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How to get through qualifications as a project manager when you dislike exams

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I have gone through my entire life actively avoiding exams. I based every GCSE, college course, degree and external qualification decision on the avoidance of having to complete an exam to succeed; until I joined the Association for Project Management (APM).

You may think it sounds excessive but I have actively avoided the need to remember large quantities of information as a measurement of success both in my traditional education career and in my post educational learning. I even went as far to leave my high school and friends to move to a new college to complete a BTEC in Sports and Coaching to avoid taking A-levels and risk failing the exams. So the thought of having to complete more exams to further my career as a project manager completely filled me with dread. However, when I learned that the APM Project Fundamentals Qualification (PFQ) was a multiple choice, and I could learn at home over a longer period of time, I thought of it more as an opportunity to ‘dip my toe’ in the exam water now that I am a little older than A-level age.

The PFQ is a knowledge based multiple choice exam with learning all surrounding the APM Body of Knowledge. The questions in the exam are based on information you learn through a classroom course and an exam at the end, or a longer period of e-learning with an exam and online moderator. You can choose which ever suits you and your schedule. To me, this seemed far more manageable and also a good introduction into the profession based on the project management governing body rather than basing all my project management knowledge on internal learning. After six weeks of learning and revising, I passed with only two incorrect answers. The PFQ was so easy to follow and the content was so clearly laid out I feel confident that the APM Project Management Qualification (PMQ) will be less daunting than I had first thought 12 months ago, and will be completing my full qualification in early 2020.

Here are my tips for anxiety around exams:

1. Talk it out

I explained my anxiety around exams and the ‘fear of failure’ to my manager at the time, and that my real concern was about taking an exam that was three hours when I was new to the profession and failing. This really helped me rationalise in my own head that maybe I wasn’t ready for this exam yet and she encouraged me to look to the fundamentals qualification first. Talking about the issue helped encourage a solution, so if you’re feeling flustered, talk to someone about why.

2. Find an exam that offers various types of learning

It seemed far more manageable to pursue online learning. The PFQ is based on information you learn through a classroom course and an exam at the end, or a longer period of e-learning with an exam and online moderator. You can choose whichever suits you and your schedule. I opted for the e-learning due to my workload and I felt it was the less intense option as I could complete the training in my own time rather than a classroom environment.

3. Join an association

Being part of a community of people who are interested in the same profession as you helps you to learn practically as well. Becoming a member of APM allowed me access to various articles, Project journal, events and information about project management so I was able to immerse myself within the subject and people’s experiences and advice. When you have access to real stories and can talk to different people, it makes everything feel less daunting.

4. Work at your own pace and revise

The ability to work at my own pace and complete the revision in my own time really relieved the stress I would have normally felt on the run up to an exam. It was a very enjoyable course, and I found the content interesting and easy to follow. The PFQ is a 100 per cent knowledge-based exam, there is no opinion or optional questions, so revising the content is key. Make sure you have plenty of time and a support system around you if you struggle with revising like me. I found it helpful to have people quiz me on certain modules at random times of the day, like when I was making tea, for example.

5. Know the subject inside out

Within six weeks I had completed all the modules, done as much revision as I could handle and booked my online moderator for the exam. And amazingly, I felt okay about it. I was still slightly nervous but I knew the content ‘inside out’. Being fully prepared for the exam, in this way really helped with my pre-exam nerves.
Top Tip: Cue cards with the fundamental terminology on made life so much easier when revising.

6. Sort out your technical issues early

Going into the exam I knew I had done everything I could, but I did have some technical difficulties at the start of the exam with my webcam not working and my internet dropping out, which did not help my nerves. This was a major source of stress for me on the day of my exam so make sure you use the correct windows or iOS, ensure your webcam works before the exam. And of course, complete the exam somewhere quiet with good WiFi that won’t dip.

7. Take your time and keep calm

You’re not in a race, the only person that you have to worry about understanding things when completing the e-learning is you. So if you want to retake a module then do. If you don’t understand something then reference the APM Body of Knowledge or ask someone in your organisation.

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  1. Dave Hughes
    Dave Hughes 29 October 2019, 10:12 AM

    Great Blog Kat and some really useful pointers!

  2. Michael McFarland Campbell
    Michael McFarland Campbell 04 November 2019, 09:05 AM

    Thanks for this blog - it's inspired me to get back to studying for the PFQ. I've been off work for about a year because of ill health - so with a lot of time on my hands, am going to try to make some good use of it.