A pretty good PSM III study guide!

Yeah, that’s right: another pretty good guide! Like my study guide for PSM II, this PSM III focussed resource will help you study and be prepared for the Scrum.org PSM III assessment. It's not perfect, it doesn't cover everything you could possibly do and read. Because honestly, that will take you forever. Perfection is the enemy of the good, so let's "maximize the amount of work not done". If you're going for PSM III, you know why I'm not gold-plating it. This guide focuses on doing the work that will give you the most bang for your buck. Which, in the case of PSM III, is already quite a bit.

The advice in this guide is loosely ranked from the "must haves" to "nice to haves". That being said, you'll likely want to touch upon everything mentioned. Good luck preparing and getting pretty good!

Pretty good PSM III study guide!

Before you go through this guide...

As said, I've written a PSM II guide as well. All of the material there is equally relevant for PSM III. I'll briefly repeat some of the advice in this guide, but I will mostly focus on the important differences. Bottomline: when studying for PSM III, first go through PSM II study guide as well.

What is the PSM III assessment about?

Let’s start off by quickly defining what the PSM III is about. Scrum.org describes this assessment and certification as being aimed at people with 'distinguished' knowledge of Scrum. As of August 29th 2022, a total of 1,052 people worldwide hold this certification. Compared to the 499,227(!) people holding PSM I, and 21,493 for PSM II, it’s clear to see how the PSM III allows Scrum practitioners to truly distinguish themselves.

Personally, I think the PSM III might be one of the few truly valuable certifications out there. Don't get me wrong, most certifications limit the chance that its holder doesn't know anything about the subject. They attended training or passed a multiple choice exam, which of course has some value. PSM III however, in the way it's set up, truly requires mastery and on-the-spot acurate knowledge. Let's talk more about that.

What is contained in the PSM III assessment?

In terms of timing and questions, PSM III is a different beast compared to I and II:

  1. There's 30 questions total
  2. The questions are a rough 50/50 mix between open, essay-style questions and multiple choice. I've also heard people get around 60% to 70% open questions.
  3. "Open" means you get a question, and you yourself type your answer in a text-area.
  4. The time limit is two and a half hours, after which your exam is automatically submitted.
  5. The exact weighing between multiple-choice and open questions is unknown. It feels as though the open questions are (rightfully) given more weight. I have no official source on this, this is educated guesswork.
  6. The open answers will be manually graded by Scrum.org staff. Therefore, receiving the assessment result can take a few weeks.
  7. The passing mark is 85%. Those wanting to go for PST accreditation will need a 95% result.
  8. When you initially finish the exam, the score displayed purely represents how you did on the multiple choice questions.
  9. The multiple choice questions are roughly PSM II level.

It's probably no surprise the biggest challenge is in the open questions. Or, to be more precise, the open questions combined with the time limit.

8 minutes per question can kill you

When you say it out loud, "two and a half hours for thirty questions", sounds like plenty of time. Spoiler: it is not. It is absolutely oppressive. There are many stories to be found online of people failing PSM III simply due to lack of time. I can talk from experience there. I failed my first attempt with a 79% score, largely because I ended up having one minute left for the final three open questions. I entered some keywords in the answer field for the sake of it not being empty. Had I spread my time more effectively, I would have stood a better chance. 3 questions represent at least 10% of the exam score, probably more if open questions are weighted differently.

That whole experience was actually the reason I built the first version of the PSM III practice exam on this website. It felt so silly failing due to time management, that I wanted to be able to practice that aspect specifically. For now, preferably don't use the PSM III practice exam until you're fairly confident about your knowledge level. Doing the test at that point in time maximizes the value you get out of it.

Why the time limit is so oppressive

To appreciate in detail the challenge the time limit poses, it's good to know that in my mind, there are roughly two types of open questions in the PSM III:

  1. Open questions that are answerable with a reasonably "by the book" answer;
  2. Open questions that require experience and connections between multiple parts of Scrum and related concepts from the glossaries.

Unsurprisingly, the first category of questions is easier to handle. You do your best to give a concise answer and move on. This type of question and answer can look something like this:

  • Question: The Product Owner on your Scrum team expresses she finds it difficult to assess whether the Product is progressing in such a way that it's valuable to end-users. What is your advice?
  • Example answer: the proof of a valuable product is in letting prospected end-users and stakeholders inspect it, use it and give feedback. The Sprint Review is an excellent event for this. Apart from that, the Product Owner can use the latest increment to test with end-users at any time to validate the value and make the product backlog ordered by having the most valuable work on top. Releasing to the market early is another great way of validating.

Honestly, I made this question and it's answer up while writing this guide, and writing a concise, quick answer was already hard. I tacked the "release to market" part on at the end because I felt it might need to be in there. I'll leave the answer in this unredacted state just to make a point. The easier open questions are already hard while under pressure.

So the second type of question might look something like this:

  • Question: Your organization will soon start work on a new product. 30 people will be organized in Scrum teams. What approaches could the organization use to create these teams, what advantages and drawbacks do these approaches have?

So first off, this questions invites an answer with a multitude of aspects:

  • Scrum ideal team size range
  • Scrum roles
  • Multi-disciplinary vs specialty teams
  • Feature / outcome vs component / output teams
  • Self-selecting team vs top-down appointing to a team
  • Does starting with 30 people make sense at all? Emergence?
  • Scaled Scrum, would you want to insert a Nexus reference here?

As you can see, this question invites over-spending time. People have literally written entire books about the answer to this question. But you are supposed to write something concise, comprehensive and, Scrum adhering in eight minutes. I had a rather comparable question during my first PSM III, and it was one out of three or four questions that really lured me in. Before I knew it, I had spent fifteen minutes writing roughly an A4 page of text about it.

It's ironic really. The PSM III by nature attracts those people really into Scrum. Being people passionate about these topics, they start answering a question, and suddenly they're on a roll. Because they are so passionate about it. Ninety minutes later they realize this enthusiasm has made them fail the assessment, because they have to speedrun the rest of the test. Don't fall into this trap! Rule number #1 for PSM III: time management is everything!

Practical time management and efficiency tips

Having learned from my experience, there's a number of things you can do to be more effective in the time allowed:

  • Only answer the question asked, from Scrum's perspective. Resist the urge to showcase more of your expertise than needed. For the type 2 question on forming teams earlier, highlight Scrum-approved ways of doing it. Quickly reference other methods and their key drawbacks. Really get to the essence, leave the "nice to haves" for the end. Essentially, apply an agile/scrum/lean approach to making the exam.
  • The use of common acronyms and abbreviations is allowed. For example: PO, SM, PBI, Devs, etc. I would personally only use those I'm really confident about. I've heard people use SP for sprint planning, DS for Daily Scrum, as well as SReview and SRetro. Those are a bit too uncommon for my taste. I would worry about it causing confusion. Also, how much time will you *really* save? Alternatively, you could introduce it once in your answer. For example: Daily Standup (DS)
  • Go through the whole exam first, and give a one-sentence answer on questions where you can. Mark out those questions that most need further attention. Likely the "type 2" questions discussed earlier. Just like in high school, read the full exam first. It might feel like time wasted, but it will help you spend your time wisely. It's much easier to balance effort when you know more about what you're up against.

Lastly, as mentioned before, use the practice exam on this website to get used to the time limit. But, only start using it when you've polished up on your Scrum knowledge and have it "in the front of your brain". That way, you can have the most realistic and helpful test scenario.

Some help in the actual writing

When you're not a native English speaker, but even then, some tools can help you out. Most browsers and operating systems have a form of built-in spellchecking. This can really help you out in writing quickly without too many spelling errors. A tool like Grammarly can add a little extra to that. It's a bit more context-aware, which helps in making sentences flow better.

Don't worry about it too much though. As far as I know, the exams are not graded for spelling. Scrum.org knows people from around the world do the assessment, so they're not too strict on it. It's a Scrum exam, not an English exam. However, it needs to be understandable to the reviewer of course. Apart from that, these tools can make you go faster as they autocorrect and even give suggestions for auto-completion.

The Road to PSM III - Sjoerd Nijland - Serious Scrum

Up until now, the study guide has only talked about approaches to making the assessment. That was quite a lot, and we haven't even talked about any of the actual content yet. Luckily, Sjoerd Nijland has us covered. His "Road to PSM III" blog series on Medium is astonishingly good. Where this guide only outlines a general approach, Sjoerd has put hundreds of hours into 30 articles detailing each aspect of Scrum to prepare you for the exam. Even if I tried I wouldn't be nearly as good. So, I refer you to the works of the master:

Each article is a wonderful deep dive into the parts that make up Scrum. It provides a thought-provoking read for each element of Scrum's periodic table. Sjoerd does a lot of thinking for you, but then pushes you to think even more. Read this series at least three times from back to back. It's the best time investment you can make. It's free, which is ridiculous, so give Sjoerd a follow on Medium or somewhere else. Sjoerd even supplied a few questions for the practice exam on this site. Man's a legend!

As an aside, Sjoerd is also a founder of the Serious Scrum community. This group, mostly communicating via Slack and Medium, is in my view the best community you can join for Scrum-related discussions. Everyone there is passionate about Scrum and you're sure to get trustworthy and insightful answers to questions asked.

Unexpected topics, resources and the glossaries

At my first PSM III attempt I received a question about Scrum and ethics. This surprised me a bit, as I hadn't come across the topic in my studies. After an internet search I found this video on Scrum and ethics. Apparently, it is part of the Scrum tapas series, which is part of the Scrum.org resources. You really just have to know about it. My advice: go through the Scrum.org resources, glossaries and note what looks weird or new to you. Meaning, any topic that you really haven't considered in the Scrum context. Read or view those resources and write down the core concepts. This way you're less likely to be surprised by an unexpected topic.

Scrum Pocket Guide

So this, is a literal repeat from my PSM II guide, but it's important. There is in my opinion no better Scrum book than the Scrum Pocket Guide by Gunter Verheyen. It’s basically the Scrum Guide, but with added explanations about the ‘why’ behind everything. This makes it the perfect book for those wanting to understand Scrum on a deeper level. It goes beyond following the rules by explaining why the rules are there. It’s a small, precisely written book that contains ‘just enough’, as is to be expected from a Scrum Grandmaster. As a non-native English reader, I was able to finish the book at a leisurely pace in two evenings. Gunther has worked for Scrum.org for many years and has been involved in making content for the PSM II exams. So you know you’re getting information from the right source.

Exact terminology and Scrum Guide adherence

That last remark, Scrum-Guide-adhering-Scrum-Master, is good to emphasize when we talk about work experience. In a sense, work experience can weirdly also be your downfall. What I mean by that is, even those organizations really good at Scrum may over time add in their own flavor. Perhaps they add a technical lead role to teams. Perhaps having the Product Owner take a leading role in the Daily Scrum works for them. Maybe everyone uses the terms "daily standup", "backlog grooming" and "tickets". In my mind, being a hardliner about these things rarely is helpful. Only when there's dysfunction hidden in the terms or practices, fixing it becomes a priority. The PSM's however, are hardline assessments. As the PSM III allows you to freely type text, you may accidentally in some of that local flavor. It's very important to change that into giving purely per-the-Scrum-Guide answers. Be precise, exact, dogmatic. Wear the Scrum Guide as a pair of glasses. This is what the PSM III asks of you.

Work experience as a Scrum Master

This is actually the number one thing, but, you either have it or you don't. You can't magically get years of experience. Therefore, it's a bit lower on the list.

For the PSM III, five or more years of experience working as a Scrum Master is recommended. Not having any experience will make the test extremely hard, because you are asked to respond to real-life situations. Experience from working as a Developer, Product Owner, or another role close to a Scrum Team, could also work. But remember, almost all questions will be asked from the perspective of a Scrum-Guide-adhering Scrum Master.

Training by Scrum.org

There is no specific PSM III training available from Scrum.org. There might be third-party ones, but I'm unaware of them. In most cases, they will not be worldwide. You could do an internet search for local trainers, but make sure they are PSM III or better, PST certified. You don't want a teacher that adds in their own unofficial flavor. You can search the PSM directories to check certifications. Scrum.org advise their PSM II course as preparation for the PSM III as well. You can't go wrong there, but I also can't comment on how helpful it really is. Your mileage may vary.

Read Scrum.org’s preparation advice

On the page where you can buy entry to the PSM III assessment, some advice is given on how to prepare. However, they actually just refer back to the PSM-II-related pages. Therefore, the advice from my PSM II guide applies in the same way. Read some of the books if you can, but don't buy and read everything. You can, but then you can start your certification in five years. Apart from the Scrum Pocket Guide (see next paragraph), Scrum Mastery by Geoff Watts is really a recommended read.
Generally, if you're going for PSM III, it's pretty likely you already obtained PSM II. The material shouldn't contain any surprises.

ScrumPractice exam

So we’re almost at the end and I have to of course highlight my PSM III practice exam on this very website. Just once more for clarity: do most of your studying before you take the exam. It's much more powerful that way. Or, take it once at the start, then do all your studying and try it again. The practice exam prepares you for what the exam is like, it does not prepare you for all the questions you can expect to get. Doing a good job on the practice assessment means you have trained your time management skills. This is super valuable, but only half the work. The other half is studying to just know as much as possible.

Creating this practice exam was quite a challenge. I'm very impressed with the job Scrum.org does when making theirs. Making questions difficult enough to prove mastery, while making sure they're clear to understand, that's a real challenge. If you have any feedback or spot possible improvements, let me know, I greatly appreciate it.

Best of luck during your studies, you can do it! You have the power!

you have the power!