The HR Certification Institute (HRCI) offers seven certifications for human resources professionals. The Professional in Human Resources (PHR) is one of the most popular certifications. It’s also notoriously difficult.

The PHR certification exam is a computer-based test. It currently has 175 questions. There is a 3 hour time limit.

59% Pass Rate

From February 2018 to January 2019, 13,994 examinees took at least one of HRCI’s eight exams. During that period, there was a 59% pass rate for the PHR. This is a sobering statistic for PHR candidates.

To pass you need a scaled score of 500. There is no partial credit for any of the questions. Those who take the test and fail can’t find out what their right and wrong answers were.

Clearly, you need a strategic study plan. Think both quality and quantity. Use a variety of quality study materials. Then spend a lot of time using them.


Before you decide when to take the exam, consider your current level of readiness. Consult the HRCI exam content outlines and compare to your strengths and weaknesses.

This is the exam weighting by functional area:

  • Business Management (20%)
  • Talent Planning and Acquisition (16%)
  • Learning and Development (10%)
  • Total Rewards (15%)
  • Employee and Labor Relations (39%)

You need to be proficient in each area. Being competent in just a couple topics won’t carry you.

Study Timeline

How much time will you need? This is impossible to answer. In researching people who certified, the answers range from 2 days to a year. According to the HRCI, most test takers spend more than 60 hours studying for the exam.

Your personal schedule will have the most bearing on your timeline. How much time each week do you have free for test prep?

Study Methods

Note which study methods have worked for you in the past. Use these as a guide when purchasing materials. Are there some techniques you have never used? Now’s the time to try them out. Successful test-takers report using multiple techniques.


Identify your budget for purchasing materials. There are a few free materials, but you are going to need the comprehensive programs. And they aren’t cheap. It’s important to note that the HRCI doesn’t recommend any specific study program.

Take Lots of Practice Tests

HRCI has many PHR practice tests on their website. The other prep products mentioned in this article also offer practice tests. Start taking practice tests early in your program. Your test scores will reveal if your studying is effective. They will help you know if you are progressing. They will show you how you’re doing in each functional area. Adapt your study schedule to your practice test performance.

Test Day

Plan your driving route (or public transport) to the testing center the day before. (Some candidates drive to the testing center sometime before test day just to make sure they know where it is.)

  • Leave as many personal items at home as possible. You have to put personal items in a small locker at the testing center.
  • Check traffic the morning of the test to find out if there are unexpected slowdowns. Adjust your driving route if necessary.
  • Leave home early. You will be much calmer as you start the test if you’ve had time to relax.
  • Be prepared to present a current (non-expired) government-issued form of photo ID such as a passport or driver’s license.
  • Visit the Pearson VUE website for emergency closures and Pearson VUE contact details.

During The Test

Read each question two or three times very slowly. Slowly read through ALL of the possible answers. Even if the first one sounds correct. Read the question again before making your choice. Look for keywords. They are an important clue.

Marking Questions

You can mark questions you are not sure about and return to them. Make sure you don’t leave any unanswered. It’s a good idea to take advantage of this feature. You may discover answers from questions that come after.

What if you really have no clue about the right answer? If you can eliminate just two answers, you increase your odds of picking the right answer at random.

The Clock

If you’ve taken dozens of practice tests, you won’t need to keep checking the clock to see if you’re on track to finish. Every time you check the clock, you divert your attention from the test. There is a caveat to this one, however. If you have marked several questions to return to, make sure you have enough time to go back and finish them.

PHR Preparation Resources

If you can afford the $700+ price tag, you can’t go wrong with the HRCI Study Materials. They have extensive resources and you can build your own bundle.

  • More than 130 lessons
  • Custom practice tests
  • Progress tracker
  • Video lessons paired with quizzes PHR-CA/SPHR-CA Study Guide

Designed for California-based candidates, this version is a must for the California PHR.

Anne Bogardus’ PHR/SPHR: Professional in Human Resources Certification Study Guide

You can purchase this on several sites. (I didn’t want to imply endorsement of any particular vendor by including a link.)


PHR Pocket Prep App (App Store and Google Play)

At last glance, there were over 1700 reviews on the App Store and Google Play with a 4.7 star average.

Distinctive HR PHR/SPHR Self-Study Course 2019

Many PHRs say this program is as comprehensive as the HRCI produced resources.

Quizlet HR Basics Flashcards

Reddit Threads

Reddit discussions contain valuable insights from people who have taken the PHR. Search PHR exam and you will find discussions which outline preparation strategies in detail. Plus recommendations for PHR resources and test taking tips.

Study Groups

Everyone’s professional experience is valuable. When you get together with others, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Study groups are important for at least two reasons: 1. You benefit from a diversity of collective knowledge and, 2. Study partners hold you accountable for putting in the time and sticking to the schedule.

Preparation Courses and Workshops

Check your local college to see if they offer a PHR prep course. These may be more affordable than self-study programs. Some schools offer online courses as well.

Confidence Building With Affirmations And Visualization

Overly worried about failing? Your success may depend as much on your state of mind as on your mastery of the material.

Karen Satchell, MS, SPHR, SCP, passed both the HRCI-SPHR and SHRM-SCP in a two-week span. She credits her success, in part, to proactive confidence-building rituals.

‘I needed to believe I was going to pass. I wrote my name with all the test pending abbreviations on a white board in my kitchen and posted it on a sticky note on my computer monitor at work. I gave myself countless confidence boosting talks. I would take some deep breaths and envision myself passing the exams and my celebration dance as I exited the testing center.’

We hope this post helps you plan your study program. The team at SwipeClock wishes you success!

By Liz Strikwerda