I’m a creative professional with a project management certification. Interesting “left-brain/right-brain” combo, right? As a designer, I’ve always looked to level up my design skills: being faster and more proficient with keyboard shortcuts, learning new techniques in Adobe programs, challenging myself with comprehensive projects, etc. However, a few years back, I realized that I needed something to give me an edge in my career (I was getting weary of the corporate scene) and also a methodical way of tackling big personal goals that I so often left hanging in the balance midway through starting. It’s not that I was doing bad; I just wanted to do better.
I heard through the grapevine that project management was the way to better organizational skills, planning and execution. But I also heard all the gripes of current and yet-to-be PMPs who preached how grueling and pain-staking the exam was. Honestly, their testaments were intimidating, but I had already made up in my mind that obtaining project management certification would provide me with a much needed turning point in my career.
At the time of my revelation, I had recently bought my first home and finances were a little tight (no one told me I would be living in Home Depot for the first month). I was also knee deep in work at my full-time job and my with own personal clients. Nevertheless, I started a high-risk/high-reward journey of self-study and bootstrapping my way to PMP certification. I’ve never enjoyed tests or been the best standardized test-taker. But I was determined to prove to myself that I could tackle this beast of an exam and add a skillset that I believed would be a benefit to my life and career.
In no way, shape or form am I suggesting that my way was the only way, or the best strategy. However, it did work for me. Along with a lot of coffee and prayer, here’s the formula that allowed me to bootstrap my way to passing the PMP exam on the first try:
I’ve designed professionally for the last 15 years across the corporate, non-profit, entrepreneurial, small business, and start-up landscape. Self-improvement and diversification have always been paramount for me; I was looking for a way to level-up my mindset, skills and opportunities — and find a way out of the corporate scene.
I heard of project management early on in my career and vaguely remember researching it. However, a few years ago — after working in the field for some time — I got more serious about enhancing my business acumen, strategy and organizational skills. I wanted to become more efficient in my planning and execution of design projects and I also wanted to find a way to distinguish myself from other designers. Once I made the commitment to obtain PMP status, it wasn’t just about self-improvement, but also about pushing myself to do something that others made seem near impossible.
I went through a few phases of “seriousness” before I got intensely focused and committed to studying for, and passing, the exam.
Phase One: Not that serious
The initiation of my project management journey started about a year before I even filled out the application to take the test. I had skimmed through a short project management overview book that I had bought a couple of years prior. I had also borrowed an outdated version of the PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge) from a dear friend that started to collect dust at the bottom of my bookshelf. It was a start, I guess.
Phase Two: Kinda Serious
After convincing myself into getting more serious about the PMP exam, I began talking to some friends and colleagues that had already obtained their certification for advice. I purchased more focused study materials and even planned out a study schedule. I bought an online course and listened to some modules. I got about halfway through my book when I started suffering from fatigue and getting distracted by work and life. I would read here and there, with weeks — and sometimes months — in between chapters.
Phase Three: Not Even Playing Around
I got tired of hearing myself talk about what I was going to do, but not doing it. So in the summer of 2015, after completing my online PMP exam prep course, I filled out the PMP application (see requirements here). My application was approved and around September of that same year, I submitted ~$500 to take the exam, which was scheduled the week before Christmas. And there was the turning point. Once I had committed financially, I was all in. Wasting that type of money wasn’t ideal, so I locked in with a little under 3 months of prep time before the big day.
3. Prioritized Study
Studying for the exam has to be a priority. Not an “every-three-days”, “just-on-the weekends” or “when-I-feel-like-it” priority, but a real priority. Plan it out and stick to the plan. I studied every day while juggling a full-time job, two design contracts, a few freelance clients and of course, new house projects. I would study whenever possible; my lunch breaks turned into quick study sessions and Panera Bread and Starbucks became my new homes right after work for two to three hours.
Here are the study essentials that landed me success:
Focus only on material that will help you pass the exam
Project management, according to the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) standards, is very process-driven and particular about knowledge areas, practices, and terminology. The exam will only focus on material that reflects these standards, so DO NOT waste time reading any sugar-coated, generalized material that does not teach what will be on the exam. The only study materials I used were:
· My primary study tool: Rita Mulcahy’s PMP Exam Prep Book (currently in its 9th edition) Price: $84
· Project Management Body of Work, aka the PMBOK (currently in its 6th edition) Price: $60
· Rita Mulcahy’s Hot Topic Flashcards for Passing the PMP and CAPM Exams (currently in its 9th edition) Price: $35
· A PMP exam prep course I found on Udemy.com to fulfill the required 35 contact hours Price: $15
Total Price of Study Materials: $194
Study to Understand, Not Just to Memorize
No shortcuts? Awwwww man…
Trust me, I was looking for them. But then I realized that shortcuts and cramming was not the solution. For some, the study material can be considered a bit dry and tedious; I second that emotion. Because of that, it was really important for me to internalize and truly understand what I was studying, especially studying mostly on my own. This required focused study — every day — to grasp new concepts. A lot of the questions on the exam are situational and require critical thinking, so simply memorizing keywords will not suffice. I learned quickly to memorize equations and formulas, but read everything else for understanding, not to just get through the chapter. I listened to course modules over and over until I understood the concepts. I asked friends to quiz me. I re-read chapters and completed ALL, yes all, of the supplemental worksheets, quizzes and checklists I was provided in my reading and online material (this was pretty challenging for a no-instruction-manual-reading-just-figure-it-out girl like me).
For you, it may be attending study groups, asking for additional help from an instructor or taking multiple in-person classes. Once you have truly nailed down a concept, focus your study time on areas that are still foreign or confusing to you. Don’t overspend your time looking over material that you have already mastered.
When doubt crept in…
Late nights and early mornings. Reading something over and over again and still not getting it. Juggling what seemed to be 100 projects and wondering why I got myself into this PMP mess. Purpose is what got me through. Remembering why I chose to pursue project management, visualizing myself practicing those skills in real life, and keeping it top of mind helped motivate me to deepen my understanding of the material. I remained faithful in my studies because I truly, truly, believed that understanding (not just knowing) the material would lead me to success.
Visualize the information
As a visual learner, it wasn’t enough for me to just read books or listen to online lectures. I needed to see the information on paper — not just in words — but also in pictures. Visualizing the content was key for me, and it also made learning fun. Maybe some could argue that I created more work by requiring myself to draw everything out, but it was worth it. I wrote down principles over and over again. I drew goofy sketches. Again, I completed all the worksheets and checklists provided in my exam prep course book and online class. As for you, do whatever it takes to grasp concepts and feel confident about what you are learning, especially if you’re taking the self-study approach.
Apply what you learn to real life
While I was studying for the exam, I started putting some of what I learned into practice. At work, I was the project lead for two micro-sites, in which I implemented certain parts of all of the process groups (work breakdown structures, planning docs, etc). I also tested a few processes with some of my freelance clients. Putting what I learned into practice helped me significantly and I began recognizing loopholes and opportunities for growth within both my professional and personal projects. Lightbulbs were going off and I was making meaningful connections between what I was studying and what I was actually doing. Putting these principles into practice also helped me with situational questions on the exam.
Practice, practice, practice tests
“But we talkin’ bout practice, man. What are we talkin’ about? Practice?”
I admit, I had an Allen Iverson mentality and I did not take as many practice tests as I should have. Many test experts suggest that those studying for the PMP exam simulate the real testing experience by completing full practice tests within the allotted four-hour time block. It is said that once you consistently score 85% or higher, you are ready to take the real exam.
I only took three full practice tests (I struggled to get through just one in a four-hour sitting). However, what I found most valuable in these practice tests was learning through trial and error. Understanding why I got a question wrong and then going back to study that topic was essential. Practice tests reveal strengths and weaknesses, prepare you for what the exam will be like and discipline you to sit for the entire length of the test. Do not neglect practice tests; they could be your most effective study tool. Take advantage of free resources like www.examcentral.net.
Learn test-taking strategies
Grasp recurring concepts on the exam — like processes, inputs/outputs, equations and knowledge areas — by repeatedly writing them down. I wrote them down over and over again until I could do it from memory. Many questions on the exam will contain more than one correct answer, but the objective is to choose the best answer.
I did some digging on the Internet and found some great test-taking strategies, which was pretty important to me, since I had never been the best test-taker. I learned the rules and format of the exam, which is 200 questions and four hours long. The exam allots the first few minutes to read through the test instructions, but if you familiarize yourself with these instructions ahead of time, you can instead utilize this time to write down all memorized equations and formulas on the scrap paper provided. This way, you can refer to your formula sheet for questions that require calculations, instead of trying to remember them.
I also learned not spend too much time on one question; pass it and come back to it later (the computerized exam will save uncompleted questions). There are no negative marks for incorrect answers, only credit for correct answers — so it’s important to answer every question!
Part of my bootstrapping was extensive online searches for tip sheets and tricks that helped consolidate recurring themes or help organize the information. For you, it may be asking instructors for help, strategizing with a study group or whatever works most effectively with your learning style.
Nervous as ever, I studied like crazy on the day of the exam. I looked over notes, re-read and skimmed chapters in my books and even purchased another online course (on sale on Udemy) just to make sure I hadn’t missed something. Once I realized how ridiculous I was acting, I closed my laptop, put all my books away and trusted that I gave my best effort to prepare.
“Alright, it’s game time…let’s see if I can do this.”
Needless to say, I literally used up every last second allotted when I took the exam. Everyone had left the room except for me and another young lady. I couldn’t tell who had passed and who didn’t. You couldn’t imagine my sigh of relief (and internal screaming) when the “Congratulations” screen appeared shortly after I completed the exam. Whew!!!
Honestly, studying for the PMP exam was a grueling three months of late nights, early mornings, declined happy hours and frustrating study sessions. Ironically, I didn’t even become a project manager, nor did I want to. What I did become was more knowledgeable, thoughtful and confident about my ability to plan, organize and execute projects. I also left the corporate world and became the creative lead at a software startup four months after passing the test. In hindsight, I realized that I gained tremendous insight and strength during the pursuit of my certification that ultimately helped me to juggle all of the obligations of work, personal projects/goals, and home ownership.
So was it worth it? Yes! I’m still applying project management principles (definitely not all, but the ones that make sense) to my current professional and personal projects — and I’m continually learning the benefits that proper project management can have on creating successful outcomes.