How to Prepare for and Take the SHRM Certification Exam

The top 20 tips from SHRM coaching sessions

By Adam R. Calli, SHRM-SCP, and Nancy A. Woolever, SHRM-SCP July 16, 2020
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How to Prepare for and Take the SHRM Certification Exam

These test preparation and test-taking tips are based on insights collected from students, instructors and test-takers. While no one can guarantee your exam results based on these tips, we hope they prove valuable to you as you work toward your goal of success on your SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP exam. Good luck!

1. Make the time commitment. Plan on investing between 40 and 120 hours preparing for the exam. Adjust as needed, based on the amount and variety of your work experience and formal HR education. But remember that hours alone aren't a guarantee of success—your time needs to be well-spent. Studying for more than 120 hours generally brings diminishing returns.

2. Answer practice questions. The more practice questions you answer, the better prepared you'll be for the actual exam questions—which include knowledge items and situational judgment items. The SHRM Learning System's practice test provides a realistic preview of the exam because its questions are actual items retired from prior exams. Flashcards, Quizlet, Kahoot and other study aids and apps can help with knowledge items; your own career experiences can help with situational judgment items.

3. Read the explanations of answers. To refine your thinking, answer the online SHRM Learning System practice questions in each section, then read the provided explanations of why the correct answers are correct and why the other answers are wrong.

4. Read the guidebook. If you can, spend time with the book Ace Your SHRM Certification Exam: A Guide to Success on the SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP Exams (SHRM, 2019). In addition to terrific exam preparation advice, it includes practice questions retired from prior exams and explains how the exam is scored. (Available here and from other vendors and libraries.)

5. Don't take shortcuts. Practice exams are helpful, but don't become overconfident if your scores improve. There's no replacement for studying. You've got to do the reading, attend the classes, take the notes, learn the content and remember what you've learned on the job. 

6. Use flashcards. Flashcards, while not enough on their own, do help you remember and understand concepts and definitions—especially helpful for studying knowledge items. So, take them with you everywhere and make good use of any unexpected available time to review them.

7. Learn through stories. Stories improve knowledge retention, so search online and read the histories of common workplace problems. Talk with other HR professionals about situations they have encountered in the workplace to expand your knowledge and prepare for situational judgment questions. 

8. Join discussions and study groups. Find or start a study group by joining the SHRM Certification Prep Group on the SHRM Connect online community discussion platform. While networking, leverage the experiences of others in handling common workplace problems—another effective way to prepare for situational judgment questions. 

9. Test out your tech. Boost your confidence by becoming familiar with the test-taking system before exam day. Try out the functions for highlights, strikethroughs, flags and the calculator. A tutorial is available on Prometric's website.

10. Become familiar with your testing site before the exam. Travel to your Prometric testing center ahead of time so you know exactly where it is, where to park and how to pay for a parking space (coins for a meter, a phone payment app to download, etc.). Don't wait to figure these things out until right before you take your exam. (Read this if you plan to take the exam remotely.)

11. Read all the answers before making a choice. Before you choose your answer, read all four answer options. One of the answers might be pretty good, but how do you know it's the best if you don't read all four choices?

12. Look closely at long questions. Don't get distracted by all the information in situational judgment items and long narratives. Stop to identify the exact question you're being asked to answer. 

13. Look out for multipart questions. A block of text may be followed by multiple questions, and different parts of the text block may be useful for answering different questions. Use the highlight function to mark what's relevant, erase the highlight when you've answered the question, then highlight the new material relating to the next question, and so on.

14. Use the strikethrough function to help you focus. Strike through the answers you believe are incorrect so you can better focus on the remaining options. This will increase your chances of selecting the correct answer.

15. Use the flag function. If you're not sure of an answer, flag the question so you can return to it later. You may pick up hints from subsequent questions and answers, or you may remember some critical piece of knowledge as you continue through the exam. (Important: Resolve what you've flagged in section 1 before proceeding to section 2; you won't be able to go back after starting section 2.)

16. Use the calculator function. You don't have to do math in your head—take advantage of the built-in calculator.

17. Choose action and collaboration. The exam reflects the modern view of HR professionals as proactive leaders and partners in organizations who get things done and make things happen. Look for answers in which you are expected to act and collaborate. Competent behavior in action, based on HR best practices around the world, is spelled out in the SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge (SHRM BoCK), particularly in its proficiency indicators. Choose the answer describing the course of action that an HR professional should take according to the SHRM BoCK's indicator of proficient behavior. Don't answer based on what someone would or could do.>

18. Look for differentiator words in questions. Use differentiators—"least," "best," "quickest," "most important" and so on—to guide your analysis. These words will help distinguish between a pretty good answer and the best answer.

19. Answer every question. Don't leave questions unanswered. There's no penalty if you answer incorrectly (points are not taken away), so take a guess. You might guess correctly (and get a point). But remember, you can't guess your way through the whole exam—see the first tip regarding preparation.

20. Watch your time. Keep your eye on the timer at the top of your screen. Pace yourself. Don't dwell on one question for too long, or you might run out of time and sacrifice your chances of answering other questions correctly later. You'll have four hours to answer 160 questions (two two-hour sections, each containing 80 questions)—an average of one-and-a-half minutes (90 seconds) per question.

Bonus Tip!

21. Don't second-guess yourself. Your first answer is usually correct, so don't change it once you've completed the question unless you have a very good reason to do so. (It doesn't matter, for instance, if you chose several consecutive "B" answers.) Base your choices on your understanding of each question and its answer options.

This is an edited and abridged version of a two-part article originally published in May and June 2019.

Adam R. Calli, SHRM-SCP, is principal consultant for Arc Human Capital Consulting LLC of Woodbridge, Va. Nancy A. Woolever, SHRM-SCP, is vice president of certification operations at SHRM. They regularly partner to present coaching sessions for aspiring SHRM-certified professionals.

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