy Gustav in action, the biggest WW2 weapon

The railroad gun Heavy Gustav in action, the biggest WW2 weapon

What ended up being my Gustav-calibur weapon was simply taking 5 200-question exams – one every weekend leading up to the test. I started to take another 200-question exam the day before the big exam but after the first question I decided against it – deciding instead to watch TED talks. *kanye shrug*

Did I buy & browse Rita‘s book? Yes. But I found them to be somewhat distracting. While the nuances of their approach have been invaluable to so many I believe their true worth is simply in being practically worded material. They present real world examples of ideally PMBOK® situations. I opted to replace these practical examples (and their benefits) with taken several practice tests… over and over again. Knowing the material and being tested on the material was much more valuable to me than spending time on reworded material.

Ultimately, the certification of Project Management Professional bestows upon you the title of expert. That said, you must trust the integrity of the material and decide against shortcuts. Retention is your friend but not your best friend. Prepare yourself to absorb & understand the information and allow it to frame your future projects.

Know your stuff.

~ Al

P.S. Starting November 2, 105, the PMP® the testing process will undergo several changes. Read more here.