How I passed the PMP without the PMBOK
(And Above Target across the board)
“Holy shit. I did it. I passed the PMP. How?”

This is exactly what I thought when I read “Congratulations”.  I sat there, staring at the screen in disbelief.  And that wasn’t even the biggest surprise.

I went to the front desk to check out and get my results.  The person handed me the paper, I looked at it, then promptly responded with “No fucking way”.  (Fortunately, the woman had a good sense of humor, and had a good chuckle at my surprise.)

Above Target.  In every domain.  What is happening?

Myth of the pmbok

The thing I’m probably most proud of is that I never opened the PMBOK.  Not once.

A part of this was due to it being an absolute bore to read (I did read a very small bit of the PMBOK years and years ago, version 4, possibly 5.  Excruciatingly boring).  Another part is because I can be a stubborn asshole, and everyone was saying “You have to read the PMBOK many times!”.

challenge accepted!

Look, the PMBOK is the industry standard, and I absolutely respect that.  It’s great as reference material and as a guideline, but to read it cover to cover…multiple times…brutal.  I knew I would just be spinning my wheels trying to consume the information effectively.

I know this approach won’t work for everyone.  If you feel like you should read the PMBOK, then read the PMBOK.  It could work for some.  However, don’t get strong-armed into reading it.  The world will tell you it’s a must.  But feel free to tell the world to piss off, and don’t read it.

The thing I’m probably most proud of is that I never opened the PMBOK.
Memorizing the ITTOs. Don’t bother.

Another fun fact about the typical study approach that you’ll run across – Memorize the ITTOs!  This one is almost as crazy as the requirement to read the PMBOK.  To focus your time on memorizing every single input, output, and tool.

I don’t know about you, but an undertaking like this sounds as fun as wrestling a bear with steaks strapped to your body.  Well…I guess just wrestling a bear in general.  The steaks may be overkill.

Bear wresting

Anywho...

I didn’t focus on memorizing anything.  Instead I focused on having an understanding of the flow of the processes, and identifying patterns.  The ability to think critically will serve you better than knowing every single ITTO.

I didn’t have any questions that said “What is the output of <insert process here>?”.  What I did get was something closer to say – having to know that before you can start any Scope planning, you must have a Project Charter.

Biggest takeawayFocusing on understanding the patterns and process flow, for me, was a success.  It saves a lot of time and headache.

Understanding and working with my study style

Full disclosure here, when I started studying for the PMP, I never knew of the study style concept.  I had a very vague idea of ways that I think I learn well, and ways I didn’t.  I was also aware that others learned certain ways.  However, I wasn’t able to articulate it, and I definitely wasn’t aware that there were actually defined study styles.

(Naturally, once I learned about this, I decided we should work on creating a quiz and a guide to help others understand this.  They can be found here.)

I learned that I was a Kinesthetic Learner...

…which essentially means being hands-on and learning by doing rather than hearing.  Then I learned that a good way to make this style work for the PMP was to read case studies, and ways to link the theories to the real world.

Once my brain was able to link the PMI theories to what they could look like in a real-life scenario, I was able to consume the information much quicker, and retain a hell of a lot more than before.

So, figure out your study style, choose material based on that, and kick some ass.

Order by Process Group, not Knowledge Area

We’re all aware that the PMBOK is ordered by Knowledge Area.  Most people (myself included) just assume that, since PMI does it that way, it’s the proper way to study.

Boy was I wrong.

Echo brought to my attention a really great video by Ricardo Vargas (here) that discussed the processes ordered by Process Group.  The idea behind this is that the flow of a real-life project is by Process Group, not Knowledge Area.

My initial reaction was something in the ballpark of – “Holy shit.  This is fucking gold!”

So Money

This was an enormous game changer.  I even printed out the process map on a huge 4’ x 4’ sheet and hung it on the wall, right next to where I study.  Being able to glance at that throughout the studying process was quite helpful.

I’ll discuss in more detail later when I go over the resources I used, but I was thrilled to find a resource that follows this same exact framework.

The main takeaway here – while I understand everyone has a unique study style and approach to absorbing information, I’m confident that studying by Process Group will prove more useful, for pretty much everyone, in their journey.

Don’t wait until you feel ready. You never will.

As I studied, I didn’t just mindlessly drone through the same material that everyone told me to use.  Sure, I absolutely did study and consume information, but I was also heavily focused on finding a better way to study, and to find better material.  I dumped the extra pressure on myself to, not just pass the PMP, but to find ways that I can teach others so they can pass their PMP.

This led to reading through (though finishing very few) a lot of different material.  A few books, articles, podcasts, and so on.  Of course, I ultimately found what worked for me and stuck with that.  A great book, eCourse, study groups and a great mentor (Echo).  Point is, I consumed a lot of information.

Even after all of the preparation and studying, I still felt like shit

Even after all of the preparation and studying, I still felt like shit.  I didn’t feel ready.  Hell, I didn’t even know what “ready” would feel like.  Maybe it was this feeling of unicorns and glitter, and knowing you’ll pass the exam in an hour and float out of the test center a PMP.  Whatever it was, I didn’t have it.

The more I talk to others preparing for the PMP, the more I realize that I don’t think anyone feels ready.  Ever

So, my suggestion, just book the damn test.  Sure, be smart about it.  Study, consume the material, yada yada yada, but don’t wait for that mythical feeling of being ready.  It’s elusive.

The fun stuff - Resources

Ah yes, the moment I’ve all been waiting for.  What did I use in my journey.  Like I said above, I went through a lot of material, so I’ll discuss here the resources I tried, as well as the resources I loved.

First – what didn’t work for me:
  • PMBOK
    • I think I’ve discussed this enough earlier in the article, but to re-iterate…I didn’t open the PMBOK once. It’s great as a reference document and guideline, but an atrociously dry read, making it difficult to consume and understand the information.
  • Rita’s Book
    • This is the RMC PMP Exam Prep book. The go-to for many, many folks, and likely the first thing you’ll hear when you ask the internet what resources should be used.  It is great info here.  Easier to consume than the PMBOK, and with more clarity and explanation.  However, I still found it to be cumbersome and hard to retain the information as I read.  I even tried skipping around the book, studying by Process Group instead of linear through the chapters.  However, I retired this book to the shelf to collect dust.
  • PM PrepCast eCourse
    • Cornelius’ eCourse will get you the 35 learning credits, walk you through the material, and ultimately put you to sleep. I tried pushing through a few modules, but once it became a chore and made the consumption of the information impossible, I stopped.
Now, what worked well
  • PM Master Prep Book
    • Someone that gets it.  Scott Payne not only put together a book following the Process Group flow, but he cut out all the shit you don’t really need.  This book will help you understand the material, not memorize it.  With a focus on “what should the project manager do next”, you’re able to tackle the situational questions better.
  • PM Master Prep eCourse
    • Scott’s eCourse covers a lot of what’s in his book, but they do include further discussion and explanation on some of the concepts, which I found very helpful. I would usually read a section of the book, then follow-up with the videos on that section to really hammer the point down.
    • Not to mention, he does this with an awesome energy that no other eCourse or video does. Most are hum-drum reading through boring material.  The energy Scott injects is a welcome change.
    • And yes, it covers the required 35 contact hours.
  • Ricardo Vargas’ PMI Process Map
    • I mentioned this earlier in the article, but I wanted to add it here. I printed out the massive process map poster and hung it on my wall.  It was great to have it next to me to review and visualize the process flow.
  • PM PrepCast Exam Simulator
    • While his eCourse was something I couldn’t get through, Cornelius’ exam simulator was top notch. The concepts and questions were very close to the PMP exam itself.  The explanations of each answer was incredibly helpful to learn why the answers were wrong, and right.
Quick Recap

So, the TLDR version on what helped me, and what I think can help others.

  • Read the PMBOK if you want, but know you can pass without it.
  • Don’t worry about memorizing ITTOs. Find patterns and have an understanding of the flow.
    • Side note – we’re working on a document to identify patterns. Coming soon.
  • Know your study style and work with it.
  • Study by Process Group, not Knowledge Area
  • Don’t wait until you feel ready to schedule the test. You never will.
  • And one more I didn’t go into much detail on – Don’t wait to begin studying until AFTER you apply for the PMP. Just start studying.  Right now.
    • I did put together a great template to help with the application itself. Grab it here.

Good luck on your journey!  As always, feel free to reach out to me directly with questions.

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Comments (11)

Good information, but I can tell you everyone has a different exam since the questions are random. I know one guy who aced the test with average studying in record time and others who are fairly smart, had to retake the test. In discussing the test with many people, questions that I had may not have been on their exams. But there is good information in your article.

Yep, it’s definitely different exams they use. But it’s a reasonable assumption that the difficulty is pretty normalized across the board, otherwise it would completely compromise the integrity of the test. I know a lot of folks that are smarter than me that passed with lower scores. I also know a lot of smart people that have failed.

There are a lot of variables at play for the exam. Some people are awful test takers, but great at what they do. Some people are great test takers, even though they’re average PMs.

The key takeaway for me is, there’s more reward in the effort put towards something than the end result. If you put in an honest effort, and pass, great! That’s all that matters. If you put in the same effort and fail, you learn something from that and try again!

OMG I couldn’t agree more about the Cornelius PrepCast eCourse! I tried.. Hard.. but the lectures are such a bore. He adds in a lot of extra words that don’t add to your understanding or help solidify concepts, really just regurgitates the PMBOK Guide. The exam simulation was a plus though, I’ll give it that.

Moved on to Andy Crowe’s book and online “conversations”. Much better at presenting what you Need to know and connecting with examples that help you understand and remember the material.

Thank you so much for this! I have until Jan tontake my test, and I too feel so overwhelmed with not be confident woth all the resources I have and having that feeling of being ready. I have seen and printed out that same process flow a whike back and atill feel lost with how to prepare myself to be ready. After reading this I will now just book the test and take your advice! Thanks a million for posting this!

Thanks, Kristie! Glad it was useful for you!

What’s been your biggest struggle so far? Not sure if you’re on the sub list, but we’ve been working on an Ultimate Guide to help folks through some of the same struggles I’ve had, as well as others. May be helpful for ya as well. We’ve been sending about a chapter a week, and should have it finished here in the next couple of weeks.

Feel free to reach out with any questions!

I must admit that I took the “traditional” route for passing the PMP that included a (60) hour certification class at a Penn State extension, read the PMBOK (3) times in addition to RCM’s “Rita” Book as well as Head First PMP. I passed on the first attempt. I tried to memorize the ITTO’s and gave up and switched to a more conceptual understanding of how they work. My only issue with your method is that while my route took time, effort and dull reading, it left me with a full understanding of structured Project Management. While I had managed projects for many years, they were not structured very well. It was not until I retired and took up a second career as a PM that I understood what really needed to be done during a project. I fear that your method, while I do not doubt would be successful, does not allow the candidate to fully understand the material and simply is learning to pass the test, just like we did in high school. If the goal is the pass the test and get the prize, that is one thing… If the goal is to understand the methodology and deliver value to your organization through successful project management, one must fully understand the tools and techniques that are available thorough structured Project Management. Thanks for the blog posts… I love to read them and get alot of great information. Happy New Year!

Mike

Hey Mike.

I totally understand what you’re saying. There is absolutely something in learning the science part of project management, and the PMI ways are great materials to do so. My approach here certainly has a goal of passing the PMP. However, it’s utterly impossible to do so without an understanding of the material itself. Especially considering the amount of situational questions. There’s a reasonable assumption with any approach that there still requires an understanding of most of the material. But it’s just not realistic (for most) to memorize so much stuff.

Besides, while the PMI ways are a perfect foundation for any great PM, not all of it is completely realistic in most organizations/projects. I’ve learned this in my own experience, and having discussions with a gazillion other PMs. You’re completely correct though. The goal here is to get the PMP. But more importantly, be a good PM. I’ve known great PMs without a PMP. And I’ve known shitty PMs with a PMP.

The PMP is a huge milestone, but it’s not the endgame in Project Management. Experience is the ultimate teacher, and having the desire to continuously learn will make for a great PM, not a certification.

Appreciate your feedback, Mike! It’s always so awesome to hear from others in the field. I could go on and on talking about this, and having different perspectives is so much fun. We don’t learn much in a room where everyone agrees!

Cheers!

I spent several months reading and taking notes on the Rita book. I actually went through each chapter at least twice. If I didn’t make at least a 90 on the end of chapter quiz, I re-read the chapter. Then I found a website that showed me how to memorize the entire process chart in 30 minutes or less. It worked. I practiced writing it until I could get the whole thing down on paper in less than 5 minutes. This is really useful since you do need to know the Planning process in order. Also, knowing what’s on the chart will help you weed out a variety of incorrect responses on the exam.

I finished up by going to bootcamp. That helped solidify some of the concepts and get me thinking “PMI’s way” (hint–it’s not the way most of us think). I finished bootcamp on a Thursday, took practice exams all day Friday, and took the exam Saturday. And no, I did not feel ready at all. But I passed with flying colors on my first try.

My advice would be to study like crazy. If you want to be a project manager, put in the time and effort to understand the material. Think about why the processes are laid out the way they are. You’ll be a better PM for it.

That’s great, Jenni! Awesome to hear that method worked out for you.

I agree that to consume the material properly, it will take effort. The PMP isn’t an easy test that you can study for in a weekend. But more importantly, I think one needs to know their own study style, and how they can most efficiently consume and retain as much of the information as possible. Realistically, most people don’t have a ton of time to dedicate to studying (myself included), so a big callout here is to show how possible it is even with little time in life.

I do think some of the material from the PMBOK is applicable to the real world. And I think to become a better PM, it’s good to know some of it. However, I don’t think all of it is realistic and practical. A great framework, but not 100% useful. I’ve known some great PMs without a PMP, and I’ve known some really shitty PMs with a PMP. I think the problem is that many people consider the PMBOK as “the way”, when I just can’t get behind that entirely. There is a LOT of information outside of that we as PMs can benefit from.

I think most of us know and understand this. The PMP is a milestone in the journey to becoming a great PM, not the endgame. The journey for becoming better never really ends, and that’s my only goal really. To find the information and share it with everyone. That’s the beauty of PMing, there isn’t one right way to do it. So I try to do what I can to help others find ways that work for them.

Regardless of all that – Awesome work on passing the PMP! That’s a huge milestone in your career!

How does the PMP exam work for people with ADHD, OCD or other learning disabilities who usually get extra time to take other tests? Related to that, I read that the exam is now online due to COVID-19. How does that work, couldn’t people be looking at their materials if the test is online?

Hey Cheryl,

I believe you can request accommodation for learning disabilities. I don’t know all of the details surrounding it, but there is a lot of info here – https://www.pmi.org/-/media/pmi/documents/public/pdf/certifications/process/accomodations/request-guidelines.pdf?v=3bc44604-ace7-4259-ade1-3c0395726cbe

Regarding the exam now, I imagine they still have live proctors watching folks as they take the test. I assume you have to be on your webcam at all times to prevent any type of cheating.

There is some info here on the PMI site regarding the Online Exam – https://www.pmi.org/certifications/types/project-management-pmp/exam-prep/online

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