The Art of Answering Test Questions

Answering test questions

Perhaps you are getting ready to take the SHRM Certification exam in the Spring 2021 test window. Maybe you are establishing your goals for Fall 2021. Maybe, just maybe, you are planning on a non-Human Resources certification exam. Well, good for you on that last one but is there really anything other than HR? Yes, I know, I have an HR bias. Whatever your goals, I wanted to point out one very important concept. There is an art to answering test questions. Not only is it what you know, but how you demonstrate that knowledge through answering exam questions. I thought I would provide you some lessons I have learned as both an Instructor of the SHRM certifications and a successful SHRM – SCP exam taker. Add into the mix the feedback I have received from students, and perhaps we can provide some useful coloring to how to take the SHRM exam. (Again, while this information might prove useful to other certification exams, this conversation relates to the SHRM exam experience.) Just like art is subjective, these are ultimately my own opinions. It will be up to you to choose to embrace what tips you will.

Leading off from there, it is important to know that if you ask ten people their thoughts on exam questions, you will get ten different responses. Thus, it truly is up to each individual to determine what they will do and follow when sitting down for the exam.

Currently, the certification exam is filled with all multiple-choice questions. So, in no particular order, here are a few tips to getting questions right, becoming certified, earning enough money to retire, then buying a private island which you will affectionately call SHRMland.

  • Read each question slowly. There is no reward for finishing the exam early.
  • Before reading the possible answers, consider what you think the right answer to the question is first. Then, when you read A, B, C, D it is likely one of the answers will more closely match what you thought in your head already.
  • Read each answer slowly. Take your time reading the answers. As above, there is no reward for finishing the exam early.
  • Read each answer, slowly. Not to be confused with the point above, this tip means to read every answer A, B, C, D…even if you believe the answer is A. The answers-choices can have a completely different meaning by the use of just one word. Thus, you might think it is A, until you reach D and say to yourself “Oh, I am so glad I read that NIU blog post and was encouraged to read all of the possible answers. D it is.”
  • Look for key words/phrases in the situations, questions and answers to help drive you towards the right answers. As HR professionals, we are taught the importance of things that are often captured in a word or phrase.
    • Alignment (with strategies and goals of the organization)
    • Communication (good communication, that is)
    • Consistent
    • Employee feedback (give your employees a chance to speak, if even for a moment; de-escalate anger, clarify confusion)
    • Evaluation (did it work; if not, fix it quickly)
    • Measurement
    • Senior leadership buy-in
    • Strategic (always plan for the future; decisions should be made with the long-term in mind)
  • Currently, you are allowed a cross-out feature on the certification exam. When deciding which answer to select, you can run a line through the answers you are certain are not correct. Very often, one or two of the four answers are clearly not the right one. By selecting the cross-out feature, the answer goes into the background, if you will. You can still see it, and even bring it back if you want, but now you are primarily focusing on the selection of answers to a question that you are still debating on. Use this feature!
  • Very often, the words ‘first’ or ‘best’ are implied. Even if not listed in the question, they are good reminders when deciding on an answer. Many students say “I was stuck between two answers; they both could have been correct”. Okay, well that may be true. Which is the ‘most’ correct? What do you do first, or what is the ultimate best decision? Go with that.
  • Don’t change your answer. Perhaps you have liked something, a piece of art, a chosen outfit for a night out. Then, someone tells you that what you like is awful and you change your mind. Well, the voices telling you that you are wrong will be the ones in your own head during test-day. Ignore those voices. Your first answer is almost always the right answer. Unless you catch a word you missed which changes the meaning of the question/answer or a question further on in the exam reminds you of the correct answer for a previous question, stick to your first response!
  • Answer questions based on the academics, or the best-practices, not how you do things at your organization. I often joke that you can answer how you do things at your company, but then I will look forward to seeing you in a future prep class when you are getting ready to try once-again to pass the exam. At our jobs we often do things to ‘get things done’. It does not mean they are illegal, but they might not be what SHRM would identify is the best way.
  • An absolute personal favorite of mine is answer like a business owner or a Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO). So many of us answer based on our current roles. If you are not at the top of the organizational chart, your answer might ultimately be too junior. Regardless of the test level you are sitting for, think about how a CHRO would think. What is the implication to the business? Thinking about ‘Employee Sally’ is great. However, if we do not keep the business running, Sally will be out of a job.

The art of test answering questions is a reminder that you need to recognize how SHRM wants you to think when answering questions. You can know everything about HR there is to know but you cannot ignore the fact that there are specific ways to answering questions. In your job, you can be the creative HR artist that you choose to be. However, on exam day, it is a little bit more like ‘paint by numbers’. Don’t let your pride get in the way of acknowledging that the picture of exam success is already pre-determined. It is your job to paint the picture in the way that SHRM wants to see it in order for you to achieve the beautiful letters of SHRM – CP or SHRM – SCP after your name.

“As I work at my drawings, day after day, what seemed unattainable before is now gradually becoming possible. Slowly, I’m learning to observe and measure. I don’t stand quite so helpless before nature any longer. Vincent van Gogh in ‘Lust for Life’


Please add into the comments any test-taking tips you might have for the reader! Thanks!


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