What if I Failed My HR Certification Exam?

HR Certifications are increasingly being viewed as a must have for HR pros, but they are tough exams and not everyone passes the first time. If you failed your HR Certification exam, don’t worry, you’re not alone.  

What if I failed my HR certification exam? There are 5 things that you need to do before retaking the test to make sure that you pass next time:

  1. Give yourself more study time
  2. Make the most of your practice exams
  3. Understand how you learn best
  4. Use different study materials
  5. Choose the right test for your experience level

When we discuss HR certifications, there are primarily two certifying bodies that offer generalist certifications for HR professionals at different stages of their careers.  HRCI offers the PHR and SPHR, and SHRM administers the SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP. As the pass rates demonstrate, both organizations present very challenging exams in order to assess both your test taking abilities and your HR knowledge.  


It’s not uncommon for exam candidates to feel like they put in a lot of time and effort to studying a great deal of information only to sit down in the testing center and feel like they were given the wrong exam.  Or, for others to just freeze up because they’re overwhelmed by anxiety on the day of their test. Not passing the first time gives you the benefit of understanding what to expect on exam day and exposure to the types of questions that you will experience.  This is something that you won’t find in any study guide. Armed with that knowledge puts you in a better position that someone walking into the test the first time not knowing what to expect. 

Reasons People Fail Certification Exams

There are many reasons that people fail their HR certification exams, but I want to take a look at the five most common causes below

Not Giving Themselves Enough Time To Study

The first thing you need to consider is whether you spent enough time studying for the exam.  If you look online, you’ll come across stories of people who spent a few weeks studying for their HR certification exam and passed.  I guarantee you this is the exception and not the rule. These exams cover a breadth of material and for most people it requires more than a quick refresher of the topics that are being covered.  When you look back at how you prepared for the exam: 

  • Did you have a written study plan that you could use to guide and monitor your progress towards achieving your certification? 
  • Did you give yourself additional time to take another look at those areas where you didn’t have a firm grasp of the concepts? 
  • Did you spend sufficient time taking and reviewing your practice tests? 

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then you need to develop a study plan that gives you a longer lead time to review and test concepts prior to taking the exams.  Going through the study materials once isn’t always enough for some people. You might need to hear the same concept presented several different ways before it sticks. Allow yourself time to do a deep dive into a concept so you fully understand it before moving.

Not Using Practice Tests Effectively

We’ve all heard that prior to sitting for our certification exam, we need to take practice tests and achieve a certain score to have confidence of our performance on test day.  What if you did that and you still didn’t pass the exam? There’s a good chance that you may not have properly incorporated practice tests into your study plan. I know that when I was studying, I was constantly searching for the practice test that would best approximate what I would encounter on exam day.  And, I found some that were very close to the tone and the writing style, but none of them were the exact content that’s on the exam.  

Make Sure You Understand the Concepts

In order to use your practice tests effectively, you need to consider the different levels of learning that are being assessed with HR Certification exams. To do that, I want to take a look at Bloom’s Taxonomy – a concept that you’ll probably recall from your study guides.  Bloom identified six levels of learning which ranged in complexity from knowledge to evaluation. At the knowledge level you’re capable of defining theories and concepts, however at the evaluation level, you’re able to make a judgement based on the information provided. Keep this in mind when you’re taking your practice tests so you can make sure that you’re not just memorizing the answers but you actually understand the concepts.  This will come in handy with your situational questions. You may see a question on your practice test about providing benefits to a multi-generational workforce. It seems pretty straightforward, but you also need to think about and understand the underlying concept of environmental scanning if you want to prepare yourself for what you might see on exam day. You may have a similar question, but it might ask specifically about Boomers or Millenials.  You need to be prepared to answer the question with different criteria.

Test Yourself Under Exam Conditions

SHRM tests are four hours long and have 160 questions, and HRCI exams are three hours long and have 175 questions. You have to budget about 40 seconds to answer each SHRM question and HRCI gives you what seems relatively generous at just under a minute.  Prior to sitting for the exam, you should take two to three practice exams in conditions that simulate the testing center environment so you can be sure that you will use your time wisely. It’s no different than the training simulations that pilots use to make sure that they’re able to perform under high stress in high stakes situations.  When you sit for the actual exam, you should feel confident that you’ll be able to perform well because you’ve already done it several times before.

They Didn’t Study Using Their Learning Style

If you studied for the test, but felt like you weren’t retaining anything, it’s possible that you chose a study method that doesn’t align with the way that you learn best. For example, I am primarily a kinesthetic learner who needs to make lots of notecards and study sheets to retain information.  If you sit me down in front of a video, I will completely glaze over and will immediately proceed to forget the last word that I heard. But, there are others who are just the opposite and they can listen to lectures or watch videos and remember EVERYTHING. It’s possible that you followed a study system that wasn’t made for how you learn best.  Maybe you chose a dense book with lots of details when you would really benefit from seeing and hearing a live lecture. It’s very important to have a grasp on your learning style and use that information to make sure that you choose the right study materials.

They Chose the Wrong Test

When HR pros start thinking about certification, they inevitably ask which exam should they sit for.  Some people will use the eligibility requirements as the deciding factor without considering whether their work experience conforms to what will be presented on the exam.  If you sat for a senior level exam and you didn’t have strategic experience, it would have been much more challenging. You have to make sure that you choose the exam that matches your work experience and not just your education and years of experience.

Now that you know the reasons that most people fail their HR Certification exams the first time, you can come up with an action plan to retake and pass the test on the next go around.

Related Questions

When can I retake the PHR exam? If you are retaking the same exam, you must wait 90 days between exam attempts.  If you are switching exam types, you can apply immediately and must take the exam within 120 days of the application approval date.

How many times can you take the SHRM-SCP exam? Candidates who retake the exam must do so in a different exam window period, and there is no limit to the number of times that the exam can be taken.

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