How to Answer Situational Interview Questions by a Certified PM

Students tell us that many of the questions on their Project Management Professional (PMP)® exams are situational questions. You are guaranteed to get a wide selection of this type of assessment on your test.

PMP situational questions tend to be longer, so there is more to read - and when time is at a premium in the exam room, that can be stressful. There is more information to consider and less clarity about how to respond. Typically, a couple of the answers could be correct and you’ll need to use all your project management skills to make a judgment call on which one to choose.

Situational questions trip up many candidates. But not you! Because in this article, you’re going to learn 9 expert tips about how to answer these tricky PMP exam questions. We’ve pulled the best tips from certified PMP professionals who have taken and passed their exams so you can speed up your studies and get confident for your test.

You’ll learn techniques for reading, interpreting and answering questions in your PM exam simulator and also on your PMP test day itself.

Expert Tips for Answering Situational Questions

We’re going to share 9 expert tips for how to answer PMP situational questions on your exam. They are:
  1. Read the question.
  2. Identify the most important information.
  3. Read the answer choices in reverse order.
  4. Look for critical words.
  5. Work out what A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) terms are missing.
  6. Eliminate the obviously wrong answers.
  7. Don’t overthink it.
  8. Write your own questions.
  9. Use a PM Exam Simulator.
Ready to learn more, from people who have been there and successfully passed their exam? Let’s dive in.

Read the question

There are lots of types of PMP exam questions. The situational ones tend to cause the most problems to students, even though they are multiple choice.

“Situational questions test your ability to apply theoretical expertise to real-life project management situations,” says Cornelius Fichtner, PMP. “ Be sure to read and accurately understand what is asked in a PMP exam question.”

It might sound simple, but under the pressure of the clock, many students fail simply because they skimmed through the question and didn’t truly understand what was being asked.

“Often, these questions will have two choices which may appear to be reasonably correct,” adds Cornelius. “Therefore, it’s vital that you identify what the question is asking. Based on the question and your knowledge of project management concepts, you must find the BEST answer.”

Don’t worry if you struggle to get them right first time: failure is a learning experience and if you are taking practice tests you can build your skills to get them correct in the future.

Identify the most important information

“The way these are written tend to be very long winded,” says Cornelius. “The idea behind this is that in real life, you are often provided both relevant and irrelevant information. Your task is to identify what is important, ignore what does not matter and then act upon the real issues.”

Rahul Kakkar, PMP, MBA, agrees. “PMP situational questions are usually lengthy in themselves, however they are also more tricky,” he says. “These questions will describe a situation (usually problematic) and ask you how to best deal with it. There is usually no black and white distinction for the “correct” answer. Don’t make the common mistake of reading the answer choices from A to D and select the first option that looks okay, as usually 2 to 3 answer options are logical or reasonable.”

Read the answer choices in reverse order

Rahul gives another expert tip: “Read all the answer choices for at least twice,” he recommends. When you go through them the second time, read them in reverse order. That can help you spot things you missed the first time round and stops you skipping over words that might provide the clue to the answer.

Get used to using this technique while you work through a PMP practice exam, and soon it will be second nature.

Look for critical words

“The PMP exam does not use formatting for critical words,” Cornelius explains. “For example you will never see a word in capital letters, bold or italics on the exam.”

As one of the most important PMP lessons learned, look at the structure of the question and identify words like ‘not’, ‘except’, ‘only’ and ‘always’ as those can change the meaning of a question or answer choice.

Work out what A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) terms are missing

If you’ve studied the PMBOK® Guide and are familiar with the terminology, it might surprise you to know that many problems on the exam don’t include the vocabulary that is now ingrained in your brain.

“I encountered many vague, situational questions on my exam which left out PMBOK® terms,” says Lisa Sweeney, PMP. “They were difficult and confusing.”

When you are reading the question, think about what it is describing and whether you might have learned about it under a different name. Often, people at work will not use PMI terminology because they aren’t familiar with it, so the exam reflects that.

If you are struggling to understand what’s being asked, think about if it could be described in a different way and you might land on a term that helps you answer the question. Using a PMP question bank like a PMP exam question book or simulator will help you get familiar with the way things are phrased.

Eliminate the obviously wrong answers

There are normally a couple of answers that stand out as being obviously wrong, or definitely not the best course of action. For example, Rahul recommends avoiding answers that talk about ignoring the issue, escalating the problem to senior management or pausing the project while you get input from other people. “PMI expects project management to exercise responsibility and autonomy,” he says.

However, this is a general observation not a hard-and-fast rule, so use your own judgment when faced with responses like this.

Eliminating the wrong answers is a top tip for any type of test question. You can learn more about the other question types you’ll encounter on the exam in our complete guide to PMP exam questions.

Don’t overthink it

“Try not to overthink the situation,” advises Cornelius. “A real life situation may have a multitude of factors and considerations that cannot be represented in a single exam question. Try not to think of too many ‘what if’, ‘what about’ scenarios or fixate that ‘this would never happen in the real world’. Remember that the situational question aims to test how you apply the theoretical knowledge.”

He recommends focusing on answering the question within the scope of the information provided and your project management knowledge. Don’t spend too much time worrying about alternatives; just go with what is in the question.

Write your own questions

One way to prepare for this to write your own. “You may be wondering how in the world you can make up sample questions about a subject you don’t feel you know enough about,” Cornelius says. “Well, that’s the whole point!”

You have to know enough about a topic in order to write the question, so this is a useful tip to help you study for the exam. “By studying and forming practice questions in your mind and on paper, you’ll begin to see that subject from different points of view and better retain what you learn,” Cornelius adds. “Create situational and conceptual tests for yourself that force you to apply the principles in a theoretical real-life scenario.”

You can also swap what you’ve created with other PMP students or your PMP study group.

Use a PM Exam Simulator

“My study consisted of videos and mock questions,” says Rick Johnson, PMP. “Both served a great purpose for me, but the exam simulator was the main study item that got me past the finish line. The questions were so intense that they taught me how to properly read situational questions, which further exposed my weak areas that needed more attention.”

Rick then found he could measure his current knowledge of specific areas and gaps. “Over the duration of my studying, I progressively found myself getting better and better at identifying the correct answers due to spending adequate time to analyze my gaps against the baseline of what is considered correct and equating to passing,” he explains. “I learned that I needed to spend time on why my answers were wrong even when they were correct in most any other case. That is what the exam is about; learning what is the best answer out of other answers that may also be correct.”

Rick says that it’s important for a candidate to have the full knowledge of what it means to practice project management - not simply have the academic knowledge of it.

“I learned very quickly that a candidate will only have a fighting chance at passing if you become experienced at the full practice framework and its inner workings through question and answer analyses and truly learning it from a skilled project manager’s perspective,” he says. “When I reached this plateau, I started scoring higher passing percentages during the mock exams. Fortunately, it all paid off when I passed the exam on my first attempt with no areas needing improvement on my exam score report.”

A PMP exam simulator lets you practice with mock exams and quizzes in a realistic environment and gives you helpful feedback and references so you can find out where you went wrong.

Your Next Steps

Remember: read the question, pick out the most important information looking for critical words, eliminate any responses that look obviously wrong and don’t overthink it!

The best way to start practicing situational questions is exactly that: start practicing them! Find out more about the PM Exam Simulator and get your hands on free pmp exam questions that will help you build your confidence and your skills. The more you practice, the easier you will find answering even the trickiest questions on your exam day.

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