PMP® Prep – Build a S.T.A.R. study plan

“Make time for planning; Wars are won in the General’s tent.” ― Stephen R. Covey

As it’s with any Project, a comprehensive plan is the most important key to success. As I said earlier, before going full throttle in execution mode, one should make sure they have a solid plan and are following a right approach towards achieving the success.

In this article, we will work together towards building a comprehensive study plan suiting to your learning style in a systematic way. In order to successfully clear the exam in the first attempt itself, your PMP study plan should be nothing less than a STAR!

S: Structured, T: Time-bound, A: Actionable, R: Result-Oriented

To start with, one should lay thought on the following points in order to build a strong PMP study plan.

  1. Understand what all is coved in the exam? (Know what to Study)
  2. Understand your learning style and choose the best learning resource for you. (Choose quality study resources)
  3. Document you plan (Think through how you plan to achieve the success)
  4. Make sure you have kept optimum time for preparation and then back-calculate the allowable time for each section. (Prepare schedule)
  5. As in real-world projects, keep some contingency buffer.
  6. Keep check points to monitor if progress is on track and make course corrections. (Optimally staged mock tests)
  7. Remember, Self notes make all the difference.
  8. Be disciplined.
  9. Award yourself for small successes to keep the motivation going.

Understand what to study:

One should know that the PMP® exam is based on A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) and it forms the very basis of the course content covered in the exam. Hence, conquering PMBOK® Guide is of utmost importance. The PMBOK® Guide, maps the Project Management knowledge into a framework of 5 Process groups and 10 Knowledge areas. The 49 sub-processes of these knowledge areas are defined by their Inputs, Tools & Techniques, and Outputs (ITTOs).

Project Management Process Groups

  • Project Initiating
  • Project Planning
  • Project Executing
  • Project Monitoring and Controlling
  • Project Closing

Project Management Knowledge Areas

  • Project Integration Management
  • Project Scope Management
  • Project Schedule Management
  • Project Cost Management
  • Project Quality Management
  • Project Resource Management
  • Project Communications Management
  • Project Risk Management
  • Project Procurement Management
  • Project Stakeholders Management

Choose quality study resources to aid your preparation:

While the PMBOK® Guide forms the basis and foundation for the exam, one should not take it as a template to pass the exam and should look beyond the PMBOK® Guide as well for a complete and comprehensive understanding of the subject. There are some brilliant knowledge resources which have taken the high-level content knowledge presented in PMBOK® Guide and have further elaborated them in-depth with real life examples.

Thus, in order to develop a holistic understanding of the principles and practices of Project Management for the PMP exam, I recommend studying a variety of study resources apart from PMBOK® Guide. However, before using any supplementary knowledge resource, you should ensure that it is the latest edition and is in alignment with the latest edition of PMBOK® Guide and PMP® exam content outline.

I am listing down some very good knowledge resources that follow straight forward approach towards simplifying complex material presented in PMBOK® Guide and offer proven study techniques amalgamated with quality practice questions to help you ace the exam.

  • Rita Mulcahy’s™ PMP® exam prep – 9th edition: Rita Mulcahy’s™ PMP® exam prep is one of the most coveted books for PMP exam preparation. This bestselling book is recognized worldwide by Project Managers for its simple yet rich project language.
  • Head First PMP® – 4th edition: I would recommend this book as the starting resource for beginners who find the PMBOK® Guide content very complex to start with. This book uses a visually rich, not-so-text-heavy approach towards delivering project management content.
  • If your learning appetite leans towards online study resources, there are some very good paid and free online resources available on internet. (We at are also working on building topic based study notes which will help you understand the concept in a simple and brain-friendly way. Keep watching this space!).
  • You can also take part in the PMP preparation workshops arranged regularly by your local PMI chapter.

Build your study plan (and Schedule!):

While we are already in process of building our study plan, I want you to document your study plan to make sure that you stay committed towards to your goal. (Remember the difference between a plan and a schedule!).

Your Study plan should include minimum of the following details:

  • Objective
  • Success Criteria
  • Knowledge Resources to be referred
  • Time commitment required
  • High level milestones and detailed study schedule

# Develop the study schedule:

  • Break down the goal into actionable set of activities, including the target milestone dates for mock tests.
  • Work backwards from the target date allotting most optimum time to each activity.
  • Estimate efforts required (Hours per weekday and over weekends) based on the available time duration in days.
  • Monitor progress regularly and re-baseline your plan based on the progress.

In my opinion, a period of 4 months is sufficient if you are able to dedicate at least 1-1.5 hours on weekdays and at least 3 hours on weekends for the exam preparation.

My recommendation for a generic 4-month study plan would like this:

Four months before the exam –

  • Try and read one chapter per week including chapter-wise practice exams.
  • Spend at least 3 additional hours over weekends to review study material.

One month before the exam –

  • By this time you should have given at least 2 full mock tests to access your progress.
  • If you have consistently scored above 80% in the mock tests, you are good to proceed. If not, assess your confidence level and weak areas. You might consider rescheduling the exam date. (IMPORTANT: You can reschedule your exam up to 1 month before the exam date at no additional cost, if you reschedule the exam within 30 days you will have to pay extra.)
  • Pick up the pace to catch up on any chapters you missed reading.
  • Work upon your weak areas & revisit the PMBOK guide and/or your selected study resource to brush up your knowledge on these areas.

Two weeks before the exam –

  • Take as many as practice exams possible.
  • Review questions answered wrongly in practice exams & correct your logic.
  • Keep working on your weak areas.

A day before the exam –

  • Disengage. Do not study. You have put all the efforts these 4 months, take a break and relax. This will help you regroup all those efforts.

The exam day –

  • Don’t Panic. You have done all the hard work; Back your skills.
  • After finishing the exam the results will be out immediately. Celebrate!

Follow this link for the Blog 4 of this series for a detailed 4-months plan which I followed to prepare for my PMP® exam.

Don’t underestimate your study notes:

I have been a big fan of writing down my own study notes referring multiple knowledge resources throughout my academic years and it has helped a lot be it my Engineering days or PMP preparation. I would also advise you to also make your study notes to refer for revision during last 15 days of exam preparation. It will help you build a mind map of many things as self-written points are easy to remember. These notes can be in form of bullet points, key definitions, Flashcards etc. Even the simple act of highlighting key points helps you retain and recall the information better.

Track progress with Online Mock Tests:

Online Mock tests are a good mean to test your current level of preparation. They test you with questions that follow the same format and pattern as that of actual PMP® exam. These tests aim to replicate the exam environment so that you become comfortable with the timing and the pressure situation.

Try out various PMP exam simulators available on internet to test yourself in real exam like scenarios. You can also give offline tests given in good PMP prep books like RITA and Head First. As per my experience, giving at least 4-5 full length Mock tests before the exam is very important to increase your ability to pass the exam. Remember, PMP® exam doesn’t cover straight-forward “typical” questions but scenario based questions which test your ability to apply the Project management framework to real-world project situations. Hence, choose a good PMP exam simulator which has more stress on scenario-based questions rather just definition based questions. Few good exam simulators available over internet are –

  • PMP® self test (100 free questions) by Oliver Lehmann

Plan for the 4-hour exam:

As you know by now that there are no scheduled breaks during the PMP exam and if you take a break during the exam, your exam clock continues to count down. Hence, it is important to prepare yourself for it. It certainly is a physically daunting and mentally straining experience. Most importantly, it is imperative that you keep you focus maintained all through these 4 hours. In fact, that why the full length mocks are very important as they condition your mind and body for the exam experience.

Another important aspect is to plan how will spend those 4 hours in the exam hall in the most optimum way possible. If you have a strategy, you will conquer this race against time like a pro! Here’s my suggestion; go through the questions in a number of passes.

First Pass:

Claim the “Low hanging fruits”. Quickly run through all the questions and keep answering questions which are short and you are 100% sure about the answers.

Second Pass:

Go for the lengthy question and questions including calculations, application of understanding.

Third Pass:

Go through all the flagged / unanswered questions in this pass. The focus is that no question remains unanswered. Since PMP exam has no negative marking. Some calculated guessing might be applied in this round.

IMPORTANT:One very important trick which I used during the exam is not to keep any question unanswered before proceeding further. Even if you are 50% sure, select the answer you feel is the closest and mark the question as flagged. This will help avoiding any question being unanswered if unfortunately you run out of time. If you manage your time well, go back to these questions in third pass and give some time to solve the questions. (However remember, don’t spend much time here in first pass. Else this strategy will backfire!)

Some quick tricks:

  • Use Brain Dump: Brain dump is nothing but some important information like formulas (EVM, Project selection etc.) and some important Terminologies which you just need to memorize and immediately put on the rough sheet as soon as your exam starts.
  • Use Flash cards to help you memorize key concepts and terminologies.
  • Use Mobile Apps to learn on the go.
  • Play some specifically designed games for ITTOs etc. to create a mind map of the interdependencies.

Finally, remember the mantra: Assess, course correct, refine, repeat!

The next blog of this series shares with you a detailed 4-months plan which I followed to prepare for my PMP exam.

Thank you for reading, Happy Learning!

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