Editorial: Alex Brown’s PMP Prep Advice

Alex S. Brown, PMP IPMA-C

I am NOT an expert on PMP Prep services (preparing for the PMI Project Management Professional certification exam). I wrote this article because I often get asked about these services, and I wanted an easy way to share my views.

When people decide to earn their PMP, many are anxious to find the “best” way to study and prepare. I do not know whether there is one, “best” way to study, but these are things that I have seen work for friends and coworkers.

  • About the Vendors

    The vendors mentioned here might feel that my advice is biased. Some might feel that it is outdated. I make no claim to be objective or up-to-date here. I am biased. I urge you to double-check everything you read here. This article is not an objective review.

Pick Your Study Style

A key question for anyone studying is:

How do you like to learn?

Do you like

  • Self-study, using books
  • On-line learning
  • Classroom courses
  • “Cram” courses

The list above is ordered from low-cost to high-cost. For most people, the list is also ordered from the longest to the shortest path to achieving the PMP. Ask yourself how you learn best, how much time you have to pass, and how much money you can afford to put into test preparation services. For most people, these three factors drive them to pick a particular study method.

Some people decide to use more than one method. (Many project managers are thorough, detail-oriented people, and they want to be as prepared as possible.) Remember that the PMP test is a pass/fail exam. You will get a score, and while getting a higher score might feel better right after taking the exam, few people will care about it. When I passed the exam in 2001, the passing score and the meaning of a certain score was totally different than it is today; my score has no meaning at all today. You cannot really compare scores effectively, so just focus on passing.

Getting the PMP certification is the goal. Keep that goal in mind.


Self-study is my personal favorite study method, and it is how I passed. Buy your books, read them, and take pencil-and-paper practice exams. It is great for a self-paced, self-driven student. It can also be done inexpensively.

Searching on Amazon or the PMI Bookstore will show a variety of flashcards, sample exam books, and other tools to pass the test. Most are less than $100 USD each. If you get a good study book for the exam, and sample tests from at least two authors, you should be able to prepare and pass.

PMI used to offer a package of books for people planning to take the exam. When I purchased it, I got many books that have been valuable references, but they went into far more detail than I really needed to get the certification. For instance, “Earned Value Management” by Fleming and Koppelman was in the package. It is a great book on earned value, but it provides more details and examples than needed to pass the PMP test. I recommend purchasing books like these to learn, but if you really want to pass the PMP test, focus on PMP Prep titles. They will be a more effective use of your time.

At some point around 2003, PMI also offered specific brands of PMP Prep books in a package. I am not happy about seeing PMI pick a specific vendor and endorse it that way in their bookstore. There are many great resources out there, and I hate to see PMI pick sides. I do not believe that PMI is recommending any specific brand of PMP Prep book today.

Some of the vendors you should consider for books are Crosswind, AMA (American Management Association), and ESI International. I have found that they have great quality books and reference guides. They all offer sample tests as well.

One tricky issue for anyone doing self-study is that the PMP application requires that you have a certain number of hours of training before you can apply to take the exam.

Is it still possible to get your PMP through self-study? Yes!

You might already have management training that fills the requirement, and some books, CDs, and DVDs offer ways to meet that training-hour requirement. Read the PMP application and look at the different book options before deciding that you MUST register for a course.

On-Line Learning

Many people like on-line study, because it blends the schedule-it-anytime flexibility of self-study, but it has a little more structure. It is also great for people who want a low-cost solution, but who learn better through audio and visual input.

When comparing on-line learning options, look at the level of support you will receive. Some courses just offer anytime-playback of fixed course material. Others will let you ask an instructor questions. Others have specific, scheduled times for you to attend the courses. Pick the option that is best for you.

Many vendors are blurring the lines between self-study and on-line learning. Many books now come with CDs, DVDs or links to on-line materials. Some on-line courses include a book, and you may be expected to read large sections of that book in order to pass. Often a single vendor will offer a range of products, from printed books, to CDs, to on-line practice tests, to full on-line courses. Some will discount these products when you buy them all as a package. This is an exciting time to study for the PMP, because you have many options.

Vendors are constantly changing in this area. Look at the web sites for the recommended vendors for both books and courses to see who offers on-line training now.

Classroom Courses

Classes are usually much more expensive than books or on-line learning, but for some people they are worth it. The in-person trainer can answer questions, provide a solid time line for study, and help encourage you to actually apply for and pass the exam.

PMP Prep classes have become a thriving industry. There are large, medium, and small training companies offering these classes. The most cost-effective option is often to register for a class with your local PMI Chapter. Local project-management training or consulting companies often offer reasonably-priced classes. If you are an individual student studying for the exam, you want to register with a public class. If you are in charge of a group of people, you can get a vendor to come and do a class just for your organization. If you are hosting a class, do not settle for just the “big names.” Contact smaller, local firms. They will often provide the same information for much less money.

Some good vendors are the local PMI Chapters, ESI International, and local providers like Interthink Consulting.

Beware of anyone who says that they offer an introductory course in project management that also prepares you for the PMP exam. These are a lot of test-taking skills that you need to review in a good PMP class. The vendor is either neglecting the student who wants to learn project management, or the student who is trying to pass the PMP exam. The only exception that I know of to this rule is a University Learning Institute’s “The Course“, which does teach both fundamentals of project management as well as PMP prep. This course is also much longer and more intense than most PMP prep courses.

“Cram” Courses

No one seems to advertise their courses as “cram” courses. “Cram” has a negative connotation. If you see anyone offering a 3-day to 5-day class, all scheduled for a single week, then you are looking at a “cram” course.

The big advantage of these courses is that you can quickly study for and get your PMP. Most vendors recommend scheduling your exam for the day after the course ends, and that has worked well for the people I know.

Be prepared to devote yourself entirely to the course for the whole time. You need to be fully engaged in class and study in the evenings or morning. You will be exhausted and drained, but you can pass the exam in just a week. My friends who have done cram courses found that they could not keep up with work e-mails and other responsibilities during the class. They used all their time studying.
There is a risk to these cram courses — you might not retain much of the information learned. On the other hand, the goal of the course is to pass the PMP exam, not to learn project management. These courses help you meet the goal of passing the exam.

These classes can also be very expensive. I usually see people take them through an employer. The employer is anxious to get certain people certified, so they fly them to a class location, focus them entirely on the exam for a week, and then the certification is done.

Other Common Questions

Do You Have to Be a Great Project Manager to Pass the PMP Exam?

No. You just need to pass the test. When shopping for PMP Prep services, keep this fact in mind. The goal is to pass the test. The goal is not to become a better project manager. You might learn some things along the way, but the goal is the certification. If you want to acquire practical skills, do that before you study for the exam or after you earn your PMP.

I have heard that IIL and Rita Mulcahy’s materials are the best. Why don’t you mention them?

I just do not like IIL and Rita Mulcahy’s RMC Project. (Yes, this is a personal opinion piece and not an objective review.) They offer acceptable products, but the market now offers equivalent or better products from other vendors.

I have seen IIL offer very expensive training options, and I do not see a reason for their premium prices. I have been disappointed at the breakup of IIL with Eric Uytteewaal over the Dynamic Microsoft Project books. I do not feel comfortable recommending IIL courses.

Rita Mulcahy’s books have long been seen as “the” essential PMP prep reference. They were one of my study guides. I think that other vendors like Crosswind now offer equal products at a much more reasonable price. I am also not happy about some of the products offered by Mulcahy and RMC Project. A “course in a book” on Risk Management is offered as a way to earn PDUs. Actually, you can earn PDUs from reading any project management book. I would much rather read a book by risk management experts than one of these so-called “courses in a book”.

I also see IIL and Rita as quite self-promotional. Some people argue with me that they must be, to survive. I disagree. IIL recently donated a huge sum, $1 MM USD, to the PMI Educational Foundation. I love to see that kind of corporate charity, but their speech recognizing the PMIEF talked almost exclusively about how successful IIL is, not about the Foundation. Rita puts on a great show when she speaks, but often seems to emphasize deficiencies in project managers, followed by a mention of her own products. I believe in building up project managers, not pulling them down as a lead-in to a sales pitch.

Since there are good alternatives, I recommend the alternatives.