PMP, CAPM, PFQ, PMQ, PRINCE2, CSM, PSM… The list of Project Management Exams is long. It is likely that many Project Managers will need to take an exam sometime in your career. So, what are the tips and advice for exam technique that will make it easier to pass your Project Management exam the first time you take it?
To answer this question, we’ll look at five topics:
So, open your exam paper, and your exam starts… Now.
The process for passing your exam starts long before you get to that exam room. Success always lies in your preparation. And that means learning the material you will be examined on.
I won’t go into the details of how to study and learn in this article. We already have a complementary article, How can You Get the Best from Your Project Management Learning? on our website.
But I will outline three important topics:
Start your exam preparation with the simplest exam technique of all: organizing yourself. Set up your workspace and allocate your work time.
If you can have a dedicated space to work, where you can set yourself up and keep your study materials to hand, that is ideal. But not everybody can. For others, you will need to store your study materials and set up your workspace where you can, whenever it’s study time.
If you have a dedicated workplace, here are my top tips:
Allocate work Time when you can have solid chunks of time to concentrate on your study. I’ll remind you late that you need to punctuate these with short breaks. But it’s important that you can study free from feelings of obligation to other responsibilities and distractions from other people or events.
It makes a lot of sense to plan your work a week ahead, and to work to a master plan (which we’ll look at next). Better still, if your lifestyle allows it, the best exam technique is to allocate regular study time into your calendar. Short and frequent sessions will always be better than fewer longer sessions, if you have the choice.
Make a learning plan that fits your way of studying. Fit all the content you need to cover into the work time you expect to have available. And remember to include time for:
Some students seem to thrive on last-minute preparation. But, I do wonder how realistic their claims are. After all, these are not the people who are likely to do a comparative test! I recommend you plan ahead and not leave anything for the last minute.
Preparing for a major exam is stressful. And the secret to handling that stress is to prepare yourself to deal with it. So, it is all about building your emotional, mental, and physiological resilience. And there are four things to get right to maximize your resilience to stress.
Eat good quality food, and take your time with it. The added pressure of preparing for an exam while also juggling work, family, and community commitments can lead many to take shortcuts. And this can mean junk food eaten quickly. This will not help you and will possibly weaken your immune system and compromise your resilience to stress.
There are reports that some food substances – so-called ‘brain foods’ – may help you study. I am not a nutritionist, so I shall leave you to research this for yourself and draw your own conclusions. However, I do like Michael Pollan’s advice for healthy eating: Eat food, not too much, mostly vegetables.
And, don’t forget to drink plenty of water. Remaining hydrated is vital to concentration, general well-being, and your overall mood.
Another shortcut that can tempt you is to cut out physical activities that take up time. However, this is another false economy. Maintain a suitable regime of safe exercise. This will keep your body healthy and resistant to infection, and your mind alert. It can be sport, movement like dance or martial arts, walking, gardening – anything that gets your joints moving and builds stamina and suppleness.
While you are preparing for your exams, your stress levels will, inevitably, rise. The people in your life are a great way to relieve some of that pressure and provide active emotional support. And, of course, to an extent, they can do things for you, freeing up time and headspace. So, in a very real way, spending time with your friends and family is good exam technique!
Perhaps the most important of all these four resilience techniques is good rest. Working late, getting up early, and cutting down on sleep to do so is doomed to fail. We do not think clearly when we are tired. And neither do we lay down memories as effectively. Prioritize regular breaks in your study and good sleep every night that you are working on your exam preparation.
As the day of your exam approaches, the emphasis of your exam technique swings towards near-term preparation.
This is mostly about the logistics of the event, but mindset is important too. Stay positive. It is all too easy to focus on your feelings of ‘not being prepared enough’. But that’s not something you can fix, so these thoughts are of zero value! Instead, focus on what you have done, what you know, and how ready you are. You are probably a lot better prepared than you think!
As my regular readers know, I am a huge advocate of checklists. They prevent omissions and mistakes. And that seems to me to be an important aspect of any exam technique!
Well, you’ve arrived! But the exam hasn’t started yet, so you still have some time for a little more good exam technique. So, get yourself organized for this stage in the process.
Set out the things you brought with you, so everything is ready to hand, and nothing is in the way. Make yourself comfortable by adding or removing layers of clothing for maximum comfort.
As soon as you are allowed to look at your exam paper, read the instructions at least twice. Even if you are familiar with the exam format, there may be some unexpected differences that you need to be aware of. Now, take some time to make your final plan for your exam time.
If you have a choice of questions to select from,
Rule 1: Remember to breathe. If you get anxious, a few deep breaths will restore your equilibrium.
Also, remember to drink water. Staying hydrated is vital for good concentration. But take frequent sips, rather than long gulps. The last thing you want is to need to waste time stepping out – or to struggle to concentrate against the demands of a full bladder.
When you are answering exam questions, the exam technique is simple:
Read each question and break it down into its component parts. Unless you are absolutely clear about what the question is asking, read it a second time to be sure you did not miss anything.
Now, assess what the question is asking. Physically or mentally highlight key phrases:
For written answers, plan out your answer. I’ll say more about this in the next section.
Now it’s time to swiftly, concisely, and efficiently give your answer.
That may sound obvious. But, remember what a court witness has to swear to, and (to paraphrase):
‘Answer the question, the whole question, and nothing but the question.’
Remember you will be answering against a syllabus. If you can see a distinction between what you think is ‘the right answer’ and what you think the examiner thinks is right, because of the methodology you are being examined on… Always choose the examiner’s interpretation.
I hope that, if you have been using good exam technique, this won’t happen to you. However, if you do find yourself with too little time and too many questions to answer, then remember that most of the marks for a question are generally in the obvious part of the question. The subtleties take more time to write about and gain fewer marks. It’s the 80:20 rule – the Pareto Principle.
And also, few marks will go towards things like style, punctuation, and even spelling.
So, if you are short of time:
At the end of each question, take a quick glance at the time. Are you on schedule, or do you need to speed up a little? If you are ahead of schedule, don’t worry.
Use any spare time you have, to review your work and look for opportunities to check, improve, complete, or correct your work. Focus on:
You are not finished.
Always use the spare time you have to review your answers one more time. Never leave the exam early. Ten minutes more in the coffee shop will never compensate for the feeling that ‘if only I’d checked question 7 one more time!’
There are three types of exams that Project Managers are most likely to encounter in your Professional exams. So, let’s look at the exam technique for each of:
Plough through one at a time. Take your time on each and answer as quickly as you can, but not more quickly than you need to, to properly assess your answer. So, what to add to this obvious advice? Here are my top tips:
* There are two types of marking. One (the more common) scores a point for a correct answer and no points if your answer is incorrect. The other scores a point for a correct answer and removes a point if your answer is incorrect. This is usually used where there are serious consequences for errors in the real world, so penalizes guessing. A good example is medical exams. Know how your multiple-choice exam questions are scored.
Writing an essay – or even a short paragraph – under the time pressure of an exam can be challenging. You need to organize your thoughts and plan carefully to present your answer clearly.
Put yourself into the mindset of your examiner. What do they want to know? Read the question carefully, because that is where they will tell you!
This kind of exam question usually has an ‘instruction word’ that tells you what kind of answer the examiner wants. Highlight or put a box around the instruction word and it will make the task of planning and structuring your answer more efficient. Typical instruction words include:
Here is my recommended process for planning your answer. It works equally well with one paragraph (several sentences) and a whole 3,000-word essay. I used it for this 3,000-word article, by the way!
It is always good to have a standard structure up your sleeve, that you can easily fit your answer into. A couple of good examples are:
Adapt this idea to create a good structure for the types of answers you will need to write.
It’s easy to think that you don’t need any exam technique for an oral exam. Just show up and answer the questions. Can you guess what I think of that suggestion?
Of course, it should go without saying that all the preparation stuff is relevant here. But what about when you get into the meeting?
The simple rule here is to be led by your examiner/s and follow the cultural conventions. Be courteous and respectful and, if you are not sure what they expect, ask.
You get no points for an instant answer. So, take your time. Listen carefully to the whole question before you start to think about your response. If you need to, ask a clarifying question, so you are sure what they asked you.
Now, assess what they want to know. What is the question really about and how do they want you to frame your answer? Just as with written answers, a standard structure will help ensure that you cover the whole answer in a succinct way.
Watch their body language. Whilst they may be deliberately inscrutable, they may give away the extent to which they like your answer.
Once you have answered the question, if you aren’t sure, why not ask: ‘I think I’ve covered the key points, but if I missed an area of your question, please do ask me about it’.
Your examiners are not there to catch you out, nor to expose your weaknesses. They are there to examine what you do know and determine if it is enough.
So, if you realize you have misspoken or missed something out, say so. Politely comment that you have done so, and ask if you may clarify or add something. They will almost always say yes. (I can’t think of a reason why they wouldn’t – unless they are nasty people – but I don’t want to be absolutist about this). Remember, often an oral exam is looking at your awareness of complex issues. Your awareness that you made a mistake is more important to the examiner than the mistake itself.
A large part of the advice in this video applies to ANY exam…
Please do share your tips and advice in the comments below.
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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