How the Exams are Structured

HRCI exams include a variety of item types with various difficulty levels. Candidates must respond to all parts of an item correctly to receive credit for the item. No partial credit is awarded. To ensure items and exam forms are fair, all items are pretested (but not scored) in a live testing environment to make sure they meet HRCI's quality standards. The passing score a candidate must achieve takes into consideration the various difficulty levels on the exam form.

The various item types include:

  • Traditional multiple choice. These items contain a stem (or premise) and four (4) answer choices including only one (1) correct answer.
  • Multiple choice, multiple response (see example below). These are like multiple choice items except there are two or more correct answers. The item will tell you how many correct options there are.
  • Fill in the blank (see example below).  You will be asked to provide a numeral, word, or phrase to complete the sentence.
  • Drag and drop (see example below). You will be asked to click on certain pieces of information and drag them with your cursor to place them in the correct position.
  • Scenarios. Scenario questions present typical HR situations, followed by a series of exam items based on the scenario. These scenarios require you to integrate facts from different subject areas.

Exam items may be phrased in the form of a question, as a statement or as an open-ended sentence.

In all cases you should select the best correct response. In this case, best means that a panel of HR subject matter experts would agree to this judgment. Some answer choices are distractors, which are written to look correct, but are not the best answer. This is done to assess your ability to make the right decision based on an actual workplace situation.

All questions are classified based on one of the following cognitive levels:

  • knowledge/comprehension: recalling factual material, such as definitions
  • application/problem solving: applying familiar principles or generalizations to solve real-life problems
  • synthesis/evaluation: combining different elements and using critical thinking skills to solve a complex problem

Only our practice-based exams - the GPHR, PHR, SPHR, PHRca, PHRi, and SPHRi - include application and synthesis-level exam items.

The performance data of every exam item, as well as every exam form, is carefully evaluated based on several statistical measures which are industry standard. Items that do not meet HRCI's rigorous standards are revised and pre-tested again or are discounted for that exam. This continuous review of items ensures that every exam is valid and reliable.

Exam Development Process

HR Certification Institute follows certification-industry best practices to create and update all  exams. HR subject-matter experts are involved in every step of the exam development process which is overseen by a professional testing organization.

The following steps are taken to develop the exams:

Step 1: Each exam is based on an Exam Content Outline, which is drafted by a small group of HR subject matter experts and then validated through a formal practice analysis study.

Step 2: Certified HR practitioners write the exam items based on the Exam Content Outline.

Step 3: Every exam item is peer reviewed multiple times by other HR subject matter experts who verify that each item is accurate, current and appropriate for the exam.

Step 4: Approved questions are then “pre-tested” for reliability in a live testing situation. Pre-test items do not count against a candidate's score but look just like scored items.

Step 5: Exam forms are created and reviewed by another panel of subject matter experts.

Step 6: A passing score for each exam form is determined.

Practice Analysis Study

Our Exam Content Outlines are developed through a systematic, practice analysis study. The methodology used for this study involves a variety of actions including: 

  • Review of journal articles, job descriptions and other materials to determine current HR job responsibilities and expected future changes
  • One-on-one interviews with HR practitioners, educators and hiring managers
  • Collaborative work by HR subject-matter experts to draft an Exam Content Outline based on current research and information
  • Validation survey of HR professionals to rate the frequency and importance of each job responsibility
  • Review of survey findings by HR subject matter experts to further refine the draft outline and finalize percentage weightings for each exam section

Our Certification Council must review and approve every new or revised certification exam content outline before it can take effect. We provide several months of advance notice of changes to exam content outlines. See more at

Although practice analysis studies are conducted every few years, new exam items are constantly being introduced into exam forms to be sure our exams reflect current HR practices.


Sample Multiple Choice, Multiple Response Item


Sample Fill-In-The-Blank Item


Sample Drag and Drop Item



Frequently Asked Questions

What are Alternative Item Types (AITs)? AITs are exam items that look and act differently than multiple choice questions. These can include items such as drag and drop, matching, fill in the blank and multiple choice, multiple response.

Why is HRCI using AITs? AITs give HRCI another way to assess HR expertise. For example, if there are several factors that must be considered before implementing a certain kind of program, we can present you with more than four options and ask you to select the three that are the correct factors. Similarly, if there are processes that need to occur in a certain order, we can assess your experience with applying the process by asking you to put them in order. In addition, rather than giving people options they can guess from, a fill-in-the-blank item requires you to supply the correct information yourself.

How are AITs scored? HRCI exams contain a variety of items with different cognitive levels. Some items therefore require more thought or evaluation than others. Therefore, each scored AIT must be answered correctly to count. The passing score is set statistically based on factors like item difficulty so everyone has a comparable chance of success regardless of which test form they get.

What can I expect at the test center? Most people find AITs very easy to use. However, your exam tutorial will also provide further guidance. The examples above will give you an idea of what these items might look like.