How I Passed the Social Work Licensing Exam…and how YOU can too!

This article was originally posted on the NASW-NYC Chapter blog, as well as in the New Social Worker Magazine.

In 2007, I graduated with my MSW degree from what is now known as the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in New York City.  My method was in Community Organizing and Planning and after two wonderful years in grad school, I was ready to enter this world as a professional.

I planned to get my license first, especially since I was told it’s best to tackle this right out of school.  So, immediately after graduating, I took the review course offered to alumni and purchased study material from Social Work Examination Services (those blue & white books that cover content and provide practice exams).  I even bought the CD-ROM “Autotest” and I decided to study and register with NYSED and ASWB.  But a month after graduation, I wanted to give my brain a chance to rest, then reality slowly crept in and I realized I *really* needed a job!  So, let’s fast forward through a few months of job hunting and landing a position.

Diving into the first real job of my adult life, I consumed myself with work and used the little extra time I had to veg.  I had the books, but did not study.  And so this got put off for another four years.

2011 was different for me.  In planning my wedding, I had somehow made a promise to my fiancé that I would finally get this exam over with before we got married.  In May 2011, I took the NASW LMSW Test Prep class with Dr. Dawn Hall Apgar.  I sat in on this class a few years before, but this time something else clicked and I got it.  Dawn gave us the tools we needed to take the exam, and after having passed, let me tell you SHE WAS ON POINT!  Not only did Dawn cover the content areas we need to focus in on, but she also showed us how to *read* the questions on the exam.  It can be tricky (and if you’ve taken the exam, you know what I mean!)

In the summer of 2011, I made a decision that greatly impacted my study ethic:  I got a study partner!  My friend, a graduate from NYU Silver School of Social Work, and I planned to meet weekly, for about a month, to study and take the exam in September.  This actually ended up taking nearly 3 months for us.  We were diligent, met weekly and went over the content areas in depth.  When we weren’t together, we made up flash cards and read up on areas that needed more of our attention.  By the beginning of October, we both realized we needed to schedule our exam and be done with it.  And so we did!  And as of November 2011, we both passed our licensing exam!

If you are worried about taking the exam, here are 10 (hopefully) helpful hints:

  1. First thing to do, and the thing you must consistently do throughout your studying and testing process:  Find a way to battle your ANXIETY!  While working at NASW, I had spoken to many members on the phone that had taken the exam multiple times but did not pass.  Over the years, I have spoken to social workers that need to pass this exam to hold onto their jobs.  That is A LOT of pressure.  And in this economy, I hear that and feel that.  No matter your situation in getting licensed, you must find a way to relax your mind and slow your racing heart so that you can focus on the exam.I have been meaning to meditate for a long time, but haven’t quite mastered a routine.  But what works best for me is taking seven (why seven? I have no idea) long DEEP breaths and exhaling slowly.  Whenever I am anxious (in any setting) doing this relaxes me.  Try it.  Most of us don’t breathe enough.
  2. Find a study partner I am usually a loner when it comes to doing something I need to focus my energy on.  But the MAIN thing that helped me with this process is finding a study partner I could trust and rely on.  Meeting with my friend held me accountable—and without that, I could have easily put this off longer.  Meeting together kept us focused, had us talk out content (“What does projective identification actually mean??”) and find ways to remember things that we would need to know on the exam.  I owe so much to having her be a partner in this with me.
  3. Register and schedule your exam.  When you set an exam date, it *really* helps you focus.
  4. Consider what helps you with recall.  For me, it’s the act of writing things down.  I made flash cards, and used them seldom, but the mere act of writing down the various stages of development or what the side effects of MAOIs are, helped me retain this knowledge for the long run.  The test is tricky, yes, but you must know your content.
  5. The exam is not “all clinical” stuff.  Trust me, I was a macro student, I took core classes on human behavior in the social environment and a casework class, but I did not necessarily apply these subject areas into my direct work.  Are there questions on clinical diagnosis and medication use?  Yes. Do these outweigh direct practice questions?  No.  So if you are not a clinical social worker (like me), you can still pass this exam.  Review your content and know the basics.
  6. Take a review course to help you know what you *need* to know.  I cannot recommend the test prep course offered by NASW enough.    You get a study guide with material to focus in on, and practice questions at the end, to test your recall, as well as the full NASW Code of Ethics.  As alum, I took the test prep offered by Hunter which was also helpful.  I got some great tips there and used those in my exam, 4 years later.  Either way, take a review course; even if you know your content, you may not be completely prepared for what is ahead.
  7. Know the NASW Code of Ethics.  We all should know this, but you definitely *need* to know this for the exam.  Review it and understand it.  Know what you are legally being held to, as a professional social worker.
  8. Find supplemental study materials.  A few weeks before the exam, I found an array of resources online for *free*.  There is the Social Work Podcast, by Jonathan B. Singer, a great resource for social workers in general, not only for the exam.  There are also podcasts from Dr. Linton Hutchinson that you can find on iTunes called “Social Work Exam Review”.  I signed up for daily questions via email from Harvey Norris, LCSW (they were helpful to test my knowledge “on the go”).  And lastly, I paid $75 to take the ASWB practice exam online.  The main purpose in this was to give you an idea of what it will feel like to take the exam.  Please keep in mind that the test you take online is a replica of the actual exam and the questions may not reflect those that will actually be on the exam.  If you think that might help with your anxiety, do it.  You even get a breakdown of the content areas in the end.  I found it valuable, even if I had to pay extra for it.
  9. Think positively.  I know many of you may be under a lot of pressure to get this license; remember, give yourself some time to breathe, find other stress-reducing activities, and keep a positive energy around this exam.  I used some visualization techniques that truly helped with my anxiety (silly me took this exam 2 weeks before my wedding, talk about anxiety!).  Do not let the exam rule you, you must rule the exam.  And with enough preparation, you will!
  10. And lastly, TRUST YOUR GUT.  More often than not, our first instincts are always correct.  Do not second-guess yourself.  If you flag questions on the exam and review them, remember what made you choose the answer in the first place.  Don’t think too much into it and trust in your knowledge.

Ammu Kowolik, LMSW, is the Assistant Director of Communications and Program Development at the New York University, Silver School of Social Work’s McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research.


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