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A Diary of SPHR Test Preparation

Labor texts, flip-up desks and nervous wrecks.

March 17, 2000
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Related Topics: Your HR Career
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Ever wonder what it's like to prepare for SPHR certification? Here's my experience.

Three days before the test. When the idea of getting an HR certification was posed to me by my boss, I cruised the Internet to investigate what kinds of certifications were available, and by whom. Within the hour, I was back in his office, proudly announcing that there were indeed such certifications, and I thought I would be able to get one. Furthermore, the exam was in December, only a couple of months away. A little study, I reasoned, and I would breeze right through.

I had selected SHRM as a certifying organization. I printed out the SHRM certification guide from their Web site and determined that, based on my job responsibilities, which involve a lot of planning and policy-setting at the corporate level, that the Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) certification was the one I would pursue.

The other certification offered, the PHR, seemed more appropriate for those who deal day-to-day with HR operations.

I filled out the formidable application form, and sent it in. I then went online again and purchased several books I thought would help: a general HR text, a labor-law book, and encyclopedic dictionary of HR terms, and a study guide from SHRM.

My self-confidence undaunted, I waded into the general textbook first--a large, thick volume, with many pages of tissue-thin paper. The book was miraculous; it lengthened as I was reading it. But I read every word.

ADA, ADEA, OSHA, COBRA, WARN, EEO, FMLA, FLSA, ERISA, CBA I dream of alphabet soup and circles correctly blackened in.

I had settled on a plan that would involve my reading, reviewing already- read material, and taking practice tests nearly every week night. I tried to pace myself so that I would have several weeks after completing the textbook to read and study the labor-law issues. I was particularly concerned about collective bargaining agreements, since I had no real-life experience with them.

I was overly ambitious: Trying to work, raise a family, and study was tough. There were some nights when I did not keep to my test-prep schedule. As a result, reading the textbook took longer than expected, so I decided I needed to skim the labor-law volume.

Since I had so little time left, I thought it best to hit the high spots and leave excruciating details about case law out. Evelyn Wood, watch out. I read a 600-page book in about six hours. As it turned out, the part about collective bargaining agreements was fascinating and I wished I'd been able to spend more time on them.

As the test date neared, I decided I needed some advice, so I got in touch with Denise Matroni, the contact from the local SHRM chapter, the Lower Cape Fear Personnel Association. An SPHR herself, Denise was reassuring and helpful. She encouraged me to think about how labor legislation is implemented in the real-life workplace, and encouraged me not to underestimate what I already knew. We chatted for a while, she invited me to join their organization, and wished me well.

And so now here I am, three days before the exam, chock full of acronyms with more to come. ADA, ADEA, OSHA, COBRA, WARN, EEO, FMLA, FLSA, ERISA, CBA--I dream of alphabet soup and circles correctly blackened in.

Two days before the test. I try very hard not to think of my impending doom. Fortunately, I have things to do at work, so I'm able to pretend to some extent that this isn t really happening. Later, at home, I begin to prepare for my trip the next day.

I have selected the nearest test location from the hundred or so U.S. sites listed on the SHRM Web site, but it's still 150 miles from my home. Since the test site is so far, my husband and I have decided that the best thing to do is to stay at a hotel the night before the test.

He will watch our three small children and I will avoid the fatigue of having been up driving half the night before the test. He is a good and intelligent man. I study for an hour or so, then go to sleep.

The day before the test. I arrive at work, suitcase in hand, butterflies in stomach. I have scheduled two interviews and a corporate culture meeting for the morning, probably just as well. My second candidate gets lost, which makes him 30 minutes late, which makes me 30 minutes late leaving.

The drive is uneventful; I don't even get lost once. The hotel seems practically uninhabited, which seems a good, quiet environment for the cramming session I envision. SHRM strictly discourages this practice, I know, but I just don t feel I know enough about some of the legislation I haven't had to deal with in real life. I get in about five hours of good solid study, including a practice test, plus some fast food. Finally, I realize it's bedtime.

Test day! At 2:30 a.m., I wake up, electrified from a nightmare. Someone without a medical certificate was trying to perform a medical procedure on me. The rest of the night passes with my either being too hot or too cold and worrying about my wake-up call. When it finally does come at 6:00 a.m., I'm already up, ready to hit the shower.

On my way to the test site, I realize that I'm doodling, hoping to get lost or become late. Finally, in spite of my own attempts at self-defeat and my less-than-complete directions, I find the correct building, find a parking spot, and enter the lobby to find it abuzz with other certification hopefuls.

Although we're all professional HR folks, we look more like nervous high school students preparing to take the SAT, our No. 2 pencils and pre-printed admission tickets clutched tightly in our sweaty hands. And most of us, I realize are just that--perspiring, throbbingly nervous wrecks.

I try to circulate a little to defuse my anxiety, only to discover that although these folks come from different industries and live in different towns, their on-the-job HR experiences and their motivations for trying to attain a certification are similar to mine: We all seem to want to better ourselves professionally, and most of us have good support from our management to do so.

And we're all pretty worked up about it just at the moment. I m relieved I'm not the only one.

We wait. We wait some more. Everybody keeps trooping into the restroom to try and prevent the urge from developing during the test.

Finally, we're divided into two groups--those taking the PHR and those taking the SPHR--and shepherded into two rooms. Ours is an auditorium with cute miniature seats built for children.

They have tiny little flip-up desks on which you can write a postcard but not much else. Fifty adults stare at them in quiet dismay, trying to figure out how to get comfortable while juggling the paperwork we'll be forced to manage, a 250-question test booklet and a bubble-in answer sheet.

About halfway through the exam, I struggle against a sudden urge to hand in my materials and leave. My stamina for standardized tests, I realize, has waned since my college years. I'm tired, and my mind is wandering. I narrow my eyes, stop reading, and just sit for a few minutes. Then, I pull myself together and go on.

The day after. People ask me how it was, and I smile and say, "Awful." They reply with assurances about how certain they are that I passed. Good for them. I am not. I tell them and I mean it, "I will get whatever I deserve to get." I did my honest best. I used every minute of the four hours allotted (except the few minutes where I debated leaving), and my answers were as accurate as I could make them. It was a genuine workout. Now it's time to wait four to six painful weeks.

Two weeks later. Still no results. I've realized, though, in the days following the exam, that my studies, particularly of the general HR textbook, have considerably broadened my understanding of the collective knowledge and tools available to those of us in this business.

If I had to do this all over again, I would without doubt, but I would start earlier and structure my preparation a little differently. While I liked my self-study approach, it was too unfocused to be maximally effective.

Setting specific goals to meet each area in the test outline would have helped; I went on an odyssey without a clear destination in mind. Then, too, if I had started six months ahead instead of two, I would have had more opportunity to research in greater depth particular areas of interest.

As my company prepares for next year and the growth we expect to accompany it, I will want to learn many of the predictive, evaluative, and statistical techniques I now know exist. HR is considered a "soft skill" by many, I think, but it's a far greater, more scientific body of knowledge than people realize.

Preparing for the exam has given me added respect for the certified practitioners of this profession--not only for their our required level of knowledge but for the intestinal fortitude they we must display--on the job as well as when bubbling in answer sheets with well-sharpened pencils clutched in our clammy fingers.

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