For anyone looking to take the Project Management Professional (PMP®), you might be asking yourself, “is the PMP® exam difficult?” The short answer is “it depends”.

The good news is that if you study and prepare well, you can pass the PMP® exam. This article will help you prepare for the exam and determine if the PMP® is right for you.

What is the PMP®?

The Project Management Institute established the Project Management Professional (PMP®) certification in 1984. Today, the PMP® is the industry standard, with over 500,000 Project Managers certified worldwide.  

The requirements to obtain the PMP® certification and write the exam are 35 hours of certified or accredited project management, and either:
1) A high school diploma or associate degree, 5 years project management experience, and a minimum of 7500 hours leading and directing projects.
2) A bachelors’ degree or higher, 3 years project management experience, and a minimum of 4500 hours leading and directing projects.

The exam consists of 200 multiple choice questions, of high difficulty level. It is designed to test your understanding of project management and your ability to problem solve in real life.

Questions are based both on knowledge and understanding of PMBOK® (Project Management Body of Knowledge) content, and real-world experience as a project manager.

The exam questions cover the five domains in the PMBOK®. The proportion of questions from each domain that appear on the exam are listed below.

These percentages determine the number of questions related to each domain and task that appear on the PMP® exam.
I. Initiating 13%
II. Planning 24%
III. Executing 31%
IV. Monitoring and Controlling 25%
V. Closing 7%

The allowed exam completion time is 4 hours. Questions are Theoretical, Situational, and involve Graph drawing, and Calculations.

How is the test graded?

The total number of questions is 200. Out of these, 175 are scored, and the remaining 25 are unscored (pre-test). Attempt all the questions because unanswered questions are marked as incorrect.

There isn’t a strict ratio of correct versus incorrect answers that you need to pass. Each question is graded on its relative difficulty. The easier questions are worth less, and the harder questions are worth more.

What this means is that you could answer all the easy questions correctly, but still fail if you answer the harder questions incorrectly.

The exam uses a psychometric analysis to determine the candidates’ ability to perform well in their job. Each exam is scored individually on the difficulty of the questions that are answered correctly. One candidate might fail with a 65%, another may pass with a 60%.

Although the PMI does not officially release the fail rate, it is estimated that 40-50% of first-time test takers fail, and 50-60% pass.

Before taking the exam, you need to pass an authorised 35-hour prep course. Completing this course increases the likeliness of passing the exam the first time.

How much time should I study?

Besides the 35-hour prep course, spend about 60 hours studying the PMBOK®, including practise questions.

Aim to achieve 80% on practise exams. Make sure that the practise exams include difficult and situational questions. On the actual exam a pass mark is around 65%.

If you fail the exam, you can retake it, up to three times in one calendar year. After the third try, you must wait a year before taking the PMP® exam again.

How will I know when I am ready to take the exam?

If you are passing consecutive simulated exams with a 75-80% score, you can consider yourself ready for the exam.

Why is the PMP® exam difficult?

Several factors contribute to the difficulty of the exam, but here are the top three.

Length of materials

There is a lot to cover in the PMBOK® and you need to be realistic about how much time you can dedicate to studying. If you are studying for 60 hours and spend one hour a night Monday to Friday, it will take you 12 weeks (3 months) to study for the exam. Being realistic about your study habits will help make the PMP® exam experience better.

Complexity of exam structure

Refer to the PMI’s standards and have a mental structure of the PMBOK® when walking into the exam. This helps to answer the questions that cannot be answered with experience or logic alone.

Difficulty of questions

Learn to understand what is being asked. Take your time reading the questions.

The questions are written at a difficult level to make you think.

Completing practise questions helps you to become comfortable with how the PMP® exam is worded.

Can I pass the exam on my first try?

Yes! Your chances of passing the exam increase if you have completed a review course.

If you are still wondering “is the PMP® exam difficult” here are some strategies to help you prepare:

  • Find out which PMBOK® domains you excel at, and which are weak. Focus on the weak areas, or any areas that you just don’t “get”.
  • The test changes every few years. Try not to rush into taking the exam before the changes are implemented. Many test takers who failed the exam regret rushing to take it. It is best to wait until you have time to prepare properly, on average 60 hours.
  • The test centre conditions can vary from warm, to cool, to noisy with other test takers. Bring water, a light sweater or jacket, and headphones if allowed to the test centre. In this way, you will provide an optimal test taking environment for yourself.
  • Although the exam is not mathematically oriented, do not underestimate the importance of having basic mathematics skills. Likewise, do not obsess about formulas either. Find your middle ground.
  • Just like real-world project management, the questions can be long and wordy. Try to read the last sentence first, and then go back and read the question. This will help you to understand what the question is asking, and then find the details in the question.

Following these suggestions, and attending a top-rated 35-hour preparatory course, will put you in good standing to passing the PMP® exam.

Good luck!

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