How to Approach the Social Work Licensing Exam

how to approach the social work exam Here's a helpful page of tips for taking the social work licensing exam--or any multiple choice exam. Contains answers to lots of test-taking FAQs, including whether or not to change your first answer (okay if you've got a reason to), how best to schedule your exam prep (don't cram), and what to do if more than one answer seems right (there are a few approaches--check out the article). Here are the bullets. Get details at the Social Psychology Network:

Preparing for the Exam

  • Simulate the Required Behavior
  • Spaced Practice is Better than Massed Practice
  • Don't Psych Yourself Out

Taking the Test

  • Look Over the Test and Pace Yourself
  • Take Short Breaks
  • Don't Skip Around
  • Don't Be Afraid to Change Your First Answer
  • What To Do If More Than One Answer Seems Correct

Ready to "simulate the required behavior"? Sign up for SWTP practice exams, which recreate the experience of the real thing. Get started now!

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Social Work Exam Essentials: How to Prepare

How To Prepare For The ASWB ExamPreparing for the social work licensing exam doesn't have to a grueling, draining, angst-filled misadventure. It can actually be somewhat pleasant--a learning experience, even. Key to this is figuring out what is actually worth studying so that you don't waste time with unnecessary cramming. Studying smart can actually mean studying less. Toward that end, here are some essentials steps to take as you prepare.

Focus on the Basics. The licensing exam is meant for beginning social workers. You aren't expected to have in-depth knowledge about theory and practice. You just have to know a little bit about a variety of topics. What topics? The very ones that routinely come up in social work practice. Some human development, some psychopathology (aka the DSM's greatest hits), some basic interventions (CBT for sure), and ethics, ethics, ethics. If you review just one thing before you go into the exam, make it the NASW Code of Ethics. Most exam questions are vignettes, not simple quiz-type questions. They present the kind of close calls that social workers face all the time. How do you decide between answers? Let the Code of Ethics be your guide. Know the Code? You've got your answer!

Learn the Test. The licensing exam is probably unlike most tests you've faced before. It's got a lot of questions (170 for the ASWB exam) and takes a long time to complete (four hours). In other ways, it's exactly like lots of tests you've taken before. It's multiple choice. It's about what it says it'll be about. And there aren't trick questions on it--not even "which of these is NOT" questions. You're asked to choose the BEST answer, the FIRST intervention, etc. You take your textbook social work knowledge and apply it. The best way to get to know the test--and how you respond to a four-hour, 170-question sit--is to take practice exams. Then take some more. Do them in real time. Do them in study mode. Learn your weaknesses and study to strengthen them. Then take more practice exams. You'll soon have the hang of the entire process. (Get started with SWTP practice exams by signing up.)

Keep Your Cool. Yes, it's a big test. Yes, you really want to pass it. That doesn't mean you have to make yourself miserable as you're preparing. Test preparation is an additional stressor piled atop whatever you already had going on (work, relationships, family, etc.).  What do you do when you've got more stress? Best bet is to increase your self-care. Think of what's worked in the past for you and fold that coping back into your week. Exercise, meditation, eating better, whatever it is--don't just consider it, actually do it. You'll feel better and you'll study better because of it. If you find test anxiety interfering with your focus and studying progress, do what you can to address that as well. Same routine: What's worked in the past? Talking, writing, thought-logging. You're a social worker, you know this stuff.

Focus on the basics, learn the test, keep your cool...pass the exam. Good luck and congratulations in advance!


For more help with preparing for the licensing exam, see SWTP's study tips page.

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Ask SWTP: Should I Read the Answers First?

exam-choiceMC writes, "As it relates to taking the exam, would you recommend reading the answers first, then read the question?"

Thanks for the question, MC. What seems to work best for most people is to read the question first--stop and think what the answer might be--then read the answers and find the one closest to what you'd been thinking.

On a long, timed test like the social work licensing exam, reading the answers first may be a risky strategy since you'd be adding to the amount of time you're taking on each item. That said, you may have seen research that shows that you can come close to passing the social work exam without ever reading the question stems. So either way, maybe you're okay.

If you've discovered with practice exams that you're a quick test-taker, then the answers-first approach might be worth a try--just to see what happens. If you do get better results that way, let us know!

Most tips on test-taking focus on careful reading and deliberation on each item. Here are few select pieces of advice about multiple-choice exams from

Eliminate options you know to be incorrect

If allowed, mark words or alternatives in questions that eliminate the option

Give each option of a question the "true-false test"

This may reduce your selection to the best answer.

Question options that are totally unfamiliar to you.

Question options that contain negative or absolute words.

Find more on the site and also on a similar page at

For a researched-based approach to test preparation, take a look at this article from Psych Central. In short: practice tests are a good idea. So, good thing you've found SWTP!

For more links to test-taking strategies, including reducing test anxiety, take a look at our Study Tips page.

However you choose to tackle the test, wishing you the best of luck! Congratulations in advance on getting licensed!

If you have a question you'd like to see covered here, write

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How to Pass the Social Work Exam

Guidelines in an article from now-licensed former exam-prepper, Michele Bashkin.  Her bullets:

  • Don't overthink the questions. They are not meant to trick you, and sometimes the right answer is obvious.
  • Ask yourself at every question - what is in the best interest of the client? No matter how reasonable other answers are, most questions focus on the client, not their family, doctor, or others needs and wishes.
  • Take a lot of practice exams. When I was ready to sit for the exam, I noticed a pattern in the questions and I began to understand what type of answer the "test makers" wanted. It is certainly not always what we would do in social work practice!
  • If it is possible, take as long as you need to prepare for the exam. I studied for nearly five months so that I could understand the information enough so that I did not have to memorize all of it. For instance, compare the problem solving model (acknowledge problem, define problem, brainstorm solutions, evaluate options, implement intervention strategies, and evaluate outcome) to program development (problem statement, goal/plan, resources, objectives, decide on program operation - evaluation tools, cost, usefulness of program, implementation, and evaluation). In my opinion, the steps are so similar that if I had a question related to either one, I would know what was involved in the process. I placed each similar topic on an index card and kept them paper clipped together. Of course, there are plenty of instances where memorization is necessary.

Social Work Career Development

A blog by Dorlee M., MBA, MSW, putting those two degrees to use helping social workers.  Here's her collection of exam-related posts, which includes a couple of sets of free practice exams, exam tips, etc.

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