How to Prepare For PMP® Exam & Pass on the First Try? – Maxim Polikarpov, PhD, PMP

how to prepare for pmp exam - by maxim polikarpov phd pmpIf you ever wondered, “Gee, how should I prepare for pmp exam so I can pass on the first try..”, you are on the right page.

Maxim Polikarpov is a physicist by training, doing research at a prominent European accelerator X-ray sources in Germany. He has a PhD and is currently finishing third year of a post-doc.

While PMP is considered by mostly IT, manufacturing, construction and similar industries, people from education (such as Karen Kinsman) and research community as well are finding it to be valuable in discharging their duties.

This is a detailed PMP® prep guide. Simple. Effective. Brutally honest. So much so that you can possibly create your own study plan from this.

In this article Maxim Polikarpov details his strategies, resources, study plan used for exam preparation, and finally the insights he gained during his PMP® experience. You are bound to be amazed by his tenacity and the creative ways in which he managed his certification while handling multiple commitments.

Get a pen and paper, and your favorite beverage.

Me and PMP®

Maxim-Polikarpov-pmpAbout an year ago I realized that scientific work is actually project-based and my day-to-day responsibilities would be called project management elsewhere outside of science. So, I decided to wrap up my scientific PM skills and turn them into something understandable for my community. In addition, I was curious to see how, and if, ‘proper PM’ is different from what I am used to in a scientific world.

Being located in Germany, initially I considered IPMA certification as it is quite popular in here. However, after some consideration I decided to turn to PMP® for the following reasons:

  • It is more popular across industries. Most of the job ads explicitly mention – ‘PMP® or similar required’. So PMP® seems statistically more relevant than other certifications.
  • It is only a test. No interviews and subjective opinions.
  • There are many good study resources, study communities, and support available for PMP, which makes it easier to prepare for.

Also read: Top PMP study resources with discount, bonus, and offers + 2 free simulators.

In a nutshell..

Before I get into the strategies and techniques I discovered and used for my preparation, here is a short summary of what I think about PMP now that I have passed it.

  • In order to prepare for PMP exam I had to make many sacrifices, and in the end I proved to myself that no matter how busy life can be, I can still make space for important things in life.
  • Passing a PMP® increased my self-confidence as a project management professional. It gave me a chance to link my life and job experience with PMI practices to realize that what I was doing before was actually the right way of project management.
  • I understand now that passing a PMP exam itself is just the tip of the iceberg and, most probably, not the most important milestone. What is more important is the knowledge that you have gained during the preparation and how you apply it to the projects and achieve success.
  • I was trying to link the PMI knowledge with my experiences, both positive and negative ones. I was trying to understand what could I do differently from the point of view of the PMI. This link between the real-life experiences and the PMP® knowledge is the one that structures your mind and makes you stronger as a project manager.
  • PMBOK is based on common sense and best practices taken from the projects across industries across the globe. If you don’t understand PMBOK and PMI-PMP ideology enough, it may seem like an abstract set of rules that are not applicable to a real-life project. After 6 months of preparation I realized that PMBOK is just super universal and can be applicable to anything in your life – from selling a garage to building a 1M USD skyscraper. It is just the level of detail and your PM experience that makes it different for you.
  • Preparation for the PMP® exam takes a lot of effort and structured thinking. Therefore, this is a good exercise for your brain as it really starts to work better. I don’t want to be crucified by biologists for what I will say now, but I think that some new neural connections were created inside my brains after the preparation.
  • I am confident that PMP will help me in my career. PMP® is not a panacea so one should be realistic and use it as a set of guidelines, knowing that real-life PM experience matters most. PMP is also a good supplement to your CV and makes it easier for people to notice you.

How to prepare for PMP® exam & pass on the first try?

The preparation for the PMP® exam can be compared to preparing for a competition. If you have ever played professional or semi-professional sports, music or similar type of activity, you know that you should structure your time months before the actual competition.

They say, ‘make a plan and follow it to succeed’. So I made mine.

I would constantly monitor my progress and make changes to the plan when necessary.

I realized that I had to feel good, both physically and mentally. This meant no parties on Friday nights or watching web series until 5 am. Reduce the number of distractions for your brain so it can easily focus on learning and passing PMP® exam.

In other words: Eat. Sleep. Learn.

Rinse and repeat.

Having said this and understanding that things always don’t go as per our expectations, here are some things I have learned –

  • The very first thing to do is – apply for the PMP exam on PMI site! Submit the application and (if you are audited), pass the audit.
  • Once you passed the audit, create a realistic plan of how you will prepare. Read and google other people’s experiences.
  • If you are an average person, you may need to study ~ 200 hours and answer ~ 1500 mock questions with an average score of over 80%. Only after that you should schedule the real exam.
  • Be honest with yourself in estimations of time that you will need. I have long work days and so I thought that I can study 2 hours /evening on the week and 5 hours/day on the weekend. That is about 15 hours/week. Soon enough I realized that my true study pace is at best around 10 hours/week because it is really hard to focus after the long working day. And you have to focus on what you study, otherwise it is useless.
  • Avoid burnouts. In other words, keep study/life balance. To prepare for PMP exam effectively, reduce all types of distractions (parties, outings, web-series!) but keep doing what you like from time to time as a means to relax. You should be healthy both physically and mentally to stay focused all the way till your exam.
  • Pay for exam once you answered 1000 questions and feel that you are doing well (75-80% of correct answers).
  • Paying for the PMP exam really motivates you to study harder. The effect is comparable to boosting an NO2 in the race car. So it is up to you to decide when you want an acceleration. I made it one month before the exam.
  • Keep in mind that you may need to schedule your exam many weeks in advance depending on how busy your test center is.
  • Don’t buy all the resources/books/materials at once in the beginning. There is a quite high probability that some types of materials simply do not work for you. So leave some space for maneuvers. It is best to buy the study resource that you will like and enjoy studying from rather than for other factors, such as price.
  • You should get a feeling that you have a clear overall picture of how PMBOK and processes work all together. This is crucial to pass the PMP. It is much more important than knowing all the information like ITTOs (inputs, tools & techniques, outputs).
  • Expect the exam to be harder than mock tests. My real PMP exam was much harder than anything that I tried before.

Also read: Pratik shares how focusing on PM basics helped him prepare for the exam better.

Now, few words about resources that I used. I decided to reduce all the costs to minimum. I will summarize now the order of what I would do if I had to prepare the exam again:

Study materials I used to prepare for PMP exam

– I watched PMP processes from Ricardo Vargas.
This is crucial to get a clear picture of what you will be doing.

– The course from Joseph Phillips (ad). It is just great and gives super nice overall idea about what is going on. Now, I would change the ordering of studying the weeks to how R.Vargas has suggested. Also, you may want to increase the speed of the video at some moments.
Hint: use new user account at Udemy to get it for the lowest price.

– Read Rita’s book (ad). The main advantage of the book is that it gives you a big and clear picture of what is going on. I read it twice and did all exercises. I specifically liked the Rita’s process chart.
Hint: try to get Rita’s book from the library or make your employer pay for it.

– Read PMBOK in parallel with Rita’s book. I don’t know if it helped me personally, because I found it super dry.
Hint: PMBOK costs quite a lot so try to get the used hard copy from somebody else. Or better still become a PMI member and get a digital copy for free. PMI membership also helps you get PDUs you need after you are PMP certified.

To prepare for PMP exam effectively, please remember that everybody is different. What worked for me may not work for you. Learn with any materials you like, Google what you don’t know! One can’t know everything but it is very important to iteratively fill your gaps during the preparation to get one big and clear picture of what is going on.

PMP® Mock tests

I used a bunch of them. I do believe that practicing mock tests helps you a lot during the real exam.

The week before the exam –

The week before the exam I answered around 600 mock questions and quickly read Rita’s book the second time.

I googled every term that I didn’t know and tried to wrap up my understanding of processes (Rita’s process book, R.Vargas video). I didn’t learn ITTOs by heart but had a general idea of which document goes where and why.

The most important takeaway is this –

the whole week I went to bed at 11 and slept 8 hours, ate well and felt full of power. I even kept practicing boxing to distract from my anxiety. So, do everything that may reduce your anxiety.

This is pretty much like a sport competition. For the best performance you should be focused and powered, but not anxious!

Also read: Looking for top course review and free training? Click here.

Last day before the exam:

It’s already too late to study anything afresh. Just eat moderately and sleep well.

Prepare all things in advance for the exam day and minimize the probability of any activity or action that will make you think more (= lose brain energy) on the day of the exam. I found this short course (ad) helpful to prepare for PMP exam logistics for the day of the exam.

The day of the exam

I took my exam in Hamburg (Germany). As I planned what to wear, when to leave, etc. my stuff was packed in advance. So I just woke up, had my breakfast and went to the testing center by the public transport.

I aimed to be 1 hour before the exam. And exactly that day the Metro station got closed so I had to use a workaround (plan B!) to get to the center. Imagine if I didn’t have time or didn’t have an alternate plan..!

The people at the center were friendly and nice, I put my stuff in a locker, filled all the papers and asked all the questions before the exam. It was rather warm in the examination room but we could open a window. I also had layered clothing, which gave me some flexibility.

Let me help you cut down as much as 40% of effort and pass PMP with a perfect ‘Above Target’ score.

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THE PMP® exam

The actual exam was harder than mock tests, as I mentioned earlier. Here are some of my observations:

  • I found the questions to be formulated in a very wordy and confusing way. I am not a native speaker, but work in English. However I had to read every question 2-3 times to get an understanding of what is going on there. Unlike questions in mock exams, real questions were formulated such that you had to read every single word. Whereas in mock exams you could sometimes easily skip some sentences.
  • Many questions about change management, people’s relations, initiation phase.
  • I did not get any questions with formulas or Critical Path Method. The exam engine takes questions randomly so you may get many – do prepare for all types of questions.
  • Most of the questions were situational and about people related issues/problems.
  • Most of the questions had two wrong answers, while other two sounded almost identical. However, some questions had all the answers that sounded right to me. Again, based on how much you have understood you may find multiple answers similar. So study as well as you can!
  • Some of the questions seemed to have only wrong answers, so I had to choose the least wrong one. 🙂
  • Well, I was nervous during initial 20-30 questions, so probably I made more mistakes there. I would check them again if I had time in the end.
  • I didn’t make big breaks until I answered all 200 questions. However I tried to combine questions in blocks of 10-20 questions and after that sat for 2 minutes closing my eyes to relax. At every 50th question I took longer break (4-5 min), staring at the window – luckily I was sitting near one.
  • Noise-suppressing headphones helped me a lot.
  • After the first pass of all 200 questions I had only 30 min left to check the marked questions again. I went to have a cola + banana and used the remaining time to check what I had marked. But I had marked so many that I didn’t have time to go through them all. That is why, never leave any question unanswered because even a random guess has a 25% probability of being right.

In the end, it worked out well and I passed with BT/AT/AT/AT/T.


To summarize, to prepare for PMP exam to the best of your ability, I feel that the following points are important:

  • Be relaxed, but mentally focused and physically healthy.
  • Make a study plan in advance and follow it. Change if necessary, but don’t panic and don’t give up.
  • Don’t over prepare. You can’t know everything. In the end, this is just another test. You have faced more serous problems in your life.
  • Make sure that you score >80% on average on mocks tests. This is a good indication of readiness. The exam package is random – it can be easy but it can be also super hard one (like mine). You don’t want to waste $500 just to check your luck.
  • PMP will change in 2020. Take this in mind during your preparation.

Hopefully my story was helpful. Should you have any questions to prepare for PMP exam feel free to contact me on LinkedIn!

Maxim Polikarpov, PhD, PMP

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