Hi, my name is Cole and I failed my PMP Exam.

In my defense, it was the first time I took it, and it’s a difficult test. PMI doesn’t publish the pass/fail numbers, but anecdotally, word on the street is at least 40-50% of candidates don’t pass on the first try. Also in my defense, I had to take it at home because, well… COVID-19. Thirdly, in my defense, I’m a terrible test taker. Although I’m not sure if that’s in my defense or not.

I know that many other people are planning to take their PMP exam before it changes in January, and maybe you’re one of them, which is why I want to share my experience. Here’s why I blame COVID-19 for making me fail my exam. Take the raw data as you will.

#1. I was told we could write things down. When you take the PMP Exam in a properly proctored venue, part of the deal is that you are given a piece of paper or whiteboard/ laminate paper so that you can write things down. That piece of paper was a huge part of my strategy for passing this test. I had all these great acronyms in my head that I had memorized to help me keep processes straight. But because I was taking the test from home, there was no paper or pencil allowed. At all. Withholding that coveted piece of paper from me was like taking the force away from Luke. How is Luke supposed to defeat Vader without the Force?

Instead they gave me this little onscreen calculator and this little onscreen comment box that reset with every question. That’s right. So after I painfully type my notes into this comment box as a sad replacement for the paper and pencil I really want, as soon as I submit my answer, all of that disappears so it’s not available to me for any subsequent questions. Are you going to take the lightsaber away from Luke after his first fight and make him go find another?

Do I sound like I’m whining? I really didn’t want to be a whiner. You know what I wanted? To be able to use paper and pencil on the PMP exam!

#2. There was a guy watching me the whole time. Now I know you’re really going to think I’m whining here, but I promise you, I’m not. I know that if I were to take this exam at the testing center where it is normally held, there would be a guy watching me the whole time there, too. Maybe more than one. But, it’s different, and I’ll tell you why. When you are taking the exam at the testing center where it is normally held, nobody pops up out of nowhere, barking at you not to touch your face and crashing your train of thought, which is what happened to me.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Before starting the exam, I had to take photos of my workspace and room so they could make sure I didn’t have a team of project managers sitting cross-legged on the floor, ready to feed me answers. Next, I had to turn my laptop around so the live video feed could confirm the same thing. Up in the corner of my screen was a little window of my face as I was taking the test. And at some point, while I was thinking about what I was going to put as an answer to a really hard question, I must have placed my hands on my face, because suddenly this chat window popped up with the message, “DON’T TOUCH YOUR FACE!!!!!”

Actually, looking back, I don’t believe he used all caps or that many exclamation points, or any exclamation points at all, but that’s how it came across. After that I was terrified. If I got an itch on my nose, was he going to fail me? What if I moved around too much in my chair? What if I looked at the ceiling? It was so bad that I was afraid to get up and go to the bathroom during the break, because if I did that “wrong” I could be disqualified and fail my exam. It was completely nerve-wracking, which brings me to my next point.

#3. I am a really bad test taker. I know you’ve heard about people like me. I don’t do well when I have to sit in one place for four hours without moving (or touching my face). I don’t do well when my train of thought gets interrupted. I don’t do well when there are tiny little distractions (which we’ll get to in #4). I’m not sure if I have attention deficit disorder or what, but I took the ACT four times for college admissions, and that felt like a Harry Potter quiz compared to the PMP Exam. What I’m getting at is that, on a good day, with everything in my favor, I still struggle with tests, so the added uncertainty of taking the test at home under less-than-ideal circumstances really did me in. Dang you, COVID-19! (shakes fist).

#4. Oh, you want to hear about the distractions, do you? I live in a house with roommates, and, as I mentioned before, I’m one of those really distractible people who needs a quiet environment to concentrate. If I hear so much as another student tapping their pencil, that’s all I can think about for five minutes until I get my head back in the game. Anyway, my roommate was making breakfast while I was taking my exam, and oh my gosh, how am I supposed to recommend the best option for what a Project Manager Should do next when all I can hear is the scrape, scrape, bang of a spatula on a nonstick frying pan while he makes eggs? Of course, I’m not allowed to get out of my chair and yell for him to eat a bowl of cereal instead. (DON’T TOUCH YOUR FACE… remember? I‘m sure DON’T GET OUT OF YOUR CHAIR TO YELL AT YOUR ROOMMATE is on that drop-down menu, too.) Oh, and in case you’re wondering, noise-canceling headphones are out, too.

#5. The test was just really hard. I’m trying to find a way to blame COVID-19 for this, but I can’t, so I’m just going to warn you anyway. The PMP test is extremely difficult. Most of the questions were scenarios requiring you to understand a situation and recommend the best possible response. With 180 of these types of questions over 4 hours, it was basically a mental endurance test. Did I mention it was timed? I wasn’t even sure I was going to finish. Let’s do the math. I had about 30 seconds to read the question, 30 seconds to analyze it and then I had to choose my answer and move on. By the end of the exam, I could barely conjure a coherent thought.

I did finish. With 20 seconds left. That was a relief… for about 30 more seconds until the system told me I had failed.

#6. The worst part. I didn’t even do that badly. I only failed by a very small margin, but you can imagine what a small consolation that was as I lifted my sore rear-end from that prison of a chair in my room. Only one thought squeezed its way through the smoking char of my brain: I would have to do this all over again.

If any of my roommates tell you I cried, they are lying.

Update: I took the PMP test for a second time earlier this month and I passed. Can I just say that again because it feels so good? I passed!

I’m sure part of it was that I sent my roommates away for the day, but I also have to give credit to the PMP exam prep class I took through Solarity. The reading materials, the study aids and the full binder of great content all helped me focus my studying efforts. Plus, my trainer, Glenn, was there to guide me and answer my questions as I readied myself to go back into the fray.

I wasn’t sure this blog was going to have a happy ending, but I’m so relieved that it does. They say everything happens for a reason. If my pain and suffering helps you on your journey to becoming a PMI-certified project manager, too, it was worth it.

Good luck!

About the Authors

Cole Guthrie, PMP®, is a Project Manager with Solarity. Cole provides PM services to organizations by managing key projects by planning, initiating, monitoring and executing client projects based on their needs.

Christy Swift has been a writer and correspondent in the United States and Canada for over 10 years. With a degree in English and technical writing, she has a knack for making complicated subject matter digestible and even tasty. Christy regularly conducts research into the latest trends in project management to provide the Solarity Group with engaging content for its website and e-newsletters. 

About Solarity

Our mission is to help people, organizations, and communities THRIVE! Our broad range of experience and knowledge in a range of different industries allows us to customize our approach to fit the situation. We work in total partnership with our clients to understand their business needs and the current environment, and then match the right amount of process to meet the culture and the project.