Studying for the PHR or SPHR? You Might Be Doing it Wrong.


The spring exams are underway, and many of you may be getting closer and closer to your exam date.   With an average first time pass rate of just over 50%, the problem may be with how people are studying.

Old habits are hard to break.  We were taught in school to “hit the books” and focus on memorizing knowledge.  That won’t work for the PHR or the SPHR!  While knowledge certainly is necessary, the focus of these exams is on applying this knowledge to real world scenarios.  And let’s face it- rarely is there only “one” correct way to make an HR decision.  On the job we are constantly being asked to weigh one option against another and choose the best fit for the situation.  So it is with the exam questions.

Our PHR/SPHR Exam Prep for Dummies was written to BREAK this old model. Instead of a single source, 1000 page textbook full of knowledge based facts, figures, labor laws and the like, it is a lighthouse for guidance.  You’ll find methods designed to get you UP AND OUT OF your primary study material and into the field where the real work is done.  Over-reliance on a single source for exam preparation is not recommended.  Even HRCI (the exam preparers) do not recommend using only one resource.  Their website offers this bit of advice:

“HRCI exams are based on generally accepted HR principles. There is no one preparation method that can meet every examinee’s needs. The key to an examinee’s success is to (1) know where the knowledge and competency gaps are, (2) prepare for the exam in a manner that aligns with their learning style and (3) use a variety of preparation resources to ensure they thoroughly understand those HR principles.

This doesn’t mean adding more books to your arsenal that recap the same principles as every other exam prep book on the market.  You must seek out and find different perspectives, hear other voices, and analyze best practices so that when presented with a situation on the test, you have vast amounts of perspectives from which to choose the best answer.

Sadly, this approach is NOT easy!  Many students are resisting.  They want a one-stop shop that they hope will meet their unique combination of experience and education, filling in their specific gaps or creating breakthroughs in areas in which they have no work experience.   The brutal truth is that success this way is unlikely for 3 reasons:

1. A couple pages in a large exam prep textbook on a topic is not sufficient, especially in areas which you have no direct experience.  For example, HRCI has a list of recommended authors you should be familiar with.  Each of these authors have THOUSANDS of pages of work from which to draw (Porter, Senge, Mintzberg to name a few).  Of course, you don’t have time to read all of their work, but you should find a way to get a good, strong sense of how their expert advice applies to the role of human resources and business management today.  This means planning exercises and activities that draw upon the author’s experiences in the real world.  Our Dummies book gives you that direction and helps you find ways to execute.

2. Not giving yourself enough tome to study.  A college degree takes 4 years to achieve- 2 years of general ed and 2 years of more concentrated knowledge.  The PHR and SPHR certifications measure just as much information, but in a highly concentrated, dense amount in only 3 hours!  In fact, of the THOUSANDS of questions written for these exams, you will see only 175.    This may mean that you study material that you won’t see on your test.

Because we can’t predict which 175 questions you will get, you must prepare for any combination.

This takes time, structure and creativity, I cannot emphasize this enough!  Giving yourself just a few weeks to “cram” will not serve your pass rate, nor will you retain enough information for this adventure to serve you long-term.  Certification is a journey, not a single event in your career- your study plan must treat it as such.

3. Focusing on taking the exam rather than preparing for the exam.  90% of the work it takes to pass this exam takes place prior to exam day.  Exam day is about mastering nerves and calling forth information.  The meat and potatoes happens in the weeks and months BEFORE the day even arrives.    This means you must approach exam preparation as a project to be managed by dedicating space each day to review material and committing resources such as time and money to give you the best odds of success.  This also requires that you take ownership of your studying rather than assuming a single source or study group is responsible to give you everything you need to know to pass the exam.  Just as you are a dedicated professional with innovation and drive, so must you be in approaching exam preparation.

I believe in professional certifications.  They give those without a formal college degree the opportunity to prove their competencies.  They give old timers like me the opportunity to engage in lifelong learning without having to go back to school.  They validate the work experience of so many professionals, and put us in a group that knows what the other’s are talking about!  I believe we are better as an industry when we are speaking the same language and applying best practices.

Take the exams seriously.  Take yourself seriously.  And get up and out of the tired old material by being the creative and resourceful individual that got you to this place in your career.  Good luck on your journey!




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