Creating Your PMP® Study Plan - The Complete Guide
Stephen R. Covey, in his best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, famously stated: “Start with the end in mind.” Applying this concept to studying for and passing the Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification exam means understanding what material is covered on the exam, how the PMP® exam is structured to test your comprehension and knowledge, and developing and following a study plan. Starting with the end in mind allows you to treat your study plan like a project, maximize your time and resources, and increases your ability to get your PMP certification.
In this article, I am going to show you how to create your very own PMP study plan step by step. We begin with a general overview and then quickly move on to nearly a dozen best practices that we have identified. You will know exactly what to do!
But let me qualify this: No two people have the same experiences or expertise, nor does everyone learn in the same manner. Therefore, the best way to study for the PMP exam will be based on your personal learning likes and needs. Additionally, there is no reason to be overwhelmed at the prospect of developing study plan, as there is a wealth of resources available to exam candidates that allow you to mix and match resources fit to your specific needs, style of learning, and individual circumstances while you prepare for the exam.
Not the least of which is the wisdom gained from analyzing the lessons learned from thousands of successful PMP candidates that I have helped pass their PMP exam. The following tips and best practices summarize techniques successful exam candidates have used to leverage their time and resources to pass the PMP exam.
- Chapter 1What is the Best Way to Study for PMP Exam?
- Chapter 2How to Prepare for PMP Exam?
- Chapter 3How do I Develop a PMP Study Plan?
- Chapter 4Thoroughly Prepare for the PMP Exam
- Chapter 5Know How to Study for the PMP Exam and Pass
- Chapter 6Develop a PMP Exam Preparation Plan
- Chapter 7Prepare a PMP Exam Schedule
- Chapter 8Studying for PMP also means Vocabulary Drills
- Chapter 9Your PMP Exam Study Plan Succeeds with a Partner
- Chapter 10PMP Study Notes that Really Make a Difference
- Chapter 11A PMP Plan Also Looks Outside A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)
- Chapter 12Your PMP Preparation Plan MUST Include Practice Exams
- Chapter 13PMP Exam Timetable
- Chapter 14Use a PMP Study Plan Template
- Chapter 15Summary of Creating Your PMP Certification Study Plan
What is the Best Way to Study for PMP Exam?
The best way to study is to thoroughly understand what is covered on the exam. And then create and follow a PMP study plan.
The PMP exam is based on A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). First and foremost, read, study, and understand (don’t try to memorize) the PMBOK® Guide. It is the foundation of how to prepare for the PMP exam and illustrates the depth and breadth of the material covered. This point cannot be overstated: your personal project management experience and expertise are absolutely necessary to qualify for taking the exam and understanding how to perform project management activities, but only as they apply to the material presented in the PMBOK® Guide.
While the PMBOK® Guide provides the basis and foundation for the exam, it will not function as a template to pass the exam, which is based on applying the principles from the guide to project situations.
However, there are many ways to prepare; on the top of the list is becoming involved in your local Project Management Institute (PMI)® Chapter, which is full of folks willing to share their knowledge and experience on how to study for the PMP exam and pass. Additionally, there are numerous published books and online resources that provide invaluable insights and tips on how to pass. Most of these resources provide study guides, assistance with concepts, tips for studying and passing the PMP exam, as well as practice exams that let you gauge your comprehension and learning progress.
How to Prepare for PMP Exam?
Starting with the end in mind and understanding how the PMP exam is structured is critical to developing a study plan and passing the exam.
The exam is a 200 question, multiple choice test that must be completed in four hours. Additionally, the allocation of exam questions is tied to the relative importance and frequency of use of the five Project Management Process Groups, with three of the Process Groups: Planning, Executing, and Monitoring and Controlling, being the source areas of the majority of the questions.
During the PMP exam, questions are generated randomly and not systematically by Project Management Process Groups or Knowledge Areas. This information is key to developing your study plan and test taking strategy.
Only 175 of the exam questions count toward your score, the remaining 25 are being “beta tested” for use on future exams; you will not know or be informed which are the 25 questions that don’t count toward you exam score.
Another very important, and often overlooked, area for understanding the exam structure is “PMP vocabulary” – the PMBOK® Guide has an extensive vocabulary that is crucial to understanding Project Management Knowledge Areas and Process Groups, and passing the PMP exam. The Glossary (starting on page 695) is an invaluable source of common acronyms and definitions needed to study and pass.
How do I Develop a PMP Study Plan?
Understand your needs, define the scope and tailor your plan specifically to what your personal approach calls for.
Analysis of lessons learned from successful exam candidates show there are common study plan Best Practices:
- Knowing what to study
- Knowing how to study
- Preparing a study plan
- Developing a study schedule
- Know the vocabulary
- Get a study partner
- Know what study notes make a difference
- Know how to use practice exams
And so it is no surprise that the same review of these lessons learned from the experiences of thousands of certified PMP’s supports that the best way to study for the PMP exam is by developing a study plan tailored to your expertise, experience, and project management knowledge. How to prepare for the PMP exam is similar to preparing for a project:
- Define the scope (material to study)
- Define the deliverables (milestones of understanding based on Project Management Knowledge Areas and Process Groups)
- Develop a schedule to complete your studying for PMP certification.
We review the best practices and the feedback learned from the students below.
Thoroughly Prepare for the PMP Exam
The best way to prepare for the PMP exam is to start by completely studying and carefully considering the entire PMBOK® Guide. This cannot be reiterated enough – the PMP certification is based on what is contained in the PMBOK® Guide. Especially if you have many years' experience in project management, completely read the guide. One of the main reasons unsuccessful candidates have cited for not passing the exam on their first attempt is because they assumed their years' of project management experience were all that was needed to pass the exam.
The PMBOK® Guide does an excellent job of identifying fundamental aspects of project management; specifically, the Inputs, Tools, Techniques, and Outputs (ITTO) associated with the Project Management Process Groups and Knowledge Areas.
It is more important to understand the how's, why's, and relationships between ITTO than it is to attempt to memorize them. Passing your PMP certification exam is all about understanding ITTO relationships, not memorizing facts.
Know How to Study for the PMP® Exam and Pass
Studying is much more than just “reading” the PMBOK® Guide and other sources of information.
Studying takes dedication, perseverance, and an understanding what type of “learner” you are, all of which will determine how well and effectively you prepare for the exam. For example, do you learn best through reading (books, online, etc.), visually (graphics, video, etc.), listening (Podcasts, books on CD, etc.) or combinations of all these? Knowing what type of learner you are goes a long way to helping you develop your study plan for PMP.
Whatever style of learning works best for you, there are a lot of resources tailored to your learning style(s). Review and select one or more published and/or online PMP study guides and exam preparation tools that fit your learning style – there are many to choose from, such as Head First PMP (Greene and Stellman), PMP Exam Prep (Rita Mulcahy), and the full suite of PMP examination resources offered The PM PrepCast.
Develop a PMP Exam Preparation Plan
Baselining your project management knowledge against the PMBOK® Guide is considered a best way to develop a preparation/study plan. It is very important to identify your areas of strengths and weakness (gap analysis) relative to the PMBOK® Guide, as this provides feedback on where you need only to review and polish your understanding versus those areas that require more effort and/or serious study to overcome the gap between what you know and what you need to know to pass the exam. It is also important to continuously evaluate your study progress to make sure you baseline knowledge gap is being closed.
It is also a good best practice to adapt the guide's chapters as 'phases' of your PMP exam preparation plan.
Watch this video with more ideas on developing your study plan:
Taking a PMP practice exam to benchmark your current understanding is the best way to define what and how you need to develop your personalized study plan. While there are numerous “free” PMP practice exams available that may appear tempting, they are generally not vetted, validated, or verified for accuracy and consistency with the examination content outline; your best choice is to use a proven source of PMP exam questions, such as the PMP Exam Simulator.
Once knowledge gaps are identified, developing and sticking to a study plan is the surest way to answer: “how do I get my PMP certification?”
Prepare a PMP Exam Schedule
Management “truisms” are validated every day on projects around the world:
- What can be measured can be managed; and
- That which is scheduled gets done.
How does this apply to studying for the PMP? Make studying priority and stick to it. Treat studying for the PMP exam like a project – plan the work and work the plan. This means developing meaningful milestones and a realistic schedule to implement your study plan and identify what you will study, when, and for how long. Also, be aware that your study schedule, just like any other project, can be affected by unforeseen events that require you manage the change, revise your schedule, and move on.
Many successful PMP exam candidates found creative ways to find “extra time” in their days for preparing for the PMP exam; for example, listening to a PMP Podcast during their daily commute and/or over their lunch breaks.
It has also been shown that studying for an hour or two every day is generally more effective than only devoting large blocks of time on weekends. Combining daily individual study with weekly group study events (where possible and practical) on weekends has been shown to be very effective.
Whatever schedule you develop, it is crucial that you are honest with yourself with respect to your ability to maintain the schedule and close the knowledge gap. Life happens, it is better to re-baseline your study schedule and/or reschedule your exam than it is to rush your studying and show up for the exam ill-prepared and risk not passing.
Studying for PMP also means Vocabulary Drills
One of the attributes of the PMP Certification that gives it cachet and value across borders, technical disciplines, and industries is a foundational lexicon that provides a common vocabulary shared by project managers worldwide. A lack of understanding of the PMBOK® Guide vocabulary is one of the most common causes of candidates not passing the exam on their first attempt. Therefore, it is doubly important that candidates thoroughly study and understand this vocabulary.
Learning a new vocabulary is very much like learning a new language, the same level of effort and, often frustration, commonly accompany this process. Learning a new vocabulary takes time, discipline, and dedication – but, like any large project, it can be broken down into “bite sized” pieces and systematically addressed. Again, the type of learner you are will decide what method works best for your personal vocabulary development, only you can choose the best method for you. However, there are common traits to all successful vocabulary development techniques:
How to Study and Retain all Glossary Terms
- Regular (daily) practice and repetition
- Build your vocabulary in small bites; whether alphabetically or by topic
- Systematically add new words to your vocabulary and review older words so they are retained in your memory.
- Use the new vocabulary as part of your daily work to help them "sink in".
Your PMP Exam Study Plan Succeeds with a Partner
Almost without exception, a partnership or team of like-minded individuals is significantly stronger, more productive, and more capable than any one individual.
It is not a coincidence that graduate Business Schools and Law Schools use the study-group approach to drive greater learning, higher individual performance, and improved graduation rates. These study groups meet once or twice a week to bolster and reinforce both individual and group learning activities, develop both team-building and leadership skills for all group members, and can lead to relationships that last a lifetime.
Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that what works in higher education is also one of the Best Practices for passing the exam: Study with a group, or have a study partner that can help "push" to dig deeper and try harder, as well as to provide support when the challenge seems overwhelming, or to share in your successes as learning mile stones are achieved on your journey to your certification.
Your co-workers or colleagues at your local PMI® Chapter are a great place to develop a local exam study group. In today's day and age, however, it is almost easier to find your study partner online. One of my students posted a 'looking for a study partner' message in our forums and received almost 100 responses!
Earning your certificate is a significant achievement, so increase your ability to pass the exam by enlisting others to help you help yourself.
PMP Study Notes that Really Make a Difference
There are as many philosophies on how and what types of note taking is “best” when studying as there are subjects to study.
However, one methodology has proven very successful for exam candidates – being able to replicate a "data dump" of important facts, concepts, and formulas in the first few minutes after your exam has officially started. More specifically, being able to recall from memory and produce:
- The Project Management Process Group and Knowledge Area Mapping matrix (PMBOK® Guide, Page 25)
- The key equations from Project Management Knowledge Area: Project Cost Management (PMBOK® Guide, Chapter 7)
Being able to produce this information on two pages of paper while your mind is fresh at the start of the actual exam will save you a great deal of time and stress during the exam.
But in order to do this at that time requires you have successfully been able to do this exercise numerous times very quickly – during your study sessions well before you have entered the exam center. Successful exam candidates routinely state this is one of the most important skills needed to pass the exam for two reasons:
- If you drill this material enough to be able to replicate it at the start of the exam, you may be so well prepared you will not need to refer to it; or
- By writing down the data dump in the first few minutes of the exam you do not have to worry about remembering these facts when questions arise, you just “look up” the information and use it.
Either way, these study notes will make a big difference in being able to pass the exam.
A PMP Plan Also Looks Outside the PMBOK® Guide
While the majority of information needed to pass the exam is included in the PMBOK® Guide, the guide often only presents a high-level discussion of each topic.
This means that for a more complete understanding and comfort in addressing these topics, additional supplemental knowledge gathering is required. This can be done by simply picking up an additional PMP exam prep book, or by taking an online PMP exam course that teaches these topics in their completeness.
Two examples of areas mentioned only briefly in the PMBOK® Guide are
- Team building, leadership, organizational dynamics (Maslow vs. McGregor vs. Herzberg) (mentioned in chapter 9)
- Stakeholder analysis and analytical techniques (mentioned in chapter 13)
The PMBOK® Guide's coverage of the topics is just enough to make one curious to understand the "why" behind the need, but for the details we have to look elsewhere.
These areas of supplemental study are generally covered sufficiently in non-PMBOK® Guide published sources to allow exam candidates to readily find and study this information. These supplemental areas generally only make up a handful of questions on the exam, but the material is straight forward and easy to understand and will make these types of questions “no stress” and easy to answer.
And by the way... if you are having a hard time finding good resources for where to look up obscure information (For example, do you know what a Tornado Diagram is?) then why not try Wikipedia? Wikipedia pages on project management are quite up to date and explain complex concepts in simple terms.
Your PMP Preparation Plan MUST Include Practice Exams
Take advantage of practice PMP exams as frequently as possible. In fact, use a PMP Exam Simulator!
Evaluate your exam results, paying special attention to the questions you did not answer correctly and why the correct answers are correct. Getting your PMP certification is based on your ability to think and respond as a project manager, not how well you memorized project management “facts.”
Practice exams are used for much more than just answering “typical” questions, they are used to be completely prepared for taking the exam. Ideally, a candidate will set aside a four-hour block of time (just like the actual exam) and work their way through the exam by either systematically answering the questions, or marking them for further consideration – repeating this process until the exam has been complete or the four-hour block of time has expired. Done in this way, the candidate gets to experience facsimiles of the exam experience so that when taking the actual exam, the candidate is comfortable with the testing situation, understands and is practiced at the pace necessary to answer the 200 questions in four hours, and already has experience in dealing with the relatively random mix of questions types and topics – there is no substitute for this type of exam preparation.
Many successful PMP exam candidates have stated the PM Exam Simulator was one of the most valuable study tools they used in preparing for the PMP exam.
PMP Exam Timetable
Starting with the end in mind also applies to taking the actual exam and having a timetable for how you will spend the four hours you have available.
There is no substitute for being well studied in preparation for the exam and using practice exams to hone your knowledge and test-taking approach. However, most successful candidates also have a simple, direct strategy and timetable for taking the exam.
They not only walk into the exam room with a clear timetable in their head, they have practiced it. A timetable should therefore be developed a long time before the actual exam date and then applied and updated whenever the student takes a complete preparation exam.
For example, one strategy that has worked for many candidates is to make multiple passes through the exam:
A Simple PMP Exam Timetable:
On the first pass, which typically takes one to two hours, they answer only those questions which are short and they immediately know the answer.
Longer questions and those involving understanding and addressing a situation or solving equations are marked during the first pass, so that they can be reviewed during the second pass.
In this third and final pass the student reviews those questions that are still marked as well as those that are still unanswered. The primary goal of this third pass is to ensure that no question remains unanswered. Guessing may be required.
Following this strategy, candidates do not inadvertently leave “low hanging fruit” questions -- where they know the answers -- unanswered. They don't spend time completing more involved questions where they don’t immediately know the answer until later in the exam when the “easy wins” have already been claimed.
Use a PMP Study Plan Template
Whenever I have to develop a new project plan, then I usually look at the ones I have created in the past and I use the one that closely matches my new project as a template. And if I don't have one, then I can probably find one online.
PMP students should do the same. They should use a PMP study plan template as their starting point.
The primary source to find such a template is by reading lessons learned from successful PMP students. Here is the recommended approach:
- Read at least 25 lessons learned from other students
- Make a list of their strategies, study approaches, schedules and tips
- Convert your notest into your own PMP study plan
The best part about doing it this way, is that by the end of this you will have read 25 lessons learned from other students and you have now become an expert in planning and scheduling your own PMP exam studies. This approach is incredibly beneficial for you!
But now everyone wants to spend that much time reading lessons learned -- no matter how beneficial it may be. And so the second approach is a bit less time intensive: Use someone else's plan as your PMP study plan template.
There is still some work involved in reviewing and adapting the template, but at least we have a starting point. Here are several templates for you to choose from:
Free PMP Study Plan Template Download:
Summary of Creating Your PMP Certification Study Plan
This complete guide to creating your PMP Study Plan and PMP Exam Study Schedule has hopefully explained everything you ever wanted to know about how to approach and plan your certification studies. In summary:
- You may want to start out by reading lessons learned or with a template.
- In order to know what to include in your plan you must first learn what you have to study by understanding what will be on the exam.
- You must know yourself so that you can determine what study techniques (reading, listening, or watching) is best suited for you.
- Developing your schedule based on PMBOK® Guide chapters is a good best practice and allows you to focus on one Knowledge Area at once.
- Having a study partner who holds you responsible for meeting your study targets is an incredible help.
- Keep notes and update your study plan as you progress forward.
- Taking practice exams with an online PMP exam simulator is an absolute must.
Now you have the complete picture about creating a plan for your studies. Why not check out some of these other articles to help you prepare for the rest of your PMP application?
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