10 PHR/SPHR Exam Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

By Sandra M. Reed

The PHR/SPHR exam format can ambush even the best-laid plans. Know that both the PHR and the SPHR exams are designed to test your knowledge and competencies, not to measure whether you’re a good test taker or not. Having said that, you should be aware of several exam-specific pitfalls. Note that awareness without action is pointless, so this chapter focuses on a few of the most common snags you should prepare to avoid.

Sitting for the wrong exam

If you’re planning on taking the SPHR, be aware that you must prepare for all of the exam content, with very few exceptions labeled PHR only in the exam body of knowledge (BOK). For this reason, take both a PHR and SPHR assessment exam prior to applying for your exam. After you take both assessments, you can compare your PHR score to your SPHR, using that information to decide on which exam to take. Keep in mind that your goal in taking these assessment exams is not to pass them. Your goal is to identify your current knowledge levels and use that information to decide which exam to take and then to create a study plan and timeline based on the assessment results.

Underestimating exam preparation time

Test takers often misjudge how much time they need to prepare for taking the test. Unfortunately, there is no way to pinpoint exactly how much or how little prep time you may need.

How much time each week to dedicate to your studies is largely dependent on your comfort level and initial assessment scores. Understanding your time/assessment score data and applying it to your study plan is critical because no single resource is customized to your existing knowledge levels; you must be the captain of your ship.

Authors of exam prep material aren’t granted special access to exam content. They build the material from years of experience, thought leader interviews, industry best practices, and most importantly, the exam bodies of knowledge.

Unlearning state-specific applications

Both the PHR and SPHR exams are written to federal law. State laws in similar areas must meet or exceed the federal guidelines. Differences such as minimum wage, overtime, and safety are very real obstacles to baseline knowledge. Creating a cheat sheet of labor laws in your state that are different from the federal standards is worth your study time. Taking your time navigating these test questions can also help you spot multiple choice answers that are correct in your state, but not at a federal level.

Getting tripped up: the perils of overthinking

Overthinking both the question stem and the options is a very real threat to a passing score. The answers are intentionally written with distractors, which means more than one answer could be correct, and that all answers make sense. When you come up against these issues, keep the following in mind:

  • Don’t linger on the answer choices.

  • Go back and re-read the question, focusing on the verbs.

  • Focus also on the subject of the question stem.

These strategies may work in the scenario-based questions, but they aren’t necessarily the best option on the questions that are testing your knowledge. The good news is that these question tend to be easier, because the answers are often objective, right-or-wrong types of choices. Subjective judgment or critical thinking is less important. In this case, your best defense is being prepared, and practice exams are the most effective way to do so.

Playing the guessing game

Don’t listen to the so-called experts that say that option C is the most often correct choice because it’s just not true. The only way to successfully guess on these exams is to properly eliminate the obvious incorrect answers first.

If you have narrowed down your answer to the two best choices and still just aren’t sure, try using the answer in a sentence. Draw upon the question stem and plug in the answers to see which one fits best. Look for the option that fully addresses what the question is asking.

Your final option is to mark the question for review and hope that as you move through the rest of the exam, your memory will be jogged or, better yet, you’ll find the answer in another related question. Whatever you do, don’t leave a question blank. Make your best guess, mark it for review, and come back to it later.

Trusting your instinct

Read each question once or twice to ensure that you know what it’s asking. Before looking at the multiple choice options, answer the question in your mind. Then review the answers for the one that most closely aligns with your first instinct. As with most of these strategies, the first time to practice them should not be on test day. Take a practice exam or chapter review questions while practicing this approach to see if it works for you.

Many test takers report having a gut feeling about which answer is correct. Trust this feeling when you have exhausted the other options. You have spent many hours studying this material and are a seasoned HR professional, so go with your intuition when necessary.

Changing answers

When you take the PHR or the SPHR, you have the ability to mark questions for review at the end to go back and take a second look. This strategy is extremely valuable when you aren’t sure of an answer, but you need to move on. Reviewing questions is also handy if more than one exam question is related to the one on which you’re stuck, and you can find the answer somewhere else in the exam. Changing answers works for some, but not for others, so you need to know where you stand with this strategy before your exam date.

If you do decide that you need to change an answer, be very thoughtful before clicking the radial button and making a change. Try to link the question and options back to the exam objectives and make the argument both for and against the change to be certain that you want to do so.

If you didn’t mark the question for review, don’t go back and change an answer. You were confident enough in your first pass to not mark it for review, so trust your knowledge and run out the clock on the ones you definitely were sure in your answer.

Focusing too much on the clock

You have a little more than a minute per question, and some questions take longer to answer than others. Many test takers fall victim in watching the clock too closely, which distracts them from answering questions, so you need to figure out how closely you should watch the clock or not.

The best advice is to take at minimum two simulation exams. In one, watch the clock. In the other, don’t watch the clock. At the end of both exams, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Did you feel more pressure when you were watching the clock?

  • Did watching the clock make you work faster?

  • Were you more likely to mark an answer for review and move on when watching the clock?

  • How much review time did you have left on both exams?

Be sure and select an answer for every question; don’t leave one blank. If you have to make an educated guess, mark it for review later, but take your best guess just in case you run out of time and can’t go back.

Managing distractions

Part of your studying efforts should be figuring out how to tune out your personal distractors. The first step is to discover what bothers you and figure out ways you can block them out.

For example, toom temperature can also be a major distractor because being too hot or too cold is uncomfortable. Plan accordingly and dress in layers on exam day so that you can adapt quickly and easily. Be sure and bring a light sweater that you can take off, and wear pants that are comfortable to sit in for a three-hour stretch.

Avoiding mind tricks

It’s easy to panic, especially if you’re hit with difficult or unknown test questions right out the gate. You must train your mind to avoid negative self-talk or self-defeating statements.

While you’re taking practice exams, work on replacing negative thoughts by reminding yourself to take it one question at a time. Mark for review the ones that cause you anxiety, and then move on. Don’t worry about what’s coming; simply stay focused on the question in front of you. In other words, stay in the present moment.

A failing score doesn’t mean that you aren’t good at your job. As with most goals people set for themselves, it may take one or two tries to master the beast, but you’re well worth it. Successful certification can happen for you, and the credential will result in career highs. Kudos to you for putting yourself out there and adding credibility to your profession that the business you serve and employees that you represent so desperately need. Your employer is counting on you to be the best HR practitioner that you can be, and the studying, application, and commitment is well worth your positive attitude as you go through this career-changing process.