How I Passed the NYS LMSW Exam, 4 Years Post-Grad

Useful tips based on personal experience.

Ammu Prashantini, LMSW

Four years ago I graduated with my MSW degree from what is now known as the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College.  My method was in Community Organizing and Planning and after two wonderful years in grad school, I was ready to enter this world as a professional.

I planned to get my license first, especially since I was told it’s easiest to get it right out of school.

So, immediately after graduating, I took the review course offered to alumni and purchased study material from Social Work Examination Services (those blue & white books that cover content and provide practice exams).  I even bought the CD-ROM “Autotest” and I decided to study and register with NYSED and ASWB.  But a month after graduation, I wanted to give my brain a chance to rest, then reality slowly crept in and I realized I *really* needed a job!  So, let’s fast forward through a few months of job hunting and landing a position at NASW, the New York City Chapter.

Diving into the first real job of my adult life, I consumed myself with work and used the little extra time I had to veg.  I had the books, but did not study.  And so this got put off for another four years.

2011 was different for me.  In planning my wedding, I had somehow made a promise to my fiancé that he would marry an LMSW, and so in May 2011, I took the NASW LMSW Test Prep class with Dr. Dawn Hall Apgar.  I sat in on this class a few years ago, but this time something else clicked and I got it.  Dawn gave us the tools we needed to take the exam, and after having passed, let me tell you SHE WAS ON POINT!  Not only did Dawn cover the content areas we need to focus in on, but she also showed us how to *read* the questions on the exam.  It can be tricky (and if you’ve taken the exam, you know what I mean!)

This last summer, I made a decision that greatly impacted my study ethic:  I got a study partner!  My friend, a recent graduate from NYU Silver School of Social Work, and I planned to meet weekly, for about a month, to study and take the exam in September.  This actually ended up taking nearly 3 months for us.  We were diligent, met weekly and went over the content areas in depth.  When we weren’t together, we made up flash cards and read up on areas that needed more of our attention.  By the beginning of October, we both realized we needed to schedule our exam and be done with it.  And so we did!  I am happy to report that as of November 1st, we have both passed our licensing exam!

If you are worried about taking the exam, here are 10 suggestions:

  1. First thing to do, and the thing you must consistently do throughout your studying and testing process:  Find a way to battle your ANXIETY!  I have spoken to many members on the phone that have taken the exam multiple times but did not pass.  I have spoken to social workers that need to pass this exam to hold onto their jobs.  That is A LOT of pressure.  And in this economy, I hear that and feel that.  No matter your situation in getting licensed, you must find a way to relax your mind and slow your racing heart so that you can focus on the exam.

I have been meaning to meditate for a long time, but haven’t quite mastered a routine.  But what works best for me is taking seven (why seven? I have no idea) long DEEP breaths and exhaling slowly.  Whenever I am anxious (in any setting) doing this relaxes me.  Try it.  Most of us don’t breathe enough.

  1. Find a study partner.  I am usually a loner when it comes to doing something I need to focus my energy on.  But the MAIN thing that helped me with this process is finding a study partner I could trust and rely on.  Meeting with my friend held me accountable—and without that, I could have easily put this off longer.  Meeting together kept us focused, had us talk out content (“What does projective identification actually mean??”) and find ways to remember things that we would need to know on the exam.  I owe so much to having her be a partner in this with me.
  1. Register and schedule your exam.  When you set an exam date, it *really* helps you focus.
  1. Consider what helps you with recall.  For me, it’s the act of writing things down.  I made flash cards, and used them seldom, but the mere act of writing down the various stages of development or what the side effects of MAOIs are, helped me retain this knowledge for the long run.  The test is tricky, yes, but you must know your content.
  1. The exam is not “all clinical” stuff.  Trust me, I was a CO student, I took core classes on human behavior in the social environment and a casework class, but I did not necessarily apply these subject areas into my direct work.  Are there questions on clinical diagnosis and medication use?  Yes. Do these outweigh direct practice questions?  No.  So if you are not a clinical social worker (like me), you can still pass this exam.  Review your content and know the basics.
  1. Take a review course to help you know what you *need* to know.  I cannot recommend the test prep course offered by NASW enough.    You get a study guide with material to focus in on, and practice questions at the end, to test your recall, as well as the full NASW Code of Ethics.  As alum, I took the test prep offered by Hunter which was also helpful.  I got some great tips there and used those in my exam, 4 years later.  Either way, take a review course; even if you know your content, you may not be completely prepared for what is ahead.
  1. Know the NASW Code of Ethics.  We all should know this, but you definitely *need* to know this for the exam.  Review it and understand it.  Know what you are legally being held to, as a professional social worker.
  1. Find supplemental study materials.  A few weeks before the exam, I found an array of resources online for *free*.  There is the Social Work Podcast, by Jonathan B. Singer, a great resource for social workers in general, not only for the exam.  There are also podcasts from Dr. Linton Hutchinson that you can find on iTunes called “Social Work Exam Review”.  I signed up for daily questions via email from Harvey Norris, LCSW (they were helpful to test my knowledge “on the go”).  And lastly, I paid $75 to take the ASWB practice exam online.  The main purpose in this was to give you an idea of what it will feel like to take the exam.  Please keep in mind that the test you take online is a replica of the actual exam and the questions may not reflect those that will actually be on the exam.  If you think that might help with your anxiety, do it.  You even get a breakdown of the content areas in the end.  I found it valuable, even if I had to pay extra for it.
  1. Think positively.  I know many of you may be under a lot of pressure to get this license; remember, give yourself some time to breathe, find other stress-reducing activities, and keep a positive energy around this exam.  I used some visualization techniques that truly helped with my anxiety (silly me took this exam 2 weeks before my wedding!).  Do not let the exam rule you, you must rule the exam.  And with enough preparation, you will!
  1. And lastly, TRUST YOUR GUT.  More often than not, our first instincts are always correct.  Do not second guess yourself.  If you flag questions on the exam and review them, remember what made you choose the answer in the first place.  Don’t think too much into it and trust in your knowledge.

These were my tips, take whatever works for you, but please share with me in the comments section below: What worked for you?  What do you think *could* work for you?  What wasn’t helpful?  I want to hear from you and help support our community of social workers who are preparing for the exam themselves.

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37 Responses to How I Passed the NYS LMSW Exam, 4 Years Post-Grad

  1. Nicole Clark says:

    Great tips! Thanks for providing this. I graduated from Columbia University School of Social Work in May 2010 and I’m still debating on when to take the exam. These tips were very useful.

    • Ammu Prashantini says:

      Thank you, Nicole! I agree with the majority that taking it closer to when you finished school is best, but if I can do it, so can you! If you think you want to get it over with soon, remember we are offering a test-prep (the one I refer to in my post) this weekend, on 11/19/11. Good luck to you! 🙂

    • Ka white says:

      I graduated from Yeshiva last year with my MSW… Have you taken the exam yet? I am taking advice from the tips– if you don’t have a study partner would you be interested in our getting together to study?

  2. msmjb65 says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I am definitely in the camp of take the test as soon after school as possible! For me, it wasn’t a matter of being afraid that I’d forget the material, it was more about not letting the test-taking anxiety ttake over.

    I also agree with taking a prep class. I was lucky because I’m already working in the field and as a member of the healthcare union, 1199. I was able take a class for free. I didn’t know it until I was in the class that the instructors were from the NASW, so my free class was the same as the one NASW members take. And let me tell you, taking the review class was all I needed to do to prepare for the test. I’m not a super genius by any means, but what I needed to learn was how to take the exam. THE most valuable thing I learned was that I needed to go through the test quickly, pick the first answer that cones into my head, mark it and move on. I was instructed NOT to review the test when I completed it, except to make sure I didn’t skip anything. I swore to my instructor that I would follow her suggestions to the letter and even when I really wanted to change an answer, to would think of her and leave it alone.

    I’m not saying my method of “studying” will work for everyone. That is, taking the review class and ASWB online test and NO STUDYING of material. I wish I could remember the instructor’s name because I would encourage students to take her. She had this incredible ability to suss out what each person’s Achilles heel was when it came to taking a standardized exam and then she created individualized solutions. I think any review class should provide this type of individual attention and since my class was relatively small, we each had plenty.

    So, I say to the procrastinators: get out of your own way (i.e. your head!) take the class, figure out your test-taking strengths and weaknesses, work on that instead of trying to stuff 2 years of information into endless study sessions; and, if course, committ to a date.

    Thank you, Ammu, for bringing up such an important issue.
    Mara J. Brandon, LMSW, CASAC

    • Ammu Prashantini says:

      Mara, thank you so much for sharing your experience! How wonderful of 1199 to provide such a benefit to their members! Review classes are indeed so very important to the process.

      First instincts are key! Spot on! Congratulations on passing and for sharing with us.

      • Dahlia says:

        I took the exam twice and failed. The first time I was clearly not prepared enough. I had lost my information on ethics and direct practice. I relied on the information that I have previously studied.. This time I felt more prepared and did a lot of practice test after ordering new materials. I failed the test by one point. That was hard to take. I cried like a baby. I needed 99 points, I scored 98. Last time I needed 98 to pass. I did not trust my gust. I wish that someone had told me this before. I did the exam in three hours. I had time to kill and went back to review and changed many answers. I felt anxious at the ending. I did not turn on the timer and wanted to focus on the exam. The last time I used all four hours. I have a two year old and a study partner is out of the question. I have been study on my own. I will be taking it in three months. What advise would you gave me . I am also going to purchase the ASWD practice test.

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  4. Andrea says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I am in the very same place and because I have waited I am more anxious then ever. I do have a friend in the same situation and we have vowed to make it happen. I drive myself crazy constantly looking for guides that are best and to get them on the kindle for easy access. I just landed my dream job as a school social worker and now I have to complete my goal by passing this test. Thanks! Best to you.

    • Ammu Kowolik says:


      Thank you so much for reading my post and for responding. First off, CONGRATULATIONS on landing your dream job!! School social work is such an amazing area of work, I am so excited for you! Secondly, you have recognized that you are indeed anxious, start with that. With the support of your friend, you will be able to accomplish this. It’s only a test, and you nailed the harder part: landing an amazing job.

      I wish you and your friend the utmost luck in passing this exam. Like I say to my other friends who haven’t taken it yet, “If I can pass it, you can too!” Good luck!!

      And please post again after you’ve passed! 🙂

  5. Fiara says:

    This is so inspiring. Thanks so much for sharing this experience. What I can say is that I have graduated from Hunter School of Social Work in 2006. I continue to struggle with this exam and have a great job which does require me to obtain this. I have some time to get this done however, I believe I have tried everything. I have taken Dawn’s class twice and I am contemplating taking it again. I have had individual tutors, and studied on my own. Im ready to try the buddy system. I love my job as a School SW at a charter school and want to remain here for some time. I will try these suggesstions.

    • Ammu Kowolik says:


      Thank you so much for your feedback. First off, congratulations on loving your job! That is so fantastic! Have you taken the exam already? The biggest deal for me was indeed the buddy system. In fact, I was just telling someone the other day, if I never met my friend, I am not sure how I would have been able to do this alone. It can be daunting, but with someone at your side, you will get through this! Maybe studying with someone who has taken Dawn’s class can help you reinforce the content you already know.

      NASW-NYC has set up an online message board to help folks find study partners/groups. You can access it by going here: Hope that is helpful to you.

      Good luck!!

      • Fiara says:

        Thanks so much! Actually I have taken the exam several times at this point. I had to stop for some time because it was affecting my self esteem as a social worker. Although it is hard I believe in the work we do as social workers. Thanks for the feedback. Maybe when I decide to take dawns class again I should take the test shortly after. Thanks again.

    • Ka white says:

      I’m a school SW for NYC DOE.
      I have taken 2 prep classes and my anxiety is what has me procrastinating.
      They say having a study partner makes all
      the difference… Would you be interested in our studying together?

  6. Katie says:

    I have taken the exam several times and only miss it by two or three points. I lost a job because I did not pass. With my new job, they have given me more time to pass but I must get my license. I have been trying for the past five years to pass. I have never been able to find a buddy to study with but I have taken many NASW (2) and other courses. The buddy seem to be my only chance. I will post on the wall to see if anyone is in my area. Thanks for all your help.


  7. aa says:

    I graduated from Fordham University in 2004. I took the examination in November 2010 and failed it by 4 points. I had so much material from SWES, NASWand DR Sophia F. Dziegielewski, Ph.D., LISW-S. Then my life changed in September 2011, when my colleagues told me about the LMSW AND LCSW Exam Prep Bootcamp which provides a one day workshop and weekly classes in Bronx, Manhattan and Queens. The bootcamp provided the necessary skills, questions and materials for the exam. The material that are provided to the students are less than 60 pages which is a fraction less than the material from NASW and other etc. May 2012, I passed the exam with flying color. I would not be able to pass the exam if it was not for the skills learned. The ASWB questions were very tricky, however, i was able to answer the question with the skills that i learned from the bootcamp. The instructor also provides individual sessions as well. All of my colleagues that have taken the exam have passed including myself.

  8. Sandra says:

    SR – to AA, Congrats on passing!! I graduated 2010 and finally took the test a few weeks ago and failed by (10) points. At first I felt defeated,but today I have decided to take a prep course, purchase the practice exam from ASWB and take the test again in 90 days. Am I nervous of cause, but Iam determined to get it right this time

    • Ammu Kowolik says:

      Hi Sandra!

      Sorry to hear about your experience with the exam AND I am very glad to see that you have shifted your thinking and are planning ahead! This is exciting! Prep courses can be key. Depending on where you went to school, they might offer classes for alums. I know Hunter is planning one in the fall. Good luck. With positive thinking, anxiety reduction and the right preparation, you’ll be great. It is clear you know a lot already, just remember that. Good luck!

  9. SWTP says:

    Really good tips. Since you were studying, a new resource has emerged: Online practice at Real-time, 170-question exams, like the ones the ASWB offers–but cheaper!

  10. Sarah says:

    Hi Ammu!

    Thank you for sharing this awesome post! I am from Toronto and thinking of moving to NYC. I realize we need to write a Licensing Exam. This is not something we have to do in Toronto. Perhaps I should stay back? (:

    I was wondering if all you resourceful people could give me a salary estimate of what to expect? I am graduating June 2013 and have 2 years experience through placement. Also- if i do move to nyc, where do I start to search for a job? I was thinking volunteering at a hospital? I do have bills to pay so where can I get my foot in the door for a paid job? I realize the jobs in the army pay well, however I’m no us citizen so that unfortunately filters me out.

    Any suggestions/recommendations would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you and happy holidays!

    • Ammu Kowolik says:

      Hi Sarah! Thanks for your comment. The following link will take you to the NASW-NYC Chapter’s salary standards:

      This is what NASW-NYC recommends that social workers get paid, but it does not always reflect the current possibilities out there. I have heard through many colleagues that volunteering and getting involved with NASW-NYC will help you find a job, as this is relationship building and networking–both of which are very important for social workers to actively engage in, even while employed. Take a look at the job postings on the NASW-NYC website and you’ll get a feel for what is out there right now. Good luck to you!

  11. Ron says:

    Hi Ammu,
    Your posts and comments are so helpful and encouraging. Thank you.
    I searched the NASW site, from which I got to your page, and was frustrated to see that the only review course listed as being offered had already taken place on November 18th. I would LOVE to take the review course, but when is it offered. I recognize that you may not know the answer to this, but if you might suggest ways for me to locate a review course that you would recommend, I’d really appreciate it. Again, thanks sooooo much for your super-helpful thoughts above.

    • Ammu Kowolik says:

      Hi Ron, thanks for your comment! I am so glad that anything here is helptul to you (and others)!

      NASW-NYC tries to offer classes intermittently, and is currently looking to have another class in February. I’ve taken some other classes, and in a really unbiased way I cannot say that any have been as good as Dr. Apgar’s…so if it fits to see if there will be a class in Feb 2013, that might be good.

      If you went to school in NYC, I think many of the schools here offer this to alumni…perhaps that’s something to look into? I know Hunter (because I’m an alum) definitely offers review courses. Good luck to you!

  12. emma says:

    Thank you, Nicole! I agree with the majority that taking it closer to when you finished school is best, but if I can do it……
    sat test preparation topic

  13. Bee says:

    Hello Everyone,
    I am currently preparing to take the LMSW exam and would like a partner to study with..I live in Manhattan and we can meet at Silberman School of Social Work to study.


    • Kay says:

      Hey Bee look into the lmsw bootcamp. Based in NYC. I took the exam TODAY and I passed. Woohoo. I only attended 4 classes. Good luck.

    • Moishe says:

      Hi Bee I am also looking for a study partner, I would like to take the exam at the end of May (in about a month).
      I am based in Brooklyn and I am happy to meet in the city.

      How can I contact you?

  14. Emily C. says:

    Your post gives me hope! I got my MSW in 2009 and never planned on getting licensed. Now it’s 2013, I live in a different state (NY now), I’m job hunting, and am thinking I maybe should take this thing. Also feeling slightly overwhelmed at all the work I need to do! Thanks for all the resources!!

    • Ammu Kowolik says:

      Emily, Thanks for your comment! You should definitely consider taking the exam. The next NASW-NYC test prep with open slots is on June 21st and it’s our last one until the winter, if you want to attend, I’d make sure to sign up as soon as possible! Good luck!

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