How to Prepare for the LCSW Exam

I was curious about the Clinical exam given by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) to those who have completed (or in some states, will complete) approximately two years’ worth of supervisied clinical practice and are now (or will then be) seeking to become Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs), or whatever it is called in the particular state.  I was not sure if or when I, myself, would be taking that exam.  I may update this post if and when I reach that point.

In the meantime, I did a bit of digging around, just to get a sense of what the exam might be like, and to decide where I would focus my own study.  This post presents the gist of what I found.

The obvious place to start with the Clinical exam was with ASWB itself.  Their Study Guides webpage provided a sample question, which I analyze at the end of another post.  Their Candidate Handbook provided that same question, plus a second one, along with a cursory Content Outline indicating the subjects covered in the exam.  They also provided a booklet containing Content Outlines and KSAs (Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities statement) — basically, a detailed outline of subjects covered in each exam.  In addition, ASWB advertised a study guide for $33 with shipping.  The last page of the Candidate Handbook said that the study guide contained general information about the exam, subject references, outlines, exam-taking suggestions, and a 50-question sample exam with answers and explanations.

I say ASWB was the obvious place to start because, as with the GRE, I felt I was unlikely to be misdirected into unnecessary, unhelpful, or counterproductive study effort if I began with the test guide put out by the people who wrote the exam.  They might not acknowledge — they might not even be aware of — certain patterns in their questions or clever strategies that a test-taker could use.  But my view was, crawl first, fly later:  first, get a sense of what the exam is about; then, optionally, get fancy with tips, when I would be better able to judge whether the tip might actually be wrong.

There seemed to be a fair number of LCSW exam prep books and courses that I could have purchased from other sources.  These might have their place, especially for someone who failed in one or more previous tries.  Examples included courses by LEAP and SWES, practice tests from, and books by Norris, Chaparro, Golden, and Mometrix.  It looked like some of these ranged well over $100.

A blog discussing ASWB’s Clinical exam, dating from 2006, conveyed a number of thoughts and reactions that seemed helpful:

  • One commenter who had failed twice previously was apparently able to pass by studying the Golden book for 30 to 60 minutes a day for two months.  (There was no way to be sure as to whether such testimonials were padding from the author him/herself, but this one seemed plausible.)
  • Another person, offering the remark, “Nothing like a standardized test to make you feel like a loser,” said that s/he recommended the LEAP course.  This person’s endorsement was of uncertain value; s/he said s/he had just failed the exam on the previous day, for the second time.
  • Someone who took the Advanced Generalist test, 15 years after finishing his/her MSW, said that the exam had clinical questions, and that those were practice-oriented questions, asking about things like “what would you do in this situation,” not book-oriented questions like, “What is phase 4 of psychodynamic therapy?”  This person concluded that the test was much easier than the test prep materials had led him/her to expect.
  • A person who took an LCSW exam prep course at the University of Denver said that it was helpful and that it emphasized test-taking skills.  The examples s/he provided seemed to be (a) if the question asks what to do first, the answer containing the word “acknowledge” is probably the right one; (b) if “acknowledge” isn’t there, look for an “evaluate” answer; (c) generally, choose answers emphasizing client self-determination; and (d) follow these guidelines even if the questions are worded poorly.
  • That person said that the Clinical and Advanced Generalist tests were similar and that (at least in his/her state) it was possible to get a clinical license with either.  S/he also said it helped, during the exam, to pause every 10 questions and close his/her eyes “to exhale and make sure I wasn’t getting fed up with the process and kept my concentration — which is really hard for me.”
  • Another person agreed with the advice about questions with words like “acknowledge,” and advised against spending lots of money on guides from sources other than ASWB.  This person also recommended studying in one’s usual, familiar way, not taking off in some new direction.  “Avoid all those expensive study aides [sic], they will only make you over think what are in the end much simpler questions.  “Also, remember to imagine what a good social worker that lives in a textbook would do . . . never what you would actually do.”  Like others, this person also suggested changing test sites on the retry if the first one was not conducive to success.  I wasn’t sure whether this advice, repeated by others as well, was just for good luck or was a response to actually nasty conditions in a given site.

I looked at the two sample questions provided in ASWB’s Candidate Handbook.  They were absurdly easy.  This brought to mind some research by Albright and Thyer (2010).  Albright and Thyer gave the Clinical practice test (from the $30 Study Guide) to 59 first-year MSW students.  More precisely, they gave the answers only, without the questions.  In other words, the MSW students were looking at something like this:

(A) Work with the foster parents on a behavior modification plan

(B) Suggest that the child’s teacher refer him for special education placement

(C) Refer the child for assessment for fetal alcohol syndrome

(D) Work with the child’s biological mother toward reunification

and that’s all.  There was no question; just the four possible answers to choose from.  These 59 MSW students had to guess what the question was about, or just forget that and try to imagine which answer would be most favored by ASWB.  Logically, these MSW students should have been right about 25% of the time:  they would guess one out of four at random, making them wrong, on average, for three out of every four questions they answered.  Ah, but that’s not what happened.  According to Albright and Thyer, these 59 MSW students averaged a score of 52%.  Not bad, considering that ASWB said that states tend to require correct answers on between 94 and 107 (i.e., between 63% and 71%) of the 150 scored questions on the exam.  Mere guessing, without anything other than the wording of the possible answer, could apparently be almost enough to put a person over the line.

That outcome could help to explain much of the variation that Thyer (2010) found in pass rates for graduates from various MSW programs.  One might initially suspect that better schools would produce higher ASWB exam pass rates; but it could also be that supposedly better schools of social work do not help significantly for purposes of ASWB exam prep, but are simply better able to select skilled test-takers (e.g., those with higher GRE scores).  I get good scores on tests like the GRE, so maybe I would approach the LCSW exam with confidence and training in the art of test-taking, while other worthy individuals sit there sweating and freaking themselves out at the detailed wording and possible nuances of various answers.  In the worst case, a poorly designed test could actually prevent qualified people from being licensed while giving the go-ahead to unqualified people.  Just because it’s a standardized test doesn’t mean that it is worth the paper it’s printed on.

But, as I say, I wasn’t actually taking the test at this time, and wasn’t sure when or if I would.  I was just writing up suggestions and observations provided by others, and this is as far as I got in that process at this time.  Possibly I would update this post at some time in the future.

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  • Amanda  On November 25, 2015 at 12:15 PM

    I used the test prep materials from Therapist Development Center because I had failed the LCSW test twice. After studying with them, I passed the first time. These materials are incredible and I would recommend them to anyone.

  • Cynthia Saenz Ward  On April 6, 2014 at 9:41 AM

    I am about for months away from finishing my supervision and since it’s been a while since I was in graduate school, decided I’d better start studying. As you note, there are a number of websites available but your hints and information seemed logical regarding using the ASWB study guide. Your test taking typos are also very helpful! I am one those not so good test takers, so I will be implementing these skills during my practice tests. Thanks for taking the time to pay this information.

  • Linton Hutchinson  On June 18, 2013 at 8:10 AM

    Another online exam practice site:

  • SWTP  On November 26, 2012 at 12:56 PM

    For those who want online exam practice, another resource:

  • Nancy  On September 7, 2012 at 8:04 PM

    Does anybody recognize the terminology “English usage”?
    Very interested in your reference to pseudo-intellectualism, or something like that.
    I have plenty of post grad education and have worked/written exhaustive (& exhausting) regulatory reports for 21 years as a medical social worker inspector for medicare and medicaid and the ICF/MR System. Between the PhD study of historical linguistics in Germanistik, history mayor, higher education masters and secondary teaching training and an MSW I still have had an awful problem with the “agency gobbledigook” terminology used in so many questions and answers I just failed the test today. I passed all the academic questions! My husband just thinks I did not study, a lie; or I have a computer phobia, and that enough exposure to questions would teach me this lingo. It is not jargon,its more fixed and jargon is less free floating and less flexible in (miss)application of common words. My Dad was a classicist PhD. translator student of CS Lewis at Oxford, his best academic buddy wrote dictionaries, etc. My husband has 2 Masters in Anthropology (one is physical anthropology) he could not guess what “cultural competence” (exactly transcribed from my continuing ed materials,) means. They all have fits with the perversion of English “usage.” I did have a fit.

    The schools of social work are not educating so poorly-wrong question. The commercial system (ASWB contractors) of collecting questions from agencies all over, trying to standardize them-through a room of (?) stewing over the meaning, leads to incongruence between the test, based on agency questions full of “in house ‘speak'”; and standard non-agency social work experience (especially applied social work-medical) such as mine. Don’t check the education system, check the testing system !!! Or else we run the risk of starting to teach for the TEST, like the elementary school systems have started to do. That would be a higher Education tragedy.

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