PMP Part V – Developing a Winning Mindset

By Paul Brooks, PMP®, EIT, Validation Engineer, PSC Biotech™

Here we are at the ending of this blog series in which I have touched on many topics all targeted to help bring out your best performance on your next professional certification exam. I started with a look at the challenges that many professionals face in earning their certifications despite their extensive experience and the support they receive from their employers or sponsors. In the second article, I identified the lack of planning and commitment as a major gap in the study plans of many would-be certified project managers and as key reasons why I believe that many project management students “drop-out” before they reach their certification exam. Following on that thread, in the subsequent article, I introduced a potential study methodology to support project management students through all the phases of their study plan – one that both prepares the candidate for the certification exam as well as bolsters their confidence by preparing them for life after the certification is earned. Then, in Part IV, I discussed the importance of keeping three core tenants in mind while on your certification journey and how these tenants can be used to exploit the wisdom of your own experience as you prepare for your next certification exam.

In this final chapter, I think it would be prudent to address the elephant in the room; namely, how to take what you have learned and use it to create a winning mindset on the exam. When coming down the stretch, I wholly believe that mindset, more so than knowledge, determines your success or failure on the certification exam. The key to that mindset lies in three areas, which I will explain presently.

  1. Performing a Final Review

The first key lies in your final review. During your final review, your goal should be to give a light review to all the topics you covered during your exam preparations. Particular emphasis should be given to the executing and monitoring & controlling process groups, the scope, schedule and cost knowledge areas as well as high-probability topics and formulas, as these often take center stage during the exam. How do I know? The Executing and Monitoring & Controlling Process Groups contain 22 processes but together account for more than 50% of the exam and the scope, schedule and cost knowledge areas contain 16 process in themselves and interact with most of the other knowledge areas in some way. Many people see these areas as containing the low-hanging fruit in terms of exam topics – easier to understand than the other topics and together worth a large percentage of the overall points on the certification exam.

If you are not sure what classifies as a high-probability topic, I have only this to say: what have you been doing? If you are just a few days out from your exam and you haven’t yet figured out what the PMI® considers as the most important topics and you haven’t reached out to existing credential holders in your support network to find out what appeared on their exam, then you are missing the boat! Reach out to your mentors and peers through e-mail, chat on-line with your trainer, or browse around social-networking sites. Get a feeling of which topics were recurring themes on the exam that you should double-down on and which topics you could ease-up on your studying. Tap in to that tribal-knowledge and be the beneficiary of the lessons-learned and best practices of those that have gone before you.

  1. Creating a Day-Before-the-Exam Plan

The second key lies in your Day-Before-the-Exam Plan. A Day-Before-the-Exam Plan is exactly what it sounds like – it is a plan of what you plan to do the day (or maybe two) before your certification exam. The plan should start at least one day out from your scheduled exam date and run right up to waking-up on the morning of the exam. In this plan, you should outline how much time you will devote to reviewing and what topics you will review in particular. Based on your knowledge of your learning style, you should decide if your precious final hours before the exam would be best spent running through practice tests, reviewing your notes and study guides, having a study buddy or family member quiz you, or a combination of all of the above.

An alternative approach to the day before the exam is to take a break from the exam content and simply relax or do something that you enjoy. Personally, I have found that doing something physical the day before an exam, such as playing sports or doing some light exercise, helps me to relax and get in the right mindset for the big day. My personal experience has shown that a focus on mindset and energy is critical in the final days leading up to a major exam, even more so than scrambling to soak-up that last-minute formula. I figure that after having prepared for the exam for several months, if I haven’t learned the content by the day before my exam, a few more hours of cramming aren’t going to make much of a difference while entering into exam day in a relaxed state of mind could prove to be a game changer.

Whatever you decide to do in the last day before your exam, be sure to capture it in a short plan. Outline of the topics you will review and the resources or people you will need to pull it together. Alert your study network and family members to make them aware of your plan so that they can make themselves available to assist you, as needed.

  1. Creating an Exam Plan

For me, an exam plan is a plan of what I am going to do from the moment I wake up on exam day to the moment when I submit the completed exam to the proctor. It includes an outline of the steps I will take before sitting down in the exam room, including the route I will take to get to the test facility, what I will eat or drink on the way there and what last-minute notes, if any, I will review once I arrive. However, the bulk of my exam plan consists of a summary of the strategies I plan to use to work through the exam problems, a schedule for ensuring that I complete the exam on time and a plan for what I will do when I encounter difficult problems. Let’s look at each of these plan elements in a little more detail.

Exam Strategies

This section of your exam plan should list out your strategies for approaching the questions on the exam. Are you the type of person who will scan the entire test and answer the questions you know you could answer quickly and then come back for the remainder, or are you the type of person who will solve the test in order from Question #1 through Question #200? Will you read each question in its entirety first or will it help your exam time management to skim the answer choices before reading the problem statement? Will you read the questions out-loud so that you can engage to audio-processing portion of your brain, or will you summarize each question in short-hand on a piece of scratch paper to avoid missing critical details? All of these are viable strategies for approaching the certification exam, but not all of them are right for each test taker. Work to discover which strategies work best for you and list out those you intend to employ on the exam in your exam plan.

Exam Schedule

In this section of your exam plan, you should plan out how you will use your allotted time on the exam in an exam schedule. This schedule should include how long you intend to devote to a “brain-dump” of critical formulas and neumonics at the start of the exam as well as how much time you will to devote to reviewing any questions you marked for follow-up at the end of the exam. If the idea of sitting through a 4-hour exam is intimidating to you, perhaps you could adjust your pacing to complete the exam in 3.5 hours or incorporate several 5- to 10-minute breaks into your exam schedule – it’s up to you!

Once assembled, your exam schedule can be used to calculate your necessary question pacing in order to make meaningful checkpoints along the way (e.g. at 60 minutes elapsed, I should have completed at least 50 out of 200 questions). Use those checkpoints during the exam to determine if you are on-schedule or if are falling off your pace and are in danger of not completing the test in the time allotted.

A Plan for Dealing with Difficult Problems

This section of your exam plan should be devoted to what you plan to do when you encounter a difficult problem. Based on your experience during the mock exams, you should have a good sense of which topics you feel comfortable with and which topics that may still give you trouble on the certification exam. (If your exam is tomorrow and you don’t know your trouble spots yet, I hate to sound like a broken record, but, what have you been doing?). Going into the final stretch before your certification exam, you should work on developing strategies for approaching these and other tough questions that you may encounter on the exam.

When I encounter tough questions on the exam or I encounter questions that I anticipate may take a long time to solve, I first like to consult my brain-dump to determine if any of my neumoics can be used to help me through a difficult spot. If I still feel in a bind after consulting my brain-dump, I will often “red flag” the question and mark it so I can come back to it at a later time. Since a tough question that takes 3 minutes to solve is worth just as much as an easy question that takes 30 seconds to answer, my goal is to ensure that I optimize my time and don’t spend an exorbitant amount of time on any one question. By flagging the question and moving on, my hope is that may encounter a clue to the answer for one of those tough questions elsewhere in the test. Alternatively, I may simply benefit from fresh eyes that may be able see a solution path in my second pass through the exam that I could not see the first time through.

In the absence of finding the answer hidden elsewhere in the exam, strategies such as eliminating any obviously wrong answer choices and picking from the remaining choices, working backwards from the answer choices given, or simply going with your gut instinct may save you time on difficult questions – time that could be better spent elsewhere on the exam. I have found that many computational questions can be answered just by determining a ballpark figure or by understanding the interpretation of the equation’s output and don’t actually require writing out, deriving or solving equations. More than anything else, keep in mind that the PMI®’s certification exams are made to test your speed and your proficiency. They are designed to be solved in the time provided and they are designed to see if you can use the information given to make an assessment of the situation and select an appropriate path forward that is consistent with the lessons of the PMBOK® Guide and with the ideals of the PMI®.

Whatever plans and strategies you make for the day before the exam and for the exam itself, be sure to practice these strategies in advance to be sure that they will work well for you and are constant with each other. You should make sure you understand the benefits and limitations of any strategies you choose so that you are comfortable in deploying them when the situation arises. If possible, prepare a draft of this plan and have it ready in time for your mock exam at the end of your training program. The mock exam is a great venue to try out all of your potential exam strategies and to determine which strategies you will keep, which strategies you will abandon and which strategies you may need to tweak a bit before exam day.

I will conclude by saying that the best advice I can give for having a stellar performance on the exam is to relax and to enjoy the experience. Yes, I said it – with the proper planning and preparation, even exams can be enjoyable. If you have made it all the way through your training to the certification exam, just remember that the worst is behind you and there is only opportunity ahead. If you build a plan for this final phase of your journey with intention and then execute it with passion and fervor, then there can only be good things in your future. I wish you the best of luck on your certification endeavors and can’t wait to hear about your successes.