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PMP Preparation – Minimising preparation time without compromising effectiveness

Preparing to appear for the PMP certification exam and finding that PMP Preparation is a huge exercise? You are not alone. PMP preparation reminds most aspirants of their college days. While PMI does not provide official figures on the attempt-to-pass ratio of candidates, some private institutions put the educated estimates at 60%. And the average number of hours put in for PMP preparation is close to 180 hours. So, the natural question that arises is this – are there ways to cutdown on preparation time without significantly reducing the effectiveness? The answer is yes and this article explains how and how much. 

The table below summarizes the study experience of some people who have passed the PMP exam and have shared their experience on internet forums of PMP aspirants, especially the LinkedIn groups. The table contains only sample experiences (each row corresponds to one candidate whose identity is not disclosed) but are fairly representative of a very large sample and the last row of the table shows the efforts of a typical candidate who optimises the preparation approach.


Table: Sample preparation of PMP aspirants

What is the approach for a smart PMP preparation?

What do we mean by a smart approach? A smart approach is one that reduces preparation effort and increases effectiveness. The approach is a combination of prioritising specific aspects of PMBoK for a focussed, rigorous preparation combined with smart learning aids such as mind maps, audio books that can assist in quicker assimilation and better utilisation of un utilised time such as travel time, wait time etc. Specifically, there are many areas that lend themselves to prioritisation and these areas are:

  1. The processes
  2. Process dependencies and sequences
  3. Key highlights to be remembered in each process
  4. Means of learning / learning aid

Before going on to explain the optimisation strategy in each of these areas, the basic approach common to all the areas must be understood.

The PMBoK contains 47 processes and the 180 hours of preparation approximately translates into mastering these 47 processes. What do we mean by mastering a process? A large part of PMBoK is not rocket science and is simple to understand and we must first of all get clarity on mastering process means. Mastering a process implies understanding the process emphatically with its nitty-gritty’s and the correct application of the process. Consider the following example:

Approved project charter is an input to the plan scope management process. This is fairly common sensical to understand and involves no rocket science. However, this is where the trick also lies. Because it is such a simple thing, we tend to simply acknowledge it in a passing manner and move on rather than registering it as a carved-in-stone rule and understand its practical implications. And this difference in our understanding can change our answers in related questions. For instance, if a question says that a project is in the initiating phase, it is a business-critical project hard pressed for time and asks what the project manager should do and two of the choices are

(a) Wait for project charter approval 

(b) Be proactive and do some lead work in eliciting requirements from the stakeholders so that time can be saved,

people tend to chose (b) because that seems like a smart action to take. However, if we understand that the rule an approved project charter is an input to plan scope management process is a carved-in-stone rule and understand the basis of why that is so, then we would definitely tend to choose option (a). This example illustrates that certain concepts in PMBoK needs to be understood emphatically rather than in a passing manner and it is in gaining this emphatic understanding that one would master a process. While one can read the PMBoK very quickly and note the content in a passing manner, gaining emphatic understanding takes time. And therefore, it is in laying emphasis selectively on important portions of the PMBoK that the smartness of the preparation lies. PMP aspirants try to hold on to the elusive concepts by reading PMBoK and text books over and over again and this is how the preparation effort becomes mammoth. And quite often ineffective. Rather, one has to be smart in prioritising the specific portions of PMBoK where emphasis needs to be laid. It is in this prioritised laying of emphasis that one can optimise or minimise the preparation time without considerably affecting the effectiveness of preparation.

Let us now turn our focus into how we prioritise different portions of PMBoK.

  1. Processes – There are 47 processes in PMBoK and it is not that all of them are equally important. If we do a simple math, we can easily mark out the processes that are more important. For instance, PMI has officially published the % questions from each process group and suggests that initiating process group contributes 13% questions. That is, 26 out of 200 questions in the examination will be from the initiating process group that contains only two processes –  “Develop Project charter” and “Identify stakeholders”. This means that there will be 13 questions per process in this group. Compare this with planning process group – there will be 24% questions (48 out of 200 questions) from this group and the group contains 24 processes.  So, on an average there would be 2 questions per process from this group as compared to 13 questions per process from the initiating process group. Therefore, one must focus more on the 2 processes in the initiating process group for an emphatic understanding, but has to prioritise further for the process in the planning group. How to prioritise processes in the planning and other groups is further explained in this article.
  2. Process sequences – Rita Mulcahy in her book PMP Exam prep, claims that there have been over 70 questions that relates to the process sequence or dependencies among the processes. As she was a PMI insider, her opinion is given significant weight in the industry. Now, remembering process sequence involving 47 processes is not only a nightmare, but may be impossible too. Therefore, a smart PMP preparation approach is to remember the important process dependencies rather than trying to remember all. For instance, processes within the same knowledge area, by and large will follow a sequence. The output of say, 6.1 (Plan schedule management) is an input to 6.2 (define activities) and the output of 6.2 will be input for 6.3 and so on till we reach the last process in the knowledge area which is usually a controlling process and is an exception to the process sequence(say, 6.7 – control schedule process in Time management knowledge area)  and if you just happen to remember what processes are part of what knowledge area, it is easier to remember the sequence of processes within the knowledge area. Then there are only a few processes whose outputs are used outside the knowledge area. For instance, the output of 6.4, estimate activity resources process is “activity resource requirements” and will go as an input to the Plan HR management process. There are only a few such inter knowledge area process dependencies and if you remember the process table and inter knowledge area dependencies, you don’t have to by-heart the ITTO (Input, Tools & Techniques, Output) of all the 47 processes.
  3. There are some points in each process that have to be understood with emphasis. PMBoK experts who have taughtPMP preparation and have been handling PMP Preparation questions can easily make out what these emphatic points are and PMP aspirants must try and get these highlights and quick summaries live from an expert as such highlights are not typically available in the PMBoK guide or text books. And PMP aspirants must remember these highlights with emphasis as there can be many questions that can come from these highlights. To illustrate, consider the following fact from PMBoK – a project manager is identified as part of the develop project charter process. This is something that would typically be acknowledged in passing, but this point needs to be understood with an emphasis. If there is a question that indicates that the project manager is being identified, then the project is NECESSARILY in the initiating process phase and the answers have to be chosen in accordance with the fact that the project is in the initiating phase. If this fact is simply acknowledged in passing, then one cannot make out which phase the project is in and choose answers based on them. In case you don’t get a live expert, you can also refer to this crash course from ACE that provides such key highlights for each of the 47 processes.
  4. Lastly, what means are you trying to use for your preparation can determine how much time you spend on PMP preparation. I suggest that the PMBoK must be read at least once either through a hard copy book or as an e-book. However, other supplementary material such as text books can be replaced with smarter learning aids. For instance, this e-learning course – PMBoK Time management with MS Project has a duration of 4+ hours. It goes into details of the Time management knowledge area that a faculty cannot go into in a 4-day PMP preparation workshop. Typically, the main 4-day PMP Preparation workshop that would provide the candidate 35 contact hours would have to have the entire PMBoK packed into it along with hands-on exercise, case studies, discussions and so on and hence can only provide a basic familiarity of all the concepts of Time management knowledge area. Hence, the PMP aspirant has to read supplementary books in order to prepare for the exam even after attending a 4-day workshop(5 days in some countries, but 35 contact hours essentially depending on how many hours are spent on the training each day). However, this specific e-learning course gets into details and nitty-gritties of the Time management knowledge area and is a complete replacement of a text book. An aspirant who, otherwise would have to spend couple of days to go through a book and master the Time management knowledge area can do it simply in 4 hours. There are other such smart learning aids such as clickable HTML version of process tables that makes it convenient to traverse across the processes, PMBoK mind maps available in HTML versions,  audios that you can listen to when you are travelling, etc. can reduce your preparation time significantly. ACE is releasing such a bullet-speed PMP Preparation kit shortly and you can pre-book your copy here.


In summary, there are many ways to prioritise the specific parts of PMBoK where emphasis needs to be laid and when your prioritise your preparation smartly, you can drastically cutdown your preparation time and at the same time increase the effectiveness of your preparation also.



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