To Become a Certified PMP® Begin With a Solid Plan – by Howard Coultrup, PMP

Howard Coultrup is a certified PMP®, working as Senior Project Manager in the Telecoms, IT and Networking space. He has worked for Cisco, Avis Budget Group, British Telecom and Cisco Gold Partners implementing global projects for the likes of Procter and Gamble, General Electric, Reuters and local governments.

In this ‘Lessons Learned’ article Howard shows the exact approach, strategies, and study tips he has for you to be a certified PMP®. In lighter vein, he studied 3 books for 300hrs to get those 3 magic letters after his name.

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What made you take up PMP® certification exam?

I’ve been working as a PM for a number of years and got my Prince2 certificate a couple of years ago. However, it had always been my career ambition to qualify as a PMP® because of its global reputation. And also because the depth of the knowledge it provides in unparalleled.

I knew the exam would be quite challenging. As I contemplated best strategies to apply I realized that it was really a case of making a good plan and then making time to focus on executing it. I had some time just before Christmas as I finished a consultancy position. Hence I decided to study for the exam with the firm intention of passing it on the first attempt.

I already have my Prince2 so I didn’t consider other certifications. Having now studied and passed both certifications, I consider PMP much more valuable in terms of real life skills and learning rather than Prince2.

What was the core benefit you expected from PMP certification?

Professional recognition and enhancing my employability were my key reasons for studying for the PMP exam.

Having the PMP® on my CV is something that really shows application and learning at a massively high level in the profession. I viewed achieving the PMP® as the springboard to moving onto higher profile projects, programs and portfolios.

My next step from here is to implement PMBOK practices into my new positions, look for areas to specialize in areas such as Risk, Agile or Scheduling, and to move into senior program management roles within 1-2 years.

Also read: Sanjutha used this ‘Table-Reverse’ strategy to become certified PMP®

How do you see PMP® credential helping you going forward?

Large number of senior level connection requests already within two days!

So I’m already expanding my network and I’m noticing much more interest in my LinkedIn profile and I’m being contacted already for a larger number of opportunities. PMP® really does make people notice you.

The knowledge you gain will be displayed in the confidence in which you express yourself and the depth of your answers to questions. These are always great qualities that hiring managers look for.

As a certified PMP® you are taken seriously as well as sought after for good and challenging PM positions.

Which study resources did you use?

The first thing I purchased was the PMBOK guide, the print copy.

I am a member of PMI so I had access to the electronic version. But when you are preparing for the exam you will be constantly reviewing and referring to the PMBOK so the e-version is not practical for long term study.

Apart from PMBOK, I also purchased Rita Mulcahy’s PMP Exam Prep book (#ad). I found this to be good, but I didn’t find it as useful as I was hoping.

I also used a number of free PMP® exam prep sites which are available. But ultimately, it’s about knowing the PMBOK, knowing the context of the PMBOK and knowing how to apply it.

In my view you can pass the exam with the PMBOK alone, but at times other sources really help in making the concepts clearer.

YouTube is invaluable as well as PMP® training videos by instructors.

I also leveraged a number of contacts I made through LinkedIn when I was unsure of things.

And finally, I purchased an exam mock questions book which I used towards the end of my study when I was getting ready for the exam.

How did you approach the exam and what was your study plan?

By failing to plan, you plan to fail“, said Benjamin Franklin.

My plan was simple: Get the right set of books to study, give myself dedicated timeline to prepare, connect with people who can help me, take mock tests to practice the real exam, put in sincere efforts.

I spent around 3 weeks doing the PMP® Exam Prep on LinkedIn learning (need Premium account) and making notes in the PMBOK at the same time.

From there I read through Rita’s book for about one month.

Next, I watched and made notes of videos online for all the knowledge areas for around two weeks – I did one Knowledge Area per day.

Following that, I started doing practice exams, reviewing my notes, looking through the PMBOK and then repeating up until the exam.

On the last day before the exam I focused on the processes in Execution, and Monitoring & Controlling only. These count for 56% of the exam but are only 22 processes.

So I thought these areas would be the best areas to focus on during my last day of preparation.

Also read: Failed PMP exam? Use this ‘triumph guide’ by Greg Brooks!

That is a great set of strategies. Did you face any issues anytime?

Nothing major really. You definitely need to make a large amount of time to prepare properly.

I spent around 300 hrs studying to be PMP® certified. And about 20% of this on mock tests.

Some could do it with less time, but for me that was what I needed. So you need to find a way of finding that amount of time in the 3-6 months before the exam.

Towards the end of my preparation, I was waking up at 6 am and studying pretty much straight away and continuing up to late at night, until 2 am a few times.

I was able to do this as I had decided to take the time off from my business. If you are not able to do that, you will have to study over a longer period.

The week before the exam is crucial. What was your approach to study during this week?

I was heavily doing practices exams and questions in the last week.

Then I was reviewing my notes when I came across areas of weakness, watching videos again if I needed, reviewing the PMBOK where required.

It’s really about filling in the knowledge gaps during that last week and finding ways to understand important concepts if you’ve found them difficult.

I reached out to my contacts when and where required for help. Their support is crucial for removing roadblocks to understanding concepts. So spend your time early building up those contacts with people who are expert in the PMBOK and can help you with your learning.

Can you share your exam day experience?

Quite a standard setting. You enter, they record your name etc. They do not allow food or drink into the exam, so be prepared for that.

You need to leave the exam hall if you want a drink or a bio-break. Of course the time doesn’t stop when you are doing this.

I took one 5 min break during the 4hrs and finished around 25 mins before the end.

You can select questions for review during the exam, so I returned to those ones during the final 25mins to make sure I was happy with my answers.

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Do you have any specific study tips for PMP® students?

During the study period I gathered few insights. Now looking back, I realize some more.

  • Make the time.
  • Invest in the resources.
  • Take a break during the studying journey. I took three weeks off pretty much about 6 weeks before because I was mentally exhausted. Then finish the last 4-5 weeks hard. It is quite stressful towards the end because you remain convinced you don’t know enough.
  • Make a plan, aim for an Knowledge Area per 1-2 days. Some KAs such as Risk, Resources, Quality – your list might be different) are more difficult than others. So give more time and attention to the difficult ones.
  • Understand that the processes all integrate with each other and don’t work in isolation. Understand how they are related.
  • Take notes in a Word document and supplement it with screenshots where relevant if you are using video learning course. Then come back and review those notes along with PMBOK when you’re preparing.
  • I would avoid any promises from anyone. The study material is vast and you need to understand that PMI wants to see how you apply that learning. Unless you have been using the PMBOK and PMI processes in your job for a number of years, it would be very difficult to learn it so quickly.
  • No matter how good your study resources are, your success depends on the time and effort you put in. Keep this in mind. So take the time to study properly, enjoy it – the knowledge you’ll get is really interesting.

Try not to focus too much on the exam alone. Focus on the knowledge and skills you are getting more than the certificate at the end.

After all, being a certified PMP® is more than just passing the exam – it is about getting knowledge that you can apply at work and bring results. No one will care about that certificate if you can’t deliver value to organization. So keep that at the front of your mind.

I wish you all the best,

Howard Coultrup, PMP

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