This post is an in depth exploration of masters level licensure for social workers in the United States. Commonly called LMSW's (Licensed Master Social Worker). LMSW’s are social workers who have completed graduate studies in Social Work and passed a test administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).
82% of MSW level professionals pass on the first try!
I’m hoping the information below will help the individuals who are going to pass the first time regardless and are seeking strategies to build their confidence, the social workers who predict they will experience difficulty and need a sophisticated plan, and social workers who have failed the test and are seeking new alternatives.
This guide will help you beat any test taking jitters, challenge the test with your social work skills, and provide you with the skills and strategies that have been effective for social workers across the United States.
The guide is separated into 3 sections:
Why licensure is important for social workersAunt Bertha's test taking method = A.C.T Tools and resources to ace the test!
Why Do I Need A Social Work License?
You've been in the field for years through internship, volunteer experiences, or employment, paid tons of money for graduate school, and now your state or employer wants you to take a test of your knowledge? What?! There aren’t too many social workers who ask for a professional exam for Christmas, but the LMSW does bear some gifts for us in our professional life:
Accountability - A professional exam is a testament that you've not only passed your classes in graduate school, but that you have the skills and experience to apply principles in the professional world and supervise others. Unfortunately, when “social workers” make an appearance in the media it is usually in the form of professional negligent or unethical behavior (unless you read Social Workers Speak which I highly recommend). Therefore, it is imperative that those who work with the most at risk populations have a standardized system of accountability mandated by local government, developed by social workers, and created by a independent organization.
Furthermore, policymakers and cultural critics have attempted to de-professionalize (history) Social Work with lower pay and a lower status as a health care professional. The social work exam helps professionalize the profession and helps other fields and people know that we aren’t just “helpers”, we are skilled professionals in the hope business.
This standard doesn’t mean all LMSW’s are ethical, practical, and effective, but it does create a necessary accountability system that says when one passes the LMSW test that they not only understand and can apply the information on the test, but that they will honor the principles that under gird the test throughout their career.
A social work license exam doesn’t view the “whole person”. A social work exam can’t articulate the level of empathy, leadership, or therapeutic support you provide and it shouldn’t be viewed as such. We can’t expect one testing instrument to take into account our entire being. The job of the exam is to set a standard of accountability.
Responsibility - Social workers have the most difficult and rewarding job in the world. No contest! Yet, the individuals, communities, and families are usually the true heroes. Social work client populations range from domestic and sexual violence survivors, abused children, families in crisis, individuals in recovery, eating disorders, low-income communities, and communities in developing countries, all trusting a social worker to provide professional guidance and support. While accountability is a value that is anchored in professional credentials I believe responsibility is anchored in the need for us to honor the sheer magnitude of our work as it relates to our clients.
Social workers specialize in providing hope in the midst of chaos.
I'm arguing that the license exam is a humble pre-requsite to work with these populations. A license doesn't make you an expert, but it does say you are willing try and act from an informed place.
A license test can easily be considered an enemy we must conquer, but I recommend you reframing it to be a challenge and barrier set up for those of us who say we are committed to the populations we serve.
Career Advancement: I find the Social Work degree to be one of the most diverse degrees, ever. If you plan on changing professions often, the licensure exam may not be necessary. But if you plan on working in direct practice, become a private therapist, or working for a large non-profit or government agency, a license is crucial.
A license generally provides higher wages, the ability to supervise MSW interns, and is a great stepping stone towards becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW).
“Mozart, I don’t care about your reasons - I hate this test. How can I change it?!”
If my testing reasons aren’t persuasive enough, maybe you should become a test writer and contribute? ASWB will be looking for test writers in the fall of 2012. Click here to view the test writer qualifications and process. By the way, the test is not made by evil social work scientists in a lab. It is created through the input of veteran and diverse social workers from all across the country!
Aunt Bertha's Proven Test Taking Method = A.C.T
Aunt Berth'a proven test taking strategy is based on the three key elements of what a social worker may go through before she takes the test, what she can do to pass the test, and what she needs to know about the test to do well. I personally created this test taking theory based on my experiences taking tests as a social work graduate student, hours studying the LMSW exam prep material from across the internet, and my own experiences battling anxiety. The acronym stands for Anxiety, Community/Connection, and Test subject matter. The core elements of taking and passing any professional exam.The word acronym A.C.T also refers to the literal verb. The likelihood that you will pass the test the first time relies on your ability to act. For example, don't go any further until you've answered the questions below which require mini-actions:
Do not read the rest of this guide until you've answered the questions above.
We experience terrible anxiety when we don't have a plan, the questions above will help you develop an actionable test plan without having to study. You may realize through checking out the Social Work boards website that you feel comfortable taking the test tomorrow and your only barrier is money, getting a ride to the test site, or scheduling the best time to take the test in your busy schedule. If that applies to you feel free to wander off this little intense licensure exam go do something fun!
Test anxiety is a normal human emotion of perceived threat anticipation of danger. The social work exam may cause intense anxious feelings because your professional identity, career opportunities, and sense of self-worth are hanging in the balance. Eek!
Here are a couple of my favorite interventions to deal with anxiety:
1.Meditation: Social workers recommend mindfulness meditation to clients all the time in clinical settings, but are you applying meditation in your life?
Download a free meditation audio program (trial). After downloading play one of the meditation or studying/concentration audio tracks. This audio technology has been proven to entrain the brain through empirical research.
“I don’t have time to meditate!”
Dr. Herbert Benson, Harvard Medical School researcher and professor, has found that it only takes 12-15 minutes of meditation to garner the benefits of decreased anxiety and increased focus.
(If meditation bores you to tears, check out some Visualization exercises. Here’s a video of the testing site to help you with a visualization exercise:virtual tour. Hint: Imagine yourself walking into the test center confident and prepared)
2. Schedule study sessions: The average social worker is handling overwhelming caseloads, in dangerous, high risk, and life changing situations, dealing with personal issues, and being a social worker to friends and family. You may experience anxious and overwhelming emotions if you’re not sure how you’ll find the time to study.
Schedule - Sit down with your current schedule and decide how much time you want to spend studying for the test on a daily and weekly basis. Don't try to cram for eight hours at a time once or twice a week. That will make you hate the test!
Inform -Tell family members, supervisors, and close friends that you’ve set a time to study for the next couple of weeks and you’re really counting on their support. Calling and telling your inner circle that you need to study for this test can ease any feelings that you’re missing out on something during the process.
Get Away - Go to a coffee shop, library, or co-working space to study. For many of us, when we’re focusing on an important tasks the dishes suddenly need to be washed.
Use Tech - Use your smart phone, email software, or datebook to schedule study sessions and make it a date! Check out Social Work Tech blog for other great tips on integrating your tech gear!
Do not study for longer than 90 minutes! We (not just social workers, humans in general) live and work in 90 minute energy rhythms. Our bodies are programmed in this manner.
Take a short break (close your eyes, walk around, eat a snack) for 5-15 minutes between study sessions to stay fresh and energized.
3. Get Support: There may be some social workers who are generally anxious about this specific test due to its implications for a future or current position and any future aspirations. There may be others who have always had test anxiety and the licensure exam sends those anxious feelings into overdrive. Test anxiety does not mean you're not okay! You are okay. If none of the suggestions above work, I would recommend reaching out to a spiritual leader, a therapist, or a close friend to process these feelings.
Here are 4 other tips when seeking outside support for test anxiety:
Students - Visit your campus counseling center and/or academic advisement center. Both entities usually have staff members who are experts on test anxiety and academic performance.
Therapist Directory - Psychology Today maintains the largest high quality verified therapist directories on the Internet. A great place to begin looking for assistance!
Free to Low Cost Support - Not-for-profit organizations exist in many cities that either offer low-cost counseling or offer referrals and can help you find a therapist who sees people on a sliding scale. Mental Health America (formerly the National Mental Health Association) has tips on locating providers and paying for care.
Effective Therapies -When looking for a therapeutic expert on test anxiety, look for someone you're comfortable with above any other characteristic. Also keep in mind that there are a two therapies that are particularly empirically effective for general and test specific anxiety: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Mindfulness Based Therapy.
Exercise - Exercise is correlated with improved cognition, stress reduction, and clear thinking. If you’re an active person go for a run/workout before study times and/or before the test! If you don’t like exercise just go for a walk for 15-20 at the mall or park 20 minutes a day.
Social workers are connectors. We are taught systems theory in graduate school and lean on collaboration to get things done at our agencies and offices. Nonetheless, a team doesn't become a LMSW, one person becomes a LMSW. I think that the individual aspect of licensure may be one of the reasons it may cause anxiety for many social workers. Even though it may be an individual pursuit there are various ways to learn from our elders and peers.
Four key suggestions for any connection/community support are:
Selection and Leadership - Study groups require leadership or a simple governance format. If the group only agrees on “studying for the exam” things can quickly get misdirected, convoluted, and a waste of time. A consistent or alternating group leader makes certain that the objectives of the study group are met and everyone stays focused.Please carefully select the study group you want to join too. If you’ve purchased a practice test, been to a exam prep course, and have less than 1 month until you take the exam it may not be a good idea to join a study group with social workers who haven’t even been to the ASWB website yet.
Time - Start and end study sessions on time. Pareto’s principle states that a task expands to the amount of time allotted to finish it. That means if you leave open your entire afternoon to study don't be surprised if your entire afternoon is a discussion of KSA's.
Example: Ever noticed when you are about to go on vacation in the middle of the week all your work is done by Wednesday, but when you're on a normal schedule it takes you until Friday. That’s Pareto’s Principle in effect!
Goals - Clear goals make a study group valuable to everyone involved. I recommend the group having general goals and each group member creating their own personal study and test performance goals. Question to ask: Is the group geared towards mutual support for social workers who are taking the LMSW and LCSW who may be in different places academically or is the goal of the group to create a team that will take the LMSW test the same day and work on the material together?
Homework - Homework for study group participants creates shared ownership and responsibility for the group. Coming to a study group expecting to learn everything together is daunting and unfair to the members who study before the group session. A study group is not a classroom, it is an opportunity to deepen the knowledge we already know.
Here are a couple of my favorite group tools, formats, and software, when developing the connection element of your A.C.T plan:
Internship Dates - If you're a graduate student on the cusp of graduating you're probably in a clinical or community setting with a licensed social worker. There also may be a high likelihood that you have supervision on a weekly basis with this person or even team meetings with a group of veteran professionals. Be bold. Ask your supervisor or colleagues questions about the test and their strategy for passing it in your state.
Take them out on a licensure date and ask them all the questions you may have!
"Help! There are no licensed social workers at my placement"
Ask your supervisor if she has friends with the license distinction that you can meet. Contact your school's field office and tell them you want to have a 30 minute chat with a licensed social worker - Most field offices are great connectors in communities and will help you if your an active student or alumni.
Peer Review - Organize a small group of friends 4-6 and make time to meet once a week at a quiet location in person.
Make it fun: Have each study group be a potluck lunch or dinner!
Google+ Hangouts - Google+ is a internet based social media platform that allows up to 9 people to connect live via audio or video for free! Social Workers are already using this innovative platform for license exams. For example, Cam Murdock, successfully started an intensive LCSW study group on G+ with a 100% pass rate. Go to LinkedIn Groups, Twitter, or Google+ and post a request for study partners in social work groups and see what happens!
Here’s a video on G+ for beginners:
Skype - Is a video and audio platform that allows free Skype-to-Skype audio calls. Austin G also started a successful LCSW video group using Skype. Unfortunately, Skype does not allow multiple video users on one call without a paid subscription.
Meetup - Meetup is a website that helps folks in the same city get together. If you live in a larger city or one with a higher percentage of social workers check out Meetup. There are over 477,000 listings for social workers on Meetup. com. Meetup groups usually charge a small fee of $5 for each visit.
*Craigslist is a great resource too, but it can be hard to find social workers who want to study fast in any region!
The National Association of Social Work (NASW)- The professional organization for social workers. The NASW hosts various paid courses and lectures on the license test. License resources are available for members and non-members, but non-members are charged a higher fee for services. Contact your local state or city chapter here.
Graduate Schools - Many graduate schools offer free or reduced rate LMSW exam prep materials and presentations. If you’re still in school and want resources at your school reach out to your advisor or some other mover and shaker in your program and get it going! If your program has a "department or school" librarian they often have materials available too.
Tests Subject Matter
The ASWB exam are 170 multiple choice questions (only 150 count toward your score) and you will have 4 hours to complete the test with accommodations being made if you need further support.
The ASWB examinations do not rely on tricks, gimmicks, or word games. They are not designed to purposefully confuse test-takers. They are designed to measure knowledge, skills, and abilities relevant to safe and ethical social work practice. Putting energy in to trying to figure out how to “beat” the examination through various “tricks and tips”-type strategies is a waste of your time, and will probably not improve your score.
The test is extremely reliable which means that if you don’t get a good score and attempt to take the test again without studying the chances of getting a great score are incredibly low.
Re-assessing your social work knowledge, however, and conducting an honest appraisal of your weaknesses and strengths, may well put you on the road to success with the examination.Certain social work boards have limits to the amount of times you can take the test.
Qualifying words: Many items on the ASWB examinations ask what the social worker should do “FIRST” or “NEXT”, or require test takers to identify something that is “MOST likely,” “MOST appropriate, or “BEST.” These words are bolded and capitalized in the actual test, and should be considered very carefully as you choose an answer.
Exam Speak: "Refer" on exam could mean just telling the client about (as opposed to sending the client away to another agency);confront could mean calling attention to something (not in a negative way) and contract could refer to a treatment plan (as opposed to safety plan). via Dorleem
A KSA is a “Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities” statement. These statements describe the discrete knowledge components that may be tested in each part of the examination, and are the basis for individual test questions. KSAs are publicly available and free.
There is a common adage in social work circles that most tests fail to measure what happens in the real world. This may be true for a extremely specific situations in your professional life, but it is also important to understand that the test is not based on your Social Work programs’ ethical position, your agencie’s policies, or your personal perspective, but on theNASW Code of Ethics. For example, there are some agencies who may engage in mandated social services that could be considered a violation of a client’s self determination. Becoming aware of sticky ethical issues that may be present in your professional life will aid you when taking the test.Read the Code of Ethics online or buy the book. If you find one of the ethics morally unjust, I would recommend advocating for yourself via your local Social Work Boards, NASW, etc.
Testing resources from around the web
*I have compiled a list of paid and free resources to directly aid you in passing the test. I have not received any compensation nor am I directly affiliated with any of the bloggers, products, or companies below.
LMSW Exam Conference: The NASW-NYC chapter hosted a forum on the LMSW with test specialists, professionals, and students. This is the BEST LMSW Resource on the internet because it includes video footage!
Watch Ella Harris discuss her licensing journey here:
Watch a large portion of this amazing conference here:
Test Advice and Support: An Indeed.com forum seems to be a gathering place for various levels of information on the LMSW test. Best idea: When evaluating and diagnosing, address medical issues first. I recommend paying specific attention to user: axxatron. She has the best advice. Read more here.
Positive LMSW Experience: Ammu Prashantini, LMSW, shares her experience taking the exam 4 years post grad and 10 great tips for being successful. Read more here.
Challenging LMSW Experience: A LinkedIn user shares her experience failing the LMSW exam and receives high quality support from other social workers. Read more here.
Free Online Flashcards: A social worker wrote and publicly shared a series of LMSW exam flashcards. I have not verified the validity of every question, but this is a resource worth checking out. Read more here.
SocialWorkExam.com: Provides free and for fee resources for LMSW candidates. I would recommend checking out the exam tips pages. Read more here.
Social Work Helper - A private social work and human service community created by a social worker. While LinkedIn and other public forums may be popular, Social Work Helper works hard to protect your privacy. Check it out here.
Do you have a LMSW story(positive or negative)? Resource? Share it in the comments below!Was this post helpful?
*I will update this post every time someone shares a comment. This will allow us to have a high quality, organized, and comprehensive LMSW exam guide over time!
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As some may know, I was selected (by you) to attend the 2012 Unreasonable Institute as a fellow. We just finished our first full week and I wanted to share an update. I hope to do one every week (so expect six)!
I flew in last Tuesday night - Teju (the new CEO) picked me up from the airport and he was holding a two-foot stuffed penguin on his head (we hadn't met before).
It was a sign of things to come.
The Unreasonable Institute is a six-week incubator program for entrepreneurs looking to improve the lives of at least a million people. There are 22 fellows from 16 countries including the Congo, India, Kenya, China, and Liberia.
My roommate, for example, employs 50 former child soldiers on his farms. When he was just starting out he convinced someone to let him clean up their land. He started with one bag of rice, and no help from foreign aid organizations.
Makes me think twice when I complain about how hard it is to start a business. We don't know hard and the first week has hopefully cemented this into my head. It's good to get that over with so we can focus on what's important.
Here's a brief rundown of the week:
Wednesday Breakfast. Scavenger hunt exploring the necessary spots we need to know about in Boulder. Overview of principles of the Institute. Dinner. And at night, something really cool. Thanks to HP, each fellow received a new HP Folio Laptop, including a solid state hard drive, 9.5 hours of battery life and just darn good-looking.
Thursday Breakfast (I've eaten a lot of granola - the stereotype about Boulder is 100% true). The morning session with Scott Sherman from the Transformative Action Institute, and it was a real treat. He lead a session on improv, which did two things: got uptight people like me to chill out and prepared us for our two-minute speeches at the opening reception on Friday. Talk about a small world, I later learned that Scott is a guest lecturer at the LBJ School's RGK Center (that's in my backyard). For you Austinites - if he's speaking in town, you need to go.
Each night, before dinner, 2 - 5 mentors from the program answer questions in a camp-fire style discussion. It's a great forum to see that others have made it through the hard parts on their way to seeing their vision through.
Friday Friday morning's session was on, of all things, the Lean Startup and the Lean Canvas. I say 'of all things' because the Lean Canvas is based on the work of Austinite Ash Maurya. My good buddy from Tech Ranch, Emiliano Villareal now works with the Lean Canvas team and fortunately he's been pounding these principles into my head for the last year and a half (most of the time I listened). Check that - when I started listening to Emiliano more - we started doing better.
The big event of the day was the opening reception. Each of the 2012 Fellows gave a two-minute talk to 300 people in Boulder. Public Speaking = Sheer terror (especially when you're presenting with a bunch of people who have done so much). But with some practice (and having the luxury of having a poet on the team to help you with the editing) I somehow relaxed enough to not mess up the delivery too badly.
I was so relieved and it was nice to relax and get to know everyone over a beer afterwards.
Saturday & Sunday Hiked a mountain with two incredibly fit people (hint: I was the one hunched over saying "go ahead").
And believe it or not, I've run (or did a 3-hour hike) every day since I've been here. 21 days to form a habit (any bookmen out there?) - and it's starting to feel better. Note to Gazelles, I'm coming for you.
Once again, I can't thank you guys enough for rallying and sending me here. The next few weeks will be focused on meeting mentors that can help get us ready for the next stage of growth. Outside of activities, I've been working hard making Aunt Bertha better - we released a new version last night that is about 10X faster. I'd love your feedback. Check it out: www.auntbertha.com.
The first week was busy, but I'm definitely inspired. The staff is solid, the mentors are brilliant, but knowing that there are 21 other entrepreneurs here that are going through similar things has been the best part.