CAPM Benefits: Why You Need to Take the CAPM Before the PMP

Check any PMI exam forum or discussion group, and you’ll see there’s a constant comparison between the Project Management Professional (PMP)® and the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)® certifications. People always want to know which one is best to go for and what benefits they can expect to see for their career.

In this article, we attempt to answer that question once and for all! We’ll share some expert opinions and talk about the CAPM benefits and the reasons for choosing that certification first, so you can decide which is the right path for you.

The Differences Between PMP and CAPM certificates

Before we get into the career benefits of project management certifications, first we need to clarify what the differences are between the CAPM and PMP certification exams. The tables below show the main differences.

Requirements for the PMP exam

Educational Background Project Management Experience Project Management Education
Secondary degree(high school diploma, associate's degree or global equipment) Minimum five years/ 60 months unique non-overlapping professional project management experience * 35 contact hours of formal education unless you are an active CAPM holder
Four-year degree (bachelor's degree or global equivalent) Minimum three years/ 36 months unique non-overlapping professional project management experience * 35 contact hours of formal education unless you are an active CAPM holder
Bachelor's or post-graduate degree from a GAC accredited program (bachelor's degree or master's or global equivalent) Minimum two years/ 24 months unique non-overlapping professional project management experience * 35 contact hours of formal education unless you are an active CAPM holder

Requirements for the Certified Associate in Project Management exam

  • Secondary diploma (high school diploma or global equivalent
  • 23 contact hours of formal education

Main differences

Requirement CAPM PMP
Educational background Secondary diploma/high school diploma is the highest required You can apply with a high school diploma, but you’ll need to have more real-world experience than other candidates
Experience None required Between 2 and 5 years required, depending on your educational background
Project management education 23 hours 35 hours (or none if you already have the CAPM certificate)

Why You Should Get CAPM Certified First

Should you go for the ‘entry level’ certification before taking your PMP test? There are certainly reasons to do that, and a lot of them are to do with what work experience you have. Here are five of the top reasons why people opt to do CAPM first.
  • You don’t have any experience
  • Your experience hours have expired
  • Your experience is in a non-traditional domain
  • You haven’t done an exam in a long time
  • You want to save time when you apply for the PMP exam.
Let’s look at each of those in more detail and share some stories from successful test takers

1. You don’t have any experience

You don’t need experience to take your first project management certification, although it will probably help.

“The CAPM exam is solely based on the theoretical foundation given in the A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), whereas the PMP exam focuses on situational questions,” says Mustafa Kirdök. He shares another piece of advice: ‘Situational’ means you’ll be presented with questions that describe scenarios that PMP exam takers should have experienced during their professional career, he says.

If you don’t have practical, on-the-job experience but you want to make project management your career, then a CAPM certificate can provide a stepping stone to a job by showing an employer you are serious about the role.

2. Your experience hours have expired

Perhaps you worked as a project manager a while ago, but due to changing jobs or a period of unemployment, you can no longer evidence the amount of experience required to move straight into PMP exam prep.

This was the situation for Graham. “I passed my CAPM first attempt, with all Above Target ratings,” says Graham. “It marks the end of a long and odd road, where I started out a decade ago thinking to get a PMP, but shifting job roles, time and all those other things meant I never did it. Then, my hours of experience expired just when I was back in a position to put some time into it, so here I am with a CAPM and I'm quite pleased, as it was something I felt I left unfinished.”

3. Your experience is in a ‘non-traditional’ domain

Many people come to project management as a second (or subsequent) career, and use their past roles to complete the experience section of the PMP application. However, if you didn’t have the job title of project manager – or even a related job title like project coordinator – it might be difficult to see where your experience fits. That was the case with Lanie.

Lanie Williamson spent many years as an educator, not a traditional project manager, though that is essentially what she does in her current position. “In writing up my 36 months of experience, I have projects that I hope will be approved but cannot guarantee it,” she says. “I have 22 months experience that I think is clearly project management and another 14 months of projects that, in my mind, fit the definitions but others may not think so.”

If you are concerned that your experience might not tick all the boxes, you can limit your chances of having your application rejected by choosing to take the certificate that doesn’t require any experience. The best CAPM practice exam tools will help you feel ready, regardless of your background. Then, work towards getting enough experience hours to apply for the PMP examination.

Pro Tip: Don’t second-guess yourself. It’s always worth reaching out on our forums or to your network to check whether your experience will be accepted. While PMI won’t be able to review your application, you may find some friendly certified project managers at your local PMI Chapter who could take a look and help you shape your application so your experience is highlighted to demonstrate what you have done in the past.

4. You haven’t done an exam in a long time

The PMP test is tough: ask your colleagues or check out our forums for stories from students, and you’ll see that many test-takers run out of time or feel overwhelmed with the structured format. It’s not surprising – many adult learners haven’t taken an exam since they were at school, and believe us, things are very different now! There’s a whole computer interface to get used to, plus the pressure of the clock.

The CAPM examination asks knowledge-based, multiple-choice questions, and while it is still hard, it doesn’t expect you to be able to apply that knowledge to a real-life scenario. You’ll be tested on your recall and understanding or core project management topics from the domains of agile and predictive environments. In other words, if you focus on your studies, read the resources and practice with a CAPM exam simulator, you have a high chance of success the first time.

If the idea of the exam itself is making you nervous, taking a slightly less complicated test first might give you the confidence you need to face the PMP test.

5. You want to save time when you apply for the PMP

As soon as you hit the amount of experience hours required for your PMP application, you can apply. If you’ve recently passed your CAPM exam, you’ll find studying a much faster and easier process.

One of the CAPM lessons learned from talking to many candidates is that they are often keen to move on to their PMP studies as soon as possible. “After passing my CAPM exam on the first attempt, I'm preparing to take the PMP exam next,” says Steven Derry, CAPM. “I think I have a good foundation for the PMP exam.”

Steven is right: that preparation gives you a brilliant starting point for your PMP studies. You probably have a lot of the relevant study materials already. Add in a PMP exam simulator and you’ll be easily able to transition what you already know to the types of questions you will be asked on the PMP test.

You also don’t have to spend 35 hours studying to meet the project management education requirement. You’ll want to do some CAPM exam prep, but you will not have to provide evidence of that which makes it easier for you to self-study with a simulator and build your confidence for the test. The best simulators give you explanations for each answer choice, not simply the one that is flagged as the correct response. It’s the fastest way to learn why a choice was correct and that too helps you save time with your studies.

It’s Your Choice

Ultimately, it’s your choice whether you wait, gain the required experience and then take the PMP test, or go for the career benefits of CAPM and being able to earn that in a shorter period of time.

You’ll get a career boost from either certification and the job market for project managers is looking very good indeed. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment in management jobs will grow at 5%, a faster rate than the average for all occupations.

Both the CAPM and PMP certificates have advantages. You can take the CAPM test first or go straight to your PMP application. Neither option is ‘right’ - or, indeed, ‘wrong’. The choice is yours! What will you decide?

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