Create a Study Plan to Pass the PHR Certification Test [and SHRM-CP]

PHR exam prep
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Liz Strikwerda

Content strategist and corporate blogger (2000+ posts). Her work has been featured on G2's Learning Hub, Human Resources Today, Better Buys and over 500 business websites. She plays bluegrass mandolin and enjoys sailing her catamaran and hiking in the red rock wilderness of southern Utah. Connect with me on LinkedIn

What is the PHR certification? PHR stands for Professional in Human Resources. It is offered by the HR Certification Institute (HRCI). The HRCI is a premier credentialing organization for HR professionals. The Human Resources Certification Institute offers seven certifications. The Professional in Human Resources (PHR) is one of the most popular certifications.

What does SHRM stand for? SHRM is the largest professional Human Resources organization in the world. It was founded in 1948 and has over 300,000 members in 165 countries. SHRM is headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia. SHRM provides multiple resources for HR practitioners and supports legislation to advance the industry.

In 2020 and 2021, SHRM-CP pass rates were highest for examinees who spent 81 to 120 hours preparing. However, the rate decreased for those who spent more than 200 hours. If you follow a formal plan for studying, you should be fully capable of passing with around 100 hours of prep. After that, you may have diminishing returns.

Hello ambitious PHR exam preppers!

The Swipeclock team understands how difficult the PHR and SPHR certifications exams are. We’ve put together a PHR exam prep guide for Human Resource professionals pursuing these important career milestones.

First, a little context. Skip forward if you don’t need any background info.

HR Certification Institute (HRCI) is a premier credentialing organization for HR professionals. The Human Resources Certification Institute offers seven certifications for Human Resources professionals. Professional in Human Resources (PHR) is one of the most popular certifications. It’s also notoriously difficult.

PHR Exam: 3 Numbers You Need to Know

  1. The PHR certification exam is a computer-based test. It currently has 90 scored questions and 25 pre-test questions. There is a 2-hour time limit.
  2. 65% pass rate: As of December 31, 2021, the pass rate for the PHR was 65%. This is down a bit from the pass rate HRCI reported in 2020.
  3. 500: To pass you need a scaled score of 500. There is no partial credit for any of the questions and those who take the test and fail can’t find out which questions they failed.

Clearly, you need a strategic study plan. Think both quality and quantity. Use a variety of good study materials and follow a roadmap for structured preparation.

Download this guide in an infographic: 6 PHR Exam Study Tips

6 PHR Exam Study Tips

1. Self-Assessment

Before you decide when to take the exam, consider your current level of readiness and work experience. Consult the HRCI exam eligibility guidelines.

This is the exam weighting by functional area:

  • Business Management (20%)
  • Talent Planning and Acquisition (16%)
  • Learning and Development (10%)
  • Total Rewards (15%)
  • Employee and Labor Relations (39%)

You need to be proficient in each area. Unfortunately, being competent in just a couple topics won’t carry you.

2. Create Study Timeline

How much time will you need? This is impossible to answer. In researching people who certified, the answers range from 2 days to a year. According to the HRCI, most test takers spend more than 60 hours studying for the exam.

Your personal schedule will have the most bearing on your timeline. How much time each week do you have free for test prep?

3. Evaluate Study Methods

Note which study methods have worked for you in the past. Use these as a guide when purchasing course materials for HRCI certification. Are there some techniques you have never used? Now’s the time to try them out. Successful test takers report using multiple techniques.

In addition to evaluating your study methods, consider taking an actual in-person or live online class. In this LinkedIn article, Julian Beck, MHR, SHRM-CP describes how he prepared for the SHRM-CP by taking a class at a local college. The principles apply to both certification exams.

PHR exam prep


4. Identify Budget

Identify your budget for purchasing materials in addition to the exam application and exam fee. Currently, the application fee is $100 and the exam fee is $395 for the PHR. There are a few free materials, but you are going to need the comprehensive programs. And they aren’t cheap. It’s important to note that the HRCI doesn’t recommend any specific study program.

5. Take a LOT of Practice Tests

HRCI has many PHR practice questions on their website. The other prep products mentioned in this article also offer practice tests. Start taking practice tests early in your program. Your test scores will reveal if your studying is effective. They will help you know if you are progressing and will show you how you’re doing in each functional area.

Adapt your study schedule to your practice test performance. Many people who passed the PHR say that the questions on the actual test are harder than those on the practice tests. If you pass a practice test but don’t have in-depth knowledge on the topics, make sure you gain a thorough understanding.

Also, don’t forget to spend as much (or more) time reviewing your practice test results. Go over each question, both those you got right and those you got wrong. Remember that some of your right answers could have been a guess. By reviewing them, you’ll solidify your knowledge and be less likely to worry about second-guessing yourself during the actual exam.

6. Prepare for Test Day

Plan your driving route (or public transport) to the testing center the day before. (Some candidates drive to the testing center a few days before test day just to make sure they know where it is.)

  • Leave as many personal items at home as possible. You have to put personal items in a small locker at the testing center.
  • Check traffic the morning of the test to find out if there are unexpected slowdowns. Adjust your driving route if necessary.
  • Leave home early. You will be much calmer as you start the test if you’ve had time to relax.
  • Be prepared to present a current (non-expired) government-issued form of photo ID such as a passport or driver’s license.
  • Visit the Pearson VUE website for emergency closures and Pearson VUE contact details.

During The Test

phr exam prep Firstly, read each question two or three times very slowly. To reiterate: read through ALL of the possible answers, even if the first one sounds correct. Look for keywords–they are an important clue. Note that more than one answer may sound correct. The keywords can help you know the best answer.

Marking Questions

Fortunately, you can mark questions you are not sure about and return to them. If you do this, however, make sure you don’t leave any unanswered. It’s a good idea to take advantage of this feature because you may figure out the answers from questions that come after.

What if you really have no clue about the right answer? If you can eliminate just two answers, you increase your odds of picking the right answer at random.

The Clock

Hopefully, you’ve taken dozens of practice tests, so you won’t need to keep checking the clock to see if you’re on track to finish. Keep in mind that every time you check the clock, you divert your attention. There is a caveat to this one, however. If you have marked several questions to return to, make sure you have enough time to go back and finish them.

Download our infographic: 6 PHR Exam Study Tips

PHR Preparation Resources

If you can afford the $700+ price tag, you can’t go wrong with the HRCI Study Materials. They have extensive resources and you can build your own bundle for a personalized program.

    • More than 130 lessons
    • Custom practice tests
    • Progress tracker
    • Video lessons paired with quizzes
  • PHR-CA/SPHR-CA Study Guide
    • Designed for California-based candidates, this version is a must for the California PHR.
  • Anne Bogardus’ PHR/SPHR: Professional in Human Resources Certification Study Guide
    • You can purchase this on several sites. (Swipeclock doesn’t want to imply endorsement of any particular vendor by including a link.)

Phone Apps for Studying On-the-Go

I passed! This is an extremely thorough app and used along with a $20 study book from Amazon and free online flashcards, I was more than prepared. The questions on here are much harder than the exam, which is good because they will prepare you well. If you can spring for the full app, it is well worth it. You do not need to spend hundreds on materials to pass this exam! – J. Leandro, Professional Pocket Prep review

  • Quizlet HR Basics Flashcards
  • Study Groups
    • Everyone’s professional experience is valuable. When you get together with others, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Study groups are important for at least two reasons: 1. You benefit from a diversity of collective knowledge and, 2. Study partners hold you accountable for putting in the time and sticking to the schedule. In this article: I Tested and Passed both the HRCI-SPHR and SHRM-SCP in a Two-week Span, Karen Satchell, MS, MBA, SPHR, SCP explains how she formed a study group by reaching out to her network on social media.

Online Resources

  • LinkedIn Groups
  • Reddit
    • Reddit contains valuable insights from people who have taken the PHR and SPHR certifications. Search PHR exam and you will find detailed discussions on preparation strategy as well as general threads about human resources development. Plus recommendations for PHR resources and test-taking tips. If you are interested in learning how fellow HR professionals feel about bachelors degree vs. masters degree and general HR department qualifications, you can find threads on those subjects.

In-Person Instruction

  • Preparation Courses and Workshops
    • Check your local college to see if they offer a PHR prep course. It may be more affordable than self-study programs and some schools offer online courses as well.

Confidence Building with Affirmations and Visualization

Overly worried about failing? Your state of mind has a major influence on your performance. Senior Professional Karen Satchell, MS, SPHR, SCP, passed both the HRCI-SPHR exam and SHRM-SCP in a two-week span. She credits her success, in part, to proactive confidence-building rituals.

I needed to believe I was going to pass. I wrote my name with all the test pending abbreviations on a white board in my kitchen and posted it on a sticky note on my computer monitor at work. I gave myself countless confidence boosting talks. I would take some deep breaths and envision myself passing the exams and my celebration dance as I exited the testing center.

SHRM Exam Prep

We realize that many HR pros study for both exams at the same time. If you are using this guide for SHRM-CP prep as well, it’s critical to understand the differences between the tests. has created a great chart here that looks at PHR vs. SPHR.

Make sure you spend a considerable amount of time preparing for situational questions as the SHRM exams contain more of them. It’s essential to have materials designed for the SHRM certifications in your study toolkit.

Divya, a pharmacologist and Human Resources professional has a YouTube channel dedicated to SHRM certification preparation. Here are tips from her video “How to study for the SHRM exam: ten tips to crack the exam!”

Divya recommends the SHRM Learning Management System for SHRM certification prep. Thus, in her tips, when she references a study resource, she is talking about the SHRM Learning Management System. (Note, Divya does not reveal her last name in her YouTube videos.)

Tips to pass the SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP from Divya

  1. Do all the quizzes in Learning Management System for both the CP level and SCP level
  2. Read the SHRM BoCK (Body of Competency and Knowledge.) It’s a free download that serves as a great blueprint for the test.
  3. Have a distraction during your course of study. Take frequent breaks and participate in something you enjoy. It will make you study smarter, not harder.
  4. Review, review and re-review your notes. Read and revise everything that you read. This is an exam that deserves your attention regardless of your years of experience. Repetition is the mother of learning. 
  5. Use the pre-printed flashcards in the Learning Management System. They are most useful when you read the competency before using the corresponding flashcard. This will help you solidify the gist of the competency. 
  6. Use the spaced repetition method. This means you space out your review sessions for the various competencies. Sleep over it before you review it. You make connections while you sleep. Then a week later (or whatever works for you), review it again. 
  7. Use the active recall method. Decide what you should recall without looking at your notes and then commit it to memory. 
  8. Make use of the practice exams. Take exams at both levels, regardless of which exam you are taking. Do the post test, initial assessment and practice exams.
  9. Review your mock exams, regardless of the score. Take more time to review your practice exams than the time it took to complete the test. Review both the right answers and the wrong ones.
  10. Know the basic HR formulas. They are discussed in the SHRM Learning Management system.

Over 200 hours prep doesn’t improve pass rate

Overall, there is a sweet spot for number of study hours. In 2020 and 2021, SHRM-CP pass rates were highest for examinees who spent 81 to 120 hours preparing. However, the rate decreased for those who spent more than 200 hours. If you follow a formal plan for studying, you should be fully capable of passing with around 100 hours of prep. After that, you may have diminishing returns.

In conclusion…

Earning a PHR or SHRM certification is a monumental achievement that will benefit you throughout your career. Good luck!

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Simplify HR management today.

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