Are licensing exam prep courses a good value?

Several exam prep companies offer products and services to help counselors and therapists prepare for their licensing exams. These offerings may cost hundreds of dollars. Are they worth your money?

[Ed. note – This post was originally published November 1, 2010. Minor update in November 2016. It’s worth acknowledging that I offer prep material for the California MFT Law & Ethics Exam, as described elsewhere on this site.]

Last week, I posted a few tips for preparing for MFT licensing exams, including a list of providers of study courses and materials. I purposefully sidestepped the question of whether such products are worth the cost, which easily can add up to several hundred dollars. It’s hard to know for sure.

Over the years I have known quite a few folks, including staff at California’s Board of Behavioral Sciences, who hold particular disdain for test prep companies, viewing them as profiteers who make money by fostering test anxiety. The companies can do this partly because it is very difficult to measure their true usefulness. When examinees use the exam prep companies and then pass the licensing tests, it is difficult to tell whether their success came from the company’s help, or whether the examinee would have passed anyway using just their own study skills. Either way, of course, the test prep company is usually happy to take credit for the passing score.

There are at least a couple of reasonable arguments to be made against using these companies to prepare for your license exams. But for each argument, there is a strong counter. Here are both sides. The final decision, of course, is up to you.

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The anti-prep-company argument: If one’s education was adequate and they received quality supervision after graduation, passing the exam should not require spending hundreds of dollars to re-educate oneself about how to do therapy in a way that is minimally competent.

The counter: It’s an understandable argument, but ignores a couple of realities: One, quality education and supervision are pretty big “ifs.” There are major differences between educational programs in how their graduates perform on licensing exams, and while that is not all due to differences in the grad school experience, I suspect at least some part of it is. There are also bound to be supervisors who offer less-than-ideal supervision experiences, especially when the bar for becoming a supervisor is set low (in California, one needs only to have been licensed for two years and taken a six-hour supervision course to supervise master’s-level associates and trainees). And two, whether they really need it or not, a lot of examinees say that they want the additional preparation. It solidifies their existing knowledge and helps them to go into the exams with more confidence. So, test preparation companies can provide a valuable, if expensive, service for those who feel they need or want it. Not everyone does.

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The anti-prep-company argument: Licensing exam prep companies thrive off of perpetuating the myth that there is some top-secret test knowledge that the companies have that examinees cannot get elsewhere.

The counter: While it is true that the necessary knowledge can come from the very textbooks used in graduate programs (these are typically what subject matter experts use to craft the licensing exam items), it is also true that success in testing relies at least in part on good test-taking skills. And a good test prep company will offer guidance on both specific content and test-taking strategies. And the exam prep companies also offer practice tests that can prove useful in familiarizing examinees with the structure and format of the test itself.

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So, are the test-prep companies right for you? There is no easy-to-determine answer. Even if we had enough data to say whether these prep programs work in general, that does not really answer the question of whether they would make a difference specifically for you. Still, the companies would do themselves and their customers a favor if they gathered and published the following data:

  • Average customer improvement. For workshops and training courses, brief pre- and post-tests could help current and potential customers see just how much people are picking up.
  • Retention rates. Give that post-test again two weeks after they are done with the course or workshop. If customers are not holding onto their gains, there’s a problem.
  • Exam pass rates. This seems obvious, but many companies do not actually collect this data. They should. Just demonstrating that the pass rates for their customers are higher than average would be significant.
  • Reimbursement requests. Some companies guarantee that you will pass your exam or get your money back. How many people actually take them up on that? Even among those who do not pass, most can recognize the difference between weaknesses in their own study habits and weakness in the material they were provided.

As I said last week, use the strategies you have learned work best for you in helping prepare for licensing exams. If you do decide to work with an exam prep company, gather as much information you can before choosing which one to work with. That may mean asking them some uncomfortable questions. But if the test-prep company cannot calmly and accurately answer questions under pressure, how can you reasonably expect that they could prepare you to?