Studying for the Social Work Licensure Exam

By: Jane Shersher, LSW and Founder of Counselors Autonomous, a program within Ava Today

Oh man this one is rough. What can I tell you? Don’t push this off. I did, and it limited my job opportunities – so learn from my mistake!

In Illinois, the LSW is optional, but it helps you to secure jobs because it makes you licensed in the state where you practice. It helps certain insurance companies to bill for your work, which helps you to get covered financially at certain work sites. You can’t really do therapy at psychotherapy clinics without your license, even though you’re working under an LCSW supervisor and their license is the one on the line if you mess up in a clinical setting.

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The LCSW is the ultimate goal (in social work) that you need to work toward. I believe that you can get your LCSW without getting your LSW in the state of IL. You can always call the regulatory bodies in your state or the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) to confirm this, and I suggest that you do. In order to get your LCSW, you need to document 3,000 of supervised clinical work and then submit paper forms to the regulatory body of the state in order to register for the LCSW exam offered by the ASWB.

The forms for the LCSW and the LSW are very similar and signing up is in many ways the same process (minus the supervision hours). Don’t be intimidated by the big packet of papers to register with the department of professional regulations- the form is actually only 4 pages, everything else is just instruction and they will send it back if you fill things out wrong. Don’t forget to fill out the right side of the form as well and copy all of your forms before mailing so that you can easily fill them out again if you make a mistake or if things get lost along the way. Once you fill out the forms properly, you should have 3 years to register for an exam date and take the exam. If you wait longer than your expiration date, you will have to pay the $50 application fee and send in the forms again (minus the education confirmation page from your university), and this is not only very annoying but takes months, so don’t wait to take your exam after sending the initial paperwork in.

If you need disability accommodations, I highly recommend going through the trouble of filling out the paperwork for this and getting the paperwork notarized- you don’t want anything holding you back from passing the exam the first time when you finally register to take this thing. Know that Pearson View (the testing center) offers all standard test takers a cubicle-looking booth in which to take the exam and sound reducing headphones unless you qualify for disability accommodations in which you can secure additional test time, a distraction reduced environment (which includes a small private room with a large viewing window for security monitoring), ability to access your locker, stretch, read out loud, extra (only if your needs officially qualify).

Both exams are 4 hours long and 170 questions (20 questions don’t count towards your grade, they are for creating future tests- those are called pretest questions). Pearson View is the company that administers the test in IL. You have to register with your accrediting body in your state (I believe in my state it is the IL Department of Professional Regulation) with paperwork to take the test that is made by the ASWB and administered by Pearson View. The “masters” exam is for obtaining an LSW and the “clinical” exam is for the LCSW, so know which one is which for when you register for the date for the exam with Pearson. It’s all very confusing, and annoying to go through this process, but hey it’s your career so make it happen so that you can be done with it!

Ok so here’s to the nitty-gritty content to cover while studying:

  • Study the changes from DSM4-tr to DSM5
  • Know your main diagnostic criteria
  • The test is mostly clinical judgment, so don’t worry about all the cram-worthy details as much as you think you’ll need to worry about them, but still study as much as you can to get as much content in your brain to reason with on the day of the test
  • Know your basic medications & the categories of disorders they treat – i.e Prozac (fluoxetine) is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) used to treat depression and it’s the only SSRI that can be prescribed to kids
  • Review ethics & principals
  • **Practice tests are key (I can’t stress this enough- if you don’t have them ask me for them I will share mine with you
  • Review clinical vignettes to understand the thought process of the test (train yourself to think like the test does)
  • Review the tenants of cultural competency
  • Know your research process
  • Understand the impact & treatment of substance abuse & the effects of specific drugs / alcohol along with withdrawal symptoms from each type
  • Review community practice & supervision
  • Review group work structures (group therapy, support groups, etc.)
  • Prepare for crisis intervention scenarios- what would you do first- type of thing
  • Review treatment / psychotherapy planning process & types of interventions like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Solutions Focused Therapy
  • Be comfortable with questions regarding the professional therapeutic relationship
  • Be aware of basic legal responsibilities (this may change from state to state)
  • Know the theories and models of Human Growth and Development. Theories are barely represented, but they are good to know when reasoning whether an individual is actually experiencing a pathological problem or whether its just developmentally appropriate.

It really helped me to write out the stem question in pieces on the dry erase laminated papers that the test center offered for example: this core piece of information --> (leads to) this core piece of information and then write out the options for answers and cross off the ones that don’t line up in the following format:


This helped me to see more clearly the specific stem question so that I didn’t get lost in the similar potential answers as much. I would also star the ones that I had marked to revisit so that I could keep track of which question topics were which numbers when I planned out how much time I had left (you can mark questions to return to during the exam in the software if you are not confident in your answer- always answer the question even if you marked it though in case you run out of time).

Buy the $85 practice exam from the ASWB it’s totally worth it- you will get a sense of what taking the real test will be like and how you’ll be scored. The $25 handbook guide is only worth it for a content outline, regarding which topics are covered on the exam- I don’t recommend buying it too strongly. Buy the “I Will Succeed Social work Licensing Exam Preparation Comprehensive Study Guide with Practice Questions” book by LEAP- it’s a great review and it has two practice exams with explained answers in the back- its very helpful. Also I suggest to join the LCSW Exam Study Group on Facebook – it’s a large community of providers that are helping one another to study for the exam and exchanging ideas for success.

Download the following apps:

  • Quizlet
  • LCSW (blue logo)
  • LCSW Genius
  • MSW (red logo)
  • Cram
  • LCSW (flashcard logo)

Don’t take the test without having taken at least two practice exams first. Review the material so you go in there with confidence knowing that you know most of the content that they can test you on. Remember that 20 questions are not going to be counted, so let’s hope you get the right ones wrong (so that they don’t count towards your overall score). It’s a pass-fail grading system, so all you have to do is pass by even one point, although I suggest that you prepare to pass by a solid margin so that you don’t risk taking the exam over again. If you don’t pass, you have to fill the paperwork out for the state again and pay the registration fees again, which are $50 for the paperwork and $250 for the exam. You also won’t be able to retake the exam for a minimum of 90 days.

Remember, after you pass your exam, you can’t work with clients who are out of the state in which you live without a license in that state as well, so be weary of online therapy sites that offer a diverse client workload and of clients moving out of state- you will have to refer them out to other providers in their new state if they cross state lines unfortunately.

If you need prep materials, additional suggestions, phone numbers of people to call for help (like disability accommodations), etc., I am happy to provide as much information as I can- just write on the Counselors Autonomous closed Facebook group’s wall and I will respond. You will have to request membership to the group, as this is a closed group for the privacy of the members, and upon acceptance write for help on the group wall.

I wish you the best of luck! Forgive yourself if you don’t pass the first time and don’t loose faith in yourself- try again! Maybe even consider signing up for a study prep program like LEAP? The LCSW Exam Study Group on Facebook is helpful in discussing which programs are useful and which aren’t.

Try to eat healthy, get plenty of sleep, meditate (I can suggest apps for this too), and get exercise for the whole month before the test- it should help you to perform the day of! And when you pass, please celebrate your success! What an achievement! Go you!