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Brilliant Exam Technique: How to Pass Your Project Management Exam First Time

Brilliant Exam Technique: How to Pass Your Project Management Exam First Time

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?

Brilliant Exam Technique: How to Pass Your Project Management Exam First Time

Our Syllabus

To answer this question, we’ll look at five topics:

  1. Long-term Preparation
  2. Near-term Preparation
  3. In the Exam Room
  4. Answering the Questions
  5. Guidance for Exam Technique for Specific Types of Exams

So, open your exam paper, and your exam starts… Now.

Exam Technique: Long-term Preparation

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:

  1. Organizing Yourself 
  2. Making Your Learning Plan
  3. Handling the Stress

Organizing Yourself 

Start your exam preparation with the simplest exam technique of all: organizing yourself. Set up your workspace and allocate your work time.

Work Space

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:

  • Clear your desk, so you can spread out and make space for your study books and your note-taking tool (a notebook, a laptop, or a tablet device)
  • Ergonomics are important for your physical well-being. Make sure you have good quality light to work with, a comfortable chair, and a desk at the right height. Also, ensure you are sitting face-on to your work. Sitting for long periods with a twist in your neck, shoulders, or back will cause stiffness and pain.
  • Remove distractions but, if you can, allow wall space to post up diagrams, lists, and other memory aids.
  • Gather together your ideal stationery and materials: favorite pens and pencils, a nice notebook, highlighters, and sticky tabs. Take a look at my Learner’s Kit List.

Work Time

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.

Making Your Learning Plan

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:

  • Reviewing your learning
  • Covering again the things that you don’t fully understand the first time
  • Quiz questions and other revision processes
  • Mock exams

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.

Handling the Stress

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.

Good fuel

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.

Good Energy

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.

Good Relationships

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!

Good Rest

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.

Exam Technique: Near-term 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!

Logistics

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!

  • Check the time, place, rules, and requirements for your exam.
  • Make a plan for the exam itself. Know how many questions there will be and of which types. Decide how you will divide up your time, among the different sections of the exam. And allow some spare time for contingency. You should be able to look at the clock at any time in the exam and know immediately how well you are doing against your schedule.
  • Prepare a Packing List of all the things to take. Assemble it the evening before, and add spares of crucial items like calculator batteries and pens. Include comfortable clothes including layers that will allow you to adapt to the temperature in the exam room.
  • Plan your route and the time it will take you to get there.
  • Then, act like a good Project Manager, and add on some extra time as a contingency. Cutting it fine (or arriving late) late will add to your stress and anxiety – or even cause you to fail.
  • The night before, eat well and get plenty of sleep – do not study late into the night.
  • Get up early, set off early, and arrive early, to avoid last-minute stress.
  • Have a good breakfast, with foods like whole grains, eggs, or cheese, which release energy over a longer period. Avoid too much caffeine or energy drinks.
  • Take water to the exam in a suitable container.
  • Avoid discussing the exam with other candidates right before you start the exam. This can also trigger anxiety. 
  • If you do feel nervous, take a few deep breaths.

Exam Technique in the Exam Room

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.

Exam Organization

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. 

Opening the Paper

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, 

  • Read the whole paper carefully, noting how many questions you need to complete and the length of the exam
  • Then, decide which questions you will answer, and the order in which you will answer them. Look for the questions where you can see how to score maximum points and you are confident you have the knowledge to do so.
  • Next, decide how long to spend on each question. Allocate your time according to the number of marks available.

Stress

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.

Exam Technique for Answering the Questions

When you are answering exam questions, the exam technique is simple:

  • Read
  • Assess
  • Answer
  • Review 

Read

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.

Assess

Now, assess what the question is asking. Physically or mentally highlight key phrases:

  • What is it asking about?
  • What is the question you need to answer?
    Look for action words that tell you, such as analyze, argue, calculate, compare, criticize, discuss, or evaluate.
  • Where are the pitfalls?

For written answers, plan out your answer. I’ll say more about this in the next section.

Answer

Now it’s time to swiftly, concisely, and efficiently give your answer.

Rule 1: Answer the question

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’m running out of time!

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:

  1. Answer the key parts of the remaining questions, rather than aiming for complete answers.
  2. Use bullet points or notes to get down more information in less 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.

Review

Use any spare time you have, to review your work and look for opportunities to check, improve, complete, or correct your work. Focus on: 

  • Questions you struggled with
  • Questions with calculations 
    Redo them, to check for arithmetic errors
  • Spellings and grammar 
    Especially names
  • Clarity of your answer 
    Have you left any ambiguity?
  • Did you explain any assumptions you made?
    Skipping over any steps– especially in logical arguments or calculations – can lose you easy marks.

If you finish early…

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!’

Guidance for Exam Technique for Specific Types of Exams

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:

  1. Multiple Choice Exams
  2. Written Answers
  3. Oral Exams

Multiple Choice Exam technique

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:

  • Cover up the answers and read the question.
    Figure out the right answer before you look at the options
  • Look out for negatives, such as never, none, unless, or not, and absolutes, such as always, never, whenever, or every.
    These can have a big impact on the correct answer. And negatives can confuse – especially if you are not working in your first language.
  • Your first impression is often valuable.
    It can help you to eliminate obviously incorrect answers. And your examiners should not be trying to trick you – if it seems right, it probably is! So, if you have prepared well, and have read the question and answer options carefully, your first impression is probably right.
  • Now, look at the answers.
    Do any of them match your initial answer?
    Read all the answers carefully, even if your first choice seems obvious.
  • Look out for answers that are worded similarly.
    The subtle differences will be important.
  • Select your answer.
  • Don’t get too bogged down on one question.
    If you don’t know either take your best guess or leave the question unanswered*, then move on.
    Remember to keep an eye on the time.
  • Only change an answer later if you have a good reason to do so.

Note:

* 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.

Written Answer Exam Technique

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:

  • Analyze
  • Argue
  • Calculate
  • Compare
  • Contrast
  • Criticize
  • Discuss
  • Evaluate
  • Explain
  • Justify
  • Outline
  • Review
  • Summarize

Plan your answer

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!

  1. Mind map
    Put the topic (including the instruction word’ in the center of your scrap paper and then build a mind map of ideas around it.
  2. Dump all your relevant ideas onto your mind map
  3. Highlight important ideas that will get you the points you want
  4. Sequence those ideas to make a logical structure that answers the examiner’s question
  5. Create the headings that will contain each important idea
  6. Write your paragraph or essay, one heading at a time, in sequence.

Structure your answers:

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:

  • Answer – Evidence – Analysis – Conclusion
  • Answer – Reason – Example – Summary 

Adapt this idea to create a good structure for the types of answers you will need to write.

Oral exam Technique

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?

Formalities and Courtesies

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.

Answering the Questions

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’.

Recovering from misspeaking or missing something

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.

Bonus Video

A large part of the advice in this video applies to ANY exam…

Please do share your tips and advice in the comments below.

What are Your Tips for Brilliant Exam Technique?

About the Author Mike Clayton

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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