After months of books and tests and books and tests (and tests) I finally took the SPHR exam and passed it. Seriously... there's nothing like the feeling I got when I read the word "pass" on the screen. It was an exhausting process - but all in all, I feel it was worthwhile. Mostly I learned so much and learning is never wasted. I'm also proud to join other colleagues who also completed their SPHR. We'll make our profession stronger as we take our certification requirements seriously.
While I have the experiences "fresh" in my mind I thought I would jot them down. These experiences could help someone else - I know how eager I was for information and tips before I took the test! I will divide my tips into four categories: "Experience," "Resources," "Preparation," and "The Big Day."
The HRCI has changed the experience / education requirements for the test for the 2011 windows (click here to visit the HRCI page). Now a candidate for the PHR needs at least 2 years of exempt experience (with a Bachelor's degree) and a candidate for the SPHR needs at least 5 years of exempt experience (with a Bachelor's degree). The experience requirements take into consideration education level - for instance, a candidate for the SPHR who has a master's degree needs only demonstrate 4 years of experience.
With that said, of course experience matters - particularly generalist experiences. While specialists are allowed to sit for the exam (click here for an approved position list) the road towards certification is much tougher for specialists. I know. I was there. My specialty area is Training and Development. Thus, I prepared for the Human Resource Development module quite easily... yes, I still needed to brush up on some motivation or leadership theories but nothing major. However, modules on Compensation and Benefits and Labor Relations absolutely baffled me. I had to start from scratch - and bring it all together without having been there. I can't tell you how hard that was.
With that said - it's doable... just much harder. Basically, if you're a specialist you can expect to spend more time reading, talking to people, and asking real world questions.
One tip as you consider taking the exam - register early right when your "window" for registration opens. The slots in the testing centers close fast, and you may be forced to take the exam earlier than you'd like or (as was my case) in a different town!
The SHRM Learning System is probably the best preparation tool you can find. It's pricey - but well worth the price. One particular strong feature of the SHRM Learning System is the access to the Learning System's Website. The Website includes flash cards, over 1000 questions, a pre and a post-test, a great Case Study and other super valuable resources.
Even though I strongly recommend the Learning System, however, I hardly recommend that you stick only to it. Most people will tell you that expanding your circle of materials may improve your chances - not only because of the content of various books but also because of the comments, cases, exercises, etc. Here are some of the materials I particularly liked:
Anne Bogardus - SPHR / PHR Certification Study
Larry Phillips - SPHR Exam Prep
Lisa Guerin and Amy DelPo - The Essential Guide to Federal Employment Law
I also checked out several government websites including
Each of these sites includes fact sheets, faqs and other great resources. Finally, one of my favorite resources for Supreme Court cases was the Oyez site, put together by the IIT Chicago Kent College of Law. You can search any Supreme Court case and see basic information - hugely helpful.
A lot of colleagues choose to join one of the SHRM Preparation Courses or a course offered by a local university or college. I haven't done that, but folks who have told me that it was worthwhile. Taking a class may allow you to discuss "real life" issues with colleagues (and those "real life" applications are likely to REALLY help you come exam day!)
I did have the opportunity to participate in the preparation course offered by my friend and colleague Tom Mobley (thank you Tom!). Tom's course "got me started" (I participated in it early in the game) and gave me a great "road map." Tom's tips and bonus tests were also very helpful. If you live near Cincinnati, OH, you may want to check Tom's program out.
Here is something I did that made the difference between passing and not passing: I found a WONDERFUL "study buddy," Jim Foord. While Jim lives in California and I live in Des Moines, IA, we still managed to meet weekly for several months. We used mostly used skype and Go to Meeting to connect.
Working with Jim helped me immensely for several reasons. First, Jim did a fabulous job of putting together a study plan. Since someone else was counting on me, I knew I had to stick to the plan. Second, discussing the study questions with someone really made it real. Third, Jim and I supported one another as the "goings got rough" - when we got tired or frustrated or thought we wouldn't make it. Even if you are fortunate enough to take a class or participate in a more formal training, I strongly recommend finding a "study buddy."
A few tips as you prepare for the test:
- The SPHR is very practical (I haven't taken the PHR, so I can't speak much of it - I'm hoping other people will comment below and give their feedback). The questions are more likely to be "application based" and require a higher level of understanding. You need to be ready to combine the information from several modules. This means that no set of books or tests will "completely" do the trick (that's why I used several!)
- How can you prepare for the "practical" side of the SPHR? Of course experience will help you the most - but say you're a specialist like me, with a lot of experience in one area but not in all? Well, then you'll have to substitute that actual experience by a LOT of insight into OTHER PEOPLE'S experience. How did I do that? I talked to people. I asked lots of questions. I focused on the "non-factual" areas of the books I read (case study discussions, real life examples, author's commentaries, etc.).
- One thing that really helped me was to complete the non-multiple choice exercises in Larry Phillip's book (the book included some application exercises at the end of each chapter). Answering non-multiple choice questions forced me to think more deeply. If you work from the SHRM Learning System do not neglect the "Case Study" included in the Online Resources. It's great, and does bring it all together.
- The SHRM Learning System questions and practice tests do help - but they are not enough. Frankly, the real exam is harder than the SHRM Learning System practice exams (also more practical). I completed several other exams including the tests included in the Bogardus and the Phillip's books. However, the one exam that came closest to the "real thing" was the exam offered at the HRCI site. You can complete 10 "free" questions or purchase a set of two exams. It's a little pricey but I felt it helped me.
- Success in this exam depends not only on experience and knowledge but also on test taking skills. The options are tricky - you're expected to find the "best" answer, and the "best" answer is hardly obvious. If you're not the greatest test taker, practice answering as many exam questions as you can. In particular, you need to time yourself - it will make you feel far calmer if you know that you can complete 225 questions in 4 hours without a problem (actually, you should try to be able to complete 225 questions in 2 hours - why? because you'll want to review the questions you marked - and that by itself will take a couple of hours!).
- With that said, stop taking exams at least a couple of days prior to the test. Otherwise, you'll worry yourself sick. Remember that no practice exam is exactly the same as the exam you'll take - so completing a thousand of them the day before the exam is not helpful.
- The day before the exam have some R&R. Do something fun. Go to bed early. The exam is pretty cerebral and takes a lot of "thinking" power. The worst thing you can do is go to it tired.
THE BIG DAY
So now you've studied (hopefully with a study buddy), completed lots of practice exams and are ready for "the big day." Here are some last "words of wisdom."
- Visit the site beforehand - know where to park, and if possible go inside and ask a couple of questions. For instance, I found it super helpful to know details such as what I would and would not be able to have with me (tip: you can have nothing, not even your own watch or a box of tissues!), where I would store my purse, whether the site provided tissues, etc.
- Unless you live very close to the site, consider staying at a nearby hotel. I loved that I was only 3 minutes away and didn't have to worry about traffic. You don't need the extra stress.
- One of my BEST ideas was to take a pair of disposable ear plugs (about the only thing they let you take inside). The environment can be a little noisy and distracting. There could be someone next to you coughing, typing away, and the exam administrators come in and out fairly frequently. Having ear plugs available really made a difference to me.
- The computerized exam system is awesome - for starters, you're able to "mark" questions for later review and "cross out" options that are clearly wrong. I used both options extensively! The system allows you 15 minutes for a tutorial - go ahead and take it! Not only it will help you understand the system better, it will also calm your nerves.
- The first time I went through the exam I tried not to "overthink" or spend too much time on each question. If I got a little stumped I answered with my "gut" and marked the question for further review.
- I marked many questions - some because I wasn't 100% sure and wanted a second look, some because I really didn't know. The only questions left "unmarked" were the gimmies - the ones I found really easy (no, there weren't too many of those).
- I finished my first "try" at all questions within the first couple of hours. At that point I got up, got out of the room (you have to sign out, but you are able to take a little break), even drank half a cup of coffee. I stretched and got back in. Yes, the clock kept "ticking" while I was on break - but those ten minutes really helped reenergize me for the final push.
- During my "second round" I went through all the questions I had marked. I used the "cross out" option very extensively - sometimes I managed to cross out all options and find an answer by elimination! Often, however, there were at least two answers that seemed equally reasonable. That's when you have to stop and ask yourself what the question is really testing. Sometimes I closed my eyes and willed myself to "think as a business woman" (many questions are strategic in nature or combine an HR specialty with the need to think strategically).
- When you're done reviewing a "marked" question, make sure you "unmark it" - this will tell you that question is "really" done. I still went back one more time to a few questions I still had marked.
Now comes the scariest time of all - once you "unmark" and answer all questions, you'll need to "finish"! I can't remember the name of the button - but there's a button you click when you're finally "ready." To make things worse, the system then starts asking you a bunch of survey questions on your experience (yikes). By then my heart was beating fast and the last thing I wanted to do was to answer any questions!
At the end of it all, the system will quickly calculate whether you passed or not. You won't know "how well" you passed (or how close were you to passing if you didn't pass) until several weeks later. Seeing the "pass" word is something else - I had to sit back and smile for a few minutes just to sink it all in. If you don't pass, however, know that you can complete it again (there are no limits to how many times you can repeat the process).
I hope these explanations and tips help you! Do you have any comments? Would anyone care to expand on what I said? Do you agree or disagree with anything?