The most frequently asked questions about social work licenses

Hundreds of social workers call the offices of Social Work Examination Services monthly and 1500-2000 visit our website. Many need information about how to apply for the examination, license requirements, and preparation strategies. Based on these calls, we have compiled a list of the 12 most frequently asked questions about licensing.

How do I apply for a social work license?

The first step in obtaining a license in most states is to obtain an application from the Social Work license board in your state. After filing application with the state board and receiving an acceptance notice, the candidate calls 1-888-5SW-Exam to schedule the exam. A full list of state boards can be found on SWES Website.

When and where are the exams given?

The exams are given continuously at testing centers designated by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). Usually, tests can be scheduled approximately two weeks following notification of eligibility by calling the ASWB.

Are accommodations provided for people with special needs?

The availability of special measures varies according to the need and the state. Most states offer accommodations for special needs. Some provide tests in languages other than English. States are required to make adjustments for legitimate test taking problems. Hearing-impaired students, or those with other physical challenges, should request accommodation at the time of application. Some state applications will ask if you need an accommodation. If the application does not specifically ask, call the license board for information on how to make a request. All accommodations must first receive approval from the state board.

If I am already licensed in one state, can my license be transferred without retaking a test?

Licensing is exclusively a state function and each state license authority sets its own requirements. In some cases, licenses can be obtained without retaking the test, if both states have identical standards. To obtain definitive information about reciprocity, call the state board in the receiving state.

What can I expect at the examination?

Candidates appear at a testing center. The exam is presented on a special terminal. After a brief orientation, candidates have four hours to complete the examination.

When will I know if I passed?

Candidates are informed of their scores immediately after taking the test. They receive a printout with the test score and a graphic indicating strengths and weaknesses. The candidate is provided with a score sheet and instructions for retaking the test. The test can be retaken after 90 days. Some states limit the number of times the test can be taken.

How do tests differ? What are the levels of licensure?

Depending on state laws, there are as many as four levels of licensing. The Advanced Generalist and Clinical Level License Examinations are usually taken after two or three years of post-masters practice. Just after receiving the MSW, social workers in many states may take the Masters Examination which was formerly called the Intermediate exam. Those with the BSW may take the Bachelor Level Examination (formerly called the Basic exam) except in Illinois where BSW level social workers take the Masters Level Exam). A few states also license and test social workers with an Associates degree using the Bachelor Level test. Though the examinations are offered nationally, social workers should contact their state board for local eligibility standards and application procedures. Many social agencies are concerned about insurance reimbursement and will ask employees to acquire the highest level of licensing available.

What is the passing score?

The national licensing exam includes multiple choice questions and case vignettes with follow-up multiple choice questions. Candidates for the license are given four hours to answer 170 questions, but only 150 questions are scored as part of the exam and count toward passing. Twenty questions are study questions to be rated for possible inclusion as 'real' questions in later exams. Candidate responses determine whether the question will be included in a later edition of the test. The candidate does not know if questions are part of the test, or in the process of validation. You should answer all the questions. Blank answers are automatically counted as wrong.
To complicate matters further, the test scoring system is not based on answering a fixed number of questions correctly. Rather, the scores are weighted so that each administration of the test is equal to every other. The system is designed to be fair to every candidate no matter when the test is taken or what questions are included.

How is the exam constructed? What is being measured?

The questions appearing on the license exam are based upon a periodic ASWB national practice survey. The test is designed to reflect contemporary practice methods. The ASWB test is designed to screen for minimal competence in social work practice and knowledge.

What are the characteristics of the current test?

In the last years, the content of license exams has shifted to include greater emphasis on the practice issues identified in the recent ASWB practice surveys. These changes include, but are not limited to, a heightened emphasis on ethics, direct practice, and the interfaces between social work and the law and drug and alcohol treatment. In addition, the exams place greater emphasis on issues of diversity and multi-cultural practice.
The test will require knowledge of broader ethical and legal issues and of laws that commonly apply to social work practice. In addition the topic nomenclature will be simplified. The ASWB notes that candidates for the license will notice little diference in the new exam. The most recent edition includes DSM5 updates.

Do all states use the same procedure for testing?

Virtually all states now require license candidates to take examinations on special terminals at local testing sites. State Boards can normally arrange a test two weeks after application. Test results are provided immediately after completion of the test. Though many people are apprehensive about a computer- delivered test, there are few reports of difficulties with the format. An advantage of the system is that exams can be scheduled at the convenience of the candidate. The content and style of the test reflect written examinations. The examiners have shifted printed materials into a computer-delivered format. Exam content continues to emphasize practice- related information designed to measure performance and assess practice skills.

What is the best way to prepare for the Licensing Exam?

Most social workers will have less difficulty with practice and theory issues in the licensing examinations than with the multiple-choice format. Candidates need to increase their skills in reading and responding to complex multiple-choice questions, while reviewing social work practice and theory. Simply reviewing the literature of the field is insufficient. The key to passing is to understand the context, style and structure of examination questions. Candidates for the license should understand the assumptions of test-makers and the design of multiple choice tests. The best strategy is to review social work content and to practice with sample multiple choice questions.
The process of practicing with multiple-choice questions conditions responses and reduces test-anxiety, a major contributor to poor performance. Moreover, though the test lasts for four hours and few students need more time, practice questions reduce response time, help with concentration and increase accuracy.