Earning your PHR or SPHR is no easy task, but it’s a step well worth taking. Getting your certification requires a dedication of undivided time and effort. Although the process is difficult, the benefits speak for themselves. Those who pass the exam join a prestigious group of HR practitioners and add unmatched HR credentials to their names.
While the destination is unparalleled, the journey can be tough. HRCI® certification exams test your knowledge in every sphere and facet of HR practice, and you must command a thorough understanding to succeed.
We sat down with Stephanie Runyan, HRCI’s director of product development, to learn how to prepare for these intense exams. Here are five tips curated to decrease your test stress and increase your likelihood of becoming certified.
Schedule Your Test Early
One really simple way to decrease the stress of sitting for this intense exam is to schedule as soon as you’re cleared to take the exam. This may seem like common knowledge, but scheduling actually is frequently overlooked until the last minute. Scheduling early may not guarantee you the exact date and time that you want, but it does increase the likelihood of getting a time that works best with your schedule.
“Exam spots fill up quickly,” Runyan says. “If you wait too long to schedule, there’s the added stress of either not having a time available or having to travel to an unfamiliar location.” Scheduling early gives you more control — and more confidence. “Some people work better in the morning versus the afternoon or have certain days that they can’t do,” Runyan says. “Scheduling early is a simple way to solve those potential pitfalls before they develop.”
Learn the Exam Layout
Most candidates have the preconception that the certification exams follow the same layout as standardized tests, but the simple truth is that they don’t. Knowing how the exam is laid out before entering the testing facility helps test-takers with confidence and preparation.
“The expected multiple-choice questions are a part of the certification exams, but candidates should also expect to see other types of questions, such as fill-in-the-blank, drag-and-drop or scenarios that require integrating learned material,” Runyan says. “The more people understand what types of questions they could be facing, the more comfortable they’ll be when taking the actual exam.”
Luckily, this isn’t proprietary knowledge — HRCI provides candidates with the information they need to prepare for and succeed on the exams. Before you get too far into your preparation timeline, check out this breakdown of what to expect on the exam.
Figure Out Your Learning Style
There are multiple learning styles, and each individual learns in a completely different way, typically through some combination of styles. “No two learners are alike, so don’t expect to find a one-size-fits-all study solution,” Runyan says. “Just because a coworker studies effectively using flashcards doesn’t mean that that’s the right method for you.”
It’s critical to determine how you best retain and understand information before you spend time studying for the exam. Think back to your past educational experiences. Which teaching methods had the most impact? Where were you most successful?
Some people learn from hearing material, for example, so audio prep courses or webcasts might be a good study option. Those who learn by doing might make the best connections through actual practice.
Once you’ve determined the learning style(s) that work best for you, there are a number of prep courses and study options that you can leverage, including individual self-paced study, online prep and actual classroom settings.
Utilize a Study Schedule
Everyone has a busy life, but certification can only be achieved through a commitment of time and effort. It’s essential to set (and stick to!) a study schedule. “The certification exams have a general scope,” Runyan says. “In order to pass, you have to command knowledge in every aspect of HR practice.”
Runyan suggests engaging with the content at least once a week, though more frequent study sessions are highly advised. Be consistent if you’re serious about getting certified. Your study time is non-negotiable.
A goal-driven study session has the best chance of success, so don’t enter into one without having goals in mind. HRCI provides content outlines for each exam; use these to prioritize study topics and to develop an overarching study plan and timeline.
“The content outlines are completely free for you to use, and they’re a great tool to help you prioritize what you need to study,” Runyan says. “The sooner you know where your strengths and weaknesses are, the more effective your study tools and sessions will be.”
Putting time into planning and preparation cements the magnitude of the task you’ve undertaken and helps ease the anxiety you will feel going into the exam. Procrastinating, on the other hand, causes cramming and last-minute anxiety, and these aren’t healthy study habits. Setting a robust study schedule from the beginning allows you to tackle the exam with confidence and the knowledge that you did your best.
Prepare for Test Day in Advance
Anxiety is often a leading factor in success or failure and anxiety on test day can be debilitating. Luckily, there are steps you can take to mitigate that anxiety. For example, consider driving by the testing site beforehand. This allows you to make sure you know where you’re going and determine how long it takes to get there. This will help you to be on time on the day of your exam.
Additionally, disability accommodations are available, but the testing facility must be notified ahead of time. If that’s a resource you need, plan ahead so you can receive those accommodations. Find details on this and other questions in the certification handbook.
Finally, remember what your teachers told you in high school when you took your college prep exams? The same rules apply here. “Don’t disregard the common rules of testing,” Runyan says. “Don’t break your regular routine, and don’t try to study the day of the test.”
Eat a balanced meal before going in, and have a cup of coffee if that’s part of your routine. Staying in a normal headspace will help to ease your anxiety. And remember that your gut reaction to a question is probably right — don’t second guess yourself! You’ve spent four months preparing.
Be confident. You got this.