18 Top PMP Lessons Learned From Students Who Passed

The 2021 PMP exam changes are in effect, but how much exactly has changed from the previous version and how can you make sure your studies focus on what you really need to know?

Cornelius Fichtner has reviewed hundreds of lessons learned from real students who have taken the 2021 PMP exam. Do you want to know what they said? Read on as we have some important takeaways and key lessons that will ensure your PMP exam prep sets you up to succeed on your first attempt.

Lessons Learned from the PMP Exam 2021

We’ve split the lessons learned into themes as you’ll see below. All the lessons come from real students who have sat for the PMP certification test in 2021 and been gracious enough to share their experiences with the PM Exam Simulator team or in forums.

Soon it will be you sharing your success and lessons learned, so let’s dive into the tips so you can prepare effectively for your test day.

If you’d prefer to watch a video explaining these lessons learned, then scroll to the bottom for a recording of Cornelius Fichtner giving a livestream discussing these crucial points for your exam success.

1. Question Types

The first theme for the PMP exam 2021 version is that the types of PMP exam questions have changed. The examination used to have only one style of multiple choice question: select the correct answer from four possible answers. The current version of the test has many more question types and you are likely to see most of them.

Here’s what one student had to say:

“I had four question types: Matching was by far the easiest out of all the types. Selecting multiple answers was kind of tricky but not very difficult. Also there were questions where you had to click on a chart.”

Matching questions are, for example, putting process steps in order by dragging and dropping content boxes to the right place. Some questions require you to select multiple answers, for example, picking three from a list of eight possible answers. Point and click questions come with a graph or chart for you to interpret. For example, you might be asked to select the point on an S curve where most money is spent on the project.

Another student comments:

“There were several drag and drop questions. One click on the diagram question. Many ‘choose three’, ‘choose two’. These can’t be skipped incomplete so flag them and go back.”

The tip from this lesson is that you cannot continue with a ‘multiple select’ type question if you do not choose the correct number of responses. If you don’t know the answer, select the right number of responses and then mark the question for review later so you can go back if you have time.

Finally, you might see fill in the blank questions. This is where you have to type in A, B, C, and/or D to fill in the blanks in a statement. “We are seeing fewer and fewer of those,” says Cornelius Fichtner, PMP, CSM and the Founder and President of the PM Exam Simulator. “There’s been no official statement on this from PMI, but that’s the sense we are getting from student feedback.”

We can see this from the type of feedback students give us, for example this experience:

“Only had 1 question where I had to enter A, B, C, D based on the diagram shown.”

A good PM practice exam will have all these types of questions so you can practice in a realistic environment.

2. Question Style

In the past, we received a lot of feedback on how the questions did not seem true to life. You had to suspend what you knew about the real world and pretend that you worked in an environment where PMI processes were always followed and the PMBOK® Guide always had the right answer.

The PMP 2021 exam is not like that at all! Here is what some students had to say about how they found the test in this regard:

“PMI is really trying to measure how much you are able to apply the knowledge you know in real life scenarios.”

“Another factor [that] helped me is my real life experience in managing projects and people. Although we need to wear the PMI hat, I found that hat is not very different from what PMs need to do in managing real life projects.”

“Memorization will not help you pass the exam! There are a lot of trainers that have invested years and a lot $ on making you think you need to know every detail to pass. You don’t. What you really need is a good foundation, the stamina and critical thinking skills to sit and answer questions!”

Your experience is definitely going to help you: that wasn’t the case in the past, where you did need to memorize things “the PMI way”. In the 2021 test, it is more important to understand how topics fit together. “Understand it from a 10,000-foot level, top level perspective,” says Cornelius Fichtner. “Have a C-level executive understanding of project management. That will help you a lot more on the examination and also on your real life projects.”

3. Question Difficulty

“Never at any time did I feel like ‘oh yeah, no brainer, I totally know this question’.”

That’s what one student reported after taking the 2021 test. It is a difficult assessment. And the fact that the questions are vague is a real sticking point for some students. Here are some more real comments on how difficult the test is.

“It wasn’t a walk in the park, daunting questions, although very very similar to PrepCast but sometimes with tweaks and sometimes it felt too easy so you can question yourself: Can it be that easy?”

“Exam simulators consist of 51% of my success in both exams I have taken. I would never feel comfortable to take exams without using these simulators. After taking the real exam and the simulator, I can say that the simulator is around 90% the same as the real exam.”

How difficult you find the questions is very dependent on the level of PMP exam prep you have done. “We’re also hearing that the length of questions is shorter on the real exam than on a PMP exam simulator, whichever product you choose to use,” Cornelius says. The best PMP exam simulator for you is going to fit your budget and be available on the device you choose for your studies, so take a look at what’s available before making your choice.

4. Question Vagueness

In our experience, PMP exam questions tend to be difficult because they are vague. In other words, the questions might not be truly difficult, but because they are vague they become more challenging -- and the PMP exam 2021 certainly has many of those! We saw a lot of students share lessons learned that touch on this theme. Here are some examples:

“Most of the time you can easily eliminate 1-2 answers off the bat, but then (like in real life) you will have to choose between a good answer and the best answer.”

“On the exam day, I was genuinely shocked at the difficulty and seeming vagueness of the questions. I felt uncomfortable with something like 90% of the questions on the exam.”

“The questions were mostly situational and you had to basically pick the best option out of the available ones even though in real life, those may not be the options or decision you would make as a PM. I honestly was not sure of a lot of my answers as the situations were unique and i had to use my best judgement.”

“PMP exam simulators tend to be less vague than the real test,” says Cornelius. On test day, if you aren’t sure what could be the best answer: go with your gut feeling. Based on your understanding of the material, and the fact you’ve studied hard, you know the answer. Choose the response that feels right to you based on what you know.

5. Question content

You’ll never see anyone sharing exact questions from the PMP exam content because students sign up to the Certification Application Agreement which requires that they do not to discuss the specific content. However, there are plenty of PMP lessons learned from students that do touch on question content in a way that will help you with your PMP 2021 exam prep.

Here are some of the top lessons learned from 2021 students:

“Many questions are designed around the team: ‘New team member’, ‘junior team member’, conflicts in teams, managing difficult team members, customers, management and conflict resolution/people management.”

“Situational questions: stakeholder, communication, scope, requirements, and team member, top-level issues on next steps or what should have been done.”

This theme shows that it is really important to understand the role of the project manager, product owner, team members, and stakeholders, especially in agile and hybrid settings. Take the time to study these concepts in detail so you fully understand the roles and responsibilities of each person.

Here’s another important point from a past student:

“Self-organizing is used in questions as much as the servant leader concept. So be mindful and do not go with the answers which need the team to get help from outside.”

If you see questions that talk about self-organizing teams, be mindful of the fact that they do not go outside to get help, unless it’s a messy conflict that needs escalating. In most situations, the team should be empowered to resolve issues itself, and the questions responses will reflect that.

You are likely to see a lot of scenario-based questions on the test. Here’s what another student had to share:

“90% of my questions were scenario based. For example… something happens… what should a project manager do next/first? This covered all topics from what process should you follow, what document is next, all the way to people management.”

This is real life! How do I manage this difficult person, how do I support my team? “These are all questions that you as a project manager ask yourself every single day,” says Cornelius Fichtner. Even with project management leadership training, your practical experience in leading projects will help you reflect on and respond to these questions.

6. Language

Many of the 2021 PMP exam prep resources are in English, so is that a hindrance for non-native speakers? This student didn’t think so:

“Since I am not a native English speaker, I did not understand some questions but I could understand the context and answer the questions correctly.”

This candidate achieved their PMP certification with Above Target in all categories, so it is possible to take and pass in English even though you are not a native English speaker. However, the test paper is available in other languages if you would feel more comfortable taking it in your native language. The up-to-date list is available in the PMP Handbook. Make the decision at the point of applying, but if you have studied in English and plan to take the assessment in English, the lesson is that you will be able to make the right choice from the context.

7. Self-doubt

Finally, let’s talk about test day concerns. It’s normal to worry about whether you are going to pass or fail. The PMP exam content is difficult stuff. But on the day, focus on doing your best -- that’s all. Here’s some words of wisdom from someone who took the test recently:

“Don’t think about pass or fail when you’re in the exam. Focus on the questions. Put yourself in the scenario. After the first third, I started to think about how I was going to tell my boss I failed and how would I tell my friends. That distracted me. So don't think about anything other than the question you are answering at the time. Stay focused.”

All these lessons learned from the 2021 PMP exam point to one thing: exam prep really makes a difference and using an exam simulator is key to feeling confident and ready for the test. Another thing you’ll notice is that none of the lessons talk about the content from A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK)® Guide -- Seventh Edition.. The 2021 test does not currently reflect the updated PMBOK® Guide, but nonetheless, it’s worth reading it as part of your studies to be prepared for any future changes.

Video: Lessons Learned from the 2021 PMP Exam

Click below to watch the video of Cornelius Fichtner discussing the top lessons learned and tips from real exam takers. They share their experiences of the 2021 PMP exam so you can learn what to expect on your test day!
Training for Project Management Professional (PMP)®, PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)®, and Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)®

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