How I Passed the LMSW Exam on my First Try in 2 months without Using a Test Prep Service – And you can too!
If you are a prospective or current MSW student or graduate, you’ve probably heard of the Master’s examination (or LMSW exam). The LMSW exam is meant to assess the skills and knowledge of MSW graduates, to ensure that they are able to competently and ethically practice social work upon completion of their degree. Passing the LMSW exam is a vital step in the licensure process (for a guide on the additional steps to obtaining licensure, see this article), and also the most difficult one. Thus, it is no surprise that questions, concerns, and general anxiety about the exam are common for MSW graduates, as well as prospective and current BSW and MSW students.
I don’t want to add to the pressure surrounding taking the LMSW exam, but it is important to note there is a lot weighing on it. For those interested in pursuing a career in clinical social work, the exam is especially critical, as all social workers providing clinical services must be licensed in the state or region in which they’re practicing. Failing to obtain proper licensure is a serious ethical violation that can result in disciplinary actions from the Board of Social Work Examiners in your state, and might prevent you from ever practicing social work. Since the exam is part of the licensure process, it cannot be avoided for clinical social workers! Even for MSW graduates who do not plan to practice clinically, licensure (and the requisite LMSW exam) might be a necessity depending on a variety of factors including specific position and place of employment, state laws governing social work practice, and career goals. Even for social work positions not required to be licensed in some states, obtaining licensure can prove advantageous in terms of one’s professional identity, growth, and development, rate of pay, and advancement opportunities.
There are plenty of reasons to take the LMSW exam and obtain licensure, regardless of whether or not it is a requirement for your specific situation. Passing the exam is an important step to accomplishing your professional goals in the field of social work. And while the exam is tough, and test-taking is never fun, don’t let fear, anxiety, doubt, or nervousness become an obstacle. Passing the exam is feasible for all MSW graduates, including you, as long as you prepare for it! I can tell you from personal experience that proper preparation is key, and will go a long way in helping you to pass the exam on your first try, like I did, without the need for any expensive test-prep services.
To give you some background on my situation, when I began my Master of Social Work program several years ago, I had no intention of providing clinical services. That simply was not my area of interest. Instead, I pursued a career in program development and community organizing abroad, and thus, was not required to take the ASWB Master’s Examination for Social Work Licensure immediately following my graduation. I was aware that licensure requirements and the definition of social work practice vary by state, but I was under the impression that I likely wouldn’t need to apply for licensure since I did not plan to work or identify myself as a clinical social worker. The guidance I received from my graduate program was consistent with this, based on the laws in that state.
Later on, though, I found that I did indeed need to obtain licensure. I returned to the United States to pursue my PhD in Social Work (an activity which does not require licensure in most states), and then planned to pursue an academic career in teaching and research (activities that also do not require licensure in many states, as they are not considered part of social work practice). However, in the state in which I reside, teaching and research activities are included in the definition of social work practice, which means that conducting those activities requires licensure. So, I realized, I would need to take and pass the LMSW exam in order to pursue my PhD.
I wasn’t thrilled by this realization – not because I do not recognize the benefits of licensure and the important role of social work regulatory boards, but because nearly 5 years had passed since I completed my MSW degree. I learned a lot in my two-year MSW program, but some of the material that I was sure would show up on the exam didn’t exactly feel “fresh.” Instead, I felt as though I had very limited time to review (and in some cases, seriously brush up on) everything that I had learned during my MSW education. The prospect was daunting, to say the least. And what’s more, I had to do this on top of my doctoral-level studies that already required my full-time attention. Somehow, though, I knew I would have to find a way.
I applied for licensure and was approved, which meant I had to take the Master’s-Level (LMSW) exam within 6 months. I fully intended to begin studying right away, taking advantage of the full 6 months to prepare and go into the exam with confidence. But, my ongoing responsibilities as a PhD student proved particularly time-consuming that semester, and my plans of studying for the LMSW exam were delayed. A few months passed before I even registered for the exam, and when I did, I chose the latest possible available date within the 6-month time period to take it.
Registering for the exam and putting the date and time on my calendar made it more real, and impending. With just two months left before my exam date, I knew it was time to buckle down and get serious. But I had very little guidance as to how to go about it. The faculty with whom I was working closely in my PhD program were not social workers so they had never taken the exam, and for my friends from my MSW program, the exam was a distant memory, taken long ago soon after we graduated (which, by the way, I recommend doing to avoid my mishaps!) I also considered taking an exam prep course, but upon doing some research into them, I found that not only are they expensive, there were not any being offered in my area. Thus, a prep course wasn’t an option for me.
So, I went on a self-guided LMSW-exam preparation journey, and guess what – it worked for me! Even with only two months of preparation, many years after completing my MSW degree, I aced the LMSW exam on my first try! So, in hopes that you can do the same, I’m sharing with you what worked for me!
Step 1: Purchase Study Guides (yes, guides, plural!)
There are several different study guides for the LMSW exam out there. The ASWB offers the only “official” version which is available for purchase to everyone who registers for the exam. I, however, did not opt for that one, for no explicable reason, but I think my experience shows that other study guide options are also effective. My choice was the Social Work ASWB Masters Exam Guide: A Comprehensive Study Guide for Success by Dawn Apgar. It is long, but I found it easy to read, comprehensive, and it includes a complete practice exam and an online study companion. Just as an additional study tool, I purchased another option (Masters Social Work Exam Secrets Study Guide by Mometrix, which is much shorter and not as easy to read, but also includes a complete practice exam).
I ended up finding that, although both were fairly comprehensive and included much of the same information based on exam content, they emphasized different theories, competencies, and practice behaviors, and this proved helpful to me. A theory that might have only been briefly covered in one guide was more thoroughly included in the other, and there were some pieces of information I only encountered in one of the guides – it was completely lacking from the other. Based on my experience using just these two exam guides, I have come to understand that, while the guides attempt to be as comprehensive and thorough as possible, no guide will cover it all,and the writing and organization style of one guide as compared to another might help you to understand information differently.
So, I don’t necessarily recommend any one study guide for the LMSW exam, but I do recommend using more than one so that you have the benefit of comparing information and minimizing the chances that you’re missing out on any of the information that might be included on the exam.
Step 2: Read the Guides, cover to cover, following a regimented schedule
I know this sounds crazy, but it was my approach. I was honestly a bit overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information included in the study guides, so I decided I would first try to read all of it and see what I already remembered or knew pretty well, what new information sunk in with a first read, and what I would need to review a few times.
Although anyone taking the LMSW exam is, of course, interested in social work, reading the exam content in a study guide can be a bit dry. So, I recommend reading in short bursts of time (15-20 minutes) to ensure that you’re really taking the information in,not checking out as you read. I also found that it was easy to fit in a quick 15-20 minute study session several times throughout the day, instead of carving out several hours of dedicated study time (that would come later!)
It is also important to make and stick to a regimented reading schedule for your first (and maybe only thorough) read of your guides. I made mine by calculating backwards from my exam date – I wanted to have a week before the exam to take practice tests and light review, another week before that for concentrated study time, and another week before that for re-reading portions of the guides that remained unclear. For me, this meant I needed to complete my cover to cover read of both guides three weeks before my exam date, so I added up the total number of pages of both guides and determined how many pages per day I needed to read in order to meet that goal. (For a more varied schedule, you could translate this to a weekly goal for number of pages, in case you have time to read one day but not another, giving you some flexibility while still being able to meet your goal).
And then, I set myself to the task, making sure to keep myself on track. I viewed my daily reading as a new part of my routine – like brushing my teeth, or eating a meal. I often read during meals or between other engagements, which helped me to always fit in my self-mandated reading. Whatever you need to do to fit in your reading time, do your best to stick to your reading regimen!
Step 3: Review tricky concepts or topics that you can’t easily recall
Once you’ve finished your cover to cover read of both guides, go through the table of contents of each and circle the topics that are least easily recalled or understood. These are the topics you’ll continue to review up until your exam.
Once you’ve identified the topics, there are a number of ways to go about reviewing them. I employed several review methods, which I recommend as a way to mix it up and apply information differently. This also allowed me to study for longer periods of time, without losing focus. Sometimes, I simply re-read the section of one or both of my guides concerning the topic. Sometimes, I had someone quiz me on a specific section or two. I also used flashcards (I used online/digital flashcards, but physical flashcards are also an option), and online tools (Quizlet is a good one) to test myself frequently.
At this point, I also started taking short (5-10 questions) practice tests that I found freely available online (through Google searches) to help gauge my knowledge and determine if there were other topics I needed to review. (I would NOT recommend taking a full practice test, yet. More on that later). There are also several LMSW-exam Instagram accounts you can follow, so that practice test questions will show up in your feed (@social_work_licensing_exam, @msw_wizard)!
Step 4: Take your two practice exams AFTER you’ve actually studied!
It is really tempting to take a practice exam immediately when you receive your study guides. You think – well, this will help me to gauge what I already know, and tell me how much I need to study. The answer is – you need to study (regardless of what you already know), and you should study first, then gauge what you know, then study some more, and THEN take a practice exam. At least, that’s what worked for me. And here are some of my thoughts about it.
Practice exams are created by test preparation companies or individuals who write study guides based on information about LMSW exam content. They do their best to mimic the types of questions, information, scenarios, and content areas that will show up on the actual exam. But, they do not contain actual exam questions that you might actually see on the exam. This is an important distinction because, if you take a practice exam right away without studying, the specific questions to which you’re exposed on the exam are likely to stick with you and might (without you even realizing it) guide your studies in specific directions.(For example, there’s a question on your practice exam that you got wrong, so you know you need to study that topic. But then you focus on that, to the exclusion of other topics that you might know nothing about that didn’t even show up on your practice exam at all! Get it?) That’s part of why I recommend waiting until AFTER you have studied ALL the content (and reviewed difficult content) to take a practice exam.
Another reason to take them towards the end of your studies is because it is helpful to take one under as close to the same conditions as the actual exam as possible. Which means, you will have studied, and you will sit down for several hours and take it all at once. This allows you to get an idea of how much time it takes you to answer each question and to complete the entire exam, which is important because, on exam day, your time is limited.
Finally, I recommend waiting until after you’ve prepared and can take a practice exam as though it were the real thing because those practice exams aren’t free!You only get one practice exam in each study guide, and once you’ve taken it – that’s it! You could buy another study guide to get access to another exam, but you’re already paying a significant sum of money to take the LMSW exam. Save the money you would spend on access to extra practice exams, and just wait to take the ones you already have!
So, what worked for me is taking two practice exams (another reason why it is good to have two study guides!) beginning about two weeks before my actual test date. I had already completed steps 1, 2, and 3, and felt about as prepared as I would be on the actual test day. Or at least, I realized that there wasn’t much more new information I was going to be able to learn before walking into my exam. And that was helpful – it allowed me to take the practice exams as though they were the real thing, which ended up giving me a much needed confidence boost before exam day.
For the first practice exam I took, I paid careful attention to time to get an idea of how long it took me to answer each question. Knowing how long it takes you to complete a full practice exam can help you adjust the amount of time you take on each question before the actual exam.I’m the kind of person who reads a question and I generally know it or I don’t, so I don’t end up spending too much time on any one question – I found out that I could take longer than I was. You can also flag questions you’re unsure about to return to them and continue thinking about your answer. During my first practice exam, I found that I could pretty easily answer all of the questions in the allotted time, even accounting for the occasional break, so I didn’t have to stress about time and could take longer on each question if needed.
When I completed the exam, I reviewed the answers to all of the questions, and made sure I actually understood why the questions I got wrong were incorrect. I recommend reviewing the answers to all of the questions, not just the ones you got incorrect, because some of your correct answers might have been unsure guesses. Most study guides provide not only the answer, but an explanation of why it is the best answer, which is helpful to read thoroughly. Once I had done that, I returned to step 3 and used various methods to study up on specific topics and concepts that I hadn’t mastered, based on my practice exam. I knew these same questions and topics wouldn’t show up on my next practice exam, nor on my actual exam, but I saw them as areas of weakness and brushed up on them anyway.
For my second practice exam, I still timed myself, but didn’t pay as close attention to time. This was my final practice exam before the real thing, and I took it very seriously. I flagged questions I was unsure of, and went back at the end to review them, sometimes changing my answer. When I finished, I again reviewed all of the questions, and made sure I understood why the questions I got wrong were incorrect. On this practice exam, I had gotten more correct answers than the last one, which was encouraging!
I also added up the total number of correct answers I got, to get an idea of whether or not I would have passed the actual exam. The scoring for the actual exam is a little different based on exam version – there are several different versions of the exam, some considered a little more difficult than others, and so the number of correct answers you must have in order to pass fluctuates between exams. When you get your exam score, it will tell you: “The exam taken requires XX correct answers to pass. You answered XX questions correctly.” So, while there is no way to know how many correct answers your practice exam requires to pass, I knew from the ASWB that for the actual exam, “pass points range from 93 to 107 correct of the 150 scored questions.” (There are also 20 non-scored questions on each exam, but there is no way to know which are non-scored, so you must do your best on all of them.)
To calculate whether or not you would have passed your practice exam, first find the total number of questions you got correct (for me, it was 131), then subtract 20 to account for the non-scored questions, assuming that you got all 20 correct but they don’t count towards your score (this brought me to 111). If that number is within or above the 93 to 107 range, you’re in good shape! And if not, you still have a week to continue studying if you choose. For me, seeing that I had “passed” this final practice exam, with just one week left until my actual exam, gave me the confidence I needed to walk into the test center on exam day feeling like I was good to go.
Step 5: Rest and Light Review
I am a person who is affected by stress, and that stress can affect my performance on an exam, or any number of other activities. In the week leading up to the exam, I wanted to minimize my stress as much as possible. That’s why I took the practice exams the week before. If you take your practice exams about two weeks before your test date, you can go into the last week with minimal stress. I recommend doing a light review of material over the week (flashcards, reading a section or two of your study guides), and making sure you are mentally and physically prepared for your exam by getting sufficient sleep, exercise, and nutrition.
At this point, you will have just spent the last two months intensely studying for an exam that marks a major life milestone. During your last week before your exam date, try to slow down, spend time with friends, relax in whatever works for you, and laugh! This is an important practice of self-care that you will likely need to implement throughout your social work career.
Step 6: Make sure you have all of the necessities ready for exam day.
When your exam day comes, you don’t want to be scrambling to make sure you have everything in order moments before you walk out the door. Take some time to get prepared the night before. Pack a bag with everything you will need – most importantly, your photo identification so that you will be allowed to take the exam for which you’ve been studying so hard! Pack any other items you think you may need – a sweater, perhaps, in case you get cold, a bottle of water for before and after or during breaks from the exam, any medications you need to take within a 4-hour time period, reading glasses if you use them, a snack (you’re probably going to be hungry after 4 hours!)
Lay out the clothes you will wear, and choose clothes that are comfortable to sit in for a long period of time. Review your emails from the ASWB and the Testing Center – take a screenshot of them so they’re saved to your phone and can be easily accessed should you need to quickly refer to them at the testing center. Make sure you know how to get to your testing center, and if you’re driving your own vehicle, where you can park. Set your alarm in advance.
Once everything is ready for exam day, just take care of yourself! Have a nice meal, take a hot bath, get a full 7-8 hours of sleep. And feel ready to wake up refreshed, and walk into the testing center prepared with everything you need, including a positive attitude and the confidence that you’ve studied well for this exam, and will do your best to pass the first time!