Nikita Kazakov
Nikita Kazakov
11 min read


Bottom Line — I took the PMP exam in 2015. Not much changed today in the exam world in 2020. Here are all the strategies I used to pass the exam. Here’s what I would teach my younger self.

Post updated on February 2020.

In early 2015, I set my eyes on the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. At work, I’ve been a product manager for almost three years and have been involved with product creation from sketching, to building pricing models, to working with developers and testers, and interfacing with customers. I liked taking an idea and turning it into a product.

My desire was to see what the process was for starting and managing big projects within large companies. This is exactly what PMP certification strives to give. Of course, experience will prevail, but understanding the moving parts of managing a multi-million dollar project with tens or hundreds of people should be a foundation.

I started my studies late September 2015, and passed the PMP exam on December 5th, 2015.

I wanted to share my lessons learned here with those of you who will be taking the exam in the future. While studying for the exam, I read many success stories and lessons learned on Cornelius Fichtner’s (PM Prepcast) forum. I highly recommend you browse these posts for motivation and confidence building.

Getting 35 contact hours

Before you can even qualify to take the PMP exam, you’ll need to earn 35 contact hours showing that you’ve taken classes to prepare for the PMP exam. These need to be PMI-approved classes. The PMP exam simulator doesn’t count.

There are also bootcamp classes available but I feel they are expensive. Plus, I’d rather study on my own time where I could focus without interruption, especially since there’s no shortage of books / effective learning products that I list below.

In 2015, I paid for the PM PrepCast ($229) course which gave me the official 35 hour certificate after going through it. If I was going to take the PMP exam again in 2020, I probably wouldn’t use PM PrepCast. It’s a great course but it wasn’t what got me through the PMP exam.

I would go with Sandra Mitchell’s LinkedIn Learning Cert Prep PMP Course ($30) and earn those 35 contact hours.

The real studying will take place with the materials I’ve listed below that you’ll still have to buy.

My Road to PMP

Study Time: 3 Months (Took the test on December 4, 2015)
Study Materials I Used:

Rita Book Impressions

Rita is full of detailed information, but it is 600 pages. As I read a chapter, I typed shorter notes on that chapter. By the end of reading all of Rita, I had 45 typed pages of notes. I really recommend typing out these notes as these are the ones you’ll refer to. You don’t want to have to re-read a 600 page book twice, or have to refer to 600 pages worth of writing to find something.

PMP Exam Simulator Impressions

PMP Exam Simulator — This was my favorite resource to study from. As of 2020, the cost is $139 for 90 day access. That should be enough time. There are 1800 questions and you can break up quizzes by category. I only started using PMP Exam Simulator after I read Rita. If I had to do it again, I would use PMP Exam Simulator while reading Rita. I would read one chapter of Rita, take the practice quiz for that chapter in Rita, and then take small quizzes on that category in PMP Exam Simulator to really understand that chapter. PMP Simulator gives you situational awareness regarding topics, which is hard to pick up just by reading Rita or PMBOK. It is a great immersion tool.

BrainBok Impressions

I signed up for the $29.99 plan, which featured the use of ITTO Package explorer. My mistake was that I only signed up for BrainBok one week before the exam. This product is really amazing. If you want to understand the flow of inputs, outputs, tools, and techniques, BrainBok is probably the fastest way you’ll “get it”. It actually tells you why you need a certain input or output in a process. It is worth the cost. Because I had Brainbok, I did not memorize Rita’s process chart. The process chart seemed complicated. Instead, I understood BrainBok’s steps that they used in their process breakdowns.

How I’d study if I had to retake the exam

Read a chapter in Rita, and do the practice exam for that chapter in Rita. Once you read that chapter, do PMP Exam Simulator quizzes (make them 10 or 20 questions each) on that category only and let the knowledge soak in. Once you’re scoring pretty well on those quizzes, move on to the next chapter and repeat until the end of the book.

Doing the PMP Exam Simulator

I took one full 200 question exam on PMP Exam Simulator (60%), and I also took one on (64%). I didn’t do so hot because I still had gaps in ITTO’s. What saved me was taking PMP Exam Simulator quizzes by category and digesting them in smaller chunks. BrainBok will also help you understand ITTO’s really well. I took another 100 question PMP Exam Simulator quiz about 2 days before the actual exam and was able to score 88%. Nice.

I really recommend taking a full timed exam at least twice. It will teach you how to pace yourself and when to take breaks. I took a 5 minute break every 50 questions, and at the end, I had ~23 minutes remaining. On the real PMP exam, I barely had time remaining after finishing all the questions.

When you do the full PMP Exam simulator or the smaller quizzes, make sure you go through every question and read what the correct answer is and WHY that answer is correct. I keep repeating myself because this concept of soaking up knowledge from different angles is what’s going to help you pick the right answers on the real exam. Understanding the why is the most important thing. Let that soak into your brain. You need to think like a PMP.

On the Exam Day

  • Your routine of knowing when to take breaks during questions should be solid because you did at least 2 fully timed 200 question practice exams.
  • Go visit the exam facility a couple days before so it becomes familiar to you and you know exactly where to go.
  • You’ll want to use earplugs. These are the ones that I used because they are super soft and comfortable for extended timed use. If you can bring your own, and I recommend doing that.
  • Bring two water bottles with you to drink. You can bring granola bars, but I noticed that when I eat during the exam, it messes with my focus, and I make silly mistakes afterwards. At each 5 minute break, I would step out, drink from my bottle of water, use the restroom, and go back to the exam. I did not eat anything during the exam.
  • Eat a good breakfast such as oatmeal in the morning.
  • Take a sweater or jacket with you in the testing room. I took a jacket and felt quite comfortable. It is air-conditioned and it will chill you during the four hours you sit there without moving much.
  • I finished the exam the exam with only 1 minute remaining. Yes, make sure you look at that clock as you go through the exam and pace yourself.

Impressions of the real exam vs. the PMP Exam Simulator

I found the test questions on the real exam easier than the ones on the PMP Exam Simulator. Questions were more straightforward on the real exam. As I was going through the questions, I felt comfortable and was looking forward to the next question. I did not feel like that when taking either the PMP Exam Simulator exam or PMStudy exam. Remember, the PMP Exam Simulator is more focused on details. You’ll feel comfortable with the PMP exam if you do enough of the PMP Exam Simulator quizzes. I went through about 700 of the PMP Exam simulator questions in total. There are 1800 available.

When I stumbled on a critical path network diagram question, I immediately marked it and left it to the very end. I felt like this type of question would break my workflow and thinking because they are number based, so I’m better off answering them when I have answered all other word questions.

In your practice quizzes and exams, use the computer calculator. I used a handheld calculator, but on the exam, had to use the standard windows XP built in calculator provided in the software. This slowed me down a little bit because I had no practice with a really simple computer calculator.

They let you use this sorry excuse of a calculator.
They let you use this sorry excuse of a calculator.

That’s the calculator you’ll get on your PMP exam. Practice using it at home on your computer.

Change Request Questions and Risk

About 8 questions were asked on change requests. These were situational questions. Know that you can’t just take action and change something on a project unless you first do a change request. If a new idea or a fix to some inefficient project system is found, before you do anything, do a change request (control board).

About 7 questions were asked on risk management. For example, What would you do if a scheduling issue came up, or budget problems were just brought to light? You should first look at your risk management plan.

Situational Questions

The majority of the questions on the exam were situational. You have to think the way PMBOK wants you to think as a PMP. This means you have to understand PMPisms. Rita’s book was excellent in describing these PMPisms that the test will be looking for. The PMP Exam Simulator was great in preparing me for these questions as well. If you do the PMP Exam Simulator quizzes, tests, and expose yourself to different questions, you will be prepared for the exam situational questions.

Procurement Questions

Know common contracts. Know which contract is advantageous for the buyer and which one is good for the seller.

ITTO’s on the Exam

They were presented in situational questions. For example: you collected your requirements, and what is the best thing to do next? Define scope would come after this. BrainBok will get you ready for these questions.

Mathematics on the Exam

  • Not much manipulation with formulas as I saw in Rita’s book. Read her chapter on cost management and using Earned Value equations. Another book that is inexpensive which I highly recommend is How to get every Earned Value question right on the PMP. Watch Aileen Ellis’s youtube video to get a feel of how she explains things. It is a quick read with 50 Earned value problems. It took me ~3 hours to get through it. If you do this book, just as the author claims, you’ll be good to go for the exam.
  • Make sure you know what SPI and CPI mean, and what it means when they are less or more than 1. There were several scenario questions on this topic. For example, CPI < 1 means that the project is over budget, while SPI < 1 means it is behind schedule.
  • I did have to use TCPI equations on the exam, but it was just plugging the numbers in.

I only had to memorize 4 equations from Aileen’s book, which didn’t make sense to me at the time:

  • The TCPI equation that uses BAC
  • The TCPI equation that uses AC
  • The EAC equation for “atypical” cases.
  • The PTA equation (Point of Total Assumption). Make sure you understand what this equation means.

Critical Path diagrams I encountered

The critical path charts I encountered on the test looked like this. I did not encounter diagrams like this while doing the PMP Exam Simulator, but luckily I did encounter them while doing a PMSTUDY free mock exam.

There was a really big critical path diagram that looked intimidating, but itself had nothing to do with the question. It asked “What is the total float on the critical path of this chart”. Remember, critical path is the longest path, and has zero total float. It was a trick question.

To learn critical path diagrams, I highly recommend watching this. You can then start doing trickier diagrams in Rita. I think if you can draw out the critical path diagrams that are on the PMP Exam Simulator and calculate the total float, you should be prepared enough.

A word from me to you

You can do it. I’m telling you that you can. It took me 3 months, but I got right through it. Don’t extend your study time to a year or so. That is too much, and you’ll lose focus! Keep your study habits strong, but short enough to where you can focus on the goal of passing the PMP exam. Seeing that phrase “Congratulations, you have passed the PMP exam” is one of the best feelings ever. You feel a weight off your shoulders, and you know that you did well. Make sure you read the lessons learned on Cornelius Fichtner’s (PM Prepcast) forum. They will keep you inspired during the low times of studying.

Final Thanks

My gratitude goes to Cornelius Fichtner and his PMP Exam Simulator. BrainBok was very useful and I highly recommend it. Rita’s book was well written and provided a lot of PMPisms. A big thanks goes to my willpower and focus for carrying me through the study time and through the exam.