How Long Does It Take To Prepare For PHR Certification?

It took me 4.5 months to study for and pass the SPHR exam.  I created a study plan that took my work experience, background and the fact that I had a very energetic two year old at home when I determined how long I would need to prepare for the exam.

How long does it take to prepare for PHR certification? The amount of time it takes to prepare for the PHR exam depends on a candidate’s work experience, background and study habits. Some people can successfully prepare for the exam with just a few weeks of study, while other candidates need several months to review the material.  

Studying for the PHR exam requires you to make a significant financial and time commitment.  Before you register for the exam, you’ll need to understand the format of the exam, what you’ll need to do to prepare and why getting certified is important. Only you can determine how much time you’re able to commit to studying given your other obligations and you’ll need to use that information to create a study plan that’s comfortable for you.

PHR Exam Format

The Human Resources Certification Institute (HRCI) is the certifying body responsible for developing the PHR exam and administering its certifications.  The exam is designed to test HR generalist knowledge at the early career level. HRCI has divided the exam into five different content areas with Employee and Labor Relations being the most heavily weighted at 39%. If this is an area where you have a significant amount of experience or knowledge, you may find that it will take you less time to prepare for the exam. But, that doesn’t mean that you can disregard the other sections. The Business Management section is weighted at 20%, so those two sections alone account for almost 60% of your exam’s focus.  In addition to those two heavyweights, you will also be tested on your knowledge of Talent Planning and Acquisition (16%), Total Rewards (15%) and Learning and Development (10%)

The PHR exam is 3 hours long and there are 175 questions of which 150 are scored.  The remaining 25 are pretest questions that are being assessed for use on future exams.  HRCI uses pretest questions to measure the difficulty and quality of questions before including them on the actual test.  Unfortunately, the pretest questions aren’t identified, and they are sprinkled throughout the exam in random order so you won’t know which they are. The PHR exam is primarily multiple choice but the format changed in 2018 and alternative item type (AIT) questions were added including:

  • Multiple Choice / Multiple Response
  • Fill in the blanks
  • Drag and Drop

AIT questions can be more challenging that standard multiple choice questions.  With a fill in the blank question type, you either know it or you don’t. And when you encounter drag and drop or multiple choice/multiple response questions, you have to be sure to get all components of the answer correct because partial credit isn’t awarded. Regardless of the type of question, HRCI categorizes them based on their level of complexity.  At the lowest level, they measure your knowledge or comprehension of a concept which is essentially your ability to define it. A problem that’s considered to be of medium complexity evaluates your ability to solve a problem using best practices. And at the highest level, you must be able to evaluate information from multiple areas to come up with a solution. As it stands, more complex questions will be awarded higher points when the test is scored.  

Once you’ve completed your test, your raw score is turned into a scaled score.  Since everyone sitting for the PHR exam is taking a different version of the test, the raw scores need to be standardized into a scaled score that can be used for comparison.  As an example, if you receive 50% on a version of the test where all of the questions are difficult, your results need to be standardized against someone who received an 80% on a version of the test with fairly easy questions.  All HRCI exams are scaled on a range of 100 to 700 and you have to receive a scaled score of 500 or higher to pass. Because the exam is computer-based, your score is being calculated as you go. You will receive your preliminary score report right there at the testing center, and your official results will be sent by email within 24 – 48 hours.

According to HRCI’s most recent statistics, the pass rate for the PHR exam is 59%.  It’s a challenging exam, but passing is an achievable goal if you dedicate the time to review the materials and also make sure to practice your test-taking skills.  Even though the exam is meant to test your HR knowledge, the test writers will also include little tricks to cause you to slip up so it’s important to take as many practice tests as possible and read every question thoroughly.

What are the requirements for HR certification?

When you apply to sit for the exam, you will have to answer questions about your education and work experience before you’re allowed to schedule your exam.  You can register for the PHR exam without having a degree, but you must have the required professional level work experience or your application will be denied.

DegreeYears of Work Experience
Master’s 1
HS Diploma4

How do I prepare for the PHR?

There are several well-known review courses that you can use to prepare for the PHR exam. You can even save some money if you purchase your study materials at the same time that you register for the exam using HRCI’s build-your-own bundle package.  I used the HRCP program for the PHR/SPHR exams and I also participated in the Onward to Opportunity program for military spouses. On top of that, I answered thousands of practice questions You can read more about how I created my study plan for the SPHR exam here.  Don’t worry, the concepts are still the same even though the exam is different.

Why is HR certification important?

You can certainly enter the human resources field without an HR certification, but having one makes you stand out.  According to a 2018 Payscale study, 34.2% of all HR professionals hold at least one certification. While holding a certification doesn’t outweigh experience, when you’re in the job market it can give a potential employer confidence in the fact that you’re a qualified candidate who is validated as having subject matter expertise. If you take a look at most mid and senior-level HR job postings, they either require that you hold a certification or state that it would be a plus. Not only will certification distinguish you from other candidates, it shows that you’re a credible candidate who has put in the hard work and effort to achieve a significant professional milestone.

Getting certified is worth the investment because it offers a pretty significant ROI. I did some quick research on Payscale and found that in my local area (New Jersey), HR Generalists with a Bachelors degree and 2 years of experience have a median salary of $54K. However, with that same experience and a PHR, the median salary increases to $57K.  That’s a pretty significant jump relative to the financial commitment that you have to make to get certified. Holding your certification is a must if you want to maximize your earnings in the profession.  

Related Questions

How much does the SPHR exam cost? The SPHR exam has a $100 application fee and a $495 exam fee. HRCI periodically offers discounts of up to $75 on the application fee.

How long is SPHR certification valid? SPHR certification is valid for 3 years after testing. If you do not submit re-certification credits, you will have to retest to maintain your credentials.

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