How to Get PM Certified Without Going into Debt

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The Call of Certification

You and your company want you to become certified in project management. After all, you have heard that certified project managers are making more money or getting more promotions. Your company is behind you until they see the price tag. For one person to be certified through “boot camp” courses, the cost could be upwards of $2000-3000 dollars per person. They suddenly stop talking with you about the certification.

A common tactic among project management “training centers” is to teach to the certification exam for a short period of time, preparing you for the exam and then touting the student’s pass rate. Ladies and gentlemen, this type of project management training is what we call a “cottage industry” feeding off market need and making plenty of money for doing so. Some of these “boot camp” courses can cost you or your company thousands of dollars for a piece of paper that says you are qualified to be a project manager.

If I Only Had a Brain!

Let’s see where this originates. I take you to the Wizard of Oz. That’s right, the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. Toward the end of the movie, the Wizard talks with the scarecrow, who wishes for a brain. The Wizard answers the Scarecrow with a quotable explanation about having a brain:

Wizard: Why, anybody can have a brain. That’s a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven’t got: a diploma.[1]

I just substitute “project management knowledge” for “brain” and “PMP Certificate” for “diploma” and there you have the certification process. It would take some tremendous interviewing skills to determine if a person has the requisite knowledge to perform project management; or else you look at the Project Management Professional (PMP) certificate and, voila, they are qualified.

Of course, they have to obtain a certain amount of verifiable experience, which says to me that if I have the hours, why am I required to take a certification exam? In my opinion, EVERYONE has project management background and knowledge, but that is for another article on another day.

The Different Options

What we are here to discuss are the options to getting a certification without having to go through a boot camp (and your wallet) to do it. I have taken 12 certification exams and have pass 10 of these exams, all without a single boot camp type preparation. Of the two I flunked, one was my first one (I learned fast that I was studying the wrong way), and the other one was for a software development certification that was based on a certain amount of “buttonology” and I did not have the skill necessary to pass that one. I was close, but no cigar.

How did I pass the other 10 exams without buckling down in a boot camp type course? I will list the steps and then expand on each:

  1. I found a testing service that I could trust that would give me the correct type of testing and expand my knowledge at the same time
  2. I read everything I could get my hands on, with one book as a fundamental learning anchor with which to base the rest of my learning
  3. I set aside time EVERY night to study and ensured that I kept practice testing until I understood the reason for the question and why the answer was correct.

The First Step – Test Prep

Let’s expand on each of the points above.

First I found a testing service that would help me prepare for the test. That means taking the test, repeatedly, every day, maybe several times a day. In the majority of circumstances I chose a testing service that was proven, like Transcender (

This company has never failed me. Every test I took with this as part of my preparation, I was successful. And EVERY time I told someone to use this service and they did not take my advice, they flunked the test the first time. Then they spent the money and paid for the service. These practice tests are not expensive, running into the hundreds of dollars (rather than thousands for the boot camp). In fact, if you take this plan and explain it to your employer comparing the price of the boot camp to your study plan, they may just buy it (figuratively and literally).

If you cannot find the Transcender for your particular certification exam, try some of the more prominent project management test preparation authors, my particular favorite is anything by Andrew Crowe. In my two most recent certification preparations I used Andrew Crowe and for the most recent one I added another favorite Mike Griffith. Some prefer one over the other and, after having them both, really did prefer Andrew Crowe for the test preparation and Mike Griffith for the learning part of the preparation. There are those that would rather just prepare for the test, and others that would like to learn the concepts. I like both, so I spend a little more time on the theory and application, as well as the test preparation. It is your call, depending on the time you have for the test preparation.

Be wary of test preparation sites that spout the pitch that you will pass the test on the very first time guarantee. It is NEVER a guarantee that you will pass the test on the first try; that is up to you, not some testing preparation.

Don’t sign up for just any testing site. I used a site once that get caught for attempting to get people to submit the questions to the tests, a highly unethical and even punishable offense. If you read and learn from the books, and prepare for the test, you cannot go wrong.

Read to Learn It

The next step is to read and learn. I separate these since everyone does learn differently. One professor once told me that if you write something down you are reading it twice; once reading and the other writing. I have taken that into the certification process and it has done wonders for the studying, but first you must get into the reading part. You can buy the books through bookstores or online, but there is a tool that might be able to help you in the short term and eliminate all the books on your bookshelf. The service is called Safari books ( You can try it for free or pay about $400 (as of Nov 2015) for a year subscription.

Four Hundred Dollars?!?? That is SOOO expensive!

Is it really that expensive? Go to an online book store and price some of the books that you would like to get for your certification. If you add up the shipping, price, and other costs of the books, you may come up with several hundred dollars in costs. If you could look at ALL those books online and then, if you want, purchase the one that you really need, it would save you money in the long run. The cost per month is about 30-35 dollars. That is much less than spending for books that you might never use, and less than the time it would take to buy and then realize that these books are not for you. It is free to try, so trying it will not cost you a cent. I am into free stuff.

Take the Time to Study

The third step is the most difficult to achieve – setting aside time to read, learn and study. Some people like noise, other like quiet, still others like to study in a group. I like to study after dinner before I get engrossed in some TV program or other activity. During some of my certifications, I took a cheat sheet with me to my daughter’s soccer games (that was a while ago) and in one instance I studied during a rock concert (again with my daughters) but had ear plugs in and it worked fine.

I realize that many people do not have that type of discipline, so any time that you can take out of your day to study will work. However, and this is a big qualifier, you must act like a project manager when embarking on this study mode. In other words, you must have an end date in mind.

The way to ensure that you will study for a purpose is to schedule the certification exam within one month after you start the study regimen. What this does is gauge your study toward a goal. If you do not schedule your exam, then you are never going to take it, using the excuse that you are not prepared, giving you the excuse to use less and less time to study. Do you see the loop that you are entering?


Would you rather spend thousands or hundreds on obtaining a certification? If you want to spend the money expecting that you will get a return on your investment, you are betting on the hope of a “winning horse.” Why not increase your odds by spending less and taking a measure of pride from doing it yourself? Use that extra money you save on something you really enjoy, like a new set of golf clubs (if you play golf) or a new drone.

The table below lists some comparisons, so see for yourself. The bottom line is that it will take more time studying and self-learning, but you will LEARN the concepts and apply them, which is more than a quick course will teach you. Even seasoned project managers could use some tips and tricks, and studying for you will obtain more knowledge than learning in a fog.


  • [1] Wizard of Oz, Written by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allen Woolf, 1939.