Over the past two years, I’ve helped more than 3,000 California MFTs and clinical social workers pass their license exams. As a practitioner and educator myself, I’ve developed study guides to help students prepare for law and ethics exams. I’ve also developed online programs that have helped hundreds study.
Throughout all this work, I keep noticing a common theme—knowing the material is one thing. Knowing how to manage test anxiety is another thing entirely. It’s important to have both of these skill sets—as well as a solid test-taking strategy—before going into a license exam. But in my experience, learning how to manage test anxiety is challenging and can require some different skills—starting with a mindset shift.
Shift Your Mindset
License exams are high-stakes. It’s not unusual for those approaching their exams to start thinking they’re doomed, that “I will fail” is a certainty. For some students, a mindset of “I will fail” can actually be an effective way of managing test anxiety. If you go in thinking you’re going to fail, then actual failure isn’t any worse than what you already had in mind. That way, there are no expectations to fall short of.
But if that mindset doesn’t work for you—and I don’t believe it works for most— hopefully one of the following mindset shifts, or something similar to them, will serve you better as you discover how to manage test anxiety. Different things work well for different people, so perhaps one of these will resonate with you.
See whether you can replace “I will fail” with:
“I will pass.”
You’re good at what you do, and you’ve been working hard in preparation for this. You’re there to do a job, and you’re going to do it. This doesn’t work for everyone, but sometimes all you need to do to shift your mindset is imagine your ideal outcome and believe you can do it.
“I might pass and I might fail. If I pass I finally get licensed, and if I fail it doesn’t matter.”
The people who love you now will still love you no matter what happens with your exam. The clients who appreciate that you’re there for them now will still appreciate that you’re there for them no matter what happens with your exam. The test doesn’t say anything about you as a clinician or as a person. So don’t let it affect other parts of your life. Those are yours and yours alone.
“I’ve got nothing to lose.”
This one is perhaps not totally accurate—paying to retake the test and waiting 4 months to do so is certainly no picnic. But on the other hand, that’s the worst that can happen if you don’t pass the first time. The potential upside of passing your exam is so much bigger than the potential downside of failing.
“The test is stupid.”
When you think about it, isn’t this exam a weird way of evaluating therapist safety in the first place? Locked in a room with a minute to answer each question and no one to consult with?
Doing our work as clinicians and protecting our clients in real life looks nothing like that. This attitude that the test is stupid can help you see this exam for what it is: A roadblock, sure, but a silly one. A small one. Think of it as something you could fit inside a plastic bag—and then beat to a pulp, if you wanted to.
Have a Plan
When thinking about how to manage test anxiety, create a plan for yourself. Your test day isn’t the time to experiment with new strategies. It’s the time to use the strategies that you already know work for you. Some folks do best by answering what they see as easier questions first to build confidence, then coming back to tougher ones later.
Other students do better by working through the test in order, without taking too long on questions that are oddly written or unusually tough. Some like to regularly check their pacing against how much time is left. Others are better off not looking at the clock. This kind of strategizing should be part of your exam preparation, just as any sports team will enter a big game with a game plan.
Part of exam planning should also be planning for the time after the exam. If nothing else, this is a helpful reminder that the test is just a moment in time, and that win or lose, the world keeps spinning as normal afterward. The people who love you before the test will love you after. The clients you’re effectively serving before the test, you will still be effectively serving after.
Who do you want to have lunch with that day? If you’re testing in the morning, are you going to go back to work in the afternoon? For tests where you get the results right away, who do you want to have standing by to get your first phone call with the news?
Rehearse Your Exam Day
If you’re feeling nervous about your test already, few things can be worse than running late on your way to the testing location. If you encounter traffic, don’t know where to go or where to park, or otherwise find yourself delayed, it can be easy to get overwhelmed.
So it may help to minimize the chance of those things happening. When you schedule your test, you likely get the address of the location where testing will take place. Practice going there at around the same time of day and day of the week as your actual exam will be. This way you can get familiar with likely traffic, where to turn, and where to park. You’ll still want to give yourself a bit of extra time on your actual test day, but rehearsing the drive can help you know how much extra time is reasonable.
When you practice the drive, you may even want to walk all the way to the door of the test center, or step inside and introduce yourself to the staff in the waiting room. You’ll have plenty to focus on when your test day comes; you shouldn’t have to worry about whether you’re in the right place.
Learning how to manage test anxiety is a challenge for many examinees. But you’ll still be the same person, the same clinician, the same friend, and the same everything-else the day after you take the test as you were on the day before. It doesn’t get to own you.
Go kick its ass.