how hard is the PMP certification exam

You might be wondering how hard is the PMP exam.

The PMP certification exam is a very hard exam to pass. Experts believe that the passing rate of the PMP exam is less than 50% i.e. less than 50 out of 100 aspirants pass the exam in their first attempt.

A LinkedIn post ranks PMP (Project Management Professional) as the second most difficult certification exam. However, it is almost impossible to compare the difficulty level of professional exams on different subjects – you can’t compare apples to oranges.

Moreover, it is not important to determine if PMP is the toughest professional certification. If you want to become a certified project manager then you will not consider CISCO or VMWare or any other certification. There may be more difficult exams than PMP but none of the project management tests are more tough than this PMI (Project Management Institute) credential.

Having said that, I believe you can easily crack the certification exam with proper PMP exam prep and disciplined study.

Let us understand what makes the PMP exam difficult and how can you make it easy.

Why is PMP Certification Exam Hard?

1. Stringent Eligibility Requirements

PMI has setup very stringent requirements to apply for the PMP examination because they do not want to award certificate to an inexperienced project manager.

There are two basic requirements to become eligible for the exam:

  1. You should have professional project management experience.
    1. If you have a secondary degree (high school diploma, associate’s degree or global equivalent) then you need five years or 60 months of unique non-overlapping professional project management experience.
    2. Otherwise, if you have a four-year degree (bachelor’s degree or global equivalent) then you need three years or 36 months of unique non-overlapping professional project management experience.
  2. You should have 35 hours of formal project management education unless you are CAPM holder.

Basically, you need to have a minimum level of academic qualifications and professional experience before you can apply for the PMP exam.

You can refer to my article on PMP qualification criteria to understand these requirements in detail. You can opt for CAPM exam (Certified Associate in Project Management) if you are not eligible for the PMP credential test.

2. Extensive Study Material

PMI has given a long list of reference books to study for the exam. The list includes PMBOK Guide (A Guide to Project Management Body of Knowledge) and Agile Practice Guide but PMI has not clearly specified which edition of the PMBOK Guide (6th or 7th) is being used to develop the exam questions.

In addition to the above Guides, PMI suggest 8 other books.

If this was not enough, PMI says that “it should also be noted that the references identified herewith are but one element of a broader set of educational resources and texts that might possibly be utilized for exam and study preparation”.

This not only adds to the confusion but makes the life of PMP aspirants very difficult. They just don’t know what they should study.

Here is a small video that will help you to prepare a study strategy to pass the PMP exam in your first try.

3. No Definite Exam Syllabus

There is no definite syllabus prescribed by PMI. The new PMP exam is based upon the PMP Exam Content Outline (ECO) that describes 3 domains and 35 tasks related to these domains. You need to have knowledge of all the tasks in these domains in order to pass the exam.

Here is a small video explaining the PMP exam syllabus and how ECO and how can be used for exam preparation.

The domains described in ECO are:

  1. People: This domain includes 14 tasks that focus on your ability to build, coach, direct, and manage a project team. 42% of the exam questions come from this domain.
  2. Process: This domain includes 17 tasks that test your knowledge about project management and how you use it effectively throughout the project life cycle. 50% of the exam questions come from this domain.
  3. Business Environment: This is the smallest domain and it makes up the smallest portion of the exam. It includes only 4 tasks. It covers the influence of projects on an organization and how they can deliver value to the organization. 8% of the exam questions come from this domain.

Predictive, Agile, and Hybrid approaches to project management are also known as waterfall and agile.

In addition to the above domains and tasks, the exam tests your knowledge about Predictive, Agile, and Hybrid models.

4. Lengthy Exam

The PMP exam is one of the longest professional exams. You have to do a set of 180 multiple-choice questions in 230 minutes. Considering 180 questions and 230 minutes, you will get about 76 seconds to complete one question.

The actual exam is 230 minutes but it takes more than 4 hours to complete. There are two mandatory scheduled breaks of 10 minutes during the exam. The break-time is not counted in 230 minutes exam-time. You can use these breaks to stretch your legs, have a snack, drink water, or use the washroom.

If you want, you can take unscheduled breaks also but they will be counted as part of the exam-time.

Most working professionals are not accustomed to sitting for 4 hours at a stretch, let alone concentrating for a long time. The length of the exam makes PMP very stressful. It will drain your energy and test your mental strength.

5. Difficult Situational Questions

The PMP exam tests your understanding and practical knowledge of project management. It is not a test of your memory. You cannot pass the exam by mugging up the concepts written in the PMBOK Guide.

Most of the PMP exam questions are situational questions that are based on a scenario. You cannot answer these questions without having a realistic understanding of the project management concepts.

Generally, a PMP exam question is very tricky and all the answer options seem to be correct. You will need to read the questions carefully remove the chaff from the grain i.e. filter out redundant irrelevant information in order to find the correct answer.

In addition to the tough questions, PMI poses 5 “pretest questions”. These questions are not scored and are randomly placed in the exam. You do not get to know which questions are scored and which are pretest. They just increase the difficulty level of the exam.

6. Exam Format

The PMP exam has five different type of questions:

  1. Multiple options with one correct answer.
  2. Multiple options with multiple correct answers.
  3. Fill-in-the-blanks.
  4. Hotspot, wherein you choose a portion of a diagram to mark your answer.
  5. Matching choices among two columns.

7. No PMP Passing Score

The PMP exam does not have a published passing criteria – there is no PMP passing score. PMI uses psychometric analysis to determine if a PMP candidate has failed or passed the exam.

This adds another dimension of difficulty and uncertainty to an already difficult exam.

You should aim to score about 80% in the mock tests before you site for the actual exam.

How to Make PMP Certification Exam Easy?

You can make the PMP exam easy by following a discipline study approach. I have written an article how to pass PMP in your first try. You should read that article for a detailed strategy to successfully crack the exam.

Here are the top tips from that article.

1. Join a 35 Hours Training Program

Many aspirants start their PMP exam preparation by collecting sundry study material and preparing on their own. In my opinion, this is a futile exercise and a surefire strategy for failure.

The 35 hours PMP training is anyway mandatory. So, why not start your preparation by enrolling into a good self learning PMP course or a top PMP live training program. A training course will give you many things:

  1. initial impetus to start the exam prep
  2. structured approach to crack the exam
  3. focused study material
  4. proven study plan
  5. support from the subject matter experts

2. Prepare a Study Schedule

A study schedule is extremely important to pass the exam in your first try. You should give yourself 50-60 days to study for the exam. You should prepare formal plan and follow it rigorously. A disciplined approach will definitely yield results.

You can read my article on PMP study plan to find out its importance and download a sample schedule.

3. Practice 1500 Questions

You should practice about 1500 mock questions. This will not only validate your learning but also give you confidence before you sit for the real exam.

You should do a mix of chapter-end questions and 3-5 full-length tests to ensure that you are on top of the syllabus.

You can look at my review article on top PMP mock tests to find out the best PMP exam simulator.

Final Words

PMP is a hard exam but it is not an impossible venture. The passing rate of the exam may be low but still a lot of candidates pass the exam in their first attempt.

You too can be successful if you put your mind to it and prepare for it rigorously.

Over to You

Do you also feel that the PMP exam is hard? What strategies are you taking to pass the exam? What all study aids are you using?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

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  1. Hey Praveen, thank you for this post. Very helpful. My test is Friday morning and I have taken 3 practice exams getting about a 60% average. I’m really nervous!

    Another great resource is ‘The PMP Exam: How to Pass On Your First Try.’ By Andy Crowe. Very helpful.

    I’m going to double down the next few days and try to improve my average.

  2. I wrote mine in 2013 and it was hardest exam i’ve ever taken, I think I barely passed. Section I did bad on was ‘monitor and control’. But so glad I did it when I was young. I agree with what everyone says, prepare prepare prepare, do practices exams over and over to the point you can write the exam yourself.

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