Studying for MFT licensing exams

If you are soon to be taking your state’s MFT licensing exams, congratulations! Here are five tips on how to study and prepare.

[Ed. note: This post initially published October 27, 2010. Updated in November 2016 to update the list of companies offering test prep products and services.]

Licensing exams are a major milestone in the professional development of a marriage and family therapist (MFT). While there are differences from state to state, every state except California uses the National MFT Exam, and most states require that exams be taken at the completion of at least two years of full-time, post-masters experience in supervised practice. (California uses exclusively its own exams.) As you approach completion of the supervised experience necessary to take the exams, how can you best prepare? Here are five things that can help:

1. Start preparing early

Your preparation for MFT licensing exams should really be an ongoing process from the time you start your education. Keep those textbooks; they will be handy references for test preparation and throughout your career. Ask your supervisor questions about specific theories and how they are applied. Make sure you are keeping up with advances in law and professional ethics.

Test-specific preparation (specific study time, workshops, practice exams, and/or other methods you find useful) should start at least a few months before your test date. While there is no magic number guaranteed to improve exam performance, it is not unusual to hear MFTs say they spent six months or more specifically preparing for the exams. Licensing exams are anxiety-provoking enough; do not make the anxiety worse by procrastinating on your preparation to the last minute.

2. Use your support system

Even in the best of circumstances, preparing for licensing exams can be stressful and time-consuming. Let your partner, family, and close friends know ahead of time about the exams and how you are planning to get ready for them. Not only can these social connections offer you support and understanding, they also can help keep you accountable for following through on your plans.

You should also make sure your supervisor is well aware of your approaching exam date. They may be able to offer additional specific guidance and supervision to make sure you are ready for the big day.

3. Use test preparation companies if you wish

There are a number of companies that specifically work to prepare folks for MFT licensing. Generally, these companies will offer workshops, study guides, study materials (like charts or flash cards), and practice examinations. They usually will sell these products separately, but offer discounts when you buy multiple products in a package.

In California, AATBS, Therapist Development Center, and Gerry Grossman Seminars all offer help in preparing MFTs for the state’s Law & Ethics Exam and MFT Clinical Exam. (I also offer materials specifically for the California MFT Law & Ethics Exam, including a study guide and practice tests.)

For the National MFT Exam, prep products and services are offered by AATBS, Gerry Grossman Seminars, Licensure Exams Inc., and Family Solutions Institute. The Texas Division of AAMFT also produces an MFT Exam Preparation Manual.

The Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (the organization that actually develops the National MFT Exam) will let you purchase a practice test that closely emulates the real thing. They also offer an exam handbook with information on the test and a few sample questions.

A cautionary note: I have heard the argument many times that MFT exam prep companies do not provide good value relative to their high cost. To be sure, not everyone needs or wants the added preparation, and the companies offer nothing that is top secret; the knowledge to pass the exams should already be available to you. But many MFTs say they appreciate and have benefited from what these companies offer.

4. Plan test day strategies

Of course, all the studying and preparation in the world will not be much help if you go into the exam room and are overwhelmed with anxiety. Thankfully, you’ve been doing therapy for at least a couple of years now — you know a thing or two about helping people handle their nerves! Put that knowledge to work on yourself, and use the strategies you find most effective. It was helpful for me to have a relaxed breakfast, and sit in my car for a while listening to music to keep me calm before the test. Other things people often find helpful include:

  • Visiting the testing facility in advance, so you know how to get there, what the building looks like, and how long the commute will likely take.
  • Having a checklist for your test day, to avoid forgetting anything you will need (like ID).
  • Arriving early, to avoid the added stress of rushing.
  • Deep breathing and/or focused meditation.

5. Keep perspective

Yes, a licensing exam is a high-stakes exam. But it is still just an exam. And at least judging from California data, a majority of people who fail an exam the first time do pass eventually. So even if you do not pass the first time, it only slows you down a bit and gives you more time to study. And when you take the exam again, you will be even more familiar with the test and how it works.

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It is also always a good idea to know and make use of additional resources that may be available to you. MFT professional associations may have local groups of prelicensed members who collaborate on exam preparation activities. Also, some graduate programs provide workshops for their alumni who are getting close to taking MFT licensing exams. You may have other resources at your disposal as well, so stay in touch with colleagues in your area who are about to take the exams themselves, as well as those who have recently taken the tests.

If your exam is coming up soon, good luck!!

9 thoughts on “Studying for MFT licensing exams

  1. My husband used TDC to prepare for his exams (and I listened to all material and reviewed with him as part of his study so I was privvy to everything they offer). I would caution anyone using that service that the main value lies in whatever assistance they offer in learning to interpret what is wanted from a question. The questions themselves didn’t tend to match much of what was on the exams and the rationales that were provided were arbitrary at times and idiosyncratic. Far too often, the rationale for choosing one answer over another was something along the lines of “I like x better than y because I like it.” It can be enormously frustrating when doing the prep because not having a sound rationale for excluding one answer over another makes you feel as if you won’t be able to eliminate options very well when you take the test.

    Also, I will note that the TDC audio is poorly presented in general. It is clear that it’s just a woman at home using basic equipment and pausing now and then as she needs to run off and care for her kids or go back and erase a mistake. Her diction and pronunciation are often poor and she mispronounces words. She continuously referred to “factitious disorder” as “fictitious disorder” for example. You can’t expect a professional experience, but the overall orientation in how to approach questions remains of utility.

    For the clinical exam in particular, my husband felt that he would have been just as well off, if not better off reviewing textbooks about various modalities. The prep for law and ethics was more helpful in general, but he did not feel confident after either test that he’d passed as he just felt slammed by the difficulty of the real tests relative to the prep exams. However, he did pass both tests on his first try.

    I would recommend anyone who is studying to look into having their internship employer cover costs. Some of them do and county workers in California are covered for all costs associated with licensure (application fees, training, etc.).

  2. Any good books for the California clinical exam? I’m just using your books for the Law and Ethics portion and feel like that’s all I need. Looking for something similar for the clinical exam. Thanks for all your work!

  3. @Anonymous 8/1/12 – Um, see above. There are at least six organizations linked in this post that provide materials, workshops, or both to help you prepare for the National MFT Exam.

  4. I just found your blog! I am a MFT in CA, but currently living in Louisiana. I have to take the national exam to get licensed in the state. I have taken two exams and did not pass. I used AATBS (which helped me pass both my CA exams the first time around), but was not so lucky with prepping for the ational exam. Do you know of any other good companies to use to prep for this exam?

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