PMP Brain Dump Techniques for Studying Project Management

Read any article on how to study for exams and you’ll see dozens of tips aimed to help you improve retention and recall facts. Seek out tips for people taking the Project Management Professional (PMP)® exam and you’ll find lots of advice aimed specifically at motivating you to get through the long test.

One tip that comes up time and time again for project management students is the PMP brain dump: have you heard of it?

It’s a fantastic revision technique that many students report using for their exam preparation alongside a PMP exam simulator.

What is a brain dump for PMP?

A brain dump is exactly what it sounds like: a dump of all the information from your brain on to paper (or screen).

In other words, it’s a page or two of all the key notes that you want to recall for the exam. A PMP brain dump sheet is a summary of things you want to remember. Many people use it for the formulas or key facts about domains.

This kind of note-taking is not supposed to replace your full set of study notes. Instead, it’s a mindmap or list of the key things you most need to remember on exam day.

Why do you need a brain dump?

The brain dump is something you write out many times during your revision. It helps because the act of writing improves recall of ideas. You will be encouraging your brain to remember facts and concepts to make it easier to remember them during the test.

The action of reading notes also helps you retain the information, as Jesse, who shared lessons learned from the exam in our student forum, found out.

“For months I casually read the A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), sometimes letting a week go by between opening the book again,” Jesse says. “With around three months before the end of the year, I activated the simulator and did 10 practice quizzes.” Jesse reports failing practically every quiz.

“Obviously reading casually through the PMBOK® Guide did not help,” Jesse says, “so I opened a Google sheet and re-read the PMBOK® Guide while taking notes. Just the action of taking notes helped me retain the information.” Jesse also wrote down key processes and a selection of pmp formulas (earned value, variance, three-point estimating and communication channels) almost every day for three weeks prior to the test, to memorize them. Jesse also wrote down key processes and a selection of formulas (earned value, variance, three-point estimating and communication channels) almost every day for three weeks prior to the test, to memorize them.

Note: It’s no longer easy to replicate your PMP formula brain dump in the exam because you are not allowed scratch paper and you’ll have hardly any time to make notes. Instead, focus on using a brain dump or mindmap as a way of improving recall. You can picture your notes in your mind when you meet a question that requires a formula or other fact from your sheet.

“You'll hear people talk about a brain dump and some people are for it and some people are against it,” says Karen Hairston, PMP, who passed her exam on the first attempt. “I wasn't convinced that I would use one, so I hadn't been developing one all along while studying, but the weekend before the exam, I came up with about seven things that I did put in a brain dump - most of them were formulas, just so I didn't make a dumb mistake using an incorrect formula. For your brain dump, include whatever is going to take some stress off of you during the exam.

How do you develop a brain dump?

Brain dumps are easy to develop and use. So that you can use this technique as part of your PMP exam prep, we’ll walk you through the process and some tips for incorporating this way of note taking into your studies.

Step 1: Decide on the format

Will you write a list, use tables, jot down notes bullet-journal style or create a mindmap? Any of these options are fine. Choose a format that works best for your learning style. If you are a visual learner, for example, a mindmap would be a good choice.

Sharanjit Kaur, PMP, passed with Above Target in all domains on the first attempt and opted for white boards to help her organize her notes. “I prepared for almost nine to ten weeks for the exam,” she says. “I made notes of all the processes, hung them on the wall, and went over them every other day—two whiteboards with all the tools and techniques and additional important notes. Everybody has a different way of preparation. For me, visuals always work better,” she adds.

Step 2: Develop your brain dump

You might be asking yourself: “What should I put on my PMP brain dump?” and the answer is simple. Whatever you are having difficulty with, plus key facts that you feel are worth remembering. For example:

  • Formulas (this is a common reason to create a list-style sheet as it means you have all the formulas in one place) e.g. cost performance index, earned value, contract-related formulas, float and slack
  • People who have methods named after them e.g. Tuckman
  • Estimating facts
  • Team and leadership facts e.g. management or leadership styles and models, motivational theories, conflict management techniques
  • Different types of diagrams/charts and what they represent
  • Mnemonics that help you recall certain lists.

Ultimately, your notes are personal to you. They should reflect things that you want to remember; that you feel are important. You can do an internet search to find examples or a template and use those as inspiration, but using someone else’s notes to study from is never as good as making your own.

Budi Setiawa, PMP, agrees. “Build your own material,” she says. “You need to build your own material, using any tools. I bought a lot of notebooks and papers for my study.”

One thing that might help you develop your brain dump is this tip from Harish Madhavan, PMP. He recommends trying to connect what you read with examples to remember it more easily. As you read through the PMBOK® Guide and the Agile Practice Guide he says: “Keep the examples ready or make your own examples.”

Step 3: Practice writing it out

Budi’s approach was to write down her brain dump every single day. “Passing the PMP exam for me personally was not an easy task,” she says. “It took commitment, sacrifice, hard work, and perseverance. My study hour was 10.30pm after I finished my daily routine, until 1am on average.” She did this for five months, almost every day including the weekends.

Hans Kam, PMP, also used the same approach. “At the beginning of the study, I practiced creating brain dumps and found out later that I might not have the time to do it on the actual exam,” he says. “But the practice of writing the brain dumps helped me memorize the processes and the formula.” Hans passed on his first attempt.

Tip: Remember that this sheet is just one of the resources you will use in your studies. Make the time to review your PMP books, courses, and take free pmp exam questions too.

Step 4: Make a daily brain dump part of your study routine

Once you are comfortable with your note taking skills, it’s time to build this practice into your daily routine. The point of this repetition action is to give your mind the chance to work on autopilot during the test. As you have written out the facts so many times, it will be simple to recall them quickly during the exam.

And speed will matter: there are a lot of pmp question types. You have less than a minute to answer each one, so it’s not only a case of whether you know the answer but also how quickly you can recall it and hit the right response on the screen.

Nora Beckmann, PMP, passed on her third attempt. “The PMP exam is of course a project!” she says, “So, I created a project plan.”

Nora created a six-week overall project plan that covered the complete exam content outline. “I planned a daily learning routine and finally the pre-exam phase,” she says. “Every day in the morning I made a 15 minute brain dump sheet with all the important formulas and the processes.”

Step 5: Add and remove topics as you study

What you focus on at the beginning of your studies might not be what you need to revise as you get closer to your exam date. It’s fine to amend your notes and update your brain dump as you go.

For example, as you work through PMP formula questions in an exam simulator, you might find that certain formulas you overlooked need to be added to your sheet. As you get questions wrong, review the answers and make notes so you can avoid making the same mistakes again.

“I reviewed all of my mistakes and flagged questions,” Hans says. “Every weekday I spent an average of two hours studying. I spent more than six hours every weekend studying.”

There’s a common thread amongst students who have successfully passed their exam: they took the time to find correct PMP answers and use those to improve their understanding.

“Take all the mock tests seriously,” says Harish. “Work on the gaps and aspire to improve the test scores in every mock test.”

Your Next Steps

Do you think a PMP brain dump would be a good technique to use in your PMP studies? Combined with a PMP exam simulator, it’s a powerful way to capture your notes and ensure you remember what is important during the test.

It’s easy to get started. Simply grab a piece of paper and start making notes! Our process will help you use this simple memory-improving tool and soon you’ll be on the way to perfect recall.

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