Career / Personal Development
Passing the SPHR is the equivalent of at least three drinks. Seriously, I’m not sure I was safe to drive after leaving the test site. Discombobulated, I left my phone behind. After retrieving it, I got on the highway going south when I should have gone north. I was in a daze and I kept catching myself speeding, which was scary because I was hardly “present.” My endorphin/adrenaline high lasted late into the night.
Passing the exam may feel intoxicating, but it was anything but a cheap high. As many of you would guess from your own experience, I spent many hundreds of dollars between materials and exam fees. And I devoted probably a hundred hours to my studies, becoming increasing hermit-like as the date approached, my poor hubby stoically supportive as I repeatedly neglected him, preferring to cuddle up with my oh-so-sexy test prep materials.
So after all that hard work and investment, I was chagrined to start the exam, whereupon it was rapidly apparent that very little of what I’d studied actually appeared on the test. Ironically, of course, unfamiliar terms and concepts showed up with monotonous and cheeky regularity.
Panic set in. Correction: Panic would have set in, had I not been prepared. Stories from other PHR’s/SPHR’s reassured me that many people are convinced they’re failing throughout the process, only to later learn they passed.
I stayed calm and focused, and by the time I hit that final submit button, I crossed my fingers thinking there was a good chance I’d nailed it. Still, my heart pounded as I awaited my results. It seemed like I was standing on the edge of a cliff. When I saw my results, I felt like I toppled over the edge. Tears stung the back of my eyes and emotions coursed through me: gratitude, relief, pride, relief, joy, accomplishment, relief, empathy for all those who were walking out of the room with less happy results. Then I left to call friends and family, share the news on FaceBook and enjoy congratulations from people who’d been there before me or knew how hard I’d worked. To say the least, it was a golden, roller coaster day.
As is customary when someone passes these tests, I have a few tips to share:
Make a study plan. When you formulate your plan and select your materials, know yourself. It doesn’t matter what I did–what matters is what works for you. I have a fair amount of discipline and I’ve been doing HR for awhile, so I chose self-study. But if you’re a newer HR pro or you know you’ll have trouble staying on track, get into a study group or pay for a class. As far as materials go, for my primary source, I went with HRCP as recommended by my HR blogger friend Ben Eubanks. I also bought an SPHR-specific guide on my Kindle, so I’d have it everywhere I went. And I bought some audio CD’s from Distinctive HR so I could listen to exam tips and definitions on my daily commute. The variety of learning approaches worked for me. Figure out what would work for you.
Take chapter tests. Most materials have written or online tests at the end of the chapter or section. I’m ashamed to admit, but in the beginning I used to skip through those and rush to the next chapter. (Big learning reinforcement opportunity squandered.)
Take longer practice tests online. A lot of people give this advice but they don’t always tell you why. After all, none of those questions will be on your exam, and most of your practice tests do not approximate the questions you’ll actually encounter. For me, though, practice tests did three things: One, of course, is bring to light material I still needed to master. Two, you work up to the physical stamina needed to test for three or four hours. Three, and most importantly for me, after taking a number of the longer tests with 50, 100 or 225 questions, I started developing a sense of what it feels like to achieve 60%, 70%, 80%. In my actual exam experience, then, as I completed my final review, I felt there was a good chance I’d accomplished the magical 71%.
You can find tests all over the Internet. I took the ones through my purchased materials and also liked the free 225 question exam at HRCIstudy.
Take some time off, if you can. After ten years with the same employer, I have a lot of leave, so I took two weeks off just to study. I realize few people have that luxury, but I do know that studies indicate that many Americans lose vacation time every year because they don’t take it. So if you’ve got a few days or a week that you might lose anyway, why not use it to study?
Time your exam better than I did. Especially if the December holidays get busy for you, as they do for many of us. December was a wash for me in between work events, other obligations, family, never-ending gift-buying, my husband’s hospitalization over Christmas. In retrospect, the ideal testing dates in the December/January testing window would have been as early in December as possible.
Cover logistics. Gas up. Charge your phone. Put the address in your GPS. Double-check all instructions. Set two alarms. Put some bottled water in your car because you’ll probably be thirsty after the exam.
Get a good night’s sleep the night before. If you don’t know the material by now, there’s no sense cramming. In the morning, eat a good, balanced breakfast and don’t drink so much coffee that you’re jittery.
Take the tutorial. When I sat down at the test terminal, I almost bypassed the exam tutorial option; after all, I think I know how to use a dang computer! But my heart was pounding and my hands were shaking, and I wisely decided that the tutorial would be a nice little buffer/segue into the test. On a practical level, I learned something I otherwise wouldn’t have: you can strikeout wrong answers, which was an awesome feature! I then started the test with my blood pressure and pulse lowered several notches.
Use the strikeout. As you review responses, you can click on wrong answers to
strike them out. As a visual learner, this feature helped organize my thoughts and reduce the feeling of overwhelm; suddenly I only had two or three choices instead of four.
Stay calm. Know that it’s normal to feel supreme confidence one moment, followed by despair the next. Stay focused on each question. If you are clueless, skip it and come back later. The correct answer may seem much more obvious later. Or another question may even supply the needed answer. If you’re not sure, mark the question and return to it later. Do a final review of all at the end.
Expect some “left field” questions. Most questions were short, somewhat subjective and concerned strategic HR, but a few were long and extraordinarily detailed about obscure areas of HR I’ve never read about nor encountered in my fifteen years. And as I said earlier, some terms and concepts were unfamiliar to me. When that happens, eliminate answers that seem far-fetched and make your best guess.
After the exam
Celebrate. Share your joy! Enjoy the hugs and congratulations. Thanks your friends and loved ones for supporting you. Order new business cards. Update your email signature and your social media profiles. Enjoy the moment.
If you’re contemplating taking the test, I sincerely wish you the best of luck. Twenty-four hours after my exam, I am glad it’s over and I hope never to repeat the experience. In fact, I am so “over” taking the SPHR that when I picked up my son after the test, I dramatically threw my study materials into the street. We both got a good laugh out of my defiant act, after which I gathered everything up again–after all, I paid good money for those books. And someone else could use them.
As I slogged through the SPHR exam, fresh from studying content/criterion/predictive validity (among three gazillion other topics), I couldn’t help but wonder about the validity of the SPHR exam as a measure of HR pro performance and success. Still, all cynicism and questions aside, I’m happy I did it. I worked hard, sacrificed, persevered, reached a huge goal, and I feel really good about my accomplishment.
But not so good that I’d ever want to repeat the experience. There are no more SPHR exams in my future! From here on out, it’s all CEU’s for me. The next time I want to feel like I’ve had a couple of drinks, I’ll pick up the phone and ask my friend Wendy to join me for TexMex and margaritas.
Krista Ogburn Francis has fifteen years of HR experience in nonprofit and government settings. She has been certified as a Professional in Human Resources (PHR) since 2004. Currently the Director of HR for Jubilee Association, she is also Acting Executive Director during any absences of the CEO. She chairs the Maryland Association of Community Services (MACS) Human Resources Network and contributes to several HR blogs including Women of HR, aliveHR and Toolbox for HR.
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