Career / Management

Is the PMP a Tough Cert?

by Team Nuggets
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Published on May 21, 2019

The PMP is one of the more difficult project management exams. However, it is also one of the most worthwhile and lucrative certifications IT pros looking to advance their careers can obtain. In fact, PMP made Robert Half's 10 Highest-Paying IT Certifications for Tech Pros with a midpoint salary of $115,500 based on their 2019 technology salary guide.

PMP certification also benefits businesses by improving productivity. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), when at least one-third of project managers have a PMP certification, more projects are completed on time, within budget, and with the original goals achieved.

While the exam isn't a cakewalk by any means, it is certainly an obtainable certification if you put in the time and effort. Let's look at just how difficult the PMP exam is — and help you understand how to best prepare to tackle it.

PMP Certification Basics

Before we review the topic of exam difficulty, let's touch on the basics of the PMP certification. The PMP is a professional-level certification from the Project Management Institute. While many IT pros are PMPs, the certification applies to project management in general. In fact, PMP certification is often considered the gold standard of project management certifications and PMP certified project managers can work in almost any industry.

The PMP exam covers five domains (more on those in a bit) and is based heavily on the content in PMI's PMBOK (Product Management Body of Knowledge) Guide. The sixth edition of PMBOK, published in 2017, is the reference for the current PMP exam.

Currently, the cost of the PMP exam is $405 USD for PMI members and $555 for non-members. The PMP is not an entry-level exam and there are a number of prerequisites a candidate must meet to sit for the PMP exam.

One of the more daunting prerequisites for new PMP candidates is often the 7,500 (or 4,500 if you have a bachelor's degree) hours of project management experience. However, as we discussed in this piece, racking up those hours is easier than you may think.

PMP Exam Question and Topics

With the basics out of the way, we can dive into the topic of PMP exam difficulty. And what better place to start than the domains and questions on the exam? How difficult the PMP exam will be for you will depend a lot on your familiarity with these concepts going in.

The PMP exam is multiple choice (No labs or essay questions — breathe a sigh of relief!) and consists of 200 questions. However, only 175 of the questions are actually scored. The remaining 25 questions are spread throughout the test to enable PMI to experiment with test questions before making them scored questions that impact a candidate's score. You have four hours to complete all 200 questions.

The PMP exam covers the following five domains. As you can see, certain domains are emphasized more than others on the exam.

  • Initiating — 13%

  • Planning — 24%

  • Executing — 31%

  • Monitoring and Controlling — 25%

  • Closing — 7%

The domains cover a wide range of project management fundamentals. You'll need to understand concepts such as change management, continuous improvement, and process analysis. For a more detailed breakdown of the domains, check out the PMP exam content outline. And while the PMP isn't too math intensive, you need to be comfortable with calculating present value, PERT analysis, and schedule variance.

It is important to note that you won't just need to understand concepts and terminology. You'll also need to be able to apply that knowledge to complex scenarios that mimic real-world project management problems.

Understanding How the PMP is Scored

The short answer is: There isn't a specific passing score for the PMP. After taking the exam, you simply get a report like this with a pass/fail grade, a performance rating for the exam as a whole, and a performance rating for each of the five domains the PMP covers.

There are a number of common misconceptions about passing scores for the PMP exam. Many of these misconceptions stem from the fact that PMI used to publish passing scores for the PMP exam. If you see passing scores such as 60.6%, 61%, 68.5%, 80.6, or 81% for the PMP exam, this information is no longer accurate. PMI has not published specific passing scores since the mid-2000s.

So, how is a passing score determined? Instead of using a specific percentage, PMI leverages "sound psychometric analysis" to establish a passing score. Each question on the exam is worth a point — and PMI uses SMEs (subject matter experts) to decide how many questions a candidate must get right to pass the PMP exam.

While the lack of specific passing scores makes it difficult to know what a "good" score on practice exams is, there is a fair amount of empirical evidence to help here. PMP has a fairly large and active community of certification-holders and hopefuls across various forums. Their general consensus is that consistently scoring in the 70-80% range on up-to-date practice exams usually means you are ready to take the test.

However, it's important to avoid falling into the trap of just memorizing practice test questions and answers. Make sure you have a large set of practice questions to draw from, preferably from several different sources.

What to Take Away from Exam Failure Rates

Exam failure rate can provide a rough idea of how difficult a test is. Unfortunately, PMI doesn't publish official exam pass/fail rates, so we can't know this number for certain. However, the general consensus is that the failure rate is in the 40-50% range for first-time exam takers.

If you fail the exam, you are allowed to retake the test three times within one year. There's a $275 USD reexamination fee for PMI members, and $375 USD for non-members. Please note, those fees apply for each exam retake,

Can you pass the PMP Exam With "Below Target" performance in one of the domains?

The performance ratings on the PMP exam result report are (from worst to best) "Needs Improvement", "Below Target", "Target", and "Above Target". Oftentimes, PMP candidates wonder if a "Below Target" rating in one domain means they will fail the test. The good news is that is not the case.

There have been multiple reports of candidates who passed the PMP exam while scoring "Below Target" in one of the five domains. In fact, the sample PMP exam report shows an overall "Pass" score despite a "Below Target" rating in the "Monitoring & Controlling" domain.

How PMP's Difficulty Stacks Up

Comparing the PMP to other exams helps you get a better idea of just how difficult it is. We'll start by comparing the PMP to three other project management exams: CAPM (Certified Associate in Project Management), Project+, and ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) Foundation.

CAPM is another project management certification from PMI. The CAPM is an associate-level certification and therefore is a little less difficult than the PMP exam. Worded differently, CAPM is to PMP what CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) is to CCNP (Cisco Certified Network Professional).

CompTIA Project+ is an entry-level project management certification that focuses on fundamental project management concepts. The Project+ certification is targeted at individuals who will manage small-to-medium sized projects. Given this scope, the Project+ exam is significantly easier than both the CAPM and PMP exams. For a deeper dive into CAPM vs. PMP vs Project+, check out this article.

The ITIL Foundation certification is different from the CAPM, Project+, and PMP because it focuses specifically on IT project management. This cert is an introduction to the ITIL framework and focuses on value creation for customers and other stakeholders. As the ITIL Foundation exam is more narrow in focus and more fundamental, it is not as difficult as the PMP exam.

PMP appears to outstrips many of the other popular project management certificates in difficulty. But what about the broader scope of IT certifications in general?

It turns out the PMP has a pretty steep difficulty curve from that perspective as well. The PMP exam was No. 2 on our list of 10 Most Difficult IT Certifications, trailing only the notoriously tough CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert) exams.

How to Increase Your Chances of Passing

Now that you understand how difficult the PMP exam can be, let's look at how you can increase your odds of passing it on the first attempt.

Know the PMBOK. The PMBOK is the authoritative source of information on PMI project management. Thoroughly reviewing and understanding the PMBOK will help you drill down the concepts and principles the exam will cover.

Take a course. Enrolling in a PMP study course from a reputable provider is an excellent way to ensure that your knowledge and skills are up to par going into the exam. Online courses are a great way to get your studying done on a flexible schedule.

Allocate enough study time. PMI suggests that candidates who pass the PMP exam spend on average 35+ hours prepping. While this is a good ballpark number, what works for you may vary. Be sure to allocate enough time to understand the concepts give your experience and learning curve.


The PMP exam is an in-depth and challenging exam. It covers a broad spectrum of project management topics and goes beyond the basics covered in other entry level exams. While it is difficult, it certainly isn't out of reach. With good study habits and the right resources, you can pass the PMP exam with flying colors.


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