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5 PMP® Exam Studying Techniques

I obtained the PMP® certification on December 30, 2020. It was not an easy exam. And for those wondering whether my recent blog posts still have value for the January 2, 2021 update of the exam, they still do, just that the new exam both increases the priority of understanding agile concepts and applies a new content outline. I will account for the exam update in my future blog posts, and while the new exam is still based on the 6th Edition of the PMBOK® Guide, there is more emphasis (approximately 50% of the exam) put on the companion Agile Practice Guide. For more details, see the PMI website.

During my December studying blitz, I learned a lot more about how to take the exam besides what people recommended. The typical recommendation was:

  1. Take a prep course while reading the PMBOK® Guide and take notes
  2. Take practice exams
  3. Take the exam

This recommendation is still a great high-level approach to preparing for the exam. It’s just three things, so it should be a piece of cake, right? There’s also the recommendation that test takers should spend 60 to 120 hours studying for the exam. The factors that would help an aspiring certification holder spend less time studying are the following:

  • Having substantive experience in performing project management tasks from beginning to ending a project
  • Having decent experience at taking multiple choice question examinations
  • Having experience at a combination of consuming large amounts of knowledge and being able to repeatedly apply the knowledge practically

In this post, I am going to focus on the last point because I believe that passing the exam regardless of project management experience is about understanding the material covered on the exam. The main reason for this focus is that the exam covers its own guidelines and standards for how project management should be performed. I do not believe that every successful project manager applies these standards in the same way as the Guide prescribes, and practically, they likely never will. The certification proves more than anything else that its holder passed the exam. I believe that holding the certification has value, and it can shorten the conversation as to whether I understand various theoretical concepts and the possibility that I may know how to apply them in practice.

5 Techniques for Consuming and Applying Knowledge in a Practical Manner

  1. Create Outlines of the Guide’s Chapters to Break Down Information
  2. Take Notes Mirroring:
    1. the Guide’s Chapters
    2. the Exam Domains
    3. the Inputs, Tools & Techniques, and Outputs (ITTOs)
  3. Remap Notes to Identify Inclusion into or Exclusion from Topics
  4. Bookmark and Refer to Key Reference Tables
  5. Take Practice Exams to Improve #2 and #3 Approaching 100% Scores

1. Create Outlines of the Guide’s Chapters to Break Down Information

It was daunting to start studying because of the exorbitant amount of reading recommended. However, focus on that massive set of scope is not practical, and as test takers will learn in the Scope Management Knowledge Area, it is important to break everything down into simpler to understand parts.

There are thirteen chapters in the PMBOK® Guide, with the first three dedicated to general points about projects, project environments, and project managers, and the last ten dedicated to each of the Knowledge Areas.

Once the thirteen chapters are broken down, each individual chapter can be broken down by the headings used in each chapter. In the case of Chapters 4 to 13, which cover the Knowledge Areas, the Knowledge Areas can be broken down further into Processes before breaking down the Processes into headings.

When outlining the Processes, these are broken down by a few headings aside from the Inputs, Tools & Techniques, and Outputs (ITTOs), and I believe it is important to understand all of the headings in each chapter, not only the ITTOs.

For the new exam update, I recommend to outline the seven chapters of the Agile Practice Guide and each of the Domains, the Domains’ Tasks, and the Tasks’ Enablers.

2. Take Notes Mirroring the Guide’s Chapters, the Exam Domains, and the ITTOs

This is the hard part, but it’s worth it. Take notes. I recommend to any test taker to write them down, type them into a document, record talking about understanding of the concepts – do more than just read the book or watch prep course videos!

With an organized outline as described in #1 above, it’s easy to insert notes according to the PMBOK® Guide’s thirteen chapters (and also included in the new exam, the Agile Practice Guide’s seven chapters).

To make things a bit more complex, I suggest taking notes according to the exam’s domains as well. For the pre-“January 2, 2021” exam, this would be “Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring & Controlling, Closing”, and for the January 2, 2021 exam update, this would be “People, Process, Business Environment”. This additional level of studying complexity ensures the studying is done according to what the PMI expects PMP® certificate holders to understand. In this blog post, I will not go over deep details of the domains, but it is important to break the domains down further. For the new exam update, Domains consist of Tasks, and Tasks are explained by Enablers.

Finally, to get much deeper into the processes, I recommend taking notes on the Inputs, Tools & Techniques, and Outputs (ITTOs) associated with each process. The new exam has a different focus in terms of outcomes in the questions presented, so I recommend downloading the 2021 PMP Exam Content Outlines provided on the PMI website, as it may be necessary to take notes more from the perspective of the Domains, Tasks, and their Enablers more than on the Processes and their ITTOs.

This studying technique can be taken into various directions by organizing the concepts in ways that I have not outlined here. I believe a good prep course will provide additional ideas on how test takers might choose to organize their notes.

3. Remap Notes to Identify Inclusion into or Exclusion from Topics

This technique builds upon #2 by better understanding what is and what is not related to a specific topic.

Here is an example involving ITTOs relating to Change Requests:

Key ITTO points – Change Requests

  • Inputs
    • Approved Change Requests:
      • Direct and Manage Project Work
      • Control Quality
      • Control Procurements
    • Change Requests:
      • Perform Integrated Change Control
  • Tools & Techniques
  • Outputs
    • Approved Change Requests:
      • Perform Integrated Change Control
    • Change Requests:
      • Direct and Manage Project Work
      • Monitor and Control Project Work
      • Validate Scope
      • Control Scope
      • Define Activities
      • Develop Schedule
      • Control Schedule
      • Control Costs
      • Manage Quality
      • Control Quality
      • Acquire Resources
      • Develop Team
      • Manage Team
      • Control Resources
      • Monitor Communications
      • Plan Risk Responses
      • Implement Risk Responses
      • Monitor Risks
      • Plan Procurement Management
      • Conduct Procurements
      • Control Procurements
      • Identify Stakeholders
      • Manage Stakeholder Engagement
      • Monitor Stakeholder Engagement

How did this mapping help me? It reminded me that there are processes that take Change Requests as inputs, and there are processes that produce Change Requests as outputs. This is just one of many ways to organize the ITTOs, and while there is no guarantee what specific questions will be asked on the exam, creating these alternative mappings helped me to better structure my understanding of different topics. Beyond Change Requests, I organized which processes did not include Enterprise Environmental Factors as inputs, and I carried out this exercise especially when I struggled to answer some practice questions correctly.

I believe a similar approach can be followed for the new exam outline, not necessarily relating to ITTOs, but on grouping information according to the exam outline and distinguishing what is and what is not included in certain Domains, Tasks, or Enablers.

4. Bookmark and Refer to Key Reference Tables

There are various reference tables in both of the Guides. In the PMBOK® Guide, tables that I found interesting to review regularly included:

  • Earned Value Analysis (which contains numerous formulas)
  • Organizational Structure Types (such as Functional, Matrix, PMO, etc.)
  • Project Management Plan components
  • Project Documents

5. Take Practice Exams to Improve #2 and #3 Approaching 100% Scores

This involves:

  • Taking a timed practice exam
  • Remembering which questions were difficult to answer correctly and noting which questions were answered incorrectly
  • Studying and taking notes on the areas related to the difficult or incorrectly answered questions according to #2 and #3 above
  • Retaking the same practice exam at a later time, repeating the process until scoring 100%
  • Taking a new practice exam much later to determine overall improvements in understanding of the relevant knowledge


These five techniques can help a future PMP® exam test taker absorb and work with the relevant knowledge, but using them still requires dedicating a significant amount of time. There are no shortcuts, but there are practical ways to make the studying process smoother. I hope these help.

Featured photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

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