A journey to my PMP certification and what I learned along the way.

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Written by Shannon Morales, a PMIWIC member


Let me start by clarifying my experience by saying that I started with no clue as to what project management was. Frankly, I had an extremely limited knowledge of the business world since I grew up in a non-profit social working family. I was, however, from a young age different than my ‘alternative’ family. I plan, budget and control everything. So this is the experience of someone who, as far as project and business management are concerned, might as well be considered a tabula rasa (Latin for blank slate).

How I found project management and PMI (Project Management Institute).

I knew before I graduated with my degree in psychology, that I wanted to do something different. But what was done was done, and I wasn’t going to change my major so far into the game. Once I started looking for work after graduation, social work type job interviews made it even clearer that this type of work was not for me. I widened my job search and every position that seemed ‘perfect’ required a PMP certification. Naturally I googled PMP certification and learned that it was a Project Management Professional certification. Through the PMI website, I contacted my local chapter. I was soon on the phone with the local chapter contact who was my lifeline for the first chapter meeting. He answered all of my questions, gave me more information than I honestly retained and then introduced me to an easy dozen chapter members. My journey towards my PMP began.

How I earned my project management hours, with no prior project management experience.

It’s a catch 22. To be a project manager you need to have your PMP, but to get your PMP you need a whopping 4,500 hours (with a four-year degree). It seems that it takes at least one of three things: luck, a business degree or MBA and patience, or pure grit and bullheaded determination to get the hours. First, I don’t believe in luck, I make my luck happen. Second, I was not financially prepared to get an MBA or a second bachelor’s degree, and I certainly was not patient enough. At some point school had to stop so I could live. So, that left me with option three.

PMI allows applicants for the PMP to go back eight years and pull professional project experience hours. The key here is professional. I couldn’t use my Saturday chores or my family vacation as project experience hours since it was not professional. I methodically reviewed my job history. My management and training experience came to my rescue and I had several small projects that I had worked on. However, this was nowhere near enough hours to satisfy the 4,500 hour requirement. I had work to do, and I knew I needed to find a job that would focus on project management.

Almost four years after the start of my journey, I had my 4,500 project hours. I signed up for a boot camp to get my 35 educational contact hours and I was ready to go.

The hardest part is over…right?

Getting the hours took so long, I always thought that would be the hard part. No matter how often I heard how hard the test was, it didn’t bother me. I just wanted my hours.

Then I found out about application auditing by PMI; 30% of applications are audited. If your application is audited, you are required to provide any additional information needed and to have a manager or employer sign off on your hours for verification. I was terrified of being audited.

First, I had over 80 projects, which by the way took me over 7.5 hours to document on my application, of which, sadly, you don’t earn any additional hours for. I cringed at the thought of getting that many signatures. Second, to be prepared, I attempted ahead of time to contact each manager I worked under for my project hours and let them know what I was doing. Great idea, but my manager from eight years prior was missing in action and my manager for about 35% of my project hours was in a federal prison. I was assured by the project managers I spoke with that I would be able to write an explanation for PMI if I was audited and I should be okay. But still, I was terrified.

Application experience.

The process is simple. Sign up on the PMI web site. Fill out and submit the application, then once accepted and approved, get your testing information. This is, by all means correct. It is just skipping a few things that would have been nice to know ahead of time.

  1. Filling out the application includes documenting all of your project hours. You must enter in your job title, your manager, the company and all associated information. Then the project information, including your roll and the purpose of the project all in 300-500 characters. I highly recommend doing an internet search for details on filling this out. I kept a spreadsheet to document all of my hours and was able to utilize it during the process. If I had kept a more true to the application project description and employer/manager contact information on my spreadsheet, I would have had a much easier time filling out the application.
  2. I set aside about three hours of my day to fill out the application. About eight hours later I was done and submitted it. It is a simple process, but a tedious one. Be prepared to put in the same information over and over. The system only stores one step for auto fill, creating several fields that you have to type in again, and again.
  3. I had a misconception that once I pressed submit I would know if I was going to be audited or if I was approved for the test. This was not the case. I received an email confirmation that it was received and then it took 5 days to receive an email saying it had been accepted. My heart skipped a beat, I was accepted!… but wait. I read the email thoroughly and realized that I had to pay for the exam and then I would be told if I was being audited or not. So I paid, and to my relief and excitement I was not audited! I got my testing code and had a year to take and pass the test.
  4. One thing to note, if you are a PMI member you save $145 on your exam fee. It depends on the chapter, but for me, signing up for my local chapter I paid only $150 for the PMI and the chapter fee combined. Well worth it since there are so many benefits of becoming a member. The first benefit I used was the free digital version of the PMBOK. Be sure to sign up as a member before paying for the exam to receive the discount.

It’s on, there is no stopping me now.

As I mentioned earlier, I signed up for a PMP exam boot camp. Be prepared to spend anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000. Check with your local chapter, they may have the best value.. I wanted it done as soon as humanly possible, so I signed up for an out of state class. This turned out to be a good thing, since I was stuck in a hotel with zero distractions and could study every waking hour. To put it into perspective, I studied 25 hours before boot camp, 10 hours during boot camp class and 3-4 hours each night for four days and then 25-30 hours after boot camp and before I took the exam a week later.

Studying and boot camp tips:

  1. Find a class that offers online material and practice tests. The material I had access to had chapter exams and practice tests. The answers justified the correct answer and also included comments from the educator that explained right and wrong answers.
  2. Do not go into a boot camp without studying first. I studied over 25 hours before attending boot camp, per my boot camp instructor’s advice. Had I not, I would have been lost and playing catch up the entire week of class because every concept would have been new.
  3. You are not going to be tested on how to be a project manager. You are going to be tested on the PMI process. Answer questions first by the PMI material, second using critical (NOT logical thinking) and last resort, if the first two fail, then and only then use your logic and actual experience.
  4. Use practice tests to learn how questions are framed and asked. The exam questions will be tricky.
  5. Memorize the process chart and the formulas. Know each process inside and out and have a thorough understanding of what are the inputs, tools and techniques, and outputs and why. I call this the process chart flow. Once I started questioning the logic and accuracy of the chart, my instructor knew I had a good grasp of the material. This was extremely helpful on the exam.
  6. Study a lot but break it up with movement. There is so much research out there supporting exercise and movement with better learning. Plus, it helps with the stress. I ran till I had blisters and likely irritated my hotel neighbors below me doing jumping jacks. But it helped focus me when I was exhausted.

The exam.

It’s hard. I am a good student and a good test taker. I thought it would be no big deal at first. But when they say it is hard, it is.

My boot camp class came with a pass guarantee. I read the guarantee thoroughly ahead of time and made sure I met the requirements. If I failed, they would reimburse the retake twice as needed and then the whole class fee if I failed again. My ego and pride refused to fail. I was scared though. My friends and family reassured me that I was bound to pass. My instructor told me I had the best practice test score he had seen. But I told them to stop, I wasn’t confident and I felt even more pressure with their assurance. If I failed I would not just fail me, but I would fail them as well.

I took the morning off before the exam. The night before I took a Benadryl to sleep because I was so nervous. I woke up and worked out and then crashed a quick study session a few blocks from the testing center. I got to the exam center and took a moment in the restroom. I did the Oscar winning encouragement speech in front of the mirror and then walked my way to the testing room.

The testing center.

Each testing center is different, so this is my experience. I signed in, a picture was taken and then I was ‘wanded down’ with a metal detector. I then rolled up my jeans above the ankle and turned my pockets inside out. Basically, think TSA at the airport. I was then given a paper booklet, two pencils and a calculator. My desk was equipped with noise canceling headphones which didn’t actually cancel out the keyboard typing or the guy behind me whispering to himself. And they certainly did not remove the sickening perfume in the room. There was a white noise machine going the whole time and the proctor walked the room every eight minutes.

The test.

The test is 200 questions, of which 175 count towards your pass/fail grade. The questions are pulled from a pool of 6,000 possible questions. You are scored as proficient (above average knowledge), moderately proficient (average knowledge) or below proficient (below average knowledge) in each of the five phases. From there, scoring is mainly speculation. I spent hours on blogs trying to understand the exam and prepare myself. I ended up being more unclear on the testing procedures and pass/fail determination than before, but “doing” calms my nerves so I was glad I had done my reading up on the exam.

At the beginning of the exam you are given 15 minutes to become familiar with the exam process. It shows you how to strike through (cross out) answers you know are wrong and how to highlight parts of questions you deem important or clarifying. It also shows you how to mark questions for later review. I highly recommend using these tools. I always highlighted key words, like “not” or “all” or a key process that was used in the question. I didn’t leave any question unanswered but I marked about one third of the questions for later review. I suggest quickly going through the testing tutorial and when you are done with the tutorial, don’t end it. Use the remainder of the 15 minutes to write down your memorized process chart and all of the equations.

Exam tips:

  1. Take a deep breath and relax your shoulders and neck frequently.
  2. Read the question at least twice.
  3. Focus on the last sentence or two. Many of the longer questions have a paragraph or two that set up the questions, but don’t really matter to the answer.
  4. Read every answer, even if you think you already know the answer. Some questions have more than one right answer. You need to pick the best one.
  5. Questions are tricky and have ambiguous wording. Don’t assume anything, read and take the question just how it is stated.
  6. You can usually eliminate two of the four answers right away. Using process of elimination may drive some of your answers.
  7. You have four hours to complete the exam. I kept myself on the clock, 25 minutes for every 25 questions. This gave a total of 40 minutes for review of marked questions at the end.
  8. Go into the test knowing that you did everything you could to be prepared. Leave nothing on the table.

I’m done. Did I pass?

Pressing submit at the end of the test was almost an impossible task. I reviewed every marked answer but still felt that I didn’t know the answers on 30% of the questions and about 50% were best guesses between two possible answers. I wasn’t as confident as I felt I should be for such an important test. But I did everything I could, so I pressed submit. Then it asked me if I was sure. Of course I wasn’t sure, but I pressed yes.

I expected to see my results on the next screen but it made me take a survey for the testing center first. Really?! My advice to Prometrics, make the survey after the results. I would have taken the time to actually be constructive, but instead I just marked the minimum to get through the survey. I almost cried when I saw my results. I passed! I was actually proficient in four areas and moderately proficient in one.

I gathered my supplies and walked to the proctors check in and out desk. I was so over joyed to have passed. This was a monumental moment in my life. I worked towards this for four years! So when I walked out and was handed a sign out sheet with no smile or comment from the woman at the desk, I was deflated. I wanted, no I deserved, balloons and confetti to fall from the ceiling. I wanted cheers and congratulations from everyone in the room. But I didn’t even get a smile. I signed out, grabbed my stuff from the locker and took my embossed and signed confirmation of passing results.

I walked out knowing that I now had credentials. I was PMP certified. I called everyone close to me and they celebrated with me. Really, that made up for the lack of confetti and balloons at the testing center.

I got more than PMP at the end of my name.

Having PMP credentials at the end of my name is amazing, but I got so much more out of it than that. I see projects in a different way and am a better project manager. Not just because I know the PMI process chart and ITTOs, but also because of what it took. I had to work my butt off to get project hours. I learned grit and determination. My drive and ambition is now on overdrive. Passing the test gave me an understanding of what a PMP certification actually means about a person. It also gave me a confidence to keep going. To keep achieving and not letting anyone tell me no.

10 Responses

  1. Renee Galligher

    Excellent article, Shannon. I really enjoyed reading it. A lot of great advice here from someone who’s done it.

  2. Jessica

    AWESOME job, Shannon! It’s really crazy to see all of your hard work detailed out in this lengthy article. I am even more impressed now! 🙂

  3. Mark DeSantis

    Wow, what a great write-up!

    I too am working towards my PMP and it’s great to see someone without prior business experience reach their goal and outline their experiences.

    My background is in art but I’ve decided to transition into business and this article will help in motivating me throughout my journey!

    I found the article especially helpful in three areas: application process, boot camp, and exam tips!

  4. Deborah

    Excellent information, Shannon! The level of detail you used to describe your experience is greatly appreciated.
    I will keep this article on hand for reference as I move toward my PMP.
    Thank you!!

  5. Hrishi Shende

    Thanks for sharing the experience Shannon. I really enjoyed reading it. I am planning to take the test in near future :).

    Many congratulations to you!!

  6. Kevin L Cooper

    Excellent writing Shannon. As Jim Rohn says “it’s not the goal that makes you great, it’s the act of achieving it that transforms you”. After I got my SCUBA certificate and had a number of dives under my belt I never looked at the ocean the same way again. Instead of seeing the top of the ocean I could now see into the ocean…at least in my mind. Transforming!

  7. Cecilia Awusie

    OH my goodness, this is SO helpful. I would like to work toward my PMP certification, but I have not finished my 4 year degree, which means I have 7,500 hours to come up with. I have worked as Program Manager, Contracts Administrator, and most recently as a contract Project Facilitator, which equates to about 6,000 hours.

    How do I know if my specific work duties/project hours count toward PMI certification. Loved this article, thank you for sharing.

  8. Carly Oppie

    Thank you for this. I am currently mapping out my hours and feeling overwhelmed as I start this new career. This was a refreshing take on the process: honest, well written and incredibly helpful!

  9. Reme Pullicar

    Shannon, thanks for sharing your experience and congratulations on pursuing a career that you will clearly love! Confetti and balloons all around.