PMP certification: How to ace the Project Management Professional exam

Approximately two out of five people fail their first attempt at the PMP exam. The following overview of the PMP certification will help you ace the exam on your first try.

Preparing for the Project Management Professional (PMP) exam can be challenging. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), project professionals spend on average more than 35 hours preparing for the PMP exam. Even this amount of preparation is no guarantee that you will pass on the first try.

Following are details about the PMP certification and why it is so valuable, as well as insights into the layout of the exam, the prerequisites, costs, and tips on how to ace the exam.

What is the PMP certification?

The PMP certification by the Project Management Institute (PMI) is the most industry-recognized certification for project managers. Project managers who earn the PMP certification meet global project management standards and are connected to other PMPs worldwide.

PMPs bring formalized training and tested knowledge that provides employers with peace of mind, knowing that their project managers are held to the stringent uniform standards imposed by PMI.

PMP salaries

The PMP certification offers a rewarding career, greater flexibility, potential for growth, and a salary boost. In fact, PMP salaries are on average 20 percent higher than those of uncertified project management professionals, according to PMI’s ninth edition salary survey.

To find out more about project management pay, see “Project management salaries: Talent gap reveals long-term growth.”

The PMP exam standards

According to the PMI, the PMP certification is aligned “with certification industry best practices, such as those found in the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. The PMP credential is also accredited against the internationally recognized ISO 17024 standards.”

Eligibility requirements for the PMP exam

There are two possible sets of requirements for the PMP exam:

  • Secondary degree (high school diploma, associate’s degree or the global equivalent)
  • 7,500 hours leading and directing projects
  • 35 hours of project management education


  • Four-year degree
  • 4,500 hours leading and directing projects
  • 35 hours of project management education

The PMP certification process

You will first need to meet the “eligibility requirements” outlined above and apply for PMP certification through the PMI website. Supporting documentation is not needed during the application process, but you will be required to send supporting documents if your application is selected for a random audit.

How much does it cost for the PMP certification and where do I complete the exam?

The cost for PMI members is $405 (U.S.). For non-members the exam costs $555 (U.S.). PMP exams are proctored at PMI-approved education providers.

The exam content and 2018 changes

The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) Guide – Sixth Edition, released September 2017, has triggered some PMP exam changes. The changes take effective on March 26, 2018. If your exam is scheduled to be written prior to March 26, you will be writing the current version based on the PMBOK Guide – Fifth Edition; otherwise, be prepared for the new exam based on the sixth edition.

The exam material closely references the PMBOK Guide but is not a test of the guide itself. Primary PMBOK changes in the sixth edition include lexicon and terminology changes and closer linkage of process groups, tools, and techniques. Other changes include a chapter on the project manager’s role, including successfully leading projects, core competencies, and the types of experience and skills needed to be effective. Time Management has been renamed as Schedule Management, Human Resource Management has been renamed as Resource Management, and all areas now feature four new sections:

  • Key concepts
  • Trends and emerging practices
  • Tailoring considerations
  • Considerations for Agile/Adaptive environments

PMP exam structure

The PMP exam is made up of 200 multiple choice questions, comprised of 25 pretest unscored questions and 175 scored questions broken down by phase as follows:

Exam section Percentage of the exam
Initiating 13 percent
Planning 24 percent
Executing 31 percent
Monitoring and Controlling 25 percent
Closing 7 percent

Source: Project Management Professional (PMP) Exam Outline

For a closer look at the PMP exam, see the PMI’s “Project Management Professional Examination Content Outline.”

How can you prepare for the exam?

PMI suggests the following steps to ensure you have adequately prepared for the exam. 

  1. Thoroughly go through the PMP handbook
  2. Review the current PMP exam content outline
  3. Become familiar with the PMP sample questions
  4. Take a formal study course. Here are just a few PMP certification prep options:
  5. Study the latest edition of the PMBOK Guide. Depending on the date you plan to write the exam, it may be the fifth or sixth edition, as noted above.

Tips for acing the PMP exam on the first try

In addition to taking PMI’s advice for studying, the following tactics will help make sure you are amply prepared to pass the exam on your first try:

  • Break down the PMBOK chapters and sections over a period of six months and take your time focusing on key points to ensure material consolidates in your mind overnight. This allows the material to “stick” instead of just be committed to short-term memory.
  • Do not try to do other things while studying.
  • Only study for 50-minute blocks and take a break completely away from the material for 10-minute spurts to give your mind and body a breather.

Just before the exam and just after, avoid talking about the exam with anyone. Trust you have prepared sufficiently. Discussing the exam only creates confusion and doubt. When writing the exam breathe and use common sense. Sometimes what can trip you up are your own nerves. Try to stay calm and again trust that you are prepared.

How to maintain the PMP certification and maximize its value

Qualifying for the PMP and preparing for the exam can be a time-consuming and overwhelming endeavor, but well worth it due to the rewarding career path. But passing the exam is just the beginning. PMI requires certification holders to follow PMI’s “Continuing Certification Requirements (CCR) program and earn professional development units (PDUs).” This amounts to paying the annual membership renewal fee, and earning and reporting 60 PDUs every three years.

PMI offers additional information on how to maintain your certification and how to earn and report PDUs.

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