Episode 262: Test-Taking Strategies for HRCI and SHRM Certification

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Episode 262: Test-Taking Strategies for HRCI and SHRM Certification

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Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com, as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools and case studies for the business leader, H.R. and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now, here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.

Episode 262: Test-Taking Strategies for HRCI and SHRM Certification with Danielle Martinez, SHRM-CP (@Danielleloveshr), and Tracy Spears, SPHR (@TracySpears)


Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:26.17] During the past several months, many HR professionals have often had to reschedule their HR certification exams and maybe making the decision to take them online with a remote proctor or making the decision to move to a test center with social distancing protocols. Because HR certification exams, whether they’re HRCI or SHRM, might already be difficult as they are. It’s scary to put yourself in a different kind of environment or situation. You’re taking the exam in a different place. You’re faced with a global pandemic and you’re studying and preparing for your HR certification exam. It’s always good to be prepared, always be prepared. It’s the Girl Scout model. So I thought I would talk to H.R. professionals about their experience taking the HRCI and SHRM certification exams recently. These are two separate interviews where we are diving into the differences and experiences for two individuals. Not all these experiences are going to be the same. But what I have found is that when talking with H.R. professionals who are thinking about or considering taking their HRCI/SHRM certification exams, their first question is, I want to hear from people who have passed the exam. This is a common question that we get in our HR Certification Study Group on Facebook that’s really they join, they ask the question. So I thought, you know what, I’m going to pull it back. We have two different interviews, one from Danielle Martinez. She’s the SHRM CP and that our second interview is Tracey Spears, who is an SPHR. So you’re going to hear from them and hear about their remote testing experience, what it was like, what you might expect, and any tips, suggestions, recommendations they had that they felt like were critical to them passing or acing their HRCI and SHRM certification exams. We start first with Danielle Martinez. She has been in H.R. for a little over a decade and currently works for a New York City-based technology company. I asked Danielle which exams she chose and why. And so we’re going to move on into Danielle’s interview that you can listen to where she talks about her experience in passing her SHRM CP.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:46.86] So welcome, Danielle,

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Danielle Martinez: [00:02:48.62] Hi. Hi, Jessica. Thanks for having me.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:51.36] Talk to us about your your HR experience and your past history working in human resources.

Danielle Martinez: [00:02:57.42] Yes. So I’ve been doing H.R. for probably coming up on a decade. I got thrown into H.R. It was something that I never wanted to do because my mom did H.R. when I was growing up. So I always said, I don’t want to be like my mom. And it turns out we’re just alike. So got thrown into H.R. fast forward to where I am today. I work for a tech company. We’re based out of New York City. I right now am heading over recruitment efforts globally. So US and in some of our acquisitions in India and then working on our expansions with the talent team to go to go expand. We’re doing really well right now given the pandemic situation. We supply organizations capabilities to work from home. So basically we’re allowed to we sell stuff like Zoom, but we don’t sell Zoom. We sell Microsoft teams and Cisco WebEx and do all the cybersecurity stuff. So I am the, some of the brains behind the talent from admin to engineers. Prior to going aboard with them, I actually came by way of an acquisition and before they purchased the company I was heading in H.R. department. So I got to do a full H.R. hat from recruitment to payroll to benefits admin to conflict management to performance resolutions. So I think I’ve had my hands in a lot of areas in H.R. So it’s pretty exciting.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:17.40] I like that kind of well-rounded experience. I just think that people have no idea how hard being a generalist is and kind of that Swiss Army knife of H.R.

Danielle Martinez: [00:04:27.33] Right, right. Definitely a full four three, I should say, one-eighty to go from doing general work to specialization work and just the talent side of town, which has been which has been great. I always like hiring people, watching them thrive in their careers. So it’s been good.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:42.50] Which exam did you take and why?

Danielle Martinez: [00:04:45.32] I took the SHRM CP exam. I took the CP exam because I actually took the SCP exam in December and I did not pass. And so I told myself, you know what, let me scale back a little bit, though I have my masters and though I have the years to take my, you know, my senior exam. It just didn’t feel like I was ready at that point in time. There are two different exams. I can definitely say that I’ve been on both sides of them, two different mindsets.

Danielle Martinez: [00:05:15.86] One is very cookie-cutter dry, HR terms, maybe some yield ratio, some legal questions. One is definitely more put your strategist hat on it and think a little bit more case-scenario like and, one, you have to be a good reader and a quick reader to absorb all that, and two, you just have to be confident. And at that time, I just felt that was best for my career to just stick to just getting certified. And that was just important to me.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:05:42.67] I think that’s awesome and congratulations on passing your exam.

Danielle Martinez: [00:05:46.03] Thank you. I appreciate it.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:05:47.71] Let’s talk about the testing experience because I think that there are a lot of different types of experiences. Tell us about that and were there any surprises.

Danielle Martinez: [00:05:59.71] So I can talk to you about two experiences. I can talk to you about my experience at a testing center and my experience taking it remotely. Two different experiences.

Danielle Martinez: [00:06:07.00] Testing center was, I’ll be honest, it was a little bit annoying. I got patted down a few times before I can get into the room. You know, I got the computer failed on one side, so I had to check in on the other side, get patted down again every time it took a bathroom break. You got to get patted down again. No jewelry on. I had to take my cross off my bracelet off a little bit, yeah, it was a little bit like anxiety for me walking into that test center and that, you know, I hear everything. I have very sensitive ears and the person behind me I clearly remember was just tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap the pencil. And I was just listening to this tapping the whole time.

Danielle Martinez: [00:06:45.01] So that was my experience with the testing center. Testing remotely this time, I can tell you that I enjoyed it. I really did. I like the way better than taking it out of testing site. I didn’t have the tap tap behind me. I had really good proctors. I can say that they were funny if I look like I was falling asleep because the test does get long.

Danielle Martinez: [00:07:04.18] That woman be like, hey, are you OK? I’m so sorry. I’m just a little bit bored. But they were really encouraging. The only thing was they do the room check. You have to spin your computer around 360, computer under the desk, computer under the chair, nothing on the walls. It’s got writing, you know. So just getting that room ready for testing readiness was a bit challenging, just covering up telescopes and pictures and things like that. But I had a great experience, minus I think the test cut out on me twice. But there’s some there’s some ins and outs to that. I can give you some pointers on when that happens.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:07:38.92] Yeah. Talk to us about that.

Danielle Martinez: [00:07:40.48] Yeah. So, two things is when your test cuts off, your time stops completely. And in order for your time to begin, they have to check you back in. So, just hint for those whose computer shuts off, don’t or your test times out, don’t freak out. Take advantage of it. When you log back on, tell the proctor one second. Can I use the bathroom? Because you were going to use your bathroom during the fifteen-minute window that they gave you. The only thing they only gave you one break the whole time. Fifteen minutes. But if your computer shuts down and you have to go to the bathroom on your test, exit the bathroom, just log back in immediately. That way they know you’re not like putzing around. Ask to go to the bathroom and then take three or five minutes and go to the bathroom. Right that way when you do finally get a chance to rest, you can stretch, go to bathroom again, have time to eat, maybe stretch your legs, go outside, get some air and come back in. So don’t be anxious. Just, you know, breathe, come back in and act to go the bathroom, go to bathroom, come back. And then I ask. So that was definitely that.

Danielle Martinez: [00:08:43.00] And then two, your time doesn’t roll over. So the test for CHRM was two parts, two hours on each side. Part one, I finished in about an hour in thirty-five minutes. And one of the proctors, I asked the proctor, I said, hey, this is my time to roll over. And they said, no, it’s two hours for section one and two hours for section two. You do the math. I had about twenty-five minutes left to section one. So what I did, because I needed to rest my eyes, but I said OK. And I put my head down for about fifteen minutes and I use that as break one and didn’t tap into my break time because I didn’t need to. And then when I finally felt like I needed a break section two-ish, I just took one. But I had my time because at that point I was already on break No. Two, so just a little bit of testing strategies for those who get easily distracted or need to stretch and things like that.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:09:33.94] So when you finish the first half of the exam, after you finish that portion, can you go back and look at questions later on from that portion?

Danielle Martinez: [00:09:40.93] No. Once you go into Section two, you cannot go back to Section one. So when I had that one hour and thirty-five minutes left and I believe it was just about that, I went back, I marked off the questions that I just want to go back on. I went back on those and then I put my head down for the remaining time and then when I got enough energy I went to Section two and that was that.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:10:00.39] Awesome, well, some slight differences in the remote proctoring between SHRMversus HRCI, and this is one of those examples.

Danielle Martinez: [00:10:06.63] Yeah, yeah, awesome.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:10:09.83] What topics or questions do you feel like tripped you up the most?

Danielle Martinez: [00:10:14.26] Yeah, so I think we had spoke about this weeks ago, Jessica, I was just, you were telling me like it’s not what you would do, it’s what SHRM would do. And I remember I had a few questions, maybe three case study questions or situational judgment questions where I mean, I understood the question, hundred percent, but the story was just a little bogus. Like it was just like, you know, employee aid did this and the manager did that. And the vice president from left field came and said, do this. And I’m thinking to myself, in what world does this actually happen? And then the answers that they gave you, you were like, you know, one or two of them. You were like, never. But the other two, you were like, it could be either or, it really depends on the environment, the culture, the company, the people. And then I was like, you know, what would SHRM do? Like just like you had said weeks ago, like, what would SHRM do? And I was like, well. Process of elimination, and I just went with the answer that best suited, like what would SHRM do? Or answers that had keywords in them that I recalled reading in the passages of the books, that the other answer I was like, I don’t remember that being in the book, so I’m just going to cross that out. Even though it sounded right, they never tell you what answers. You got a question you got wrong or right. So I’ll never know. But it was enough to pass, so that was very good.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:11:27.74] What did you have any, like, formula questions or metrics or anything like that?

Danielle Martinez: [00:11:31.88] You know, it’s funny, I did not have any direct formula questions. I did have a question with like a headcount. There was like a few numbers in it about head count, but it was nothing strenuous. It wasn’t like, tell me the return on investment or what’s the yield ratio or, you know, I didn’t have, you know, any of those type of questions. And I had one legal question, to be honest with you and NLRB question, and that was it.

Danielle Martinez: [00:11:58.04] Wow. OK, well, it sounds like you got a lucky, I mean, I know you studied very hard. Yeah, but you lucked out. Not a lot of calculations.

Danielle Martinez: [00:12:06.18] Yeah.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:12:07.16] Finish this sentence for me. I wish I had spent more time studying about what?

Danielle Martinez: [00:12:14.10] I wish I had spent more time studying about risk management.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:12:18.24] OK.

Danielle Martinez: [00:12:20.15] Certainly, I wish I’d spent more time studying risk management.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:12:23.52] All right, well, for those of you who are asking that question, Danielle says risk management is where, where you should be spending your time. Last question. What advice can you offer someone who’s studying for their HR certification exam right now?

Danielle Martinez: [00:12:40.86] I would say breathe. Don’t get caught up in all the feedback online. I mean, I was I was fortunate to be a part of a great HR group on social media, on Facebook. But sometimes you check yourself out like you hear people’s experiences and you panic. You’re like, oh, that’s going to happen to me. You know, some people, like my test was all legal and my test was all risk management or my test was all workplace. And the truth of the matter is every test is a little different. You know, I have someone I studied with and they had a ton of formulas on their exam and I had none. And, you know, I had one legal question that I recall and some of my colleagues and networks, they had about five or ten legal questions.

Danielle Martinez: [00:13:19.27] So not every exam is the same. Your experience is not going to be like the other person. So just breathe and really know you’re I mean, you don’t have to know it, like memorize it, but just know it enough to be comfortable. And I think that comes with don’t over study. Right. Like just, you know what you know, and then the stuff that you don’t know, read it, but the stuff that you know, don’t overthink it, just move on and stay focused. You know, I had to fall in love with with the material. And I think that was a difference from the last time to this time. I really had to put things into real time experiences and examples and be like, oh, yeah, that happened, you know, and start placing. You know, I had sometimes when I had to, like, identify management styles, I had to think of managers I worked with and really just like picture them. And that helped a lot with my studying. But I just had to I really just had to fall in love or like with SHRM for about three to six months, to be honest with you.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:14:13.76] Well, I think you’re also in a unique position because you were facilitating and providing training and honestly, that’s the best-case scenario, because in order to be the trainer, you have to know the stuff.

Danielle Martinez: [00:14:26.72] Yeah, yeah. And and it’s funny because when I was taking the exam, Jessica, I was telling my mom she’s like, well, how what do you think? Was it hard? And I’m like. No, it wasn’t hard, it wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t hard, and I recall I took my SCP exam like I just remember when the clock ran out on my SCP exam, I just didn’t know if I was going to pass or fail. In this exam I knew I was like, oh, you got this. Like, it wasn’t I was confident going into it. So and I think that’s just because I had been studying for a while. And like I said, I was facilitating some group sessions. So in order for me to teach it, I kind of got to know it a little bit. So it was easier.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:15:07.88] Good, good. Well, thank you so much for sharing your insights with the exam. If people wanted to connect with you more, is there a place they should go to be able to do that?.

Danielle Martinez: [00:15:18.53] Super easy. So, you know, LinkedIn.com/in/DaniellovesHR. Doesn’t get much easier than that. Daniel loves H.R. You’ll find me.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:15:28.16] Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Danielle. I really appreciate your time. And congratulations again on passing your exam.

Danielle Martinez: [00:15:32.66] Thank you so much, Jessica. Take care.

Break: [00:15:34.58] This is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and you were listening to the Workology podcast. We’re taking a brief reset here. We just listened to Danielle Martinez talk about her experience in passing the SHRM CP, what it was like with the remote exam and any suggestions, recommendations, tips that she had to help you ace your HR certification exam. Next up is an interview with Tracy Spears. Tracy is an SPHR now and she has been in H.R. since 2013 and currently works as an H.R. director for a nondenominational church. Tracy said that she initially signed up for the PHR, but then Covid hit and her test date was canceled. That actually gave her more time to study. So the second time she signed up for the SPHR, she ended up taking it and passing her exam. Let’s hear from Tracy and she can share with you her remote proctoring experience, what worked well for her and what didn’t. And any tips she has for you as you are thinking about taking the PHR or the SPHR exams.

Tracy Spears, SPHR


Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:16:35.51] Tracy, welcome. I’m so excited to have you here and sharing your knowledge with us.

Tracy Spears: [00:16:40.37] Thank you so much.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:16:42.23] Tell us about your H.R. work experience.

Tracy Spears: [00:16:46.25] Sure. Yeah. So I’ve been in an official H.R. titled Position since 2013. I first started working for a local construction company and that was really my first entrance into the HR world. And now I work for a nondenominational church as an H.R. director. But previously I had dabbled into H.R. disciplines just through some cross-training with an international restaurant company as well as really my first adult job was as a payroll processor. So I feel like for many, many years I’ve been slowly dipping my toe into the HR world.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:17:34.73] Awesome. Well, which H.R. exam did you take and why?

Tracy Spears: [00:17:34.73] Yep. So I decided to take the SPHR and so my first decision was, was I going to do the SHRM or the HRCI exams? And for me, I knew I wanted to utilize some training classes and based on when the training classes would start in the SHRM testing windows and the registration windows, none of it lined up. So then I just defaulted to the HRCI exams. Initially, I was going to take the PHR and I had signed up for the PHR, had it scheduled and then Covid hit and my testing date got canceled. Then that actually afforded me some additional time to do more studying and just contemplation about really which, which level of exams should I take. And after talking to some trusted friends, I decided to go ahead and bite the bullet. And the second time I signed up, I signed up for the SPHR and I ended up taking that and passing it.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:18:49.49] Awesome, well, congratulations on passing your exam. The SPHR, that is hard stuff.

Tracy Spears: [00:18:49.49] Yes. Yes.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:18:49.49] Well, let’s talk about the exam. When you took the took the test, what topics or questions tripped you up the most?

Tracy Spears: [00:19:06.26] I don’t know that there was really specific questions that trip to me up, it was more how the questions were worded. I use the HR.com testing materials. And when I went into the exam, I expected the language that I had been studying to be represented on the exam. And when I say language, I’m just talking about how they worded questions, not necessarily definitions, but just how they approached questions. And so when I started taking the exam, I started to panic because all of a sudden the way that they wrote the questions were very different from what I had been studying and quizzing myself on. So really, it was just their approach is what tripped me up. The other thing I would say is for the SPHR there’s a heavy emphasis on just business acumen. And so in the HR.com materials, this unit one, and they tell you that that’s going to be like 40 percent of the test. It is 40 percent of the test. There’s a lot of it. And what I found myself getting confused on is which voice was I answering the question from? Was I answering the question from, say, a CEO/COO perspective, or was I answering it from the H.R. perspective? And I don’t know what the right answer is to that one. All I know is I passed, so whichever one I used worked. But that was really a confusing part for me.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:20:51.38] You talked about your test being canceled. So let’s talk about your testing experience. Do remote testing or as an in-person and were there any surprises?

Tracy Spears: [00:21:01.91] Yeah, so I was kind of freaked out about the remote testing possibility. I was concerned about just the reliability of an Internet connection. And at the point that I was scheduling my test, there wasn’t a lot of information about what the remote testing experience was going to be. So I’m thinking, oh, my gosh, you know, am I going to have to clear out a room so there’s nothing in my room? And what about scratch paper? Am I going to be able to scratch paper or not? So I was very anxious about that. So I just decided to do in-person testing once it opened back up. So that’s what I did. And it was a very normal environment. I mean, if you think back to exams you had to take in college, I mean, same type of thing. The entrance process is more in-depth than boarding a plane.

Tracy Spears: [00:21:57.08] So that was interesting, although I had been prepared for it. But I’m like, oh, you guys are crazy. You know, they’re not going to want my thumbprint scan and all of this. Oh, no, they do. They do. So that was that was just interesting. The actual testing environment, they gave you headphones that you can use. And I did use them at one point because there was there’s other people in the room with you and I was hearing them move around. Somebody was tapping their foot. I heard somebody typing on their keyboard like really fast. I’m like, are they writing an essay? What are they doing? Because people are taking all sorts of different exams. So that was distracting to me. But then when I put these noise-canceling headphones on, all I could hear was my heartbeat. So I’m like, well, this isn’t going to work.

Tracy Spears: [00:22:50.96] So I finally just relaxed and I was able to take the headphones off and everything was fine there. I will say there was an anxious moment at the very end of the test when I was getting ready when we hit submit and the proctor comes in and make sure everything OK. It wasn’t submitting. Like I just got this blank screen and she’s starting to get anxious, like, OK, just sit still. Let’s just give it a few minutes and make sure it goes through. And those were probably an anxious, you know, 60 to 90 seconds, like, oh my gosh, am I going to have to do this again? But it finally went through.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:30.23] Good. Did you have to wear a mask during your test?

Tracy Spears: [00:23:32.78] Yes.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:35.21] I’ve heard some folks that were surprised and it gave them a lot of anxiety because they didn’t realize that they were going to have to wear a mask. Oh, which is why I’m asking.

Tracy Spears: [00:23:43.34] Yeah. Yeah.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:46.60] Finish the sentence. I wish I had more time studying about blank.

Tracy Spears: [00:23:56.33] For me, I would finish that sentence with situational questions. It’s really not a specific subject, I was anxious, I I’m not familiar with union stuff, and so I was spending a lot of time just making sure I knew my union stuff and I didn’t have a single union question on it. And so I would say that it is just situational questions.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:24:23.44] OK. What advice would you, anything else that you’d like to offer someone who’s studying right now for their SPHR certification exam?

Tracy Spears: [00:24:36.17] I would say definitely study. When people say that this is the hardest exam that they’ve taken, it is a hard exam. And once you pass, it’s a huge achievement. So make sure that you are spending time on that and it is focus time and you’re not cramming for it. The other thing I would say is trust yourself. Remember that you know, the stuff you have, the work experience likely that you can apply to it. And so just trust yourself when you’re going in there.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:25:15.38] Awesome, great advice and thank you so much for taking the time to share with us your insights. And again, congratulations on passing your SPHR. That’s awesome.

Tracy Spears: [00:25:24.92] Yeah, thank you.

Closing: [00:25:26.87] Any time we can gain insights, information, or get resources from individuals like HR professionals who have been through the exam, whether it’s SHRM or HRCI’s exam, we take that opportunity and we run with it. A special thank you to Danielle and Tracy for sharing their experiences with us. I really appreciate you taking the time and effort. And I know that every HR pro who’s listening to this podcast now in the future, thanks to you for sharing your experience and taking the time with us. In order to pass your exam, you need to have a well-rounded and thorough approach to preparing. I’d love for you to join our H.R. Certification Study Group on Facebook. Just go to HRCertificationStudyGroup.com. This is where I share more free resources like this podcast and connect with you with thousands of H.R. professionals. We have over 5000 H.R. pros who are just like you preparing for their H.R. certification and SHRM certification exams in our H.R. Certification Study Group on Facebook. Everybody’s experience in taking the exam, as well as preparing for the exam is unique. And that’s because all our workplace experiences are different, just like our own experiences and what works for us to be able to prepare for the exam. We all learn and absorb information differently.

Closing: [00:26:46.28] So I urge you to gain access to resources like these and hear from pros like Tracy and Danielle, but take some time to reflect and understand what works for you as you build out your own strategy, your custom study strategy and schedule so that you can have the same positive result that both Tracy and Danielle had, which is passing your HRCI or SHRM certification exam. My name is Jessica Miller-Merrell. I’m the founder of Workology and the creator of the Ace The HR Certification Exam. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. I will include a link to both Danielle and Tracy’s LinkedIn profile in the show notes, along with some other recommended resources for those of you who are thinking about remote proctoring, in-person proctoring, or just getting started. Feel free to send me a note and you can also join the HR Certification Study Group on Facebook for more amazing resources to help you assure our certification.

Connect with Danielle Martinez and Tracy Spears.


– Danielle Martinez on LinkedIn

– Tracy Spears on LinkedIn

– HR Certification Prep Resources

– HR Recertification Resources

– HR Certification Study Group on Facebook

– Ace the HR Exam courses

– Episode 259: Remote Proctoring with SHRM and HRCI

– Episode Transcript

Looking for more resources as you work towards your HR certification? Join the HR Certification Study Group on Facebook or LinkedIn

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