Wednesday, March 19, 2008

5 tips for passing the exam

Reaching the point of taking the LCSW exam is a mixed blessing at best. It means that you have met the requisite hours of practice and supervision, which is a testament to your tenacity and clinical abilities. It also means that a new chapter of studying and anxiety is opened as you prepare to add four new letters behind your name and take a timed test that covers a broad range of topics.
From time to time I will receive emails from people who are preparing to take the exam or who have taken it and not passed. Inevitably, these emails include some request for advice about how to study or prepare for the exam. So, I thought I would cull the advice I have given over the past year or two into one post.
I am not doing this so that you will no longer email me. I do the best I can to respond to each one that I receive. I also know that I will not cover every anxiety or frustration with one post, but for those who like lists and things in a neat little package here are my tips for passing the exam.
  1. Think about the way you study best and do that more often. There are a myriad of materials out there to help you prepare for the exams. These range from practice exams to study guides to study guides with practice exams, etc. Most, if not all, of these guides are dry as a bone and merely regurgitate the material you need to know to pass the exam. They have their formulas for getting the material across to you. However, they do not know you best, you do. So, take the materials you choose to study and adapt them to the ways in which you learn. For me, this blog is the result of the way I learn. I needed to re-write the material I was studying in my own words in order to really get a grasp on it. Instead of a pen and paper I took to my laptop and wrote a series of notes that became my study guide. All of the posts on this blog concerning the theories and methods were the result of my homemade study guide. So, think about the ways you learn: flashcards, quizzes, study groups, putting things in your own words, etc. and adapt the study guides to your taste not vice versa.
  2. The exam doesn't care how you practice social work. This is one of the hardest lessons to learn and it took me a while to really grasp its meaning. My impression of the exam is that it does not measure real world application of Social Work principles and guidelines; instead, it measures "ideal" (read textbook) applications of these principles. One of the helpful things I took into the exam was a sense that I needed to reframe the questions so that my answers reflected not what I would do first but what "the book" would do first. Therefore, when I encountered a "what would you do first" question I could usually eliminate two of the responses right off the bat. Then I would generally choose the more conservative response from the remaining choices. This may not work for all of these questions but it helped me get into a frame of mind that had me answering questions as the book would want me to answer them rather than the way I think the questions should be answered.
  3. The exam measures your ability to remember data. This is not an exam that measures the efficacy of your practice or your ability to help people in a way that empowers them. This exam measures your skills at memorization. Now, I realize this is a fairly cynical view of a standardized test. However, I cannot think of another way to put it. The national exam was created as a method to take the subjectivity of licensure committees out of the process and have an "objective" tool that measures knowledge of social work practice and principles. If you don't pass the first time around, it says absolutely nothing about how good a social worker you are. The only thing a failing score reveals is that you might need more time memorizing the material and putting it to use the way the test wants you to.
  4. The exam is not always "right." The earlier you give up fighting the questions and their "right" answers, the earlier you can get on with studying the material as needed. I remember studying for the exam and talking with my supervisor about some of the questions and answers. He and I would read some of the questions and talk about how we would answer them given the choices on the test. In each one of these Q&A sessions there would be one or two questions that we would agree on that the test would count as wrong. He had his doctorate in social work and was a successful private practitioner for many years and he still couldn't always get the right answers according to the test. You have to remember that the correct answer for the test may not be your way of answering the question, but it is still the correct answer. Unfortunately, you will not get very far by arguing with the computer over which "answer" you should perform first in a particular situation. Instead, study for the purpose of the exam and remember that the real world is a lot messier than answer A, B, C, or D.
  5. You have already passed. Remember that the exam is merely the culmination of a long road of clinical practice and supervision. To get to this point in your career you have most likely been through 100 hours of supervision and thousands of hours of clinical practice. Your supervisor has signed off on your capabilities as a social work practitioner. People have come to you for therapeutic help and returned again and again because they believe you can help them. All in all, to get to the point where you can even take the test requires the implicit and explicit approval of a number of people in your life. They know you are a good social worker, regardless of the outcome of your exam. The LCSW exam does not prove that you are a good social worker, that you care about the self-determination of others, or that you stand for justice and provide a voice for the voiceless. Clients wouldn't return if you were a bad social worker, supervisors wouldn't sign the necessary forms if you weren't a good clinician. The fact of the matter is that you have a crowd of people who know that you are ready to take the exam and approve of your doing so. In essence, you have already passed the difficult part; the exam is more a formality than a gate-keeper.
So, there you have it. These five tips helped me put the exam in what I felt was the proper perspective. To be sure, I studied hard and often. However, I was not about to let the exam dictate how I felt about my abilities to practice as a clinical social worker. I merely thought of it as one more step on an already long and most completed journey, a step that affirmed what I already knew from experience. Namely, that I was a good social worker and that I could practice effectively, ethically and compassionately.