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How to Become a Certified Project Management Professional

Updated on March 4, 2013

PMP® Certification makes people listen up!

My first professional talk after my PMP Certification. It was a blast having 150 people listen to what I had to say!
My first professional talk after my PMP Certification. It was a blast having 150 people listen to what I had to say! | Source

What is certification as a Project Management Professional?

Project management is the skill and art of delivering unique results through one-time projects on time and under budget. Where operations management focuses on repeating tasks more efficiently, project management focuses on doing one-time tasks and delivering success. That means delivering what the client or company truly needs, and delivering on time and under budget.

Project Management is a global profession, and the Project Management Institute (PMI) is the most important professional organization defining the field and setting the global standards. Project managers grow the global economy by bringing new products and services to market, launching companies, improving products and services, and solving problems. Excellence in project management is a key to personal success, and a corporate advantage. When a company manages projects well, it can deal with change better and faster than its competition. And, these days, that is what it takes to say in business and dominate markets.

Over the last 50 years, Project Management has grown from a tool used in a few organizations to a recognized business profession. In the 1960s, NASA, the United States Space Program, where each launch mission was organized as a project, did a lot to define the central tools of project management. The construction industry was also an early adopter of project management methods. Now, though, project management is used in every industry and every nation in the world. I've worked in project management in the nuclear industry, with police forces, in marketing, in small business start-ups, in graphic arts, and in many other areas as well.

Yet masters degrees in project management are still rare. How do we get training in project management? More importantly, how do we know we've gotten good training in project management? As professionals, or as companies hiring project managers, it makes sense to turn to the world's leading not-for-profit professional association for project managers, the PMI. The PMI has set the most widely accepted standards for project management, and they apply across all fields and industries, as well. And the sign of a professional project manager is the PMP®, the Project Management Professional certification, which is created and maintained by the PMI.

A note for readers in United Kingdom: There is a second important project management standard, and it is PRINCE2. Professionals in the United Kingdom should choose between PMI standards and the PRINCE2 standard.

Why get PMP® certification?

Having the PMP® certification is a boost for your career. It allows you to get paid more, and to be put in charge of larger and more important projects. The PMI performed a study showing that, indeed, certified project managers make more money than those without certification. More importantly, the learning you need to do to pass the PMP® Exam and receive PMP® Certification gives you tools and confidence to reduce stress while leading projects to success. And your success as a project manager opens doors to changing industries and working anywhere in the world.

Getting a PMP® is Easier Than You Think

Many people think that it is hard to get PMP® certification. They imagine they have to prove years of work as a project manager, or study for hundreds of hours, or compete against better people, or struggle through some bureaucratic nightmare. None of this is true. Those are all myths that build up into negative self-talk, preventing us from taking a step that could open doors to a much less stressful, more successful professional lives.

I helped the Alamo PMI, the local PMI Chapter in San Antonio, Texas, improve it's PMP® certification training about eight years ago. Since then, I've coached a number of project managers on the certification path. The plain truths about the PMP® are:

  • You don't have to have been a top project manager to get your PMP®. You only need to have experience managing, leading, and working on projects, with responsibility for deliverables; you don't need to have the title "project manager." If you have a 4-year college degree, you need the equivalent of 2 years full time work managing projects over the last 3 years.. If you only have a high school diploma, you need about 3.5 years experience over the last 5 years.
  • Only 35 hours of study is required, though, if you want to be sure of passing the exam, you will probably want to do more. But we're talking dozens of hours, not hundreds.
  • The PMP® is not competitive. In fact, the Project Management Institute, both locally and globally, will give you all the help they can. As far as the PMI is concerned, the more certified project managers in the world, the better. They want you!
  • The steps to getting PMP® certification are very clear and organized. After all, this certification was designed by project managers. We know how to organize work to succeed!

Don't take all this wrong and think that the PMP® is an easy shoo-in. Thank goodness it's not! I want to know that the certified project management professionals I hire and work with really know their stuff. If it was too easy to get a PMP®, then the certification wouldn't mean anything. So, plan on doing careful work, studying hard, learning new things, and proving yourself. With reasonable effort, you'll earn your PMP®, and get a big boost on your path to career success.

Practical Steps

Take these eight steps to pass the test and get certified as a PMP® .

  1. Join the Project Management Institute.
  2. Complete the application form.
  3. Understand and accept the PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct.
  4. Study for the exam.
  5. Prepare to take the exam.
  6. Take and pass the PMP exam.
  7. Receive your certification.
  8. Celebrate!

Let's take a look at these steps, one at a time.

For an article with a similar list, check out Project Engineer to PMP by SMA Frankline.

Join the Project Management Institute

"Wait as second!" I hear you say, "If I have to join to get certified, is this some kind of con game to get members?" Good question, I answer, but not at all. When you join the PMI, you get more than you pay for. First of all, they deduct the cost of your membership fee from your exam fee, so, in the end, it costs you nothing at all to join the PMI. Second, they provide a ton of information that helps you pass the exam and get certified. As a member, you get an online copy of the key text you need to learn, the PMBOK® (Project Management Body of Knowledge). You gain access to the web site, with the complete official guide for registering for, and taking, the exam. And they provide a lot of free material about what to study, how to pass the exam, and what mistakes to avoid. So, you don't have to join the PMI to get your PMP® , but it makes a world of sense to do it.

When you join the PMI, you are joining a global organization. You have the option of joining a local chapter, too. Whether you do that or not is up to you. I encourage you to check out the local chapter, and also their PMP® Certification Training program. Most often, the local chapter's training is the least expensive course available. If the local chapter can help you get your PMP® , it is probably worth joining.

There are also special interest groups (SIG) in PMI. These focus on particular issues or industries. I would encourage you not to join a SIG until you have your certification. Right now, your special interest is getting yourself certified!

Complete the Application Form

This may sound funny, but completing the application form may be the hardest part of getting certified, even harder than the exam. There are four parts of the application form:

  • Basic information - contact, education, etc. This should be no problem.
  • Experience Verification Form: Proof of project experience. This is the part that is challenging. You will need to document your hours and months spent managing or being responsible for projects. Now, if you're working for a project-oriented company with time tracking, that will be easy. If not, it's harder. As an independent consultant, I went through about a dozen client invoices for project work to come up with the information I needed. If you've worked a number of jobs, you'll need to start from your resume.
  • Project Management Education Form. You will need at least 35 hours of project management education. If you don't have it yet, no worries. You can get it as you study for the exam.
  • Understanding and accepting the code of conduct. Don't just sign this and walk away! First of all, the code of conduct, and other issues of professionalism, are on the exam. Secondly, if you want to keep your PMP, you need to understand what is required of you on an ongoing basis in being a professional and living up to the code of conduct.

The good news is that you can start the online application at any time, enter some of the information, save it, and come back to finish it later. Use the online application - the paper form is halfway between a drag and a nightmare!

Study for the Exam

There are a number of approaches to studying the material you need to pass the exam. It's a big topic, so we'll discuss it in the next section.

Prepare to Take the Exam

Getting ready for the PMP exam involves more than knowing the material. If you are not already good at taking computerized multiple-choice tests, you will want to gain that skill. You will also want to learn about, and practice, the types of questions that are on the exam. You will need to understand concepts, memorizing equations, and be able to use them to solve problems. Lastly, being well rested and stress-free really improves your score. I actually drove to the exam site a week in advance, just so I was sure that I knew how to get there. I slept well the night before and arrived on time, relaxed and ready to go.

Take and Pass the Exam, Receive Your Certification, and Celebrate

The PMP exam contains 200 multiple choice questions that you must answer in four hours, and you must get a score above 70% to pass. If you pass, you will be told immediately, and you will be a Certified Project Management Professional.

Then you can put PMP after your name on your business card, and go out and celebrate any way you want to. Just don't break the code of conduct!

Five Mistakes to Avoid

Here are five common mistakes that cause people to fail to pass the PMP exam. Make sure not to do them!

  • Put false information, or unverifiable information, on your application. Some applications will be audited. You must be able to prove everything you put on the application if you want to be certified.
  • Think that all you need to do is memorize the PMI's Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). There's stuff on the exam that isn't in the PMBOK.
  • Learn the details, and miss the big picture. Many of the questions are high level, or require thinking through problems. Memorizing lists of Inputs, Tools, Techniques, and Outputs will not get you fully prepared for the exam. Learn the big picture first.
  • Not putting in enough time and focus. You must set aside life's distractions and put yourself back in school to get ready.
  • Not paying enough attention to study skills. Studying well, memorizing with flash cards, practicing problems, and getting good at taking multiple-choice exams are all an essential part of your success.

Learning Options: Four Ways to Prepare

Passing the PMP® means learning a lot of material. And, if you don't learn it well and in the right order, it all becomes a jumble in your head, and you'll never pass the exam. There are nine areas of project management; five process groups, and 42 processes. Learn these first, and then you need to learn the details of all 44 processes: their inputs, tools, techniques, and outputs. And don't forget to study about professional responsibility, international culture, and a few aspects of human resources, communications, and other topics that aren't in the PMBOK®.

Overwhelmed and confused? I hope you are. Because that is how you will be, if you don't take this study seriously, get organized, plan your time, and learn each piece one step at a time.

You can pass the PMP® through self-guided study. But you can't do it in a disorganized way. Here are the the ways that work, from most expensive to least expensive.

  • Take a high-priced, guaranteed training seminar that will get you through your studies, and keep training you at no extra charge if you fail the first time.
  • Take some commercial training classes (online, or in a classroom) and study up on your own, as well.
  • Take a course through the local chapter of the PMI, and study on your own.
  • Develop your own study plan, use the best books and resources, study long and hard, and get yourself ready for the exam.

There are a lot of study materials available on the web, or advertised there. Be sure to get high-quality, up-to-date training materials, though!

Whichever way you choose to do it, you will want to study the framework first, and get all 42 processes memorized down cold before going into the details. You will want to test yourself as you learn the material, and shoot to get 85% or better on each quiz, so you have leeway above a passing grade. And you will want to take the full exam as a practice exam at least once, if not twice.

Some PMP® exam questions require excellent memorization. Others call for remembering equations and doing calculations. Others require thought and common sense. And, on the exam, questions from nine areas of project management, plus professional responsibility, are all mixed together. So taking the full exam is much harder than taking a quiz on one topic at a time.

If you can get a study buddy and work towards the exam together, this can be great. But commit to succeed, with or without a partner.

The Secret to Success

According to the PMI, a project is "a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result." By that definition, you, getting your PMP, is a project. It's unique - you're only going to do it once - and you want it done with a reasonable effort by the date you choose to take the exam. So - use your project management skills to get your PMP certification. Initiate a project called "I will get my PMP by this date." Plan the project, execute the work, keep it under control, and bring the project to a successful close. That's how I got my PMP. I had a career opportunity in front of me that required me getting the PMP within a few months. So I lined up my project:

  • The scope was all the work I needed to do to complete the application and pass the PMP exam.
  • The time was a duration of about three months, and an effort of the hours spent in preparation.
  • Cost was the cost of joining the PMI, paying the exam fee, and buying training materials.
  • Risk was anything that might prevent me from passing the exam. I made two risk lists - what could go wrong that would cause me to fail the exam, and what could go wrong that would cause me to get even one question wrong. I finished my basic prep two weeks before the exam, then invested two weeks in actions to reduce the risk of any errors. That included being really honest about my weak spots and putting in extra study time!
  • Communications with my family and clients ensured that they allowed my study time and supported my efforts.

I also planned human resources, procurement, quality, and integration. And I executed the plan. The result - I passed the PMP exam on my planned date with flying colors.

Getting Ready to Pass the Test

I did have two advantages when it came time to take my own PMP exam. I had excellent study skills, the gift of being a four-eyed teachers pet in grade school, and I do well when I take exams.

Don't envy me. These are learnable skills, and well worth learning. I do have one weak spot - I'm terrible at memorizing lists. So, when I started to prepare for my exam, I found someone to teach me how to use flash cards, and I did my memorizing first. I encourage you to do what I did: Acknowledge your weak spots, and address them first. If you're not good at studying, learn how to study well. If you're not good at math problems, practice them first and most. And if you are not good at multiple choice tests, practice testing a lot, until you are relaxed and comfortable.

The PMP® is a global certification, but the exam is in English. Good news, though, for those who are in non-English-speaking countries, or those who's primary language is not English. When you apply for the exam, you can request support for taking the exam in your own primary language.

If you focus on studying well and thinking your way through questions, you are on your way to success.

That said, here are some specific tips for passing the PMP exam.

  • Prepare to take a computerized exam of 200 multiple choice questions with four answers each. You will be given a calculator, pencil and scratch paper.
  • Have memorized a cheat sheet of the key terms, concepts, and equations. Write them on your notepaper before you start the exam, during the computer tutorial.
  • Read each question twice, and answer once. Be aware of trick questions. Be aware of exactly what the questions are asking.
  • If you are unsure of your answer, eliminate the wrong answers, then guess among the ones that might be right. Then flag the question for review. On your note paper, make a note like #27, a or b (meaning you know that c and d are wrong). Then move on.
  • When you've answered all the questions you can that way, come back to the questions you marked for review. Look only at the answers you think might be write, and make your best choice again.

In other words, breathe, relax, and keep moving. If you panic about one question, you will lose a lot of time. If you relax and keep going, then having trouble with one question won't jam you up. Remember, you only need 70% to pass!

Your PMP Path

Where are you on the path to success as a Project Management Professional?

See results

Leverage Your PMP® for Career Success

Once you have taken the exam, there's one cool thing. You find out right away if you passed or not. If you didn't, that's okay. You can prepare, then try again.

If you did pass, celebration is in order, and so is ordering more business cards.

But there's more than that. Be sure to use the skills you've learned on your job. Take charge of projects, and succeed. Network in the PMI, either in your local chapter, or globally through special interest groups. Keep learning and growing as a professional. When the time is right, open doors to raises, promotions, better career opportunities, and, if you want it, a chance to travel and work in other countries around the world.


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