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After dodging the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification for 15 years, I finally hit a contract requiring it. Nearly everyone I know who is a PMP attended a week-long cram session for about $4000. Shortly after, they sat for and passed the exam. Clearly, this is a certification you can cram for. Fortunately, I had enough time to do it my way.

I enjoy learning. But the best part about finishing college for me was putting all the arbitrary baggage of grades and exams behind me. From then on, I was free to learn and actually master new skills. I didn’t have to stop what I was doing to make time for the next class. I kept digging deeper. I actually got smarter.

For the PMP exam, I wanted a different path. I took a little more time to let the information sink in and improve long-term retention. When exam day arrived, I was ready without of the nervousness that often comes with cramming (aka “faking it”).


By cutting out distractions like (pretty much anything in a web browser), it’s amazing how much free time it was easy to substitute time for money. I spent only 4% of the cramming budget.


My overall strategy was simple: learn the overall material first then cram when I had a clear runway to a test date.

  • Phase 1: Learn
  • Phase 2: Cram
  • Phase 3: Exam

It’s a tactical error to cram and then postpone the exam. No one wants to dig the ditch twice. I do find it beneficial, however, to generally learn the material and let it sink in for a while before cramming. This was a lot more enjoyable since my brain was free to learn without pressure. I also allowed my curiosity to run down new paths to discover interconnections.

Phase 1: Learn

The goal of this phase was to become familiar with the overall exam framework and reference materials. I went through the entire Udemy course and completed the homework, quizzes, and exams. Along the way I created flashcards. I even checked out a copy of the PMBOK (Project Management Book of Knowledge) from the library and flipped through it without actually reading much of it. I returned it when it was due 21 days later and pretty much never looked at it again.

At the end of this phase, I completed my required 35 contact hours and submitted my PMP application. This is a good idea before you start cramming just in case PMI randomly audits your application.

(Then I had to stop for a company leadership course that required 40 hours of prerequisite homework. Afterward, I was burned out on the general topic of project management and leadership. I took a one-month hiatus.)

Phase 2: Cram

The goal of this phase was to make the final preparations to take and pass the exam. This is a focused effort free of distractions — not the time or place to be curious or learn broadly. I memorized the flashcards I created in Phase 1, practiced the formulas, and filled in a table countless times mapping out the processes across knowledge areas and process groups. I went through the Udemy course one more time with the speed set at 1.5x to save time. As a companion study guide, I checked out a book from the library by the Udemy course instructor to further review sections that weren’t clear from the videos.

When I felt confident about my scores on the Udemy course practice exams, I paid for the PMP Exam Simulator services, which provided another eight practice exams. This service was essential to fine-tuning. As it turned out, I was probably ready to take the final exam at this point since I passed every practice exam. This simulator asked questions that were far trickier than the final exam. I found this extremely useful because it trained me to quickly spot the little details in the question that made the correct answer clear.

Phase 3: Exam

When I plateaued with the exam simulator, I schedule the final exam for one week out. I stopped cramming at this point. I only casually reviewed some memory sheets and did some practice worksheets, but no more memorization. The day before my exam, I completed one last practice exam. When I received my highest score yet (decidedly “Above Target”), I knew I was ready. My exam time started around lunchtime. I spent the morning on final casual review, nothing stressful. When I entered the test center, I was ready to go. No doubt.

Lessons Learned

The material for the PMP exam is pretty straight forward, but I did have to memorize the PMI-specific terminology. By giving myself enough time, I was able to minimize the stress, learn more, and retain the knowledge well into the future. I guess this is common sense, but it bears repeating: Cramming will get the job done, but ultimately it’s a shortcut. Shortcuts are more about the minimum than mastery. When it matters to me, I prefer to take the long route.

(Note: I’m not entirely opposed to the cram sessions. If my job required me to get the certification in one month — I’d do a cram session. It’s just not my preferred option, not by a long shot.)