11 Years in the Making - Lessons From Passing PMP

As my fellow PMs at work told me after I passed THE test (July 6, 2013), I’m now a certified cat herder!    Personally, this has been a very long trip, taking my first ‘boot camp’ in 2002!  And again in 2003, 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013.  Delays are what happen with life and when you are a SME on key applications & databases in your company and given major projects around those applications to drive.  But, 13 seems my lucky number and finally done after 11 years!

Now I am sharing to encourage everyone here to keep going, confident, the award for the longest study timeline is mine.    

Preparation Plan:

2012 – Attended 4 day boot camp over 4 Saturdays provided by Becker Professional Education and sponsored by PMI Pennsylvania Keystone Chapter.  Excelled class to get one to think in the PMI mind-set and provided the basic mathematical skills to attack what you need to know.   With the class spread out over four weeks, there was enough time to read the book, review notes and start to get it.  The text book was PMP Exam  Success Series:  Boot Camp Manual.  What was the most valuable was the in class slide book where I wrote my detail notes.  The instructor broke each process group down into small details, this is what is important to know, you can skip these things (Expert Judgment, its everywhere!)  Right after the class, here comes more project work needing 10 to 12 hour days.

2013 – Attended 4 day, one week boot camp from  RMC (Rita’s training organization.)  This class was sponsored by my company and was well attended.  The basic tenant of the class is you have read Rita’s book once and understand her process chart.  I was last minutes add to the class and didn’t prepare.   Key points were encouragement and positive attitude the instructor provided.  Bonus, as a class member, was entitled to a full copy of Rita’s test simulator software.  Large projects are done and slowly ramping up two software installed projects, so now is my time to do this!  Lets get into the nits and grits......

Preparation Approach: 

Reviewed class notes and the Becker Professional Education Review Participant Guide (these were the slides presented during a boot camp from 2012), taking note of the important input/tools/output that instructor recommended.   I wrote up large format index cards the  I/Os, calculations, tools and tips for each knowledge area and used the cards to study from (I can always go back to the book as had written page numbers on each card a reference.)

After reviewing Becker information, read the related Rita chapter.  Read the chapter VERY carefully, high-lighting every little tip in her book.  I called these gold nuggets.  Knowing these nuggets paid off in the exam as these one-liners of PMIism would fit a question to a 'T'.   Made up example:  “A stakeholder calls the PM to the office and goes over new scope he wants added to the project.  The new scope must be delivered with all other requirements.  What is the first thing the PM does?”  Check for impacts to cost, schedule, resources, budget, etc.  of course!  That was a Rita gold nugget, check for impacts first, not issue a change control!

Next I used Rita's Practice Exam software.   What I liked about her exam is the easy review of incorrect answers either during the test or as a review; you get detail explanations on the answer with a page reference back to Rita’s book.   My plan was to complete a chapter, take a 25 question test for the specific knowledge area and went back over my notes and Rita’s book, retest and then moved onto the next topic.   Also would answer all end of chapter questions in her book.

In terms of simulated testing,  I took two, four hour test using Rita’s software:  once in the boot camp and once the day before the exam.   Rita has an option to take what she call’s SuperPMP, these are the more difficult questions, great to assure myself I understood the knowledge area without taking a full 4 hours to test.

The boot camp did provide a very thick ‘flash card’ book by Rita.  One page has a PMP question; the back side of the page had the detail of the answer.   I used the flash cards to review every available moment, it is handy and quick.  Use your commute time (train or bus) to go through the flash cards.

Last thing was to prepare my dump sheet.  This is a sheet of paper(s) with all the formulas, PMIisms, definitions and anything else I wanted to remember to write down before the exam start (taking the time during the exam tutorial to write these things down I needed to remember, but, could forget in the passion of the moment.)  Point, the only thing you get to take into the test center is between your ears.  Have the dump sheet in your memory fresh, ready to go, when you sit down.  Every day I copied this sheet to build up muscle memory (yes, your fingers will remember how to write the formula for TCPI.)  Copies of my dump sheet were posted all over my home (bath rooms, microwave oven, next to the TV remote, on doors) so I had every opportunity for a quick review every day.  (Little story, when I got home after the exam and told my 21 year old daughter I passed, she went all over the house ripping these sheets of paper down, she was sick of seeing them!)

Total time to prepare:  Attending 4 day boot camp, study evening the next week.  Took the following two weeks off to devote 10 to 12 hours a day to studying.   Total duration: 4 weeks (not counting the past 10 years!)

What was hard on the exam:

- Reading the actual test questions were no harder than reading Rita's SuperPMP questions.   Some of the PMI questions I though, didn't I see this as one in a Rita's question? Did PMI copy Rita’s simulation questions?

-  Know EV formulas, TCPI is your friend!  Drill on EV and do test questions every day, got to know it cold.  Know them like the Drill Sergeant is screaming in your ear!  Yes, think of Gunny Sergeant R. Lee Ermey  ( from the Military Channel’s Mail Call or from the movie Full Metal Jacket.)   You got to put’em together, take them a-part, and use’em in your sleep!

-  Know EAC and ETC for typical (re-occurring events during the project – EAC = AC +(BAC – EV) /CPI ) and a-typical (happen once in the past EAC = AC + (BAC – EV) ) situations. 

- Standard EAC (EAC = BAC/CPI) and ETC (ETC =  EAC – AC)

-  Understand the zero day method for calculating critical path and float on network diag.  Also,  the table method for finding critical path without doing the network forward/backward calculation came in handy. 

-  Know what the cost of quality and what goes into the cost.  This takes some careful reading of Rita’s to understand quality.  Know the fathers of quality and what they contributed to the quality movement.  

-  Read the question and think for a second what is being asked of the PM.  Made up example:  With a long table of network tasks and duration, question, what is the total float on the critical path?  READ CAREFULLY now is not the time to speed!

-  Know contract types and the calculation for total contract cost with CRIF.  When you would use a fix fee, Time and Material,  Cost Reimbursement contracts.   Who has the advantage for each type, buyer or seller.

What else helped?

-Using words to remember process grouping, here is my example for Scope Knowledge Area:  RDSWVC.  My good friend Rdswvc and I are going crab fishing on the Southwestern (a tip of the hat to Deadliest Catch.)  Southwestern = Scope process group;  My friend: R = collect Requirements; DS = Define Scope; W = create WBS; V = Verify scope; C = Control scope.   The fee cost calculation is three steps,  my trick was to remember the first letter of each step:  SBCT.  Next I made the letters into a simple to remember expression: SBCT = Super saving Bonus Contract Type.  Here is how the sentence translated back into the formula:

Super savings = Target Cost – Actual Cost

BONUS = Savings x Percentage

Contract Cost = Bonus + Fees

Total cost = Actual Cost + Contract Cost

-   Have an approach to taking the test before hand.  From taking full length practice tests,  if after 2 hours I hit 100 questions, then I am on-track.  Any additional questions, time in the bank to use at the end for review questions.  Know what your point is for marking questions for review.  For me, at the 4th reading of the question or answers,  I marked it for review and moved on.  Any of the EV calculations or heavy critical path questions were marked for review and I moved on.  Don’t send 5 minutes on a question on the first pass.  Make your goal to either answer or mark all 200 in the first pass.

-  My time to complete the first pass of the test was 3 hr, 30 min.  The approach was then to go back over the review questions doing the ones without answers first, EVs went to the bottom of my priority list where I could take 3 or 4 minutes to think through.  In the end, all review questions were completed with 2 minutes left.   At that point, started to write on paper the areas I had problems with so to remember afterwards.  My objective was to write those areas down again when I got back to my car while they are fresh on the mind.

- I did not take a time out for the bathroom and a protein bar.  After 3 hours, I felt OK and used that 10 minutes allocated to keep moving.

-   "know the cost of poor quality."  If I failed the PMP test, then the cost of non-conformity is more nights of studying, $$$ cost for a retest, and losing a day off from work to take it again on a Monday (allowing a weekend to study.)  The goal being to re-test before PMPOK 5 kicks in on July 31.

-  For each question, jump to the last sentence first.  This sentence is what is being asked, sets you up to interpret the rest of the question.  (Made up example:  What is the first thing the Project Manager will do?)  Remember, the body of the questions has fluff and smoke, knowing the real question cuts through it. Here, the situation is what do I need to do first.   Next…..

-  Read the answer from the BOTTOM UP, last first! Us humans will jump to what seems like the best guess right away, more so in a timed test.  Resist, start from the bottom and read the answers; then if need be, read again from the bottom and make your selection (the answer solves the problem at hand; the pro-active solution that fixes the root-cause;  SOLVE the PROBLEM with a carrot and not the stick; the least negative impact on the project;  Will the corrective action bring the project back to baseline in the future?) Reading bottom up allows you brain to reference everything you have learned and not jump at the first thing.

-  Still confused?  Then mark the question for review and move on.  Come back at the end and use the remaining time to pick an answer.  Remember, if you can remove two answers, there is a 50% / 50% change of selecting the correct one from the remaining two.

Bottom line:

I used Becker’s Participation Guide as my road map and Rita’s book, boot camp, plus all my notes, to fill in the rest.   What I didn’t understand or needed confirmation,  turned to Internet thing with Mr. Google,  Mr. Bing and PM Zilla.  The Rita’s class is the polish before taking the PMP exam, you should have read her book three times before hand (yes, 3 times to get it into your head.)  In my 2013 boot camp class of 12 PMs,  8 have already taken the test and passed!  The PMBOK is a guide/reference book; use it with a review book or method like Rita to build your foundation.  I am sighting Rita here as it worked for me, and it had been recommended for years by those who had passed the exam before me.  I am not an employee of RMC.


With all the life and project delays that kept me from studying for 11 years, will say if I can pass, so can you!  Don’t be afraid of taking it and failing, Tom Edison found over 1,200 compounds that don’t work in a light bulb before he tested Tungsten.  PMI offers retest, so make that your mitigation plan and move forward as if you cannot fail.



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