Episode 2: Exam Strategies – How To Guess

Episode #2
Original Air Date: 01.15.2016

28 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Andy Crowe, Bill Yates, Wendy Caperton

Nobody can know everything for the PMP exam. So, what do you do when you just have to guess at an answer? Andy Crowe and Bill Yates discuss their strategy for guessing on the exam. Wendy Caperton shares her story of how she prepared for the PMP exam.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"My strategy became that, once I mark a question, I go with my initial instinct. Then I have to have a really good reason to overturn that decision."

- Andy Crowe

"You’re going to have a certain base of knowledge when you go in there, but you’re going to be presented with questions that are either written in a tricky manner, or the scenario is so twisted that you’re going to have to guess."

- Bill Yates

"My strategy overall for the exam, and I definitely learned this from the very last CD that I listened to, was I went in and paced myself for the exam. And all the questions that I thought I knew or that I could figure out quickly, I did all those and saved the hard ones for last."

- Wendy Caperton

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ANDY CROWE ● BILL YATES ● NICK WALKER ● WENDY CAPERTON

NICK WALKER:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers, for project managers.  It’s a chance for us to get together every couple of weeks and have a conversation about what matters to you as a professional project manager.  We’ll cover subjects such as project management certification and hear some real-life stories from folks involved in project management every day.  I’m your host, Nick Walker.  And with me are two guys who can each rightfully claim the title of project manager’s project manager.  They are our resident experts, Andy Crowe and Bill Yates.

So Andy and Bill, you two know the ins and outs, the ups and downs of project management.  You’ve both earned multiple certifications and taken multiple exams in your time.  But I have a question for you.  And please don’t take this, you know, as a statement of a lack of confidence or a lack of trust.  But come on.  Nobody can know everything.  Can you?  I mean, are there some – there’s some tough questions on these exams.  It’s hard to believe anyone could get a perfect score.  So Andy, what do you do when you just have to guess at an answer?

ANDY CROWE:  And Nick, it happens to everybody.  It’s really funny when you get into these exams.  You feel like you’re incredibly prepared.  And a universal experience that Bill and I talk to a lot of people, they have this experience almost across the board.  They get in, they sit down, start the exam, and the first five questions or so they have no idea.  And a lot of that is a little bit of a confidence issue.  But anybody who has gone through the exam has probably, if they were being honest, experienced that.  So you do have to guess.  You have to have a guessing strategy.  You have to be ready for those eventualities.

For me, part of the challenge here is I think everybody’s different.  I think this has to be a little bit tailored to who you are, your level of preparation.  So I’ll give you an example.  I have pretty good instincts for questions.  Now, my wife Karen has incredible instincts for answering questions.  She could sit down and take a test, probably not being prepared, and she’s just really good at standardized tests.  I’m not to that level.  But I’ve got good instincts on these project management exams.  Part of it is learning to think a little bit like PMI thinks and like the test creators think, think about the exploits that they’re going to go for, think about if I were writing this question, how would I try and exploit the trap and things like that, where would I set up the trap.

So I’ve got good instincts.  But my problem is, given enough time, I’ll talk myself out of the right answer.  So regularly I will come up with the right answer, mark it, I’ll know it when I see it. And then I’ll stare at the question, and the wheels begin to turn.  And I’ll think, oh, you know what, maybe it’s something else.  Bill, have you ever had that happen?

BILL YATES:  Yeah, Andy, I certainly have.  And it cracks me up, too, to a couple things that I want to touch on that you mentioned.  First, getting in the mindset of the person who wrote the question.  That’s a big part of it.  And then secondly, too, the tendency of, okay, I can make an argument for this other answer.  It looks pretty good, too.  So I’m excited that we’re going to talk about this topic of guessing and just share some exploits that have worked for us and for others.

ANDY CROWE:  So it’s a common experience, Bill, that you can generally, if you know the subject matter, you can generally knock off one wrong answer immediately.

BILL YATES:  Right, Andy.  It’s fascinating to me.  Again, the student response that we hear consistently is that, when I took the exam, I had so many questions that were typically a scenario-type question, where I could eliminate two of the four answers.

ANDY CROWE:  Yeah, right off.

BILL YATES:  I knew they were wrong.  But then I had those other two, and I just – I could make an argument either way.

ANDY CROWE:  So what do you do?  How do you deal with that scenario?

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  That’s one of the strategies that Louis and I talk about a good bit.  And Louis will be on another podcast in the future.  We may bring it up again.  But we make the analogy of each question is like a beauty contest.  And you have four contestants.  It’s a multiple-choice question.  You have four answers.  And you’re looking at these four contestants, and you have to pick one.  Nick, they don’t let you skip them; right?  You’ve got to answer each question.  It’s in your best interest.

NICK WALKER:  And the third runner-up is…

BILL YATES:  Right.

ANDY CROWE:  And you’d better not crown the wrong contestant.

BILL YATES:  Right, right.

ANDY CROWE:  Maybe we should have Steve Harvey join us on this show, just for a little input here.

BILL YATES:  There we go, yeah.  But if you take that approach of, okay, this is a beauty contest, I may not really care for any of the four answers, but I have to choose one.  Therefore, how do I give points to these contestants?  So Andy, what are some – does that stir any thoughts with you?

ANDY CROWE:  It does.  One of the things that I do – okay.  First of all, I take a lot of practice questions.  I’ll go through them, and I will mark it carefully to mark how I’ve ranked those potential responses.  So I’ll have it down to two.  And here’s what I found.  When I very first started pursuing this, you know, 15 years ago or so, what I found is that I was correct almost universally in coming down with the two, that I would gravitate toward the correct one first, and then a lot of times I would switch.  And so my strategy became – and like I say, you have to tailor it.  Not to overcomplicate things, but my strategy became that, once I mark a question, I go with my initial instinct.  Then I have to have a really good reason to overturn that decision.  So it’s sort of like the Court of Appeals, right?  They don’t just overturn willy-nilly; you know?

BILL YATES:  Right.

ANDY CROWE:  The ruling on the field stands unless there’s really strong evidence.  That strategy, the more time I spent with it, refining that strategy, that worked great for me.  So I like your idea of assigning points and assigning different reasons.  What I found, though, is my first instinct’s good.  Not everybody’s going to be that way, but mine is.  I can just talk myself out of it, if I give myself time.

BILL YATES:  Got it.  You know, one of the other things that I wanted to bring up – and this gets to Prometric, the testing center, and some of the capabilities that are there – we’ve had correspondence with PMI.  Back in May of 2015, we started to hear from students and verified with PMI that there were a couple of features that are available to students when they’re taking the PMP exam.  And those are highlight features and strikethrough features.  And they work just like you would think.  You use the mouse.  And as you’re taking that test at the Prometric center, you can highlight a part of the question or a part of the answers that you want to focus on.  You can strike through answers that you know are not correct.  So back to our, you  know, you may have four answers you’re looking at to start with.  You eliminate two of those, you could use a strikethrough feature to get rid of that noise.

ANDY CROWE:  That is a big help.  It just removes the distraction from your field of vision, if you’re confident that it needs to be removed.

BILL YATES:  Correct.  Right.  And visually, that’s been helpful for some students.  You’re not allowed to take a Sharpie in with you and write all over the screen in the Prometric center, so this has been nice.  Now, I do want to share this point, as well.  There have been some inconsistencies with the Prometric centers.  Some have the capability, and some don’t.

ANDY CROWE:  And this is a new capability.

BILL YATES:  It is.  Again, we first saw it in May of 2015.  But then as recently as December I had – we received feedback from two students who took the exam at a Prometric center in New York City, fairly large metropolitan area.  And the capability was not there.  So we followed up with PMI and heard from the exam department that that capability should be rolled out and available at all Prometric centers after the exam change.

NICK WALKER:  If I can just jump in with a quick question.  I’ve taken a lot of exams myself.  And very often on exams you’re actually penalized for guessing.  Do you ever have to deal with that on any of these exams you’re talking about?

ANDY CROWE:  Well, only if you get it wrong.  You should never leave – any of the exams that we talk about in the project management world, you should never leave blanks, any of the questions blank.  So famously, Nick, I think the SAT has a situation where, if you guess wrong, it’s a worse penalty than just leaving it blank.

NICK WALKER:  Right, yes.

ANDY CROWE:  They want people with confident answers in there.  On any of the exams we talk about, you should never leave any of them blank.  You should always guess.  And guessing, this is the hard part for a lot of people.  People prepare so hard.  A lot of people take an excessive amount of time to prepare, and they come in, and they’re shocked that they don’t know everything.  So guessing is a very real part of this process.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, Andy, those are great points.  And again, it goes to the mindset, the proper mindset to have for these difficult certification exams.  You’re going to have a certain base of knowledge when you go in there, but you’re going to be presented with questions that are either written in a tricky manner, or the scenario is so twisted that you’re going to have to guess.

ANDY CROWE:  And that’s the key, Bill.  It’s not always a factual question, asking you what is the input to this process, or what is the tool that you would most likely use here.  It may be a scenario.  And it is not uncommon for people to get maybe 5 to 10 percent of these questions and say, “I really struggled with what the question was even asking.”  That can be the real challenge there.

NICK WALKER:  So what I’m hearing is, “Don’t be scared.”  This is going to happen.  You’re going to have to guess at something, and don’t let it play with your mind.

ANDY CROWE:  It happens to all of us.  It’s a common scenario.  Walk in with a strategy, and the more questions you can take in advance and prepare to understand your own style and your own guessing strategy is a very important component.

NICK WALKER:  From time to time on these podcasts we’re going to be talking with people who are right in the middle of preparing for the PMP exam, or who have taken the exam and lived to tell about it, so to speak.  We have a special guest this week, Wendy Caperton from Oklahoma City.  She recently passed the PMP.  So, hey, congratulations to you, Wendy.

WENDY CAPERTON:  Thank you.  I’m very happy to have passed it.

NICK WALKER:  I bet.  And we want to hear about your experience.  I know Andy has some questions for you.

ANDY CROWE:  Well, Wendy, it’s good to talk to you again.  Wendy, you and I first met when I was out in Oklahoma City, speaking to the chapter.  And then we reconnected at PMI Global Congress, and it was good to see you there.  So congratulations to you on your exam success.  I know it wasn’t that recent, when did you go through this?  It was a few weeks ago, few months ago?

WENDY CAPERTON:  It was.  I passed it in October.

ANDY CROWE:  Okay.  Outstanding.  Yeah, we were cheering for you on this end, and I know a lot of people were tracking your success there.  Tell me about how you prepared for it.  What did you do?  What did you use?  What worked for you?

WENDY CAPERTON:  So, I took the class with the local chapter that used your materials, Velociteach.  And during the class it was explained the four or five different tools you could use, the work flashcards online through the InSite website, CDs, and then the book that was prepared for – the book that we received in class.  And so I at first tried to use all of the materials.  It took about a year from the time I took the class to, like, the test.

ANDY CROWE:  Wow.

WENDY CAPERTON:  Yeah.

ANDY CROWE:  So during that, you said you first tried to use all the materials.  Usually what you find is some things connect better with somebody than other things.  And that varies.  It’s going to be different from person to person.  What connected with your learning style?

WENDY CAPERTON:  What connected for me was the online website because I could visually see it, hear it, and pause the playback.  As I went through the website, I also used my workbook and compared what I was hearing with what I was seeing.  And that seemed to work for me best.

ANDY CROWE:  Okay.  So the e-learning part worked well for you.  A lot of people who want to go through a self-paced process, that works well.  So, excellent.  And would you consider yourself to be more of a visual learner, more of an auditory learner?  How would you describe your own learning style?

WENDY CAPERTON:  I would say probably an audio learner.  I think a close second or maybe even first and most helpful for me were the CDs.

ANDY CROWE:  Interesting.

WENDY CAPERTON:  And I discovered those kind of late in my learning process.

ANDY CROWE:  Wendy, it’s funny, I am also an auditory learner.  And there aren’t many of us out there.  Most people would describe themselves as visual, and I remember things I hear.  So I can identify with you on that.

BILL YATES:  Wendy, this is Bill Yates.  I want to add my congratulations to you.  Well done.  I know that had to be one of the capstones for you for 2015, so congratulations on passing.

WENDY CAPERTON:  Thank you.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  One of the questions that I wanted to ask, and I think Andy alluded to is is; every one of us, when we take the PMP exam, there are questions that we just do not know.  It may be a scenario or something that’s presented, and we have to take our best guess.  How do you – what was your experience with that on the exam?  What kind of strategy did you have for guessing?

WENDY CAPERTON:  My strategy overall for the exam, and I definitely learned this from the very last CD that I listened to, was I went in and paced myself for the exam.  And all the questions that I thought I knew or that I could figure out quickly, I did all those and saved the hard ones for last.

BILL YATES:  Got it, yup.

WENDY CAPERTON:  And then, once I got to the hard ones, I tried to work it out by narrowing down my choices.  And if I didn’t know it, I narrowed it down as best I could and then just picked one.  And I didn’t spend too much time belaboring any one question.  And I’m glad I did because otherwise I don’t think I would have finished all of the questions on the test.

ANDY CROWE:  That’s an outstanding strategy, Wendy.  This is Andy again.  I’ve got a fun question for you.  A lot of people, when they listen to these CDs, listen in the car or wherever.  Where did you listen to yours?

WENDY CAPERTON:  Definitely the car.

ANDY CROWE:  And did family members have to put up with that with you?

WENDY CAPERTON:  They did.  I had a trip to see a friend in Dallas, her family.  And my children were definitely in the car with me.

ANDY CROWE:  I always kind of feel sorry for somebody.  But you never know.  Maybe it’ll launch them down a path of their own one day.  So that’s fun.  Wendy, we’re so proud of you.  And thank you for taking the time to talk with us today.

WENDY CAPERTON:  Thank you very much.  And I appreciate Velociteach because I don’t think – I know I would not have passed the test if I didn’t have all those different tools to use.

NICK WALKER:  Once again, Wendy, congratulations.  We’ve got a gift for you.  We’re going to send you a Manage This coffee cup to remember us by.

WENDY CAPERTON:  Awesome.  Thank you.

NICK WALKER:  Use it every day.

WENDY CAPERTON:  I will.

NICK WALKER:  All right, Wendy.  Thanks so much for taking time out to be with us.  What a great story.  And what wonderful insights you’ve been able to share with others who are maybe going through this same process.  Once again, thanks.

WENDY CAPERTON:  Thank you.

ANDY CROWE:  Well, that was great to hear her experience, Bill, and to just see her strategy for getting through this.  The part about time management, when it comes to guessing, that’s particularly interesting there.

BILL YATES:  It is to me, too, Andy.  As you mentioned, everybody has to find an approach that works for them.  I was fascinated to hear Wendy say her approach, her tactic was to go through and find all the easy questions first, answer them, skip the more difficult ones, save them for later.

ANDY CROWE:  Right.  So with me, and I’d be interested if you were this way, when I went through – any time I take a certification exam, I almost universally answer it, even if I’m not a hundred percent sure.  I may mark it to come back to it, but I’ll always put something down, my best guess at the time.

BILL YATES:  Right.  Andy, I’m wired the same way.  I don’t know if – I’m sure somebody could lay me out on a couch and understand what it is and why I’m wired that way.  But I can’t skip the question.  I have to answer it.  I have to.  It’s a compulsion.

ANDY CROWE:  They probably make medicine for that.

BILL YATES:  They may.

ANDY CROWE:  To help with that.

BILL YATES:  I don’t know.  Yeah.

NICK WALKER:  I’ve always heard that your first impression is something you should probably go with, unless you have a very good reason for overturning that.

ANDY CROWE:  And you know what’s funny, Nick?  I think it’s that way for a lot of us.  I think I’m that way.  I think Bill is probably that way.  I don’t know that everybody is.  And that’s part of the thing is getting to understand your own confidence level and style.  There are red herrings on the test.  And some people just seem to gravitate toward those really quickly.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  Let me mention one thing in that, I really thought Wendy had a strong strategy with, the keyword there of confidence.  She went through and identified the questions that were easy for her at first and answered those.  That naturally is going to build her confidence.  Then she may be an hour, an hour and a half, two hours into the exam, and she starts to tackle those more difficult challenges.

We didn’t ask her, I would have loved to have asked her, did you identify – out of, let’s say, 200 questions, were like 10 or 20 of them easy?  How many were easy, and how many were difficult?  I should have asked her that.  But I really like the idea of building my confidence first and then being able to come back to those more difficult questions.

ANDY CROWE:  Yeah, good point.  And the experience of the first five or six you run into and not knowing the answer doesn’t always build confidence for people.

BILL YATES:  Right.

ANDY CROWE:  It can shake them up.  And that’s a normal process.

BILL YATES:  So normal.

ANDY CROWE:  Yeah.

NICK WALKER:  No doubt we have a lot of project managers listening to this, a lot of people who are preparing for project management.  You know, Andy and Bill, both of you are project managers.  So let’s pick your brain just a little bit.  What is your favorite part, your favorite aspect of project management?  Andy?

ANDY CROWE:  Well, it’s an interesting question, Nick.  It sometimes depends on the project.  But generally, for me, I like the early phases of a project.  And the real reason is I like to set it up for success.  I like to tee the project up for a successful run.  So some people, I’ve done projects where I’ve been sort of a turnaround guy, and they’ve brought me in halfway through and replaced the project manager, or brought me in two thirds of the way through and replaced somebody else.  That has its own energy and its own challenges and its own rewards.

But what I really like is coming in at the beginning, figuring out what’s going to make this project successful, the critical success factors, then working to align all of the goals to that, getting the scope.  That’s something that I’ve done a lot of, a lot of scoping in my career.  And it’s something that I enjoy a lot, getting those requirements, understanding them, getting them documented the right way, as opposed to just haphazardly.

Now, that will depend, too, because Agile projects will approach that very differently.  But I’m kind of talking about a more traditional approach in that case.  So I would say that’s my favorite, the early times, although there is a great satisfaction to finishing up the project, documenting it, getting the binder, putting the rubber band around it, archiving it, and moving on.  So definitely.

BILL YATES:  That’s good.

ANDY CROWE:  How about you, Bill?

BILL YATES:  Yeah, Andy, I appreciate your comments about the two different aspects.  I certainly have enjoyed the projects where I can be there right from the start.  I think later, Nick, we’re going to have to ask Andy some questions about what kind of cape to wear for that other example, where you’re jumping in in the middle of a project or near the end of a project and inheriting it.

NICK WALKER:  I figure there’s a lot left here, in between the beginning and the end.

ANDY CROWE:  And I can answer that because when you come in about two thirds of the way through, you know the old saying, who do you blame?  Well, the guy who just left, okay, first.

BILL YATES:  Right, correct.

ANDY CROWE:  And the second one you blame is the vendor.

BILL YATES:  Right.

ANDY CROWE:  So that’s the standard operating procedure.

BILL YATES:  There you go.  That’s terrific value you just added to many listeners, Andy.  That’s perfect.

ANDY CROWE:  I have a feeling our listeners kind of intuitively grasp that.  They’ve been on one side…

BILL YATES:  They’ve mastered that.

ANDY CROWE:  …or the other.

BILL YATES:  Right, yeah.

NICK WALKER:  But what I’m hearing is that vision is a really important aspect to the whole project management.  You’ve got to start there.

BILL YATES:  Right.  And, Nick, another – for me to answer the same question, I’d have to go with the kickoff, the beginning of the project, as well.  That’s the part of the project that really gets me fired up.  And I think for me it’s a new problem to solve.  It’s understanding the need of that customer.  It could be an internal or an external project.  But that really gets me jazzed,.  Feeling that point of pain that the customer has and figuring out how this project is going to help solve that problem.  That’s really invigorating.  That’s a lot of fun.

But there’s a soft side to it, as well.  And those are the relationships.  So you may have new team members that you’ve never worked with before.  You may have, you probably have a new customer that perhaps you haven’t worked with before.  Those relationships are a lot of fun to build.  We could go down the path of the Storming-Norming-Forming, all the Tuckman’s Ladder, some of the team dynamics that you see.  But for me, those relationships are a lot of fun.  However, if you look at the flipside of that – so Andy, one of the things that I’ve struggled with throughout my career as a project manager has been finishing the darn thing.

ANDY CROWE:  Right.

BILL YATES:  Snapping that rubber band on that completed file and filing it away, putting it up on SharePoint.

ANDY CROWE:  And the big joke is that the first 80 percent of the project takes 80 percent of the time, and the last 20 percent of the project takes the other 80 percent of the time.

BILL YATES:  Right, yeah.  That’s it.  So for me, that’s one of the struggles.  And I think, again, part of that goes back to the soft skills.  When I reflect back on projects, I think about, “Okay, but I’ve got a deep relationship now with these team members, or perhaps with this customer, and I don’t want it to end.”  So we’re on speed dial; right?  We’re sharing photos from family events and birthdays and this kind of stuff.  So we’re in deep.  They’re my new BFFs.  So how can I let them go?  So that transition at the end of a project can be a difficult thing to do.

ANDY CROWE:  It can.  And a lot of it goes back to how you started it, figuring out what the critical success factors are, keeping your eye on the ball, and that’s it.  And aligning to that.  But, no, I’ve been on both sides of that equation.  Some projects I’ve been begging for the end to come quickly.  And some projects I’ve been just enjoying it so much I didn’t want it to end.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah.

NICK WALKER:  And we could probably do a whole podcast about how to maintain those relationships throughout the entire vision process, throughout the project management, all the way to the end.

ANDY CROWE:  And you know, Nick, that is something I am coming to understand more and more in my career every year is that projects get done through relationships.  Everything gets accomplished through relationships.  It’s more about relationships than it is about tasks, so that’s a good point you bring up.

BILL YATES:  That’s one of my favorite quotes from the author and speaker Scott Berkun.  It’s all about relationships, no matter what type of project you’re dealing with.  In his case they were very technical.  But, yeah, it’s all about relationships.

NICK WALKER:  Well, let’s talk a little bit about some of the things that we do learn from other folks.  Andy, you’ve written a lot about project management.  We know the best writers are avid readers.  So what are you reading these days?

ANDY CROWE:  Ah.  A couple of books that I’m reading.  I just, just finished the book “House of Suns,” and I cannot remember who wrote it [Alastair Reynolds], but I just finished up – now, that’s a fiction book, and so it kind of gets into science fiction, really creative.  It was a lot of fun.  And, you know, you can pick up things from a number of different sources.  So it doesn’t always have to be reading the encyclopedia that you get good ideas, or reading industry articles.

I’m also reading the book “Rising Strong,” by Brené Brown.  And it’s really about failure and recovery from failure.  And it is a cliché that you learn more from failure than you do from success.  But I promise you that has been true repeatedly in my career, that I’ve learned more when I’ve messed up because you stop.  And if you’re smart any way about it, when you fail, you’re supposed to stop.  You’re supposed to look at it and ask why.  What would I do differently the next time?  What lessons learned?  And so Brené Brown has written a great book on that, on that aspect of getting up, dusting yourself off, starting over again.

NICK WALKER:  Can we go back to the fiction just a little bit?  Because I know some people’s eyes just flew open.  Fiction?  This guy reads fiction?  You know.  But it is true that you can learn a lot from scenarios even within a fictional account.

ANDY CROWE:  Absolutely.  And I always try – in fact, it’s funny because I read a lot of nonfiction.  And I have to, this sounds crazy, but I have to discipline myself to read fiction.

NICK WALKER:  Great insights.  Thanks so much, Andy.  And Bill Yates, thanks, as always, for sharing your expertise.  And a special thanks to Wendy Caperton for sharing her experiences with the PMP exam.  And again, we wish her the very best as a newly certified project manager.

That’s it for us here on Manage This.  We hope you’ll tune back in on February 2nd for our next podcast.  We’ll be discussing the updated PMI-ACP Exam for all you Agile practitioners.  In the meantime, tweet us at @manage_this.  That’s @manage_this, if you have any questions about project management certifications, whether it’s the PMP, the CAPM, PMI-ACP, CSM, PgMP, or PfMP, or any other combination of letters in your alphabet soup.  Or maybe you’d just like to be a guest on our show.  We would love to have you and hear your stories.

That’s all for this episode.  Talk to you soon.  In the meantime, keep calm and Manage This.

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