The PMP Certification: A Guide to Getting Started

With over a million certification holders worldwide, the PMP is widely recognized and has been linked to multiple benefits for project managers. Here's what you need to know to get started.
Project manager takes a moment to review his work

What is the PMP certification?

The Project Management Professional certification, or PMP certification, is a project management certification recognized around the world. There are over one million PMP certification holders worldwide, according to the Project Management Institute (PMI) which administers the certification. It is applicable to project managers in virtually any industry, be it health, construction, information technology (IT), or business.

In order to get the certification, you’ll have to meet the experience requirements and pass a certification exam. 

Here’s some key information about the certification:

Qualifying: In order to take the exam, you’ll need to validate your education and project management experience. These are as follows:

  • 35 hours of project management training, which means coursework that specifically addressed learning objectives in project management. This can be substituted with a Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) certification. 

  • 36 months of experience leading projects if you have a four-year degree, or 60 months of experience leading projects if you have a high-school diploma or associate’s degree. 

Cost: As of February 2021, the exam fee was $555 for non-PMI members and $405 for PMI members. A PMI membership was $129 a year, with a one-time $10 application fee, making the exam slightly cheaper with a membership.

Training: Studying for the exam will take some planning and determination; exam guides typically recommend at least a few months to prepare for it. There are several courses, books, and other resources available to help you study. Read more below about preparing for the exam.

Renewing your certification: The certification is valid for three years but can be renewed or maintained by earning 60 professional development units—defined as hours spent on accepted professional development activities—in that time frame.

Keep in mind

The PMP exam was updated beginning January 2, 2021. The new exam now comprises 180 questions instead of 200, two 10-minute breaks instead of one, three “domains”—phases of project management—instead of five, among other changes. Make sure your study materials reflect the change.

How to get PMP certified

Here’s a step-by-step guide to getting your PMP certification.

1. Meet the requirements. 

Before you can take the PMP exam, you’ll have to make sure you’re eligible. You’ll need 35 hours of project management course training, and at least 36 months of project management experience if you have a four-year degree, or 60 months of experience if you have an associate degree or high school diploma. You’ll want to keep track of your projects and training, recording information like your specific role, responsibilities, and length of projects or training so that you have it at hand when you apply.

The PMP certification is valid for three years. You’ll need to spend 60 hours during that time frame on professional development activities to maintain it. Otherwise you can sign up to take the exam again.

2. Apply.

Make an account with PMI and get started on an application for the PMP exam. This will entail sharing basic personal information like your educational background, as well as details on the projects you’ve worked on. 

Once you’re approved, you’ll pay the exam fee and schedule a test.

3. Prepare.

This is when you train for the exam, either through coursework or on your own. Several exam prep providers recommend spending 60 to 120 hours studying. This can take several months depending on how frequently you study.

4. Take the exam.

The exam can be taken at a testing site near you or online. The exam takes a little under four hours to complete.

5. Maintain your certification.

The PMP certification is valid for three years. You’ll need to spend 60 hours during that time frame on professional development activities to maintain it. Otherwise you can sign up to take the exam again.

Still new to project management? Orient yourself with the basics through the Google Project Management Professional Certificate program.

The benefits of getting PMP certified

Industry recognition: The PMP certification can show employers or clients that you know the ins and outs of project management, and have the experience and training required of a professional.

Learning new skills: You are also likely to learn a significant amount about project management as you prepare for the exam. Taking hours out of your life to master project management fundamentals like conflict resolution and budgeting can bolster the skills to make you a better project manager.

Higher salaries: The PMI found that US respondents to a 2018 survey reported a median salary of $115,000 if they had the certification, and $92,000 if they didn’t [1]. Median salaries also tended to increase the longer one was PMP certified. Global Knowledge reported that the PMP certification ranked fifth among IT certifications that were linked to the highest salaries in the IT sector [2].

Job prospects: An average of over 200,000 new jobs related to project management are expected to be added per year from 2017 to 2027 in the US, a report compiled by PMI and the Anderson Economic Group found. The biggest growth is expected in the health care sector, though large gains are also projected in the construction, information services, and finance and insurance sectors [3].

Should you get the certification?

The PMP certification is designed to build on and solidify the training an experienced project manager already has. If you’re just starting out as a project manager, you may want to gain more experience or look into another certification—like the CAPM—before getting a PMP.

What’s on the PMP exam?

Here’s an overview of what’s on the PMP certification test, which was updated on January 2, 2021.

  • 180 questions total

  • 230 minutes (3 hours 50 minutes) to complete

  • Two 10-minute breaks

  • A combination of multiple-choice, multiple responses, matching, hotspot, and limited fill-in-the-blank questions

The questions fall into three domains:

People: 42% of exam

Composing a little less than half of the exam, the people section includes questions on leading and building teams, managing conflict, supporting virtual teams, mentoring, and other related topics.

Process: 50% of exam

The process section tests your knowledge on the methodology of seeing a project through to completion. You might be asked about managing budgets and other resources, scheduling, handling changes in the project, and determining the best methodologies for the project.

Business: 8% of exam

The business environment portion of the exam deals broadly with the more business-minded aspects you’ll have to tackle as a project manager, like compliance, delivering value, and supporting organizational change.

Roughly half of the content represents predictive project management approaches, while the other half represents agile or hybrid approaches.

Training for the PMP exam: Courses and other resources

There are several routes you can take to preparing for the PMP exam. A survey by PM Exam Lessons Learned found that successful exam takers dedicated two to six months for practice. The PMI reports that the average successful PMP candidate spends at least 35 hours preparing for the exam [4].

Online courses: There are many exam prep courses to help you get your certification. The PMI and other private institutions offer prep courses, as do many community colleges across the country, online or otherwise. The Project Management Professional Certificate from the University of California, Irvine on Coursera will prepare you for the PMP exam and fulfill the educational requirement of 35 hours of instruction.

Consider the costs

Courses cost can reach up to several hundred or even a few thousand dollars to complete, but can be beneficial if you're looking for a structured way to make sure you’re fully prepared for the test. If you think earning the PMP certification is beneficial to your employer as well, it may be worth approaching your manager to see if they’re willing to cover exam or exam prep costs.

If you’re just getting your feet wet with project management, an introduction to project management course offered on Coursera can give you an idea of what it’s like to manage projects.

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge Guide (PMBOK Guide): This guide provides a full foundation to the various elements of project management. Though not an exam prep course by itself, the guide is fundamental to understanding project management as it relates to the certification. 

Test prep books: There are several exam preparation books that will familiarize you with the questions and format of the test. It’s a good idea to take a few practice exams before you take the real one.

Other project management certifications

  • Agile certifications: Agile is an approach to project management that focuses on adaptability and speed through smaller-scale and streamlined delivery. It is an approach that has gained popularity in recent years. Popular Agile certifications include the AgilePM from APGM International and the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) certification from Scaled Agile. Learn the ropes of Agile Development on Coursera.

  • Scrum certifications: Scrum is a project management framework that emphasizes adaptability and iteration, and is an Agile process. Becoming a scrum master means you’ll be helping projects fit the scrum approach to meet success. Popular scrum certifications include the Certified Scrum Master (CSM) from Scrum Alliance and the Professional Scrum Master (PSM) from Scrum.org.

  • Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM): If you’re looking for certifications to help you build up your career, the CAPM (also offered by PMI) is suited for entry-level project managers. The CAPM doesn’t require project experience, making it a good certification for project managers who are just getting started.

Getting started

The PMP certification has the potential to grow your career as a project management professional. If you’re ready to get started, explore project management courses on Coursera.

Still new to the field? The Google Project Management Professional Certificate program can help you learn the fundamentals.

Related articles

Article sources

1. Project Management Institute. "PMI Salary Survey Reveals That Project Management Professionals with the PMP Certification Earn 23% More, https://www.pmi.org/about/press-media/press-releases/pmi-salary-survey-reveals-pmps-earn-23-percent-more." Accessed March 25, 2021.

2. Global Knowledge. "15 Top-Paying IT Certifications for 2020, https://www.globalknowledge.com/us-en/resources/resource-library/articles/top-paying-certifications/#gref." Accessed March 25, 2021.

3. Project Management Institute. "Project Management Job Growth and Talent Gap: 2017-2027, https://www.pmi.org/-/media/pmi/documents/public/pdf/learning/job-growth-report.pdf." Accessed March 25, 2021.

4. Project Management Institute. "PMP Exam Preparation, https://www.pmi.org/certifications/project-management-pmp/earn-the-pmp/pmp-exam-preparation." Accessed March 25, 2021.

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