PMP® exam preparation is probably pretty stressful time for many.
It need not be.
When I learned about the incredible PMP® journey of Liliya Asenova Stoyanova I had to interview her.
This article is likely to be one of the most detailed account of how to go about PMP® exam preparation I have seen in recent times. Liliya goes about in a planned way, removing any scope for failure.
She covers every step of the journey with details and insights – so you understand what to do, and why to do it.
The strategies that Liliya shares here are top-notch. They form a subset of what we teach in PM Exam Last Mile prep program – they are pretty powerful, so you just cannot go wrong with these!
What I liked most about Liliya’s 45-day plan is that she worked it out without making drastic changes to her daily schedule. This made it practical and easy to follow.
If you are preparing for your exam, dive deep into this article – you are bound to find few gems to use in your own preparation. And don’t miss the tons of study tips Liliya has for you in the last section.
Get a glass of your favorite beverage, let’s begin.
Thanks for taking time to share your exam experience, Liliya. Can you share something about yourself?
My name is Liliya Stoyanova from Sofia, Bulgaria. I have 10+ years of experience in top companies as IBM, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, KPMG. Currently I am part of Cargotec as a Transition Project Manager.
My education is purely in Finance and Economics area with a BSc degree in Business economics with a second specialization in Banking from the University of National and World Economy, Sofia, Bulgaria and a masters degree in European Business and Finance from the Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK.
In my free time I enjoy playing Tennis. Whenever possible, I try to escape in the mountain for the weekend or to visit the seaside.
What made you take up PMP®?
As a project manager it is easier to do a good job when you have access to standard practice such as what PMI has set up with the PMBOK guide. Having a baseline as PMP® certification gives one the confidence to be able to handle any challenging project by tailoring the project approach.
In my eyes, the PMP® certification should basically act as a trigger to search for more information and studies in the field of project management and be able to build upon your knowledge. The journey being a successful PM doesn’t stop with earning the certificate, it is just the beginning; it opens the doors to pursue many other opportunities.
When I asked experienced colleagues about a certificate exam that is useful, all of them recommended PMP®. I didn’t need to hear anything more – so I took up PMP®.
What was the core benefit you expected from PMP® certification and how do you see it helping you henceforth?
The core benefit which I value even more from having just the certificate and the knowledge is the fact that you become a member of a strong community of professionals from whom you can learn and keep yourself up to date.
During the preparation period I got to know so many amazing experts and cannot wait to meet many more. It is so inspiring to be able to verify your thoughts with another PMP® professional, to exchange ideas.
PMP® should be cherished and each and every one of us who earned it should consider his/her personal and ethical contribution to support and develop the field. The PM is a servant to the community and organizations to help achieve their goals.
Which study resources did you use for PMP® exam preparation?
In case something wasn’t clear in any particular area, I either looked it up in the PMI standards that are available on PMI site free of charge for the PMI members (i.e. Practice Standard for Scheduling, Practice Standard for Project Estimating, Practice Standard for WBS, etc.) or searched on the Internet.
I have not studied the individual standards in details but when I found a particular area which I am struggling with, I needed a third, fourth source of knowledge where I can check upon.
Last but not least, Oliver Lehman’s group on LinkedIn helped me a lot. Because when you are doing the mock tests sometimes the answer is not that clear and you need a buddy to explain it to you what is the logic behind.
How did you approach the exam, what was your study plan?
I fulfilled my 35 hr contact education mandate for the exam at the beginning of 2019 in Sofia, Bulgaria.
The submission of my application was done in late Sept and it took approximately a month to receive a confirmation from PMI for my eligibility.
Once done, I knew I have an year to take the exam. I considered my workload and target to prepare myself within 45days as I expected it would be a high-intense exercise. Managing the certification along with work, you cannot maintain 100% capacity and intensity of learning for a long period of time.
I aimed initially July 2020 at a test center but the exam was cancelled due to the pandemic and I rescheduled it to October with the online option.
To make it easier for me, I created a very detailed 45-day PMP® exam preparation plan about how I will achieve it – for each day I made my micro milestones.
I covered Rita’s book 4 times.
- The first time I did it in a very detailed way – underlining important stuff, terminology, key moments.
- The second and third time it is easier as you can check and go through the underlined text and that sharpens your focus to search for the important information.
This will help you also during the exam as you will be able to spotlight the important and needed info from the question.
My study plan did not follow quite the order of sections of the book.
As I cannot memorize I relied on fact that the exam is about logic and understanding of the processes.
So in my head, I built a slightly different agenda on the topics/ KAs.
- I covered first the baselines – Scope, Schedule and Cost management knowledge areas.
- Then I covered Procurement and Quality management
- Next, I jumped to Resource and Risk, Communications and Stakeholder management
- and Integration at last.
I made it a point to understand why the PM does every action, process, and tools & techniques suggested for PMP® exam.
My PMP® exam preparation plan
My study plan was with the idea to identify the important and key pieces of each Knowledge Area. The study material were divided in small chunks to allow my brain to keep up with the information.
Also, achieving and studying like that will turn on your internal reward system and you as a student will be able to have good levels of dopamine in your brain that will give you the strength to continue.
Dr. Andrew Huberman from Stanford University has various videos on YouTube on that and I am glad I found them before beginning my path of studying.
By achieving this small everyday steps you know you are on the right path and that will keep your focus sharp on the prize.
I took a lot of notes – I wrote down everything I was reading for very first time, important points, formulas etc…
With Rita’s textbook you have excellent questions after each chapter – I took these tests twice – after my first reading and after my third reading.
I was verifying my scores and there was always an improvement!
Taking any mock tests more than twice doesn’t make a lot of sense for me because you start learning the answers by heart even unintentionally and it doesn’t add value at the end.
All of the free mock tests that I took were with the intention to identify the gaps in my knowledge.
At the end of every mock test I noted down wrong answers and wrote the explanation, sought for additional source of information and tried to understand the reasoning behind the answer.
This helped me fix the gaps in my understanding, and gave me an overall good hold on the content. My confidence in my PMP® exam preparation increased tremendously with the mock test approach.
Awesome! Can you please tell our readers about challenges you faced?
I had 2 main challenges.
1. Application of the study content
At the beginning it was challenging to put myself in the shoes of a PM who is driving a really large project.
As I mentioned earlier, this approached helped me visualize how the process I am studying would be applied to a project, and this way understand it easily.
In this process I discovered a truth: whatever you have learned from your hands-on work on the job so far – better to switch it off in case it differs from the PMI standards.
I would say unlearning how I did things and relearning in terms of PMI suggested practices was a challenge.
But I figured it out, during the studying whatever it was said in the books that the PM should do this and that, I always change the words ‘PM’ with ‘I’, like I was doing this and that. It was important for me because during the preparation each student needs to feel the pressure to be in the shoes of a PM as per the expectation and standards of PMI.
2. Maintaining high energy levels
The second challenge was how to keep my energy levels high during the first 30 days when I was working full time but at the same time I had to accomplish my micro milestones.
The truth is that the discipline is the key.
It was entirely up to me to keep going forward and to set my priorities. No excuses.
The good thing from COVID was that I was working from home. This meant that I am saving at least 2 hours per day of office commute.
2 hours were a lot for me.
This may seem hard to do. But it was not that hard actually because if you ignore any social media, TV, social life (which obviously disappeared for me during COVID) and you can still manage it.
The only change was that I had to wake up 2 hours earlier, at 5 am, I continued to go to sleep at the same time as before studying for the exam so my brain did not freak out. 🙂
I knew that everything is under control as I did not introduce a drastic change in my routine.
The week before the exam is crucial. What was your approach to study during this week?
In my case it was two weeks of intense PMP® exam preparation before the exam, where I pushed harder with 16 hours of study a day.
I went on a leave for 2 weeks as I did not want any distractions.
During the first 10 days I covered each Knowledge Area per day extremely thoroughly.
My goal was to stay calm and follow my plan. Basically since day 1 I had on my calendar number of days left and how many days I need to maintain this mental condition. I found this quite motivating to focus, focus, and focus.
So these 16 hours in the first 10 days included like 10 hours of reading and 6 hours of mocking tests on all chapters (whatever I found on Internet).
From these 6 hours you can do like 2-3 tests let’s say per one hour and the rest of the time you need to follow up on the wrongly answered questions, digging information, taking notes, which is also time-consuming and needs to be planned.
Last 5 days before the exam
After 10 super intense days I took half a day intended break – this is the reward which my body and mind needed.
Then I bundled the Knowledge Areas and did a recap of all of them – it was like 3 KAs on average per day.
I stopped with the tests – only Rita’s book. It wasn’t a problem to cover 3 KAs per day cause that was like 4th time going through the material – you know it more or less, the key parts of the text is highlighted and it was actually easier.
I figured out that I knew and understood around 85% of the content.
Yet, there were still things that I found out I was lacking deeper understanding of and I wrote those down on a big white board I have at home.
The day before the exam I closed all textbooks at 2 pm (my exam was scheduled at 2 pm the following day) as I wanted to have a full 24 hours window of relaxation before the time.
Wow, that was intense. What was your actual exam experience like?
I took the online exam.
It is a great chance as you can schedule it as per the time it suits you – you can choose literally any time in the day – whatever works for you.
I purely took advantage of that as I am not a morning person and my brain is sharp after 12 pm.
So, my exam was set for 2pm.
About online exam
As an online exam taker I was required to be available 30 min before my scheduled time.
You must test your system well in advance in order to be sure it is compatible and fulfills the requirements.
The steps are very straightforward once you log in.
- You will be required to take a photo of yourself, of your ID and your room.
- Once done, you are sending the pictures for verification and waiting the proctor to unlock your exam.
- In case the proctor has any concerns he/she will contact you.
- From the moment you log on the platform the camera will be recording everything and you will be constantly monitored.
I would advise everyone who will consider an online exam to familiarize him/her-self with them in advance on the Pearson website.
Once your environment is approved, your exam will start automatically – you are not allowed to look anywhere else but at the monitor.
The exam structure
Exam has 200 questions, you get 4 hours to answer them.
There is an optional 10-minute break after the 90th question, break time doesn’t count in your 4 hour exam time.
Before taking the break you need to review the questions.
Once your press SUBMIT button you will be no longer have the opportunity to review these 90 questions.
During the online exam you will have a built-in calculator and a white board for any notes you would like to take. There should be no scratch paper/pen/pencil near you.
As I mentioned you are not allowed to look aside, drink water or eat food during the exam. More or less, for about 4 hours you need to stay still and focused on the monitor.
For me that was a challenge and I decided that I will not practice it before the exam day as it is impossible. I did it only once – on the exam day.
However, I was constantly worried if my Internet connection will drop or my electricity will stop.
Probably due to that and due to the pressure mode I was in, I finished the exam 45 mins earlier than the time given.
I was really in a hurry to submit my results.
Once you finish you will find out the outcome of your submitted answers immediately. As a final step you you fill in 2 surveys and then it’s all done.
The questions on the exam that I had were very situational.
You might have 2-3 problems in the question but from those they will be asked what to do first let’s say or what is the most crucial.
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Any specific study tips, advice, techniques, or strategies for PMP® exam preparation?
I did this while studying and it helped me a lot. I imagined myself as the PM of a large project with 300-400 stakeholders across the world and applied each process to this project as I studied them.
Even while taking questions I would imagine this way and it helped me analyze the questions better.
Here are few more of my insights, I hope these will be useful to a PMP® student.
- Make sure to understand rather than memorizing the processes and their ITTOs.
- Tools and techniques: I found easy to study them first. Again, not rote learning but understanding their relevance to the process and project. When approaching each process, I was referring to what I need for that (input), how to do it (T&T), and then what will happen (output). I searched each and every diagram on Internet so I can visualize it and even played with some dummy data in Excel and built the most unknown diagrams on my own so I felt comfortable with them.
- Teach out loud to understand: When I was able to explain the content of each chapter/ KA freely out loud then I realized that I understand it . It may sound weird but when you hear yourself explaining things out loud you will be able to assess yourself what is bothering you.
- For the online exam – I practice the white board a lot – it is so much better to know how to work with it rather than seeing it for the first time (it is freely accessible on Pearson website here)
- Know your best time for study – are you an early bird or a night owl? In case your brain works best in the mornings than schedule the exam at that time.
- Sleep well the night before your exam, eat light protein food before the exam so you can have the power to sustain 4 hours
- Do not stress over in case the first questions are unknown. There are 25 pre-test questions on the exam that are more of a testing questions that will not count in the final score.
- Study the PMP® Examination Content Outline – it is split by process groups and gives you a clue what to put attention during your preparation. As you know, this is the syllabus for the exam (and not PMBOK guide).
- The calculations on the exam will not be super difficult – knowing the formulas as per Rita’s recommendation was more than enough for me
- From 200 questions only 2 did not ring a bell to me at all and I simply chose one of the options as the answer. I did not lose time thinking about them. It is not worth it. But never leave an unanswered question as there are no negative marking on this exam.
- I had about 10 questions at the end, which I marked for review. I was in doubt between 2 answers but didn’t want to lose time. Hence my strategy was to set this type of cases aside and only if I have time at the end then I will deep dive into them.
- Always tracking your time during the exam.
- Read your question (last sentence of the question part) first, skim the answers, then read the whole task. I use this technique since my university days and it works quite well for me.
- Be careful for words like “usually”, “last”, “typical”, etc.
- English is not my native language so there is always a chance to see an unknown word. I faced this experience during the mock tests – however, the word in 90% of the cases turned out to be quite irrelevant to the question.
- Prepare yourself mentally to face some amount of stress for 4 hours. You have to expect that you will be under stress … but knowing that in advance will give you a moderate idea about what to expect from yourself
- The online exam platform is really, really easy to use so I wouldn’t worry about that.
Keep your eyes on the prize! I am sure that everyone who put efforts, determination, and discipline will be able to pass the exam!
I would like to thank Shiv for the opportunity given to share my experience. If you are appearing for the exam, I hope this article would be useful for your own PMP® exam preparation, & I wish you all the best!