How to Pass the Social Work Licensing Exams

I wrote this article for friends who have asked for advice or help in preparing for the exams that social workers must pass to become licensed. I’ve described the strategies I used in my own preparation, but I’d also encourage you to gather ideas from others who have taken the exam.

Use Great Care in Preparing Your Application Package

Before you take the licensing exam, you'll have to apply to your state licensing board for permission to take the exam. At least in Maryland, the Board of Social Work Examiners is renowned as a stickler for detail. The essentials include the following.

  • Read the instructions carefully before beginning.
  • Use the most recently available forms. (See exception below.)
  • All forms must be filled in using blue ink.
  • Check your math for the hours and weeks entered the supervision verification form and summary sheet.
  • Do not use whiteout or make other kinds of corrections.
  • Be sure to review your paperwork and fill out clean forms if necessary.

The exception to using the most recent forms is the contract for supervision. Those contracts should be on the forms that were current at the time you entered into supervision with each supervisor.

Several times, when my supervisors and I were filling out the forms, we found errors and had to redo them. As one of my supervisors explained, your goal is to avoid attracting the board’s attention to any irregularity that might spur an audit of your supervision hours or clinical hours. An audit would greatly extend the length of time and the amount of effort required to receive the board's approval to take the licensing exam. The approval process at each stage will likely take several weeks, and longer if the board requests further information.

Study One of the Exam Prep Guides

To begin preparing, I studied an exam prep guide by LEAP, which provided a detailed and comprehensive review of the material that is included on the exam. Compared to the study aids offered by other companies, LEAP was relatively helpful. (I have also heard positive comments on Linton Hutchinson’s exam prep materials, but I haven’t used them.) There are less helpful study guides. Some companies, for example, provide fussy practice exam questions unlike any I’ve seen on the real exam and some of their supposed correct answers are clearly wrong.

Studying an exam prep guide is useful, not just as a way to review the material you learned in social work school, but also to fill in any gaps in your formal education. I learned a lot by studying the guide. Much of what I learned will strengthen my work as a psychotherapist. Thus, studying a guide may offer benefits beyond just passing the exam.

I took several of the practice exams that are usually included in exam prep guides. If I realized that I didn't know a topic well, I researched it in books or online. In particular, I read a lot in the DSM‑5 at this stage, especially on differential diagnosis. You can download this blank answer sheet as a Word Docx, if you need one.

Do You Need to Remember Every Detail?

The social work exams cover a huge range of material. ASWB provides lists of the content areas and relative weight of each area on its exams:

It may be tempting to use the non-ASWB study materials because they tend to be very comprehensive. In my experience, it may not be necessary to know the minutia. Although the LEAP study guide was interesting and beautifully summarized, very little of the LEAP materials appeared on my actual exam. My concern is that worrying about learning the details related to so many topics may create unnecessary anxiety. Although my exams asked very few content-oriented questions, some of my friends have reported otherwise. Apparently, every test-taker will take very different exam, with questions selected randomly from a large set of potential questions. You will have to decide how much energy to spend learning comprehensive, detailed content. I don’t have a photographic memory, so I chose to learn the major points in order to reduce stress and cognitive overload.

Getting Some Questions Wrong is Normal and Not a Problem

You only have to answer correctly between 93 and 106 of the 150 scored items. (There are 20 additional questions that are not scored. This document has a more detailed explanation: You may find it reassuring to remember that you will pass even if you get no more than 71% correct. Missing a few questions about esoteric topics won’t matter. Use this fact to help you relax while studying and during the exam.

Consider Taking an Exam Prep Class

I also took a two-day exam prep class offered by NASW-MD and taught by Corey Beauford, LICSW. The main thing I learned in the class was to separate “exam world” from “real world.” There are two aspects to this advice. First, when a question presents you with a scenario, do not insert details you know from your work experience. Only use the information specifically provided in the question. Second, the ASWB may have very different beliefs about correct clinical practice compared to you have seen in your clinical experiences. This is why I recommend below that you take the ASWB practice exam so you can learn to think like the ASWB question writers.

Many exam prep classes include a set of study materials and practice tests. The study guide I received in my class was useful because the author did not try to be comprehensive, but pointed out what material would be most likely to be on the exam.

Study the NASW Code of Ethics

Although the code of ethics is a very short document, it is highly important on the exam.
I recommend learning the code of ethics well because it is by far the easiest 18% of the clinical exam to prepare for. Ethics is even more important on the master’s level exam, where it comprises 27% of the content.

Know the "First/Next" and "Best/Most Reasonable" Acronyms

The tests I took had many “What would you do first?” and “What would you do next?” questions. To help with those questions, you can use the FAREAFI acronym.

  • F: Feelings of client must be acknowledged first. Begin building rapport.
  • A: Assess
  • R: Refer
  • E: Educate
  • A: Advocate
  • F: Facilitate
  • I: Intervene

To use this acronym, your goal is to select the response that is closest in hierarchy to the first letter/item of FAREAFI. I don't think my exam required any answers past FAR.

A similar acronym is AASPIRINS, which is used in the same manner for questions asking "What is the best action?" or "What is the most reasonable action plan?"

  • A: Acknowledge client. Begin building rapport.
  • A: Assess
  • S: Start where the patient is at
  • P: Protect life. Determine/prevent danger to client and others.
  • I: Intoxicated do not treat. Refer.
  • R: Rule out medical issue
  • I: Informed consent
  • N: Non-judgmental stance
  • S: Support patient self-determination

I didn’t memorize the acronyms, but I did remember the gist of them, which helped me answer a number of questions. There is additional instruction on using these acronyms here:

Take the ASWB Online Practice Exam

For me, the most helpful step was taking the ASWB online practice exam. Most importantly, passing the practice test gave me confidence in knowing that I was probably going to pass the exam. In addition, for both the masters and clinical exams, some of the real exam questions on my exams were very similar to those on the online practice exam. After you take the ASWB online practice exam, be sure to study the ASWB’s explanations for the “correct” answers on the practice exam. That will help you get into the mindset that the ASWB uses when they create exam questions.

Take the online practice exam at least a week before the real exam so you’ll have enough time to reschedule the actual exam if you decide that you’re not ready. There is no penalty or cost for rescheduling, as long as you do so within the permitted time frame.

If I Pass the Practice Exam Will I Pass the Real Exam?

Although most who pass the practice test also pass the real exam, a few don’t. This could occur because your actual test contained very different questions from those on the practice test. Or it may happen because you changed your test-taking behaviors for the real test.

Should You Change Your Answers?

During the exam, you will be able to mark questions for later review. The first time through the questions, you will hopefully read each of the questions carefully and consider each possible answer. If you believe that you may become impulsive when you go over those questions a second time, you may not want to review any questions. Or you may want to commit to marking for review only a few questions. In that case, choose only those about which you are most uncertain. That will give you the time you’ll need to carefully re-read the entire question and reflect before choosing a final answer.

You May Be More Prepared Than You Realize

The actual tests I took struck me as an attempt to measure our ability to think logically about difficult situations. You have already developed that basic skill because you’ve been building the skill in your internships and supervised employment.

For many of us, the clinical level exam seemed easier than the master’s level exam. Maybe that’s because we’re more accustomed to thinking like clinical social workers by the time we take the clinical exam.

Seek Social Support

The licensing process may feel like it requires an overwhelming amount of document preparation, waiting on bureaucrats, and study. We’re social animals, so don’t go through this alone. Seek out opportunities to study with friends or ask for advice. Even brief interactions will create positive feelings for both of you. Friends may also have study materials they’d be happy to lend you. I can’t think of one good reason to slog through the licensing process alone.

Before the Exam

If you aren’t familiar with the location of the exam site, drive by a few days before the exam to be sure you can find the building easily. Fill the gas tank a day or two before the exam so you won’t be rushing around the day of the exam. On the day of the exam, give yourself extra time to get to the examination location so you won’t become anxious if there are traffic delays. Be sure to get a good night’s sleep the night before your exam.

According to staff at my testing center, the ASWB has changed its policy and no longer allows test takers to access any of their belongings, including snacks, during the exam. You will be required to empty your pockets before entering the exam room. You are, however, allowed to take breaks to visit the bathroom and drink their water. All of this means that you’ll want to eat a healthy meal before the test so you don’t get hungry or sleepy during the exam. (If you believe you’ll need a snack during the test, you may be able to apply to ASWB and your local board for a medical accommodation.)

Use Positive Self-Talk at Each Step of Preparing and Taking the Exam

As you study for the exam, before you go into the testing center, and during the exam, breathe deeply and give yourself positive self-talk. You’ve done a lot that should give you confidence. Celebrate each step and each success: You’ve completed the application packet; you’ve studied; you’ve taken pencil and paper practice exams; and you’ve passed the online practice exam. Remind yourself of each success and your readiness to pass the real exam.

On the day of the exam, you could tell yourself something such as, "I feel good about myself. I worked hard in preparing for the exam. I passed the online practice test. I’m ready to take the test. Missing a few questions didn’t matter then and won’t matter this time. I'm going to use as much of my test time as I need and I’m going to read each question carefully. With difficult questions, I’ll use the test prep tools I’ve been learning and my intuitive sense of social work practice. I expect to pass, but even if I don't get a passing grade this time, it won’t be the end of the world. Okay, breathe deep... let’s do it!"

After the Exam

Let your friends know that you passed! They’ll want to celebrate with you. You may want to support others in preparing to pass the exam, too.

Good luck! You can do it!

Feel free to leave a message if you have any questions or comments.