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SPHR certification, study tips and best study practices

SPHR certification

Missed opportunities when studying alone

The march to SPHR certification

My SPHR certification experience: This weeks post is geared toward anyone taking classes to further their career. A reader recently asked about the advice I had for taking the PHR/SPHR certification test which is an HR specific designation. I realized the answer I gave could be applied towards the pursuit of any class, designation, or conference where career path and formal study cross paths so figured I would add it here.

For those of you who are wondering, PHR stands for Professional Human Resources. SPHR certification is the Senior Professional Human Resources designation. Both require a few years of experience and the SPHR requires a few more years experience and a few years of and leadership experience and both are recognized by HRCI, the governing body of HR. @iHR thanks for reaching out and hopefully your question will help others looking to further their career in ANY field.

Low pass rates

To provide some high-level background, the SPHR certification is given after testing over a number of different topics within the HR including benefits, recruiting, HR law, etc. I took a class to help me study for this test a number of years ago and for me personally, I believe it was critical to me passing the test. At the time, the pass rate in the United States read something like: 

  • If you only studied the official HRCI books, the pass rate was about 30%
  • Tried to study the HRCI books and studied with friends, expect a pass rate of about 40%
  • If you read the books, studied with friends and took a class, the pass rate was 50%.  

With such a low pass rate, I knew I needed all the help I could find. The year I took the test, the pass rate one of the lowest in years so I feel the class paid off.

Below is an edited version of the advice I provided to the reader:      

Start Early

My first recommendation is to start studying for the PHR or SPHR certification as early as possible. I would put a timeline in place which includes milestones you can hit leading up to the test. If the test is 7 months out, start now and allow yourself 1 of the 6 SHRM books a month and reserve the last month for review the last month. The more details and milestones in your schedule the better. (think SMART goals) It doesn’t matter what the schedule is, the important point is to have a schedule you can follow. Avoid putting the studying off thinking you will be able to pull this off in the last month. Put together a schedule and stick to it. It is an investment in your career and you are worth it. 

You mentioned you worked in HR for 7 years. I would see if your company would pay for the class.  Here in the United States, the class was about $1000.00 US and it consisted of a single evening a week for 8 weeks and 3 Saturday mornings.    

Walk of Shame if I don’t pass

I know there are a number of folks who won’t have access to classes or don’t believe in classes. Up until I studied for this class, I would have been one of these non-believers. I am the kind of guy that would study by myself and not want to be bothered by others. (Shocker I know) But things changed for me when I heard about the low pass rate for prior test takers. I thought to myself “what did I have to lose?” I was also thinking about the Walk of Shame at work in front of the exec team if I didn’t pass this test.  In an effort to avoid the Walk of Shame, I figured I would try everything I could.

SPHR certification retrospective 

One of the biggest lessons I learned from this experience was that these classes give you access to other like-minded colleagues. This is NOT a lesson I would have learned had I studied on my own. If I didn’t take the class, I would not have realized I was missing out on this opportunity. This wasn’t just a room full of like-minded peers to study within the off hours. The students I studied years ago became, and still are peers in the local HR community.

This was a great networking opportunity.  I think this would be especially true for those HR professionals working in a department of 1 or 2 total team members. With such a small pool of co-workers, the opportunity to meet new HR peeps, be introduced to new ideas and new ways of practicing HR are limited.  Small company HR, founder driven HR, Corporate culture HR, start-up HR, union-driven HR are just a few of the different HR backgrounds that one can meet. I am sure the same opportunity would present itself in the legal, accounting, manufacturing, etc. professions as well. 

Learned about what I didn’t practice

Practitioners from the various backgrounds asked questions that I would not have thought to ask about. Not having any experience with labor unions, I was not in a position to extrapolate potential use cases and ask questions. 

I think that “just reading the books” is a self-limiting factor.  The books are technical and the questions can be very theoretical. The class presented the differences and the similarities with real application between the technical and the theoretical.

Study with like-minded and dedicated

If you can find a pool of students to study with, make sure you hook up with students who are as serious about the class as you are.  The class I took started out with about 30 students.  By the third session we were down to 20 and by the end of the class, there were only 18 students.  I paid for this class on my own (I didn’t tell my manager because I didn’t want to take the chance of a “Walk of Shame” if I didn’t pass) which is why I showed up early to every class and wasn’t bashful about asking questions. 

As a side note, I recently took a class to get my motorcycle endorsement. This is a 2-day class and at the end of the class, you take a written and a riding test. Frankly, I was a little panicked about the class, because I wasn’t able to get any study books beforehand and had never ridden a motorcycle. I went in with a pad of paper, 2 pens, and a laptop to take notes. On my way into class, one of the students asked me “should we be bringing something to write with?” All I could think was “YOU DUMBASS!  You just paid 125.00 for a 2 day-class you didn’t bring anything to write with?”  You must have more money than God, more time than the universe, or fewer brains than a rock.

Study with like minded learners

Out of a class of 20 students, I was the only guy taking notes.  (and in sheer embarrassment, I didn’t pull out the laptop) Turns out I probably didn’t need to take notes, but I thought it was odd, we were all studying for a test and no one was taking notes?  Most people didn’t even bring anything to write with!  Yes, I passed both the written and the riding and the guy that asked me about something to write with was asked to leave the class on the first day. Go figure. Lesson learned, study with those that are as serious as you are.  

Back to the SPHR certification class. There were a number of students who were there because their manager recommended they take the class and/or their companies were paying for the entire department to test for their PHR/SPHR certifications.  For the most part, there was a difference in dedication between those that were paying for the class themselves and those that were living off the company tit. 

I realize that not all company-sponsored students are going to be so casual about the class, but when you look around for study partners, look for the students who are there for the right reasons.     

Prioritize your learning

Try to prioritize your choice of study partners making those with experience in unfamiliar HR fields a top priority. I don’t have labor union experience, so I made sure to find other experienced professionals in this field.   

If you do not have access to a class, then do everything you can to find a study partner.  The knowledge that they bring to the table that you may not have will help immensely. With video Skype and email, you are not limited to studying with peers in your local area.  Remember, this partnership works both ways.  When you explain concepts to them that you are familiar with, it will reinforce that knowledge for yourself.  It’s a win-win.  

Hopefully, this helps, and keep me updated!

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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