Four myths about counselor licensing exams

Ryan McGuire / Gratisography - licensed under Creative Commons ZeroIf you’re in the process of preparing for counselor licensing exams, you may be dreading them. Those fears may be based on what you’ve heard about the exams — and what you’ve heard may not be true.

I hear complaints about counselor licensing exams on a regular basis. Some of the complaints have merit, but most are based on mythology. It’s as if we (quite understandably) have anxiety-based associations with our testing process, past or future, and then conjure up rational-sounding but factually baseless complaints about the process in an attempt to justify those fears.

Every person who becomes a licensed professional counselor has to go through an examination process. While different states organize the process differently, common counselor licensing exams include the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Exam (NCMHCE) or the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE). Many states also supplement their national exam with a separate exam covering areas of state law (for example, state-based requirements for child abuse reporting).

It’s okay to be anxious about the exam process on its own merits. These exams are high-stakes; if you fail, you typically have to wait several months to try again. That impacts your standing among your peers, your employment options, and potentially your income.

I still remember completing my exam for MFT licensure in California and feeling certain I had failed. In a matter of moments, I began mentally planning how I would explain the failure to my employer, and how I would do better next time. It turned out I had passed, but the memory of those anxious moments before getting my results stays with me. If I had failed, I wanted to blame someone else: How dare that test be too hard for me! It must be the test’s fault! I’m glad I didn’t take much of a walk down that road, but if I had, I would have had plenty of company. (The same myths as those listed here exist for MFT exams too.)

Once a rumor has started that serves to explain why the tests feel so frightening and why we feel so unsure of ourselves going into them, it is easy for that rumor to be perpetuated. Such stories are typically factually wrong, and they do a disservice to future test-takers by making the exams look cruel and unpredictable.

But to someone who has failed a test (or worries they might), the stories offer comfort — and someone else to blame. So they live on each year.

Here are the four myths I hear about counselor licensing exams the most.

Myth #1: There are trick questions.

Simply put, a licensing exam that uses trick questions would not be legally defensible. Test developers go to tremendous lengths to make sure any potential exam item works well. They use several layers of review and pilot testing. If too many people miss a question, it gets flagged for even more review.

Myth #2: There is secret knowledge.

Test-prep companies make a lot of money perpetuating the mythology that they can provide you with “secrets” or other insider knowledge to help you pass the tests. Nonsense. The National Board of Certified Counselors (developers of the national exams) offers study guides that say what the exams will cover, and they ultimately draw the information that forms the basis of their questions from the same textbooks and journal articles that graduate programs use to teach their students.

Myth #3: They attempt to assess whether you are an effective counselor.

If I may be blunt, your licensing board does not care whether you are a great counselor or a lousy one. They only care about whether you can practice counseling competently enough so as to not be a danger to the public. That’s what the exams assess. Yes, ineffective counselors sometimes pass their licensing exams, and effective counselors sometimes fail. But effectiveness and potential dangerousness are two different things. If you want an outside evaluation of your quality as a counselor, look elsewhere. (Back in 2014, I examined in more detail the question of whether licensing exams lead to better quality counselors and therapists.)

Myth #4: The tests are written by people who aren’t counselors.

NBCC uses licensed counselors to develop their tests. They describe the NCE development process here (see Attachment B, page 7). The development and selection of every test item NBCC uses involves practicing counselors.

If you feel anxious about upcoming exams, do something about that anxiety instead of buying into the falsehoods above. That may mean simply more studying, or it may mean more directly addressing the anxiety through meditation, therapy, or other methods. (Test-prep programs do not have secret knowledge, but if they can help you feel more prepared and less anxious as you take the tests, they may well be worth your time and money.) Rest assured the exam process, and those who designed it, are not out to get you or to trick you. With the right preparation, you can do well on exam day.

If you know someone else who is anxious about their counselor licensing exams, or even who has failed an exam, by all means, comfort them and empathize with them. Sometimes we just have bad days. But please don’t support any of the mythology above — those ideas just make the testing process look bigger, scarier, and less under your control than it really is.