how to pass the sphr examAKA how to pass the SPHR exam and keep your sanity

If the title doesn’t give it away, I don’t know what will. Recently I took, and passed, the SPHR exam. Today I’m going to talk about the actual testing process and offer some guidance for those taking the exam in the next few weeks. Soon, I plan to write about the actual study process and offer some resources to support those of you who might be interested in pursuing the SPHR at some point. Update: Here’s the link: how to study for the SPHR exam

How hard is the SPHR exam?

Pretty darn hard. :-) More on that below.

How hard is it to pass the SPHR?

Several people I coached for this winter test window had taken it one or more times unsuccessfully in the past. It has a 56% pass rate (based on mid-2014 figures). If you want to visualize that, imagine that you and nine other people walk into the room to test at the same time. At the end of the test period, four or five of the people in that group will walk out with a “fail” printout. That said, most of you already realize how hard the SPHR exam is.

The critical thing for me, Captain Short Attention Span, is focusing on the questions and what they are actually asking. I’m a fast reader, so I am really bad about reading the question, finding an answer, and moving on without reading the others. I had to make myself slow down and read each answer, strike out one or two, and then make a decision. I also marked about 30 questions for review to go back and double check at the end. I ended up changing about 25% of those answers after having a fresh look.

That’s one thing that I definitely recommend. Marking for review just means you plug in a guess and come back later to re-read the question. I’m amazed how many times I have a brain “log jam” when I’m reading it the first time, but puzzling through another question afterward actually shakes loose the concept or idea I’m need to answer the previous question.

Another useful feature: strikeout. Striking out obviously wrong answers helps to narrow your focus and get your attention on the real possibilities. There are often two, but sometimes as many as three, good/possible answers. It’s all about picking the best one.

How to answer SPHR questions

sphr exam test prepI have to inject some humor here. My friend and I met last weekend to do some last minute studying, and we kept seeing a pattern in the practice questions. Virtually every time you were presented with an action or an opportunity to survey, analyze, or plan, the answer was always to NOT act. So I put this little graphic on The Four A’s of SPHR Exam Prep together to remind you of that. :-)

Seriously, though, there is a strategy to answering questions on the exam. This is critical if you are trying to figure out how to pass the SPHR exam. Here are five keys I used:

  1. This is strategic in nature, meaning that it’s about how HR ties in, and drives, business activities and measures. Write that on your scratch paper when you sit down and every time you read a question glance at that little phrase.
  2. Know how HR activities tie into the business objectives, and look for opportunities to highlight that in an answer everywhere possible
  3. “Strategy,” “company objectives,” and “business needs” are usually the answers when they are options.
  4. Despite my joking about the graphic, it is important to measure, assess, analyze, etc. before actually taking action.
  5. Imagine that you’re not in HR, but that you’re the CEO, especially when the question is focusing on marketing, operations, or another aspect of the business. Answering from that mindset will help to ensure that you’re giving the broad, strategic perspective the test warrants.

How to pass the SPHR exam the first time

passing the sphr examAs I said, I wrote a full-blown article follow up just about how to study, because there are so many tools, methods, tips, and other ideas that I just can’t capture here. However, just to give you an idea:

  • I used a 2014 HRCP study guide, read every book cover to cover, read every flashcard, and took the comprehensive practice questions
  • I used a 2007 SHRM Learning System just for the practice questions, never cracked a book
  • I used my 2007 Anne Bogardus book to do practice questions and did a simple chapter summary review in the last week
  • I used various other online resources (all free) to practice my questions and do research on concepts I didn’t know (I’ll discuss my process for this in the second post in this series)
  • I studied over 115 hours from September to January
  • I took over 2,000 practice questions to get ready–this is always my number one tip for how to pass the SPHR exam, especially in the final days of studying

One concept that I have relied on for quite some time is specificity. I use it to train for races that I run, and it applies pretty much everywhere else in life as well in terms of preparation. The goal is to make training as much like the actual event as possible.

In running, that means I should run the pace, distance, course, etc. just like I would on race day.

In testing, I need to take practice exams that force my mind and body into the same mode I’ll need when taking the actual test: quiet environment, long periods of focus, no Googling answers, no cell phone, etc.

sphr study course detailsRemember, this is just the first half of the series on how to pass the SPHR exam. Here is part two on how to study for the SPHR. It’s going to be pretty awesome. Also, I’m almost finished developing a specific SPHR study module based on everything I have learned (and taught) over these past few months.

Anyone else taking the SPHR this window? What are your thoughts? Any questions? 

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  • 14 thoughts on “How to Pass the SPHR Exam the First Time

    1. Congratulations on passing your SPHR exam Ben. Using the HRCP study material, I took the SPHR exam and did not pass. In my opinion the HRCP practice tests do not prepare you for the SPHR. The test questions are tailored more for the PHR. They definitely need to fix that. Material on the SPHR exam was definitely not in the HRCP. I next used the SHRM Learning System and learned that their practice tests are formatted much like the HRCI practice tests and the actual SPHR exam. Material asked on the SPHR exam were definitely in the SHRM LS but not in HRCP. I successfully passed the PHR using the SHRM Learning system.

      I will definitely think about purchasing your study material when I study for the SPHR.

      • Hey, Sharon! Thanks for sharing your experience.

        The thing I learned (and that I’ll be really digging deep into on my followup article) is that no test material prepares you for the test. I’d put forth the idea that it wasn’t the SHRM materials that prepared you, but the confluence of the HRCP and SHRM materials that you studied, forcing you to broaden your understanding of the topics. I received an email yesterday from someone saying the exact opposite of what you shared: She took a SHRM prep class and said the exam looked nothing like what she studied in the SHRM learning system.

        After this test window SHRM won’t provide materials for the PHR/SPHR anyway, but still a great comment. Thank you so much for sharing.

    2. Thanks Ben. I agree. Using different study sources will broaden your understanding of the topics. I think the HRCP manual is a good source, but the practice tests are not advanced enough to prepare you for the SPHR. That is my next dilemma upon studying for the SPHR (which material to use)? I am glad you will provide study material. Thanks for your help.

    3. I have taken the SPHR 2x, the CP 2x, and the SCP once. I am scheduled to take the SCP in July. I have used the SHRM LS, SHRM Web Class, Bogardus and Reed, SPHR for Dummies, studied for countless hours. I am becoming discouraged. I have spent at least $4k on study materials and taking the test. Never in my life have I failed something so many times.

      However, I can truly say that I have learned so much, but not enough to pass the actual exams that matter.

    4. Yes; took the SHRM prep course for the SCP exam and can honestly say “I didn’t feel the course prepared us enough!” I studied a minimum of 20 hrs a week from Sept. to Jan’s test date and was blown away at the exam. I haven’t received my results in the mail but remain optimistic to retake in May. My fellow classmates also agreed that they guessed on 30-40% of the exam and had no idea what they were taking. One mentioned, “10 mins into the exam I was wondering if I was taking the SCP exam or something else.” Also, questions on the exam that were no where to be found in the SHRM 5 material books. Very unsettling.

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