Here’s a question I recently got from a Raise Your Voice reader:
Hi Nicole! I am currently studying to take the licensed master of social work [LMSW] exam in my state. I’m a little nervous because I’ve been out of graduate school for a few years now. While I’ve been working as a social worker since then, I feel so far removed from studying that the thought of actually taking this exam brings up a lot of anxiety for me. Can you share what you did to take the LMSW exam and pass it on the first try?
Before I give my advice on preparing for the LMSW exam, I want to share the process I underwent that led me to pass the LMSW exam on my first try. As a disclaimer, this is what *I* did. In no way am I’m advocating for anyone to do the same.
I graduated from my social work graduate program in May 2010, and I took the LMSW exam on March 31, 2014. I’m mentioning this for one important reason: While I do recommend taking the exam as soon as you’re eligible to take it (which depends on your state. There are some states that will allow you to take the exam during the final month of your graduate program), it is possible to take this exam and pass it years after graduation.
Some things I considered prior to registering for and taking the exam:
The price: For New York State, I had to pay two separate fees. To submit the Application for Licensure (which sets your intention to take the exam, and requires your school to verify you graduated from your program), I paid $294. Once my information was verified by my school, I registered for the actual exam, which cost $230. That’s $524 total. Fortunately, my employer had a wellness and education scholarship, which allowed me to spend up to $500 on anything education related. Once I submitted the receipt for the $294 (because you need to verify that you actually spent the money), I was reimbursed. I used that amount to register for the exam, and was reimbursed for that as well. Unfortunately, not many employers have this, so shelling out $524 for an exam can be the last thing anyone would want to do.
I wasn’t sure if I really needed licensure: Fortunately, the LMSW wasn’t a requirement for my position, so I didn’t have any added pressure attached to taking the exam. This isn’t the case for a lot of social workers. Depending on your employer, you may need to be licensed before you can even be considered for employment. If you are hired without a license, you may be required to become licensed within six month to a year, with six months being the preference. I decided to take the exam because I saw the LMSW as my “arrival” as a social worker. By having this licensure, I prove that I can be in any social work setting, direct practice or macro level, and be competent enough to do the job.
I’ve never been good at standardized tests: I don’t remember what I scored on the SAT, the ACT, or even the GRE, but my scores were enough to get me admitted into undergraduate and graduate school. There’s also that psychological aspect of standardized testing. The anxiety built around taking these exams can be crippling because there’s so much emphasis on your score. Also, standardized tests are really about HOW to take the exam, rather than on the information you’ve retained from school. You can begin to base your self-worth on what score you get. Regarding the LMSW exam, not passing it can make you feel like you are not a good social worker.
With that being said, here’s what I did to apply, prepare, and pass the LMSW exam:
I submitted my Application for Licensure to the New York State Office of the Professions in June 2013, and I sent the Certification of Professional Education to my school to verify my degree. I was approved to take the exam in July 2013, and I scheduled my exam date with the Association of Social Work Boards for November 2013. After several postponements, I settled on March 31, 2014 as my exam date. (March 31st is the last day of National Social Work Month, so it had meaning for me.)
I began studying in January 2014, using the test prep book I got in 2012 from the National Association of Social Workers- New York City chapter. (I even attended the NASW-NYC’s forum on tackling the LMSW exam in 2012, and after hearing audience members share how they’ve taken the test over five times and still had not passed it, or how their employers were pressuring them to pass the exam, it encouraged me even more to postponed my exam.) I divided the test prep book into several weeks, where I would focus on one topic per week.
This worked for about 2 weeks until I realized something: I didn’t want to go to my job and do social work, and then come home to study it, often after dealing with high needs clients. (which is funny because that’s what you do while in school!) So, I stopped studying, but I kept my March 31st exam date.
What comes next may seem unconventional, especially based on everything you’ve Googled on “how to pass the LMSW exam”: I requested vacation days for March 24-31, 2014 and devoted that entire week to studying and taking practice exams. (I got the idea from a co-worker, who passed the exam on the first try). I studied by myself (no test prep partners), and spent that week in the library. I broke down the chapters from the NASW NYC test prep book by day, and went from there. Some days, I studied from 9am-6, and some days I would study until midnight. I began studying March 23rd and finalized my preparation on March 30th.
Do’s and Don’ts
In addition to the test prep book, here’s what I found useful during my test prep:
Do know the NASW Code of Ethics: If you could choose to study only one thing for this exam, it should be the Code of Ethics. The Code of Ethics is the foundation of this exam. I remember having a few questions based on the DSM (in terms of guess what the diagnosis was), but the majority of my questions centered on what the social worker should do FIRST, NEXT, etc. The clues are given in the Code of Ethics.
Do take practice exams: You could make your own flashcards or pay the one-time fee and take the ASWB’s practice exam, or you can get more bang for your buck and pay for 3 exams with Social Work Test Prep (SWTP). I paid $90 for one of the exam bundles, granting me access to 3 exams (where you can take in study mode or practice mode) for up to 90 days. In study mode, I was able to get the rationale for the answer choices as well as online links for more information. In testing mode, I was able to time myself. I took the first practice exam and finished with 15 minutes left, and took the second practice test before my exam and finished with 20 minutes. On exam day, I finished the exam in 3 hours, with one hour left to go back to questions I had skipped over.
Do figure out how you like to retain information: I like to write things down, and I wrote key concepts, diagnosis information, etc. into a separate notebook. I reviewed those notes every night before bed, and skimmed through them the following day. I also utilized a brainwave application called Brain Wave Sharp Mind by Banzai Labs. In particular, I used the Concentration Boost while studying, Memory Boost when I reviewed my notes and took the practice exams, and Confidence Boost when i finished studying and while en-route to my testing site. I downloaded this app several months prior as a way to help sharpen my focus in the general sense, but it became very useful while studying for the exam.
Do take study breaks: I would study for 90 minutes, and take a 15 minute breaks in between. Study guide closed, laptop closed. I would take a walk around the library or spend the 15 minutes playing a game on my phone. The point is to allow your brain to rest, whatever it is you decide to do.
Do a trial run: Five days before my exam, I set out my clothes and the items I would need for exam day (including my ID, testing confirmation, etc.). Since my exam began at 8am, I woke up in enough time to get dressed, eat breakfast, and travel to my testing site. Once I found my testing site, I stood outside the building for a few minutes before heading off to the nearest library to study. Simulating a testing day will allow you do know what to expect, as well as help you to remain calm on the actual day since you will know the amount of time it’ll take for you to get to the testing site and what building looks like.
Do find ways to relieve stress: Taking an entire week to study 2 years worth of material was intense. After studying, I would exercise as a way to relieve stress. Also, this blog post by the popular social services site Aunt Bertha provides other ways to destress while studying for the LMSW exam.
Do know your acronyms: FAREAFI works best for “what should the social worker do FIRST/NEXT” questions, while AASPIRINS works best for “what is the best/most reasonable option” questions. The best answer choice may not necessarily be the most logical, so these acronyms come in handy. Check out fellow social worker Dorlee Michaeli’s blog post for sample questions on applying these acronyms.
Don’t tell (many) people you’re taking the exam: I told maybe 3 people. In addition to that, the clinical director at my job wanted to know that I was at least preparing for the exam, but didn’t want to know my exam date.
Don’t pull out your class books: It really won’t do anything but make you more stressed. If there’s a NASW in your area and they have a test prep class (or if your school is offering a class), take that instead. Your instructor will help you hone in on what you’ll really need to know for the exam, minus the fluff.
Don’t answer exam questions based on what you’d do at your agency: This goes back to knowing the above acronyms and the Code of Ethics. Also, what your agency expects you to do may not be the most ethical. But that’s an entirely different blog post.
The Big Day
I felt confident I had done enough to do my best on the exam, and doing my trial run a few days prior helped to soothe my nerves. I dressed comfortably and knew what to expect on test day based on my testing site’s information, including that the exam would be taken on computer. I also made sure I ate a breakfast that was filling but didn’t leave my stuffed.
During the four-hour exam, I took one break for water. I made sure to remember my breathing whenever my pulse stared to race. I skipped over 15 questions because I had no idea what the answers could be. With one hour left, I went back to those questions and gave it my best shot. With 15 minutes left, I submitted my exam.
It was a huge relief to see PASS on my screen. I sat in my chair for a few minutes before I signaled to the test proctor that I was ready to leave the testing area. In the reception area, the receptionist gave me my exam results paper, and just like with my SAT, ACT, and GRE exam scores, I don’t remember what my LMSW exam score was.
I celebrated by going to the nearest Pinkberry and ordering the biggest cup of the original flavor. I remember just sitting there. “What should I do now?”, I remember thinking. I had never studied like this before while in school, and my brain was fried. While it felt extreme, it paid off in the end.
Whether you study one week prior or several months out, going it alone or finding a study group, do what you feel works best for you. I won’t tell you to not be nervous. Even the most confident of LMSW exam takers found themselves having to retake the exam. If you do have to retake the exam, evaluate what you did in your first attempt and make some minor tweaks to build your test taking strategy. But, from what I hear, roughly 75% of LMSW exam takers pass the exam on the first try, and most likely you’ll be among that number.