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Creating a Test Plan for Passing the PMP Exam

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Learning is hard work, but your goal is to work smart, not just hard. If you want to pass the Project Management Professional (PMP) examination, you need more than years of experience and a book. You need to develop a plan to study, learn, memorize, and recall all sorts of project management tidbits. Joseph Phillips, PMP, Project+, and Certified Technical Trainer+, walks through a sensible plan for passing the fifth edition of the PMP exam.

Don't miss the first article in this series, Passing the New PMP Exam with PMBOK Guide Fifth Edition.

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As of July 31, 2013, the Project Management Institute (PMI) changed the Project Management Professional (PMP) exam, adding new objectives, a new knowledge area, and new processes for the test. Of course, this news is founded on the PMI book, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Fifth Edition (hereafter referred to as the PMBOK Guide).

If you want to pass the PMP exam, you'll first need to qualify for the exam and then create a plan for how you'll pass the test. Let's get that part straight right away: Your goal is pass the test. Your goal is not to take the test. Your goal is not to get a perfect score. Your goal is simply to pass the test. In order to pass the test, you'll need to answer 106 questions correctly out of 175.

Wait a minute. As everyone knows, the PMP exam has 200 questions, not 175 questions. But you might not know that the exam has 25 "seeded questions," which PMI calls "pre-test questions." These questions aren't pre-test for you; they're pre-test questions that haven't yet been added to the possible pool of PMP questions. Based on how PMP candidates answer these questions, PMI will judge whether the questions are too easy, too hard, or just ridiculous enough to be added to the pool of questions for future exam takers. On your test, these seeded questions are sprinkled among the 175 questions that count toward your passing score. You won't know whether you're answering a pre-test question or a live question, so you have to answer all of the questions with the same intensity.

Creating an Exam Success Strategy

You're a project manager. If you were assigned a project to build a condo, develop new software, upgrade a network, or any other possible task, you'd need to create a project management plan. You'd identify all of the requirements for the project and then map a way to achieve the goals of the project customer. Why should your effort to pass the PMP exam be any different?

Think of the "Triple Constraints of Project Management" (time, cost, and scope):

  • Scope. You already know the scope of this exam project: Pass the test.
  • Cost. You know the cost of the exam: $405 (PMI member) or $555 (nonmember).
  • Time. What's your timeline? When can you feasibly pass the exam? If you're like most people taking my PMP Boot Camp, I recommend a solid two weeks of preparing (including my 40-hour PMP Boot Camp course). If you don't have two consecutive weeks available, I recommend no more than one month of preparing. Why just one month max? As with most projects, the longer the goal sticks around, the greater the risk, change, and headache—and the more likely the endeavor is to fail.

    Can you possibly prepare to pass the PMP exam in a month or less? You can. I've already coached lots of people to do this; and if they can do it, so can you. I'll show you how.

Before we get into the specific scheduling, you'll need to commit to some other things for your exam success strategy:

  1. If you haven't yet completed your PMP application on PMI's website, do it now. It's not a quick application, and it can take some time to get approved. Let PMI work on the approval process while you're preparing to pass. No reason to do a month's worth of preparation, only to come to a grinding halt because you didn't submit the exam application yet.
  2. Once your application has been approved, immediately schedule your exam. Why do it immediately? Because you need to work toward a deadline. Don't be a sissy and delay the exam over and over. You have to pass the exam within one year of being approved, but you won't need anywhere need that much time. I know several project managers who went through the process and then chickened out, never scheduling the exam. Procrastination will kill you on this effort. You're going to pass the PMP exam—set a deadline and make it happen.
  3. Choose a place to study—somewhere quiet, uninterrupted, clean, and well-lit. If you're lucky enough to have a home office, there you go. I've worked with other PMP candidates who didn't have the luxury of a home office, so they commandeered an after-work conference room or a space in a library. I know of more than one PMP who hunkered down in a rented cabin for a week, to study and be unreachable. Find a solution that works for you—but you'll need a "PMP Exam Study Headquarters." Remember: Clean, well-lit, and distraction-free are all important ways to describe your exam headquarters.

Now, you need to commit to a few rules for your study strategy:

  • Commit to a schedule of exam prep work. Whatever schedule you create, you must adhere to it. No, you can't study later. No, you can't browse Reddit for pictures of kittens. No, you can't watch your favorite episode of Matlock. If you want to pass the test, you must create and stick to the schedule. Study every day at the same time. I recommend you start studying at the time when your exam is scheduled to commence—might as well get your brain into PMP mode. How long to study? One to four hours at a time if you're doing a monthly schedule. If you're taking the two-week approach, dig in and immerse yourself in the materials. Alternate four hours to six hours one day, and then break up the next day with smaller segments of review.
  • Choose your resources and commit to them. It's tough to choose among the many different resources available for the PMP exam. I've written two books on the PMP exam and I'm proud of them, but plenty of other choices exist for materials. Hundreds—maybe thousands—of discussion groups, websites, articles, and email newsletters have been written about the PMP exam. Less is more. I recommend choosing two or three books, including A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Fifth Edition, plus maybe an online PMP class, and that's it. It's easy to find conflicting information, junk information, fictional exam secrets, and tons of other crap online that play to your exam anxieties. Nope, not gonna let you do it. Pick your resources now and forget the rest.

    In case you want to check out my exam prep books, the latest versions are PMP Project Management Professional Study Guide, Fourth Edition (McGraw-Hill Osborne Media, published June 2013) and CAPM/PMP Project Management Certification All-in-One Exam Guide, Third Edition (McGraw-Hill Osborne Media, scheduled for publication September 2013).
  • Be healthy. You probably need to drink more water, eat healthy foods, and get more exercise. I'm not a health nut, though I've run a few marathons and I limit my beer intake (sad, I know). When you're prepping for something this exhausting, you need to put diet and exercise on your side. Just be smart about what you eat: No need to eat a giant fried chicken dinner with a pound of mashed potatoes right before study time, or chug a keg while you're trying to learn earned-value management. If you're sitting all day studying, you also should schedule some time to take a walk or fit in a workout.

What to Study to Pass the PMP

Yes, you need to study the PMBOK Guide for your exam. If you've selected some other materials to help you along, the PMBOK Guide can serve as a good reference point for those materials. If you're reading the PMBOK Guide straight up—well, it's pretty boring. It reads like a toaster manual, and it isn't always easy to comprehend. But your exam is based on it, so I recommend you have a copy on hand. Within the PMBOK Guide, you'll need to find and learn all you can about the project management processes. This isn't just memorizing the 47 project management processes, but rather understanding how to apply the processes in a given scenario.

The application of the processes often trips up would-be PMPs. For example, if you never get the chance to procure anything in your projects because all of the vendor management is handled outside of the project, the procurement chapter may be difficult for you. The same is true for any of the other processes. While you personally may not have experience with all 47 project management processes, you must understand how all of the processes work in a project. This is why the preparation is tricky and takes time and effort.

The 47 project management processes are sliced across five process groups:

  • Initiation
  • Planning
  • Executing
  • Monitoring and controlling
  • Closing

The processes are also divided among 10 knowledge areas:

  • Project Integration Management
  • Project Scope Management
  • Project Time Management
  • Project Cost Management
  • Project Quality Management
  • Project Human Resources
  • Project Communications Management
  • Project Risk Management
  • Project Procurement Management
  • Project Stakeholder Management

Now let's look at the 47 processes on which you'll be tested:

  • Project Integration Management (6 processes)
    • Develop Project Charter
    • Develop Project Management Plan
    • Direct and Manage Project Work
    • Monitor and Control Project Work
    • Perform Integrated Change Control
    • Close Project or Phase
  • Project Scope Management (6 processes)
    • Plan Scope Management
    • Collect Requirements
    • Define Scope
    • Create WBS
    • Validate Scope
    • Control Scope
  • Project Time Management (7 processes)
    • Plan Schedule Management
    • Define Activities
    • Sequence Activities
    • Estimate Activity Resources
    • Estimate Activity Durations
    • Develop Schedule
    • Control Schedule
  • Project Cost Management (4 processes)
    • Plan Cost Management
    • Estimate Costs
    • Determine Budget
    • Control Costs
  • Project Quality Management (3 processes)
    • Plan Quality Management
    • Perform Quality Assurance
    • Control Quality
  • Project Human Resources Management (4 processes)
    • Plan Human Resource Management
    • Acquire Project Team
    • Develop Project Team
    • Manage Project Team
  • Project Communications Management (3 processes)
    • Plan Communications Management
    • Manage Communications
    • Control Communications
  • Project Risk Management (6 processes)
    • Plan Risk Management
    • Identify Risks
    • Perform Qualitative Risk Analysis
    • Perform Quantitative Risk Analysis
    • Plan Risk Responses
    • Control Risks
  • Project Procurement Management (4 processes)
    • Plan Procurement Management
    • Conduct Procurements
    • Control Procurements
    • Close Procurements
  • Project Stakeholder Management (4 processes)
    • Identify Stakeholders
    • Plan Stakeholder Management
    • Manage Stakeholder Engagement
    • Control Stakeholder Engagement

Start Preparing Today

Just by reading this article, you've started the process of passing your PMP exam. This is part of your preparatory actions. Next up, complete your PMI exam application, find a study headquarters, and create a schedule that'll work for you. These are all things you can begin doing today—they're the easy part of passing the exam. The really hard part is dedicating yourself to the schedule and the actions that back it up. As with all projects, you can have and create a beautiful plan, but it's the execution of the plan that gets the thing done. Summon the dedication and then get busy learning all you can to pass the PMP examination.

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