Is the SPHR Hard? Yes! Here Are the Reasons Why

I took the SPHR exam and passed on the first try. The exam is very challenging, but you can pass if you understand the concepts that you’ll be tested on, practice your test taking skills and study consistently.

Is the SPHR exam hard? According to the most recent HRCI study, released in January 2019, the pass rate for the SPHR is 57%. That is the lowest of all of its exams.

CredentialPASS Rate

The SPHR exam is tough, but doable if you prepare for it the right way.

SPHR Requirements

To sit for the SPHR exam, you must have a Master’s degree and four years of work experience, a Bachelor’s degree and five years of work experience and a High School diploma or its international equivalent and seven years of work experience.

You will want to make sure that you’re not basing your decision to take the exam only on meeting the requirements. Time in the job is not enough to prepare you for the exam’s experienced based questions. Your job duties should include developing policy or creating strategy. Without exposure to these responsibilities, you may find the situational questions to be especially difficult.

SPHR Exam Format

The SPHR is a three hour exam that has 175 section questions, of which 150 are scored.  25 of the questions are pretest questions which are included and assessed to see if they will be included as scored questions on future exams. It is primarily made of multiple choice questions, but HRCI added alternative item types (AIT) to the question format when it updated the exam in 2018. The test now includes:

Multiple Choice, Multiple Response – Requires you to select multiple answers

Fill in the Blank – Provides a space for a keyed in response

Drag and Drop – Answers can be moved around to be matched or sorted

Scenarios– Candidates preview a scenario containing information from multiple functional areas before answering a series of questions

AIT questions are challenging because you can’t use the same test taking strategies that you would with multiple choice. With a fill in the blank, you either know it or you don’t. And, you don’t get partial credit for drag and drop questions; if you get one element wrong, then the whole answer is wrong.  AIT questions will be scattered throughout the test and they only make up a minority of the questions, but you should familiarize yourself with them in your practice tests.

SPHR Exam Content

One of the factors that makes the SPHR so difficult is that it covers broad subject matter. It is a true generalist exam that covers everything from HR’s role in Mergers and Acquisitions  and union negotiations to the best setup for different types of group training and everything in between. The fact is, depending on your career path and current role, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll encounter concepts on the exam that haven’t been part of your normal job responsibilities.

Let’s take a look at what the exam covers and examples of what HRCI is assessing in each section.

Functional AreaKnowledge Demonstrated
Leadership and StrategyAbility to develop HR strategy
Align with business  objectives
Understand and apply leadership theories
Talent Planning and AcquisitionHow to forecast an organization’s talent needs
Ensure the organization is staffed effectively
Learning and DevelopmentCapable of developing training to develop staff and managers
Total RewardsKnowledge of compensation and benefit strategies to attract and retain an engaged employee base
Employee Relations & EngagementUnderstand how to work with unions
Capable of developing strategies for a diverse workforce
Risk management techniques

Plus, you must demonstrate your knowledge of the most common federal laws and apply them to the functions above. It’s not enough to have a superficial understanding of the concepts, you must be able to analyze the information provided and apply it to choosing the best answer.

If you don’t have hands-on experience handling those functions at a strategic level then the exam will be very challenging for you. It’s not enough to have a superficial understanding of the concepts, you must be able to synthesize the information and apply it to choosing the best answer.

SPHR Questions

HRCI classifies its questions based on three levels of learning:

  • Knowledge/Comprehension – ability to understand and define facts
  • Application/Problem Solving – demonstrate how to solve problems using information from multiple sources
  • Synthesis/Evaluation – Analyze problems and form conclusions

In order to pass the SPHR, you must be able to answer those higher level questions because they are worth more points toward your pass.  Common feedback from candidates is that they felt like they walked into the wrong test. When you’re going through your review materials, it’s helpful to think of real life situations where the concept being discussed is applied.

Let’s compare the following questions on environmental scanning to see this in action:

1. Which one of these analysis methods is not used during the environmental scanning phase of strategic planning?





Answer C. Explanation: SWOT and PEST are processes used during the environmental scanning phase. A company use SWOT to identify its internal Strengths and Weaknesses and external Threats and Opportunities. PEST analysis looks at the Political, Economic, Social and Technological factors that impact business operations. Sometimes PEST is referred to as PESTLE because it also looks at Legal and Environmental factors. DMAIC is a framework used by Six Sigma and it stands for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control.

2. The soft drink company that you work for has been experiencing declining revenue as consumers switch to healthier drink options. The company is able to retrofit some of its existing equipment at a low cost to produce a new line of flavored seltzers. How can you best support management during the transition?

A. Hire additional staff for the product line expansion

B. Work with the production manager to perform a gap analysis

C. Draft a communication for the CEO to send to the staff

D. Meet with individual employees to discuss the change

Answer B. Explanation: In this scenario, the company has used the environmental scanning process to identify the social changes that are causing consumers to shift away from their products. However, being able to leverage their existing equipment will help them compete with a new product line. Performing a gap analysis on existing staff lets you work with management to determine the best steps to take going forward. If there’s a skills gap it might be possible to address it through training rather than by hiring. This will also give you a complete picture of the changes that need to be communicated to the staff.

As you can see in the first question, you have to know the definition, but in the second you have to put the pieces together and figure out the best option for the scenario.

SPHR Exam Tips

  1. Immerse Yourself in Strategic HR. The biggest tip that I can give anyone preparing for the SPHR exam is to supplement studying your review books with reading blogs/articles or listening to podcasts by senior HR professionals. Remember, the exams are developed using input from a panel of experts. This will give you the opportunity to learn best practices and stay current on trends on strategies for HR practitioners supporting today’s workforce. There’s a chance that something being discussed can appear in a situational question on your exam.
  2. Create a customized study plan. There is no one size fits all approach to studying for this or any other certification exam. Adjust your study plan to account for how you learn best, your knowledge base and how much time you can commit to studying consistently.
  3. Practice, practice, practice. Take lots of practice tests to see where you still have gaps in your knowledge after completing your review. Make sure to include high quality tests that go beyond the knowledge level so you’re not surprised by the actual questions that you’ll see on the exam.

Related Questions

What is a passing score on the PHR exam? The PHR exam is scored on a scale of 100 to 700.  A passing score is 500.

How long does it take to get SPHR results? You will receive your preliminary results report immediately after completing the exam while you’re still at the testing center. The official results will be posted to your HRCI account within 24-48 hours after the exam.

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