This is an interesting title for an article since you probably see a lot of PMP® exam prep training providers give a “100% pass guarantee” on the PMP® exam. Or should not the article be about the “Top five reasons people pass the PMP® exam”? Wouldn’t it be more important to stress the important considerations to follow in order to pass? What about those pass guarantees?

In this article I believe you can not only learn some key information about how the PMP® exam is structured, but also about how that means it is a certainty that people will fail the exam. In the understanding of how that typically happens, the top five of which I’ve encountered are described within, you can avoid those mistakes and by taking the opposite approach you will land on the top five reasons people pass the exam!

How the exam is structured

Let us start with an overview of the PMP® exam structure itself. There have been some fairly recent changes that have been incorporated, for example, the exam has been divided into three parts of 60 questions each between which you are allowed a 10-minute break. For each section you complete there will be a “soft submit” so to speak which blocks you from reviewing any of those questions after your break. The exam is still four hours in duration, however, and there is no hard stop on your 60 question segments. There are also now different types of questions, such as “choose all that apply”, “matching exercise” and “hotspot” questions to go along with the traditional “multiple choice” radio button type of question.

Of the 180 questions there are five questions that are experimental. That means they do not count towards your pass/fail score. This is a change from previous iterations in which 25 questions were experimental and did not count. What’s important to note is there are still 175 questions that count towards your pass/fail regardless, even though the total question count has dropped from 200 to 180.

How the exam is scored

Why are there experimental questions? This is so that the exam controllers can make decisions on how best to adapt the exam questions for future releases. Adapt the questions? Yes – there is a regular review and refresh of the live question pool on the exam. PMI® publishes no information on how often the questions are refreshed, nor do they go into detail on the scoring mechanism. However, we do know that the exam is scored on a curve, so we can make some general assumptions.

For starters, the center point on a Bell curve is always 50%. What that implies is that the pass/fail falls either on the mean, greater than the mean or less than the mean. This point of pass/fail is not published, but we can say that it must mean that there is a failure rate expressed as a percentage.

The PMI® published that pass/fail percentage until 2009, then changed their approach by moving the pass/fail on a curve based on actual results. Therefore, if someone tells you they know the percentage to get on the exam, they can’t possibly know that and are probably referring to the last published percentage from 2009. And, since the exam is scored on a curve, in other words, it moves based on actual exam results, there is no possible way to guarantee a pass.

So, we do not know how many actually pass or fail, nor do we know exactly why. At Projects by Design, we have a recipe that we know works very well and if someone does not pass their first feedback item is “well, I didn’t follow the recipe”! For those that did not pass the first time, they have shared some general feedback on why they failed from which we are providing these reasons. Therefore, this is not based on data or metrics, which is not published anyways, but rather experiences people have gone through in the certification journey.

Top Five Reasons People Fail the PMP® Exam

5. Not understanding the nature of the questions on the exam.

Maybe you’ve heard that the PMP® exam is tricky and has a lot of nuances, or that the answers are vague and difficult to sort through. This is not an urban legend; all of this is true. There is definitely a sense that the questions are designed to “trip you up”.

Here’s a couple key things to understand about the nature of the questions on the PMP® exam:

  • When the question is asking “what should you do”, what they really mean is “what would you do” if you’re following the PMBOK® Guide practices and processes. In other words, it’s not testing how you would handle that situation if you were faced with it in your work setting. There may be some uniqueness to your organization, or practices that have been adopted, that are not entirely aligned to the PMBOK® Guide. Therefore, answer the question “what would I do as it is defined in the guide?”.
  • In almost every question there are more than one “right” response. In other words, there are varying degrees of correctness! At Projects by Design we teach a set of rules to follow to ensure you increase the probability that you will get the correct response. We find this is helpful to people to succeed, primarily by process of elimination with the responses provided. It may be best not to ask yourself, “I wonder if I got this right”, but rather, “Is this the highest probability correct response?”.
  • In addition, make sure you come away with what is sometimes referred to as “the call of the question”. That is to make sure you catch the phrases such as “except”, “not true”, “most likely”, etc. How many times have we reviewed our responses just to see that we answered the opposite of what was asked? By doing a quick check on this just prior to responding to each question you can typically raise your score by a few points.

It is easy to get frustrated as the questions are not straightforward. This, coupled with the stress of the exam, can lead to some extreme emotional swings if not managed carefully. Don’t get too excited when a question seems easy, or too far down if the question seems impossible. You are quite capable of doing well, and for most people the time limit is not a problem at all. Preparation breeds confidence!

4. Too much emphasis on practice questions.

You may be thinking that you should take as many practice questions as you possibly can before the exam. While practice questions are certainly helpful, they can also be a hindrance. If you are trading off the study of the materials to spend the time on practice questions you may be more ill-prepared than you may think.

Here’s a couple reasons why:

  • There is no practical way to mimic the exam questions since the questions are always adjusting and adapting based on the responses. This is the reason for the experimental question pool, to be able to toss out questions that aren’t individually falling in a normal pass/fail distribution. Like with the pass/fail percentage, there is no published information on when and how the live question pool is refreshed. These things are all very closely held by PMI® and never communicated to the providers.
  • Premier Authorized Training Partners (ATPs), like Projects by Design, get access to questions that are similar in nature, but would never be used on the exam. However, there is too much content and too many variations in situations to make this a reasonable focus of your time. You will inevitably see something new on the exam, in fact, you may feel like the entire exam is new if you over utilize practice questions.
  • You may find yourself “chasing the score”, in other words, trying to get a good score on the practice exams rather than focusing on the tips, rules and tricks that you need to learn and rehearse prior to the live exam. I tell our PMP® candidates they may actually learn something they didn’t previously know while taking the exam, something that must be the correct response when following the rules we explain for you.

At Projects by Design, we use practice questions as not only a means of preparing you for the exam, but also as a regular knowledge check on where you stand. The practice questions are divided into 60 question batches, each with a representation of situations, concepts and question types across the breadth of the course material. This allows us to use those as you desire in coaching and tutoring sessions. And each 60 question batch gives you the same cadence as you will have on the exam and allow you to practice your question tips and rules to best prepare you. There are eight total batches, plenty to make sure you are ready!

3. Lack of understanding of the PMBOK® concepts and terms

The PMBOK® covers a lot of material, and if you have spent any time preparing at this point you will have realized this. You may be thinking that the terms are in a strange dialect and the concepts are things that you have never seen before. In any case, the PMBOK® can seem like a rather large library rather than a single book!

Let’s take a look at some key considerations about the PMBOK® concepts and terms:

  • The concepts in the PMBOK® are very much validated in specific industries or skillsets, even though they may be unfamiliar to you. In fact, every question on the exam has to have two sources before it can be added to the PMBOK®. The reason for that is so that the PMP® meets the ANSI standards model. Yes, the PMI® gets audited too! So, it’s not necessarily just the PMBOK® way of doing things, it’s the way the governing bodies of each of the specialized areas do things. These are all compiled for you in the course materials that are provided, so you don’t have to chase down a lot of sources to study.
  • The terms made sense to someone. What I mean by this is that when the authors of the PMBOK® want to accurately describe the terms, they will find the terms that are generally accepted in that field of expertise. For example, the term “Independent Estimate” may sound like something to do with cost or schedule estimating, but it is actually a procurement term meaning a service that will provide you a range of estimates for what you want to build, normally in the construction industry. They are independent because they do not bid for the work, but they have data on market, materials and labor conditions that help you understand what the range of the bids coming in should fall within. There are several other examples like this that will be described as we go through the course.
  • I like to tell my students to know concepts before keystrokes. This is primarily referring to questions that may have a math component to them. The exam is not necessarily a test of your math skills, in fact, most successful candidates can go through the exam and not need to open the calculator at all. Even if there is math, it is only addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. If you know the concepts well, you can more easily identify the best response based on the patterns or more easily stay away from the traps before they are sprung!

When you take your PMP® exam prep course through Projects by Design, you will have the ability to use a number of additional resources in your preparation. This includes flash cards with the 340+ terms, study guides and videos to help. And don’t forget about our personalized tutoring services – all so that you are set up to succeed in taking the exam!

2. Letting too much time elapse before taking the exam

There have been a number of people who I have heard back from after an extended period of time that have either failed the exam or have just passed after having failed in a previous attempt. On a few occasions I’ve even had people retake the entire exam prep class simply because they need a refresher on the materials!

Here’s a few tips of how to avoid this and keep your focus:

  • As project managers we like to say that we “plan the work and work the plan”. So, let’s do just that; plan! After you finish the exam prep course you will have a lot of inputs into a plan where you have laid out all the necessary work items and the time that you need to get them done.
  • Let everyone know you are preparing for the exam. That is your entire social circle, family, friends, guildmates (if you’re a gamer), etc. Everyone has the opportunity to help by making sure you have the focus you require for the individual study that will be very valuable for your success. They will all benefit once you are done and have your PMP® – just remind them of that!
  • Carve out a part of every day to review any part of the materials. Its very important to have the focus, so make that the part of the day when you’re not distracted. Get up 30 minutes earlier, or take 30 minutes at lunch to pull out some materials for review. Do the more concentrated study during the time period that you will be taking the exam, this helps with recall as well.

Often, I get the question, “how long should I wait to schedule the exam?”. The answer lies in how close you are when you take your first diagnostic batch of 60 questions. If you are struggling around 50%, then it will likely be 40-80 hours of study. If you are at around 60% it is more likely around 30-50 hours. If you’re already pushing 70%, then 20-30 hours should be sufficient. This should help you gauge how much time should elapse – usually 2-5 weeks – before you are primed for a first-time pass!

1. Not taking a PMP® exam prep class!

Yes, I do get people in the classes that did not take a PMP® exam prep class at all and failed the exam. Full disclosure… In 2007 when I passed my PMP®, on a first-time pass, I didn’t take a PMP® exam prep class either. Back then, the material wasn’t as broad and the exam was more rote/response than it was situational as it is today. Plus, I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through the pain of studying that I did, I spent six consecutive months studying not knowing if anything I was doing was contributing to success!

When you take the exam from a PMI® Authorized Training Partner such as Projects by Design, you are getting more than just the PMI® seal of approval, you are getting the standardized course materials that PMI® prepares and updates on a regular basis. In addition, we supplement the materials with additional modules and videos, especially with some of the more difficult concepts to grasp. These are all based on our lessons learned in helping the thousands of students we’ve taught over the past several years.

Projects by Design has a commitment that I believe exceeds a pass guarantee with the associated fine print, unreasonable expectations, etc. We commit to staying with you through the entire end to end process. Access to course materials for life, personalized coaching and tutoring, study plans and guides and, if nothing more, someone to talk to. These are all the expressions of our commitment to you in practical ways – and all included in your course purchase!

You can find out more in our PMP® Exam Prep Information Center.

We look forward to seeing you in class!