You’ve applied, you’ve got your test date, and you’ve read both the PMBOK guide and a prep book. Think you’re ready to take the exam? Wrong! You may feel ready, and you may pass if you take the test as you are now. But then again, you may not. And I want you to move beyond the “maybe I’ll pass” stage into “I’m going to crush it!” territory. To do that, you need to prepare for the exam itself, not just the material. Scroll to the bottom of this post for a 1-page strategy guide, or read on to learn how you should approach taking the PMP exam.

The actual PMP exam is a simple format: 200 exam questions over 4 hours, with as many breaks as you want. You get a pencil and piece of paper for calculations. Every question is multiple choice, and can be skipped or marked for later (but you’ll still have to answer skipped questions). That’s it! But within that simplicity there is a lot of room for error; so much so that 50% of test takers fail on their first try. So how can you get in the other 50%, the half that passes?

First, plan your exam strategy. This should include both the pace of your answers and the amount of breaks you take. I strongly recommend using the Pomodoro time management technique for your gameplan. The Pomodoro technique pairs intervals of productive working time with a short break to help you maintain your focus, and a longer break after four repetitions.

My strategy went like this: I planned to get through 50 questions in 30 minutes (either answering the question or marking it for later), and then take a 5-minute break. After 4 repetitions (to include all 200 questions), take a 10 minute break. Assuming everything went on schedule, I would have 90 minutes to go back through and address the more challenging questions. It didn’t exactly happen like that, but having the plan going in gave me a lot of confidence and kept me aware of my time.

Second, you need to take practice exams. The questions are the PMP are notorious for being intentionally confusing readers. The best way to avoid this trap is to get familiar with types of questions you’ll be answering. How do you do this? Most PMI REPs also offer exam simulators. These are full-length online practice exams, pulled together from thousands of questions, available at your fingertips from the comfort of your couch. I used the PM Exam Simulator (from the people behind the PM Prepcast), but again there are a lot of good simulators out there. I like the PM Exam Simulator because they give you a full grading profile when you finish – an overall grade, plus data for each knowledge area and each process group. This level of detail can help you hone in on the areas where you need the most practice.

I recommend that you do a minimum of 3 full-length practice exams. Block off 4 hours for each one, and treat it like the real thing This, combined with practice questions from your exam prep book, should expose you to at least 1,000 exam questions. I consider this the minimum threshold for a successful exam; 2,000 is better, but if you’re pressed for time then 1,000 should be sufficient.

Third, practice a writing out key concepts on a reference sheet at the start of the exam. You get a pencil and one sheet of scratch paper on the PMP exam, so use it! I practiced writing out all of the earned value formulas, early and late start/finish formulas, 3-point and beta distribution estimates, the definitions of one, three, and six sigmas, the communication channels formula, and a couple of other key things I wanted to remember on my exam within the first 5-10 minutes.

You should use your exam simulator results to help you identify what material you struggle with, and work those concepts into your own reference sheet. Practice writing out everything you want to reference in 5-10 minutes; that way you can proceed to the test questions without throwing off your rhythm. When you’re 120 questions in and you need to calculate the To-Complete Performance Index for a project with CPI of .9, you’ll appreciate having the formulas written out beforehand.

So what am I giving you this time? A 1-page strategy guide for you to plan your own tailored approach to the PMP exam. You can download it here. Print it out and fill in the blanks on the sheet with the date, time, and location of your exam. Fill out the table with the test pacing you plan to have, and make a check mark every time you hit that benchmark on a practice exam. Follow the tips at the bottom of the page to keep things smooth on the day of the exam. Finally, use the back side to practice writing out your reference sheet.

Coming up next is a recap of this series.