Success on the Project Management Professional (PMP®) exam is not only about attaining the necessary knowledge; you also need confidence. Confidence isn’t feeling good about yourself; it’s predicting future success based on multiple past iterations of success. 

Managing time is one of those areas where you can create success. A major constraint on the exam is time, and your main ally is controlled. As you apply methods of time management in your practice sessions, you’ll have a higher probability of successfully managing time during the actual exam, experiencing less stress and greater control.

There are two major areas where you can manage time: at the exam level and at the question level. You can also combine these easy to create a comprehensive strategy that is easy to employ and duplicate. Time is not your enemy; when actively managed, you will feel comfortable with the limitation and effectively employ time where it can benefit you the most.

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Managing the Exam Time

You need to manage the entire four hours and think of it as a four-hour buffer (think “critical chain” and project buffer). Every question takes 1.2 minutes from that buffer until you run out of questions at the moment you run out of time. 

You should track your progress, much like you track TCPI—what is the total amount of exam left, based on the total remaining time? This will tell you the rate at which you are generally answering questions, and how much time per question you can allow yourself for the rest of your exam.

By tracking your rate in this manner, you gain another benefit: it distracts you from thinking about whether you are passing the exam or not. Working on this method during your practice runs, whether 20 or 200 questions, will make this a fairly normal practice when you’re taking the real exam.

Manage Question Time

Each question deserves 1.2 minutes, whether it’s tricky or a bit easier. It will benefit you to identify questions that are easy to you early on, so you know that you’re building up an extra reserve for the more difficult ones. Give yourself a few seconds to determine whether the question seems tricky or not. This is not wasting time; when done correctly, it sets the stage for quick dispensation of the question.

In treating your total time as a reserve, it may be beneficial to find a way to move the harder questions to the end. This process is called ‘mark for review.’ Normally, you will answer questions in sequence, and when you submit, they are finished, never to be seen again. If you employ ‘mark for review,’ you bookmark the questions and answer them at the end.

A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is to not mark for review more than 30 or 40 questions. If you do, you have a high probability of running out of time. Another smart technique is to select an answer before you mark for review. The answer will be saved when you mark the question, and if you run out of time, these marked questions will also be graded (and of course, your chances are better than if they were left blank).

Prioritizing Question Time 

Putting all these procedures together takes a little practice, but it can be fairly fluid. As you progress through the questions, you can make notes on your blank paper of milestones on your exam against time consumed and left. Determine the effort required to finish a question and prioritize. Leave the trickiest questions for the end. All that is left is to make all this happen easily.

Within seconds of reviewing any active question, you need to determine how much time certain types of questions will take. The best way to do this is to break them into three categories:

  • I know this: Answer these quickly. Don’t second-guess yourself; so many applicants have said they changed answers that they first answered correctly.
  • I have no idea: Answer these quickly as well. First of all, you don’t want to waste effort on questions that are only going to force you to stall. Secondly, you can use the structure of the answers (sometimes) to show which answer is an outlier. “One of these things is not like the other” and “process of elimination” often help in this manner.
  • 50-50: These are the ones you should be expending more effort on. You’ve eliminated two answers, so you already have a 50 percent chance of getting it right, and you may improve with a little more analysis. Mark these for review. Once again, remember to save an answer when you mark them; if you do this, and if you run out of time, you’re bound to get half of these right.

In Review

It’s beneficial to actively manage time on the exam. A simple approach will give you a sense of greater control, and you will have higher confidence. Knowledge is not the only tool you have to gain on the exam.

The total exam can be treated as a backlog of work against a time constraint. You can manage these two components for average velocity and potential deceleration through questions. Each question can also benefit from a small amount of thoughtful analysis prior to digging into the question.

By approaching both these concepts with an active strategy, taking advantage of any gains in time reserve, you are bound to use time effectively and be more confident taking the exam.

Give it a try for yourself with our free PMP practice exam. You can skip questions and go back to them once you’ve finished the ones you know. We suggest that you jot down which ones you’ve skipped in order to return to them. (The timing will be more truncated than the real exam due to manually clicking back to skipped questions, but you’ll get the hang of managing the question time and exam time). 

PMP is a registered mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.

About the Author

Tim JeromeTim Jerome

Tim Jerome, PMP® MBA, has led and supported projects globally for over 15 years. Tim has taught Project Management and PMP® Certification preparatory courses for over 10 years, assisting in educating and supporting hundreds of project managers.

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  • PMP, PMI, PMBOK, CAPM, PgMP, PfMP, ACP, PBA, RMP, SP, and OPM3 are registered marks of the Project Management Institute, Inc.