Studying for the PMP® Exam on Your Own

An oft-asked question is whether it’s possible to study for the PMP® exam on your own. Doing so offers considerable flexibility in managing your time and, of course, can save a significant amount of money, assuming that you don’t have an employer footing the bill. Commonly, employers provide training, but don’t reimburse you for the examination fee until you have passed the exam.

To answer the question, though, yes, you can study on your own. There are some things you must know, however, and some necessary conditions.

No amount of real-life experience in project management can assure that you will pass the exam. In fact, without dedicated study, you almost certainly will not pass. There is no denying that the exam’s questions require the mindset of “the PMBOK® way.” This should not be surprising.

Knowing the material is not enough, however. The fact is that even memorization of every single word of PMI’s primary PMP exam reference, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), will not assure that you will pass the exam.

Why are these things true?

The reason is simple. The PMP exam is not at all oriented toward the ability to regurgitate facts from the PMBOK Guide, but rather toward the ability to apply PMBOK material to realistic project management scenarios. That means that you must be able to understand the precise definitions of terms according to the PMBOK Guide. Very often, subtle distinctions between your understanding of a word and the project management standard’s definition can change the meaning of a key point.

Options for Studying on Your Own

There are various ways other than the formal classroom experience for successful navigation on your way to the PMP credential.

First, you can locate and participate in a study group. That study group can be either group-directed or led informally by a PMP credential holder. You may be able to locate a study group through your local PMI chapter or perhaps on a forum such as LinkedIn. Depending on the group and the degree of professional guidance, there may be no fee for participation or at least an affordable fee. There are clear advantages of participating with a group. First, in a group there is often someone who can clear up any point of discussion. Second, but not least, the group offers a structured time schedule, not unlike that provided by a workout or running buddy.

Second, you can truly go your own way. More than any other option, this path requires significant personal discipline. In the remainder of this article, we address some key points concerning self-study.

Don’t forget that you still must satisfy the requirement for 35 hours of project management education, and self-study does not count for this purpose. This requirement can often be fulfilled through online means. If you’re quite fortunate, these hours may even be provided by your employer through some self-paced study avenue. Remember that the provider of the study must be either a local PMI chapter or a PMI Registered Education Provider. From those sources, any course topic is acceptable.

Self-Study Tips

  1. Accurate rules of thumb for the time required for preparation are impossible. The time required will depend on your personal experience and prior study, among other factors. Nonetheless, if forced to name a figure, let’s say three months, assuming an hour or two per day.
  2. Have a definitive study schedule. Stick to it. If you can’t make the planned study time on a given day, make up the time. Getting your hours in over a period of time is what really counts. Keep track of your effort!

A Study Sequence

  1. Read the PMBOK once from cover to cover. Read it again at least one more time. Concentrate, and pay particular attention to definitions.
  2. Begin taking test exams. Take them excessively. Get them anywhere you can, including free versions from the Internet. It’s OK if the early practice exams are oriented toward recalling facts, because first you must learn the necessary terminology that forms the foundation for the situation-oriented exam practice that is so essential later in your preparations.
  3. When you achieve a typical score of, say, 60 percent or more, you should seek out higher-fidelity, situation-oriented, more complex questions. Why begin with just any question set? Because you need as many practice questions as possible.
  4. If your question set is scored according to PMBOK Knowledge Areas or Process Groups, note in which area(s) your scores are lower. Read those portions of the PMBOK again until your rate of correct answers improves.
  5. While still maintaining a steady diet of situation-oriented practice questions, begin occasionally measuring the speed with which you are answering them. You can begin with 15 minute intervals. Would you finish all 200 questions in four hours at your current rate? Work on picking up the pace, if necessary.
  6. Finally, and largely to boost your own confidence, you need to find out how you will perform on a continuous four-hour exam. When you can correctly answer 80 percent or more of true exam-like questions, time yourself once or twice on a four-hour examination. You may be approaching readiness for the exam.

In reality, a single simple numeric score isn’t what the examination software will look at. It’s more complex than that. Basically, among the PMBOK’s 10 Knowledge Areas, you can’t be judged “Below Proficient” in any of them and pass, regardless of even perfect scores in other Knowledge Areas. Your final score on exam day, provided to you seconds after exam completion, will tell you how you did in each area, and hopefully you will have addressed your shortcomings previously. So, in your final exam preparations, make sure that you don’t have a weakness in any of the 10 Knowledge Areas.

The exam will likely not be as oriented toward mathematics as you might expect. Oh yes, math questions will be there, and there could be a toughie. More probable, however, is a deceptively easy and obvious question that nonetheless measures your grasp of the appropriate knowledge.


Would-be exam takers who are a no-show at the exam day and time will forfeit the exam fee. That’s a gamble one should not take. Be sure to familiarize yourself with these details from the PMP Credential Handbook. Make absolutely sure you know the location, and plan to show up early!

Get enough rest on the night before the exam. Plan your schedule accordingly.

Depending on your exam location, you may have to schedule your exam date well in advance. That means that you will have to plan your study carefully so that you are somewhere near your peak of preparation on test day.