Processes and Knowledge areas
You might be wondering what exactly is on the exam. The PMP certification exam and also the CAPM will test your understanding of the PMI processes. In each edition of the PMBOK, there are a certain amount of processes. The latest PMBOK (the sixth edition) has 49 processes across different 10 different knowledge areas. A big part of the test is focusing on your understanding of those PMI processes. In addition, it tests your understanding of the many terms and definitions pertaining to the PMI processes. Consequently, there’s a lot of terminology that you must learn for the exam. And understanding that terminology not also helps you to read and interpret the questions on the exam but also in your everyday job.
More specifically the exam will test your ability to apply the PMI processes in a variety of situations or scenarios. Since a lot of the questions are scenario based they won’t just ask what’s the input to this process or what’s the technique for doing this or that, even though that is defined in the PMBOK. They usually put it more into a scenario and they ask you what’s the best thing for the project manager to do or what are some inputs they could use in a given situation. In most cases you will need to recognize what process is being implemented on a project by a description of a situation as opposed to directly telling you the process. They will take a concept in the PMBOK and to put it into context of real project and then ask you a question. Therefore, the best way to prepare yourself is by doing lots of a practice questions. After you study the material and then do practice questions you’ll get a pretty good idea of how the scenario-based questions work.
The exam also tests your ability to apply key formulas to scheduling, cost estimating and other areas. Some people report about 10 to 12 maximum a formula type questions on the exam. While you cannot bring in anything into the test center there is an opportunity to write down some formulas before the test starts. This is “brain dump” can be done on scratch paper that they will give you when you arrive at the testing center. But again, there’s not a lot of formulas on the exam. It’s more about knowing the meaning behind the data that you’re looking at. For example, they may not ask you to calculate the SPI (Schedule Performance Index) but they may tell you the SPI is .8 and ask you if the project is ahead of schedule or behind schedule.
The exam also tests your understanding of professional responsibility. There is a code of conduct that you must sign before you can take the exam. I recommend that you read through that code of conduct. It’s only a couple of pages, but it covers things like nondisclosure agreements, copyrights, patents, and a lot of the ethical things that can arise on a project. You’ve got to really be careful of that you don’t violate any of those types of rules on the exam. The expectation from PMI is that you are following the letter of the law.
What about industry knowledge or software tools?
The PMP exam does not test on any company’s specific project management practices. It will not test you on your company specific experience, your knowledge of industry practices, or your use of specific software tools. There won’t be any tests on Excel or Microsoft Project or anything like that. The test is concerned with the best practices in the PMBOK, and not the use of different tools.
What about IQ?
The exam is not written to see how clever you are. It’s just to see how well you understand project management, and how well do you understand the best practices in the PMBOK in terms of the knowledge areas and process groups.
However, your ability to read a question, analyze the situation and then apply the best practices to that situation is important. The question will often ask what’s the next thing or best thing for the project manager to do in that given situation. To the extent that IQ helps you match the situation to what you have studied it will help. But IQ alone will not be sufficient to determine the answer. Unfortunately, no matter how intelligent you are, you still need to study.
How many questions are there? How long do I have?
There’s 200 questions on the exam and they give you four hours to take the exam. So, you do need to go at a pace of about 50 questions per hour. One point of interest is that not all the questions are graded. Typically, 25 questions are experimental and 175 are graded. You will not know which ones experimental and which ones are graded. Consequently, you’re going to treat all the questions as if they’re real questions. The purpose of the 25 experimental questions is just to validate the questions by making sure that too many people aren’t choosing the wrong answer. Let’s say there’s something confusing in the question that leads experts to select the wrong answer. They can weed out those bad questions through this process.
Questions are presented at random
The questions are presented at random. What does that mean? That means you won’t know which knowledge area or which chapter the question is coming from. You could get one from integration and they get one from risk and then one from scope. Typically, when you take a class or study for the PMP exam you go one chapter at a time, so you know where the question is coming from and that makes it a little bit easier. Be aware you’re going to have to practice questions at random after you master them one chapter at a time.
There’s always going to be four possible answers to each question and you’re going to have to pick the best one based on the situation, your knowledge and experience, and based on the best practices as I discuss in my class and you can read in the PMBOK.
There could be computational or mathematical questions. Usually a maximum 10 to 12 form a formula type questions or you may even have none.
There may also be recall questions that test your memory of a process or knowledge area. So some memorization is beneficial, however, it’s not sufficient to pass the exam. It’s better to understand the concepts and be ready to answer any related question.
However, sometimes just memorizing what tools and techniques are for certain processes can be helpful, especially to help you eliminate wrong answers. Sometimes it can really help you.
It is also possible to see diagrams on the exam. They can show you a diagram and then ask you a question based on the diagram. For example, they could give you a schedule network diagram, or a graph of cost or budget, and then ask a question based on interpreting the diagram. In case you are wondering, each question on the test is independent, so it won’t ever be a situation where you have a diagram and let’s say you answer the next five questions based on that diagram. You might find those in the sample questions or preparation questions in the books, but you won’t find it on the real exam.
Very often you’re going to see that you have two answers that really look attractive. And a lot of what this exam is about is picking the best answer out of two correct ones. And that’s the reason that so many people say that the test is tricky. Unfortunately, it’s not a clear-cut situation that if you read the material, then there’s a clear answer for each question and the rest of the answers are bogus. There are normally two attractive answers and you’re have to pick the best one. And that just comes from practice. I suggest doing lots of practice questions.
The other reason it’s tricky is because you might miss little words in the question that change the meaning. For example, words like: but, not, except, including, all, etc. completely change the meaning of the question. In the question:
All are inputs to creating the project charter except which one of the following?
You might choose one that is an input because you’re reading the read the question too fast. If you’re one of those people that reads quickly and skips over words to just get the gist of things, you’re going to have to slow yourself down. Make sure you look at these little words and make sure that you are answering the correct question. You can expect they’re going to have the opposite answer for you to select on the exam just in case you miss a small work such as not or except. So, if you miss the little word, you’re going to be attracted to the wrong answer.
Another thing to mention about the questions is some of them are quite wordy. They have lots of extra words with little relevance. But sometimes the information can be used in another question. And because you can mark questions for review and come back to them, that might be a useful strategy. You can mark wordy questions for review because it may have some clues for another question. You may notice in many questions that the real question is really at the end of the paragraph. I guess the key here is don’t get scared because it’s a long wordy question. Usually it’s really a short question right at the end of the paragraph. And again, you’ll see that when doing lots of practice questions.
What’s the passing score?
I can’t give you an exact passing score. Back when I took it in 2005 (2nd edition of the PMBOK) the passing score was 61 percent. Not a very high, a percentage, but a really tough test. So that’s how the test used to be designed. Currently however, there isn’t a fixed score, instead it’s based on an algorithm. They give the test to subject matter experts and then they compare your score to their score to see to determine if you pass. They don’t publish the algorithm and they don’t tell you what’s in the algorithm.
When you get your score, it will be one of the following from lowest to highest in each of the five process groups (Domains) and a summary score overall:
Needs Improvement -> Below Target -> Target -> Above Target
Below is screen shot of one of my past students.
To pass the exam, you need score at least Target in 4 out of 5 process groups (Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring and Controlling, and Closing). Furthermore, you cannot score Below Target in Planning, Executing, or Monitoring and Controlling and still pass. You can score Below target in Initiating or Closing but not both.
You will get your score right away. Unfortunately, the results will not tell you specifically which knowledge areas or topics you got wrong. Now that’s the bad news. The good news is you’ll know a lot of information about what you are getting wrong if you use practice tests. If you take my class I will recommend an exam simulator for you to use. Additionally, I will go over with you how to interpret the practice tests and know you’re ready to take the exam.
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