Every clinical social worker entering the profession in the US faces the hurdle of social work licensing exams. Each state now requires an ASWB Exam, with most using the Clinical Level Exam for LCSW licensure. Typically, the exam must be taken at the completion of at least two years of full-time, supervised, post-masters experience. Many states also require some kind of Law and Ethics Exam (called Jurisprudence in some states), though this is more varied. As you approach either of these exams, how can you best prepare? Here are five things that can help:
1. Start preparing early
Preparation for your clinical social work licensing exams should ideally start when you start your education. Keep those textbooks, as they will be handy references for test preparation and throughout your career. Ask your supervisor questions about specific interventions and approaches and how they are applied. Make sure you are keeping up with advances in law and professional ethics.
Test-specific preparation, including any combination of specific study time, workshops, practice exams, and other methods you find useful, should start at least a few months before your ASWB exam date. For Law & Ethics, as little as a week may be sufficient, depending on how well-prepared you are coming in. While there is no magic number guaranteed to improve exam performance, it is not unusual to hear clinical social workers say they spent six months or more specifically preparing for the ASWB exam. Licensing exams are anxiety-provoking enough; do not make the anxiety worse by procrastinating on preparation.
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 clinical social work licensing exams. Generally, these companies will offer some combination of lectures or workshops (some offered in-person), study guides, study materials (like charts or flash cards), and practice examinations. They may sell these products separately, and offer discounts when you buy multiple products in a package.
In California, AATBS, Therapist Development Center, Gerry Grossman Seminars, all offer programs or materials to help in preparing social workers for the state’s Clinical Social Work Law & Ethics Exam. (I also offer this study guide and practice exam specifically for the California Clinical Social Work Law & Ethics Exam.)
Note: The companies listed here have not paid to be included, and — with the exception of my own study guide, which I’d love for you to buy! — their inclusion is for informational purposes only. Listings and links here are not endorsements. You should carefully consider any exam prep program you are considering using.
The Association of Social Work Boards (the organization that actually develops the exams) 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 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 even with programs costing several hundred dollars, many CSWs 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 social work 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. When I took my MFT license exam, 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.
It is also always a good idea to know and make use of additional resources that may be available to you. NASW and other 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 their social work 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!