How to Take the LCSW exam (Part 2)

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Part 1 of How to Take the LCSW exam touches on the importance of being self-disciplined and learning the language of the actual exam. In this post, I will cover the steps on how to read the vignette questions strategically and identifying the clues to help you choose the correct answer.

Before we go, Please keep in mind that this is NOT the only way to take the exam. If you have your own way and found it working, keep using it! 

First things first, it’s normal that you may find some test items quite straightforward, and the answers are obvious. If you are able to answer the questions confidently, it is likely because you have the knowledge and/or have encountered similar scenarios before.

Keep your answer selection. Move on. Don’t overthink and doubt yourself.


I. How to Read the question stem:

  1. When reading the vignette, coming up with your own “what-would-you-do” answer may be helpful. It gives you an idea of what you are dealing with.  However, do proceed with caution. Don’t insert your own assumptions or biases.
  2. As you read the stem, DO make a mental note of the following:
    • Is the question testing my SW ethics?
    • Is it about safety or confidentiality?
    • Is it about my ability to balance different parts of my SW values?
    • Is it testing my therapy skills, Dx skills, or general SW knowledge?
    • The above process should NOT take you more than 1 or 2 minutes. Once you have a general idea, pay attention to what being asked (FIRST, NEXT, SHOULD, MOST, EXCEPT)
    • If you find yourself re-reading the question stem, it’s a GOOD thing. Chances are, it may be a difficult question that tests your reasoning skills.

II. Identifying Important Clues in Question Stem: 

Look for the following clues by asking:

  1. WHAT is my Social Work’s Role? (a therapist, a supervisor, a supervisee, a community social worker, school social worker, etc.)
  2. WHERE is my work setting? (private practice, hospital, community clinic, school, protective services, EAP). THIS will determine the limitations of your interaction with the client.
  3. WHO is my PRIMARY client? (A minor, adult, couple, family, group, etc.).
    1. Pay attention to any additional DESCRIPTION about the client, such as culture, gender, sexual identity, values, and beliefs.
      • Why is it important? Because it is testing your SW cultural competency, and your ability to address issues of transference (from client) and countertransference (from SW).
  4. HOW is my client? *note that not all of these will appear in the stem
    1. Present mood/feeling
    2. Present problem
    3. Immediate needs, concern, or crisis
    4. Psychological state and symptoms
    5. Duration of the symptoms/problem
    6. Is diagnosis mentioned?
    7. Any relevant social history
  5. WHERE is my client? 
    1. Literally, WHERE is your client? (IS the client in the office with you?)
    2. If the stem indicated that you hear concerns from other members (spouse, parents, caregiver, teacher, etc.), think about what it means. I will make another post about this topic.
  6. What type of SW functions does the question ask me?
    1. Rapport building (first session, validate, empathize)
    2. Assessment
    3. Diagnoses
    4. Therapy treatment (short term, long term)
    5. Crisis or Safety intervention
    6. Resource linkage
    7. Advocacy
    8. [insert your own]

Stay focused on what being asked of you! Don’t get stuck with your own assumptions. Use ONLY the clues provided in the stem to guide your answer.

III. When choosing an answer, keep in mind the following:

Factors that take Precedence:

  • Law (safety)
  • Confidentiality
  • Relationship with client
  • Self-determination
  • Substance use

For Questions pertaining therapeutic intervention:

  1. Immediate safety must be addressed FIRST
  2. Clarify before notify
  3. Voluntary before involuntary hospitalization
  4. Active listening/building rapport FIRST
  5. Focus on client’s presenting problem (starting where the client is)
  6. Psychosocial assessment
  7. Ask for any recent stressor (you want to rule out AD before MDD)
  8. When suspects MDD, look for duration (2 weeks)**
  9. Don’t start therapy unless substance is addressed.
  10. When physiological symptoms mentioned, refer to medical

Please read my previous posts on reasoning strategies overview 1 and 2 to get more tips.

When you have tried everything and are still in doubt:

  • Ask yourself: Is it lawful? Is it ethical? Is it Sensible?
  • PICK AN ANSWER
  • Move on

Ultimately, the Social Work Board wants to protect the public. The ASWB exam is designed to ensure that the licensees have a solid foundation of (1) social work knowledge, (2) skills and (3) ability to form professional judgment and take appropriate action that is LAWFUL, ETHICAL, and SENSIBLE with the public and client’s best interest in mind. Please notice that I stated “public” before client, as you know, we, social workers have “duty to protect”.


Thanks again for reading the post. Please post any questions you might have in the comment section. Hope it helps!  🙂

Please continue to read Part 3 of How to Take the LCSW Exam, which will be posted shortly.

— Chinh

*This is a “living” post, which means I will keep updating relevant content and grammar correction. Please contact me at cduong15@gmail.com for any grammatical errors. Thank you!

**Correction note: My apology! I wrote “1 month” instead of “2 weeks” for MDD duration. It has been updated.

9 COMMENTS

  1. The break down of how to take the LCSW test has given me hope and I am excited that I will pass this time using your material as a study guide!! It has provided me with so much clarity that I didn’t have before!! Great work!!

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