Practice Makes Improved, Not Perfect

Eight tips on how to make the most of your SHRM certification exam prep course

By Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP September 27, 2018
Practice Makes Improved, Not Perfect

​The SHRM certification exam prep course that I teach at Elmira College in New York state has been a tremendous success: Our pass rate over a three-year period is 93.75 percent for the SHRM-CP and 80 percent for the SHRM-SCP, significantly higher than both the national and international averages. It's something we are proud of, and I speak not only as a course instructor but as someone who has prepared for and passed an HR certification exam. The unique experience of instructing as well as studying has provided me with insight into how best to pass the SHRM certification exam. 

While most readers of this newsletter are already SHRM certified, I'm sharing these tips here to pay it forward. You may be a SHRM-CP credential-holder who has thought about taking the SHRM-SCP exam. Or you may be encouraging colleagues to seek SHRM certification and want to offer them guidance on their journey. The eight tips outlined below to get the most benefit out of a certification prep course are proven to be successful—both in the classroom for my students and for me personally. 

  1. Join a prep class or study group. Preparing for the SHRM certification exam can be a long, daunting, isolating experience. When you sign up for a SHRM Education Partners cert prep course, you'll receive the SHRM Learning System for SHRM-CP/SHRM-SCP–over 1,000 pages of material in multiple books. Joining an in-person or virtual prep class or study group will give you an edge, helping you remain disciplined and holding you accountable for reading, discussing and understanding the material.

  2. Be disciplined in your approach. The more disciplined you are in your preparation, the better you will do on the exam. Develop a routine to keep you focused on the end goal. Schedule time to stick to that routine. Study, read and practice the questions. Yes, that means reading in the morning, during lunch breaks, on vacation, on business travel, at night and on the weekends. It means practicing questions on both the SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP learning portals. It will take immense effort to improve your abilities, so find quiet places to focus, including coffee shops, libraries and local colleges. Understand which environment works for you.

  3. Check your progress and measure your ability. Before you begin studying the materials, take the assessment test, which will provide a baseline and guidance for which areas you should focus on. Take a practice test halfway through your studies for another progress check—there will be areas you struggle with because you haven't read some of the material. Finally, take the final post-test after you've read all the materials and taken all the other assessments. The benefit of a prep course or study group is the opportunity to follow up these practice exams with a review of areas in which you and your fellow students have struggled and a discussion of the right answers. We all have areas for improvement.

  4. Know your learning style. People obtain information from reading, watching, listening and doing. In my courses, we mix up PowerPoint slides and lectures with scenarios, practice questions and open discussion. Some students write out index cards with definitions, and others focus on the written materials. Know the learning style that works best for you—auditory, visual or kinesthetic—to ensure the most efficient and effective preparation.

  5. Practice makes improved, not perfect. The more time you focus on reading the materials and practicing questions, the more improvement you will make. Don't get discouraged by a low score on a practice exam; just find the areas that are cause for concern and focus on improving in those areas. (Students of mine who've had low practice scores have succeeded on the official tests!) Don't memorize the practice questions; mix it up by jumping from SHRM-CP to SHRM-SCP questions and taking the practice exams for both. The formula that works in my course is spending a minimum of 30 minutes in each class on practice questions and scenarios. Use that formula to remain disciplined.

  6. Network with others. Talk to other HR professionals in your local chapter who have taken or are preparing for the exam. Everyone has a different study style; I work better in the morning than I do in the afternoon or at night, for instance. Understanding others' routines will help you develop the routine that works best for you.
  7. Test day: morning or afternoon? Because I work better in the morning, I register for early morning exams. What time of day you take the test makes a difference in your focus and abilities. Know if you are a morning or afternoon person. (Be aware, though, that most prep classes and study groups are held in the evening, so if you're a morning person, doing your practice questions at night may not yield accurate measurements.)

  8. Don't burn out. Schedule your SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP exam soon after your prep class or study group ends. The longer you wait, the more momentum you will lose. On the other hand, don't over-study or over-practice and burn out. Developing a routine will provide you with a stable and efficient process. If you start to feel burned out, take some time off. As you approach exam day, gradually phase out reading and practicing. The best option for me was to do 100 to 150 questions per day for six weeks, and leading up to the exam I slowly dropped to 25 to 50 questions per day. Know what works for you.

The above strategies work, but everyone is different. Your mixture of reading, definitions, scenarios, questions, practice exams and discipline will ensure a successful SHRM certification journey. Be confident in your approach as you prepare and execute! 

Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP, owner of Burr Consulting LLC in Elmira, N.Y., is an HR consultant, an assistant professor at Elmira College, and an on-call mediator and fact-finder for the New York State Public Employment Relations Board. He holds master's degrees in business administration and in human resources and industrial relations, and a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt.


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