Tips for Passing the PMP Exam


by Bill Meacham, PMP

Copyright © 2002, William Meacham. All rights reserved. Permission to reproduce is granted provided the work is reproduced in its entirety, including this notice.
Originally posted on

In my former career I was a project manager, certified by the Project Management Institute as a Project Management Profession (PMP). You have to pass a fairly strenuous exam in order to get that certification, and many people have found this account of the exam to be helpful in their preparation for it.

I passed my PMP exam on April 30, 2002, with a score of 83.5% (167 questions answered correctly out of 200 total questions). I agreed not to divulge the content of any of the questions, but I believe the following tips, including some information about the format of the exam, are permitted. Please note that each test is unique; they select a set of questions out of a universe of many more. This means my experience may not match yours. For instance, I had no questions about standard deviation and none about present value. That does not mean you will not have any. Your mileage may vary.


The exam covers lots of ground! If you are weak in a certain area but strong in the rest you will probably do OK, but if you are weak in many areas you might have trouble. Make sure you are very strong in your strong areas.

You definitely need some on-the-ground experience managing projects.

Format of Questions

You get a question and four possible answers; you must pick the correct answer. Some of the questions have diagrams, charts or other exhibits associated with them. Read the question and think about it before looking at the answers. Read the answers from the bottom up. This is a tip I got from Rita Mulcahy, and it seemed to help. It prevents you from latching onto the first answer, which may be plausible but incorrect.

Often you can eliminate one or two obviously wrong answers right off the bat, but the other two are both plausible. You need to get in the PMI mindset and know the PMBOK to answer them correctly.

Study Tips

You only need 69% to pass, but aim a lot higher!

Rita Mulcahy's book was very helpful. Kerzner was useless for me. An excellent source for information about earned value and many other topics is Harvey Levine's writings.

The exam prep course given by the Austin chapter of PMI was invaluable. There are lots of things you need to know that are not in the PMBOK, and the course covered them well.

Here is my strategy. (Remember, what worked for me might not work for you. Know your own learning style.)

  • I read the entire PMBOK and underlined and highlighted it before the prep class started.
  • Each week I re-read the chapter for that week, and did the exercises the night before. In cases where I knew I needed more information, I did extra research.
  • After the class was over I went through Rita Mulcahy's book. Thus, I had three passes through the materials.
  • I scheduled my exam for about a week and a half after the last class, so the knowledge was pretty fresh in my mind.
  • I scheduled the exam on a Tuesday so I could take Monday off for study. I studied the weekend and the Monday before, quitting early Monday evening when I could not stand it any more.
  • I worked with a study partner (my wife, Patricia Michael) during the weekend. She asked me questions from the sample exams, and we would talk about the answers. She manages projects too, so we had a common basis for understanding.
  • In addition to reading and working exercises in Mulcahy's book, I took a lot of sample tests. That seemed to help. It certainly pointed out where I needed additional study.
  • I had a big breakfast, extra vitamins and some caffeine ahead of time.
  • I picked a day and time when the moon was not void and my intellectual biorhythm was at its peak. Shave the odds in your favor!

In the Exam Room

You are given two pencils and six sheets of paper. If you ask, you can get a four-function calculator and a set of earplugs. You will need all these materials, except maybe the earplugs. You have to return them at the end, and the test administrator will check to see that all materials are returned. You may not take any paper home.

You have fifteen minutes to go through the tutorial, and you will not need all of that time. Use some of the time to write down all the formulas you can remember. (Memorize them ahead of time!) I was able to write down formulas before I even started the tutorial. I did not use all the formulas I wrote down, but I was glad for the ones I did use.

You can mark questions in order to return to them later. Do not mark questions which you are confident that you answered correctly. Do not mark questions on which you just took your best guess. Very seldom will a second guess be better than your first one. I marked all the questions that involved calculations (e.g., earned value and critical path) and a few others. I did not change my answer on the calculation questions, and did change my answer on a couple of the others. I have no idea whether my changed answers or my original answers were correct.

To me, it was a little chilly in there. I took a zip-up vest for warmth.

It was very quiet in the exam room, and I had no trouble concentrating, except when a woman sat down next to me wearing very heavy perfume. That was annoying.

Lots of people are in there taking lots of tests. Most tests do not seem to last four hours, as the PMP exam does, so there was some coming and going. I had no trouble ignoring it.

You can get up for a bio-break whenever you want, but the clock is still running. It is a rather grueling four hours, and I needed some breaks. I got through it OK, although I was hungry at the end and had a wave of tiredness at about three hours into it.

You do not get to take a watch in the exam room, but the computer shows you how much time remains.

I noticed at least one way in which one could probably cheat, but I am bound by the PMI code of ethics not to reveal it. You're better off not cheating anyway. Spend the effort studying instead of figuring out how to cheat.

Earned Value

You need to know the theory behind earned value analysis as well as the formulas. You may be given some information from which you will have to figure out what is not given and how to calculate it. If you do not know the meaning of EV, PV, AC, etc., you will not know how to calculate it.

Some of the earned value questions were straightforward: given values for EV, PV and AC, calculate the cost variance or schedule variance.

Some of the questions say "EV (BCWP)," some say "EV" only and some say "BCWP" only. You need to know both sets of terminology.

I needed to know the formulas for calculating EAC.

Network Diagrams and Critical Path

Questions relating to critical path are straightforward. You just need to calculate correctly.

Rita Mulcahy had a good tip: List all the possible paths (e.g. A-B-C-D-E, A-B-H-G-E, etc.) in some logical order so you do not overlook a path. Then calculate the duration of each path.

The same example can appear in more than one question. For instance, you may be given a network diagram from which you have to calculate something. The same network diagram may appear in another question, where you are asked something different about it. On your scratch paper, write down the question number that pertains to your calculations, so you can go back and look it if the same example appears in another question. If you are sure that the examples are identical, you can reuse your calculations from the first question.

Situational Questions

Many of the questions are situational: given a certain situation, what should you as Project Manager do next? To answer them you need to know what the PMBOK says about the sequence of events, you need to have some actual PM experience so you know what they are talking about, and you need to know the code of ethics.

The same situation can appear in more than one question.

Professional Responsibility

I only had a few questions that obviously dealt with professional responsibility. Some of the situational questions required knowledge of the code of ethics as well as good project management practices.

PMBOK Taxonomy

There are questions about the inputs, tools and techniques, and outputs of the various knowledge areas. The more you know, the better.

Good luck!

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