The Project Management Professional (PMP) exam is hard. Anyone who aspires to attain PMP certification should be prepared for the exam. Consequently, first-time test takers should also be advised that the PMP certification exam is extremely difficult.

The exam consists of 200 multiple-choice questions in a period of only four hours. The questions are written for a high difficulty level and are designed to test your understanding of the subjects and the ability to problem solve in real life. Some of the questions are theoretical, some are situational, and some require calculations or graph drawing.

You not only have to understand and remember the PMBOK content in order to answer the exam questions but in many cases, you will have to rely on your experience as a project manager as well.

Needless to say, PMP exam difficulty is guaranteed for most, if not all, PMP aspirants. Let’s a look at a few things that make the PMP exam difficult and what you can do to overcome them and pass on your first try.

(Old Version) How To Get The PMP Certification

Why is the PMP Exam Difficult?

PMP Exam Preparation Difficulty

Before taking the PMP exam, you have to pass an officially authorized 35-hour prep course that prepares you for both from the theoretical and practical knowledge areas of the exam.

The main reference text will be the PMBOK that contains the PMI’s project management standard. This textbook, also commonly referred to as the PMBOK guide, should be studied fully or at least known in its main parts.

Additionally, the exam questions will cover five domains which are: Initiating, planning, monitor-control, Performing, Closing a project.

In the PMI’s online Examination exam content outline, the exam outline is expressed as follows:

  • 13% questions will focus on the domain Initiating
  • 24% questions will focus on the domain Planning
  • 31% questions will focus on the domain Executing
  • 25% questions will focus on the domain Monitoring and Controlling
  • 7% questions will focus on the domain Closing 25%
  • The total Number of Scored Questions will be 175 plus 25 unscored (pretest) questions

It’s recommended that you will spend at least 60 additional hours studying for the exam, apart from the 35 hours in a PMP exam prep course. Furthermore, further hours should be dedicated to practice exam simulator questions.

That’s why it’s so important that you find a study guide that works for you. Picking the right study materials could mean the difference between studying for 40 hours instead of studying for 75 hours. Ultimately, you will want a study plan that includes exam-like questions, full or short mock exams, and prep books that go into great detail about the project management experience.

Consequently, you can test yourself and prepare for the exam properly. Basically, a good rule of thumb to consider yourself ready for the exam is passing some consecutive full simulated exams with 75-80% score.

It’s important to check out each course before you decide on one. Here’s a list of them.

What Makes the PMP Exam Difficult?

I personally put a lot of effort into any exam prep. Nevertheless, I encountered difficulties and found that it was not easy to reach the threshold. Hence, I had to lower my threshold to 70% for four consecutive full simulated exams. Here are the difficulties that I ran into.

Length of Materials

The first difficulty for me was the huge amount of material that I had to study. I wanted to complete the PMBOK, and this took a lot of time. A LOT of time! I don’t know that it is completely necessary to get through all of the materials, but I wanted to. Obviously, everything isn’t going to be covered on the exam. However, you should be familiar with all of the topics in each domain. Any way you slice it, it’s a ton of information!

Complexity of Exam Structure

The second difficulty was to create a mental structure of the PMBOK in my mind. Honestly, many exam questions cannot be answered using only your personal logic or what the experience suggests. Instead, you must refer to the PMI’s standard.

Difficulty of Questions

The third difficulty was to pass the simulated exams. The questions were often tricky and I made so many mistakes at the beginning that I got really discouraged. It takes time to get comfortable with how to read and answer PMI questions. They are purposely worded difficultly, so you have to think through the concepts. Learning how to understand what they are asking is a big hurdle.

What is the PMP Pass-Failure Rate?

With the exam being as difficult as it is, it’s no wonder why the pass rate is so low. Keep in mind that the PMI intentionally doesn’t make public the exam’s pass or failure rates. The internet is full of estimations, often made by providers of 35 hours preparation courses.

One of the most frequent estimations is 50-60% pass rates at the first attempt (failure rates of 50-40%).

Referring to my personal experience, I think that this estimation is reasonable. If I had studied half as much as I did, I would surely have failed the exam and I think that 50-40% of project managers who fail the exam are so busy that either they have no time to study or they under-evaluate it.

The key to passing the exam is to put in the study time with a real review course.

You Can Pass on Your First Try!

Anyone can pass the PMP exam on their first try if they study and put their mind to it. The best way to properly prepare for the exam is by getting a review course that works with your learning style.

You want something that will walk you through the topics on the exam and help you understand and remember them.

Check out my reviews of the top courses and get studying! Good luck!

Kenneth W. Boyd is a former Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and the author of several of the popular "For Dummies" books published by John Wiley & Sons including 'CPA Exam for Dummies' and 'Cost Accounting for Dummies'.

Ken has gained a wealth of business experience through his previous employment as a CPA, Auditor, Tax Preparer and College Professor. Today, Ken continues to use those finely tuned skills to educate students as a professional writer and teacher.