By Mark E. Mullaly, PMP

This article was originally published on gantthead on October 16, 2002.

Long regarded as the crucial hurdle in attaining the Project Management Professional certification, the PMP examination inspires as much fear and loathing as finals did in high school and college. It also has inspired as many strategies today as we developed then for packing study into the least amount of time possible.

Never before have so many PMP exam preparation courses, guides, tools, techniques, and tactics been available. Exam preparation has become an entire sub-genre of training, and a profitable one at that. Candidates can choose from books, sample exams, flash cards, online sites, and training courses that all bill themselves as the ideal way to prepare for the examination. Almost every project management training course suggests that it also readies participants to pass the examination. Some go so far as to guarantee examination success.

Beyond the offerings of the consultants and training companies, PMI also presents its own study guide. Many PMI chapters provide PMP preparatory courses, as well as study circles and mentoring opportunities, as a service to their members. Some community colleges and technical training courses even offer comparable programs.

The flurry of advertising clearly demonstrates that there is a demand for help in preparing for the exam, but how much of it actually works? Does the hype meet the expectations? What does it really take to pass the exam successfully? In answering this question, it is important to recognize that we all have different approaches to studying and learning, and no one way will work perfectly for everyone. Based upon my own experience, and that of the dozens of others I have discussed the process with, there are a few key conclusions that are essential.

For starters, studying for the PMP exam really is a great deal like studying for an exam in high school. The focus is on the terminology, processes, and process boundaries within the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide). How you practically refer to concepts and practices in your professional role as a project manager is entirely irrelevant here; you are being tested on the terminology as PMI defines it. This means that the process of preparation is in large part an exercise in rote learning, and we need to acknowledge it as such. Think of the study approaches that worked well for you in high school (I know it’s a while ago, but work with me here) and chances are that they will serve you well again preparing for your PMP.

I recognize that at this point many will argue that the value of the PMBOK—and what the PMP principally demonstrates—is the understanding that comes of a common terminology, and it shouldn’t be dismissed as being generic or rote. And they are right, to an extent. The PMBOK, however, is not a process—and to practically apply the principles, we need to give meaning to terms that go well beyond how PMI has defined them. It is also important to recognize that many companies have long since defined their standards of project management, and the terms that we practically reference on the job may not fully or even closely align with the definitions of the PMBOK. That said, the principles of the PMBOK are a sound base for building our processes, and sustained knowledge of the PMBOK will serve us well as project managers.

This brings me to my greatest criticism of many of the preparation approaches and training offerings that are being commercially promoted today. They encourage cramming, not the development of long-term knowledge and comprehension. When we were in high school, our learning choices often reflected one of two avenues: learn the fundamentals of the principles being taught and, through a relatively deep understanding, be able to apply them to different situations and problems; or cram at the last minute, relying on short-term memory and triggers to recall the essentials, never to be recollected or used again. We face the same choice preparing for our PMP, but a significant number of development offerings are predicated on the assumption that it is the short-term “binge and purge” studying habits that most of us are looking for.

The worst offenders in PMP preparatory training are the boot camps that promise an intense, focused week of cramming and guarantee success in passing the exam. This is all well and good so far as getting a passing grade goes, but how well do we hold onto this information over time? If we were to write the exam again 12 months after the boot camp—or even two months later—would we remember sufficient information to pass with a comparable mark? Will we be able to demonstrate our ongoing understanding of the PMBOK? And if we can’t, just what was the point in taking the exam in the first place?

When people pursue the PMP just to have a set of initials after their names, without taking the time to truly comprehend the underlying principles, they are doing both themselves and the certification a huge disservice. If, as we discussed previously, the value of the exam is that it demonstrates a consistent understanding of terminology, then what is the point of going to the effort if we don’t retain that working knowledge? While studying for the PMP is indeed a whole lot like high school, we need to move beyond just using the tricks we once employed to get by. We need to start focusing on true scholarship and being able to apply the principles and concepts. While our means of learning may well be different, it is the understanding and retention of what we are taught that is essential–not our ability to regurgitate it in a brief four-hour window in an exam.

Mark Mullaly is subject matter expert for the Project & Program Management department on and the author of gantthead’s Project Management in Practice column.

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