Journey to PMP

On December 16th, after only a few hours sleep, I was awoken by someone falling and crashing in the kitchen.  I looked at the clock, it was 4am and my heart was racing.  I groaned and shoved my face back into my pillow.  I closed my eyes but I knew it was hopeless.  I was scheduled to take my PMP exam this afternoon and I would be too nervous to settle down now.  Still for the next four hours I stubbornly fought to fall back asleep again.  At 8am I crawled out of bed defeated.  I couldn’t cancel the day of the exam without losing the hundreds of dollars that was paid for it but I also couldn’t help but feel that my chances of passing this exam would be slim.

I am good at taking exams.  I don’t tend to get to anxious and I’m good at studying.  I’d just finished my masters and I had exams down to a fine art.  That being said I was still really nervous about this exam.  For one thing everyone seemed to say it was really hard.  I knew smart experienced people often didn’t pass it.  I also had a lot riding on it.  My work place had paid for a two week boot camp and was fronting my initial exam fee.  I felt like I had to pass to make that investment worth it.  Finally, after three years of grad school I’d had enough of studying to last a lifetime and I couldn’t face another month or two of cramming.  Christmas was coming and I was determined to not study through it.

This wasn’t the first time I had encountered PMI’s project methodology material.  Back in 2008 I had received an online certificate from the local college and in 2013 I had taken a project management for IT course.  I should know the material.  Still there were changes with the new version of the PMBOK5 and I had been told that it wasn’t enough to know the material I had to know how the exam creators wanted me to interpret the material, and truthfully this perspective did not always seem logical.

Still, I’d studied quite a bit.  The PMP boot camp was five days and taught by a very experienced project manager from Seven Wonders Learning.  I left the class feeling much more comfortable with the material but I still felt that I had a lot more studying to do before I was ready for the exam.  I scheduled my exam for three weeks later knowing that if I waited too long I would lose momentum and would have to start over months later, but this time without the boot camp.  I read through the slides from the class, retook the class quizzes, reread or skimmed the chapters from Rita’s book and took the end of chapter exams.  Two weeks in I started taking free full length exams on the Exam Central site.  I practiced laying out the process chart cards a couple of times each day.  I struggled with the procurement chapter but found a video online that was helpful in understand when to use each one.  At the end of this I felt simultaneously ready and like I could study for another month.

That afternoon I arrived early at the Prometric exam center.  They brought me in early and had me put everything I had in a locker, including my snacks and a water.  I had four hours to take the exam and once the clock started it wouldn’t stop for anything, including bathroom and water breaks.  I was checked thoroughly and then escorted into a small, airless room about the size of a closet.  The exam center is used for administering many types of exams so the room was mostly full of test takers along with the myriad of little coughing and typing noises that a small room crammed with people in cubicles are inevitably filled with.  Typing, shifting, coughing and the incessant opening and shutting of the door I had been placed right next two.  I put in the ear plugs I had brought, eschewing the large noise cancelling headphones. I had a pad of paper, pencil, and two carefully allocated Kleenexes.  If I needed more I’d have to use these and then request more from the apathetically friendly young people manning the center.

I can’t tell you anything specific about the test itself but I will tell you my impressions.  My guess is that there is a large bank of exam questions that the exam randomly pulls from.  Although I’m sure the questions are meted out according to a percentage by knowledge area, the questions within that knowledge area may very well be similar.  For many topics I felt that I got asked essentially the same questions over and over again.  My advice is go with the best answer even if it seems unlikely since you just answered it three times prior.  Unfortunately this may mean that if you don’t know something it may have a disproportionate impact on you as you could get the same thing wrong more than once.

Another thing I realized is that there are “tricks” in the questions but mine weren’t overly devious.  I had been given the advice to read the last two sentences at the end of long questions and figure out what they are trying to ask before reading the whole thing.  This was good advice.  Many people run out of time and I think that this is because they start jumping into complex analyses or calculations with out realizing that there was some wording that let you know the answer, often with no calculations at all.  I was only really caught out trying to over complicate a question once.  I quickly realized that calculating the paths given me in one of the network diagram questions was a fools errand that would take me 20 minutes.  A quick re-scan of the question revealed information that made the hairy seeming question very very simple.

After two hours of intense concentration I finished my first pass through of the exam.  I left the room for a short break and came back to review my marked answers.  At that point I was so tired that I realized I was changing them to wrong answers, so I changed them back and gave up on going back to them.  I realized that I was over thinking it.  I was nervous to hit that done button as it is so very final, but I realized I just had to do it and live with the result.  After an agonizing survey the result came up that I had passed on my screen.  It was all I could do not to cry in gratitude.  I left the testing center wrung out but elated.  It was done, over.  I proud moment for me.

Unfortunately my fellow boot camp student haven’t taken it yet. I’ve tried to encourage them but in the end it is just something you have to commit to doing and then just do.  For those of you out there working toward the exam my final thoughts are these:

1) Commit and do it – Yes it is a lot of work and can be stressful but you can do this and if you drag it out it is much more painful

2) Do study hard – Although the test didn’t seem that hard to me, you do need to really know the material.  Don’t think you can just get by on experience or a cursory familiarity.  You need to at least get a good study guide and understand how PMI views project management and each knowledge area.

3) Beware of tricks but don’t think you can’t catch them.  They really aren’t that devious. Just be aware that they will try to distract you with unnecessary information to get you to go into automatic, especially with calculations. You are smart enough to laugh at them, get the right answer, and move on.

4) Don’t endlessly add to your material – At some point you will have everything covered.  Some people I know kept adding books and apps but in the end you just need to get the bases covered and study what you have really well rather than try and study everything out there.

5) Don’t lose sleep over it.  If you are prepared and manage your time well you will do fine.  If you do lose sleep like I did, try not to lose all hope.  Apparently it can still be done.

So what was your experience studying and taking the PMP?  What did you find the most helpful?  Do you have any advice for those getting ready to sit for it?