Everything You Need To Know To Pass The PHR Certification Test [Updated for 2021]

PHR exam prep

Liz Strikwerda

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

Updated January 5, 2021

Hello ambitious PHR exam preppers!

The Swipeclock team understands how difficult the PHR exam is. We’ve put together a PHR exam prep guide for Human Resource professionals pursuing this important career milestone.

First, a little context. Then we discuss the tips. Skip forward if you don’t need any background info.

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

SHRM-CP Exam Prep

We realize that many HR pros study for both exams at the same time. Note that if you are using this guide for SHRM-CP prep as well, it’s critical to understand the differences between the tests. HR.com has created a great chart here that compares the two certifications. Also, make sure you spend a considerable amount of time preparing for situational questions as the SHRM exams contain more of them. It’s also a good idea to have materials designed primarily for the SHRM certifications in your study toolkit along with the PHR-focused resources.

PHR Exam: 3 Numbers You Need to Know

  1. The PHR certification exam is a computer-based test. It currently has 175 questions. There is a 3-hour time limit.
  2. 71% pass rate: As of December 31, 2020, the pass rate for the PHR was 71%. This is up a bit from the pass rate HRCI reported in 2019.
  3. 500: To pass you need a scaled score of 500. There is no partial credit for any of the questions. 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. Then spend a lot of time using them.

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 content outlines and compare to your strengths and weaknesses.

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. 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. 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. While we are talking about the PHR in this article, the principles apply.

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 $300 for the aPHR. 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. They 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.

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 prepRead each question two or three times very slowly. Slowly read through ALL of the possible answers. Even if the first one sounds correct. Read the question again before making your choice. Look for keywords. They are an important clue.

Marking Questions

You can mark questions you are not sure about and return to them. Make sure you don’t leave any unanswered. It’s a good idea to take advantage of this feature. You may discover 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

If you’ve taken dozens of practice tests, you won’t need to keep checking the clock to see if you’re on track to finish. Every time you check the clock, you divert your attention from the test. 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.

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 implementation.

  • Study.com
    • More than 130 lessons
    • Custom practice tests
    • Progress tracker
    • Video lessons paired with quizzes
  • Study.com 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.)


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

  • Distinctive HR PHR/SPHR Self-Study Course 2019
    • Many PHRs say this program is as comprehensive as the HRCI-produced resources.
  • Quizlet HR Basics Flashcards
  • Reddit Threads
    • 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.
  • 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 post, Karen Satchell, MS, MBA, SPHR, SCP explains how she formed a study group by reaching out to her network on social media.
  • Preparation Courses and Workshops
    • Check your local college to see if they offer a PHR prep course. These may be more affordable than self-study programs. 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.

We hope this post helps you plan your study program. The team at Swipeclock wishes you success as advance in your HR career!

Download our infographic: 6 PHR Exam Study Tips.


Simplify HR management today.

Simplify HR management today.

BambooHR pricing

WorkforceHub and BambooHR Pricing Comparison

September 21, 2021
Posted in

WorkforceHub Product Pricing Comparison Comparing small business HR software pricing is not straightforward. Each tech suite has its own combination of features and vendors use multiple pricing models. For example BambooHR pricing is based on the feature package and add-ons. BambooHR Essentials is $4.95 PEPM (Per Employee Per Month) but doesn’t include Hiring and Onboarding.…

Read More
SwipeClock WorkforceHUB

The Best Small Business HR Tech for Digital Employee Experience

September 6, 2021
Posted in

Why Should You Care About the Digital Employee Experience At Your Company? The digital employee experience is the quality of the employee’s experience with their work tech. Indeed, it may be the most important element of the employee experience–especially for those that need technology to do most (or all) their job functions. That includes every…

Read More

WorkforceHub takes care of business.

We’ll show you how.

Request a Demo

Looking for log-in help? Please reach out to your HR or payroll manager.

brand - dots