Studying for counselor licensing exams

Matthew Henry / Burst / Used under licenseLicensing exams are a major milestone in the development of a professional counselor (specific license titles vary, but LPC, LPCC, and LMHC are common). While there are differences from state to state, most states use one or both of the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Exam and National Counselor Exam, and most states require that the exam be taken at the completion of at least two years of full-time, post-masters experience in supervised practice. As you approach completion of the experience necessary to take counselor licensing exams, how can you best prepare? Here are five things that can help:

1. Start preparing early

Preparation for your counselor licensing exam should ideally start when 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 counselors say they spent six months or more specifically preparing for the exam. Licensing exams are anxiety-provoking enough; do not make the anxiety worse by procrastinating on your preparation.

2. Use your support system

Even in the best of circumstances, preparing for counselor 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 counselor 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.

The National Board for Certified Counselors (the organization that actually develops the NCMHCE and NCE) sells an NCMHCE prep guide that includes basically half of a practice test (5 clinical simulations; the real thing has 10). They also offer an exam handbook with information on the test and a sample simulation.

Other companies that offer NCE and NCMHCE study materials include the following. (These are in no particular order, and we don’t endorse any of them. We just offer these links for informational purposes.)

Career Training Concepts
Licensure Exams Inc.
Psychotherapists Training Institutes
Howard Rosenthal

For California counselors, I offer an online prep program specifically for the California Clinical Counselor (LPCC) Law & Ethics Exam.

A cautionary note: I have heard the argument many times that exam prep companies do not necessarily provide good value relative to their 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 counselors say they appreciate and have benefited from what these companies offer. Ultimately, whether you need the preparation or not, it’s often helpful — both for the exam itself and for what it offers in reinforcing knowledge from your graduate program.

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.

It is also always a good idea to know and make use of additional resources that may be available to you. Professional associations may have local groups of prelicensed members who collaborate on counselor licensing exam preparation activities. Also, some graduate programs provide workshops for their alumni who are getting close to taking their 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!