Editorial Note: We earn a commission from partner links on Forbes Advisor. Commissions do not affect our editors' opinions or evaluations.
Social work licensing practices vary widely by state. Some states require entry-level and generalist social workers to pass an exam and earn licensure. In other states, you only need a license to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and provide psychotherapy services.
In many states, social work licensure at any level requires you to pass an exam administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). The ASWB exam is a nationally recognized assessment that evaluates your comprehension of human behavior and development.
If you’re a social work major or considering pivoting into the human services field, read on to discover how to prepare for, take and pass the ASWB licensure exam—with or without a social work degree.
What Is the ASWB Exam?
ASWB is a nonprofit organization comprising all of the state social work regulatory boards in the United States and Canada. This body regulates the social work profession and administers the licensure exam that evaluates prospective social workers’ ethics and expertise. Passing the ASWB exam is the final step to earning a social work license in many states.
ASWB offers five exam categories—associate, bachelor’s, master’s, advanced generalist and clinical—each tailored to a specific education and experience level. A candidate’s exam category determines their title and scope of practice post-licensure.
Within a four-hour window, ASWB exam-takers must answer questions concerning:
- Human development, diversity and behavior in the environment
- Assessment (of clients’ physical and mental status)
- Interventions with clients
- Professional relationships, values and ethics
ASWB exam Categories
All ASWB exam categories contain 170 questions on human development and behavior, but question types may vary among categories. For example, the associate and bachelor’s exams lean more heavily on recall questions than other exam categories, which feature larger proportions of reasoning questions.
Each exam category may lead to a different level of social work licensure depending on your state’s licensing processes. Not all states offer all five categories of the ASWB exam.
This category offers a licensure pathway for applicants who want to practice social work without earning a four-year degree in the field. In most cases, associate-level social workers can only practice under supervision.
A handful of states offer this licensing pathway: South Dakota, Michigan, Ohio, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Only South Dakota, New Hampshire and Massachusetts require associate-level social workers to pass the associate ASWB exam.
Registration for the associate ASWB exam category costs $230.
The ASWB bachelor’s exam, which also costs $230, evaluates your generalist understanding of social work practices and ethics. You must hold a bachelor’s degree in social work from an accredited college to sit for this exam category.
The bachelor’s category features the same questions as the associate category.
Passing the bachelor’s exam qualifies you to become a non-clinical baccalaureate social worker. Exact titles vary among states; in Oregon, these professionals are called registered baccalaureate social workers, while North Carolina calls them certified social workers.
In most cases, social workers at this level interview clients, manage cases, conduct research and advocate for social justice. Depending on the state, they may only be able to practice autonomously after gaining supervised work experience post-licensure.
The ASWB master’s category requires a master of social work (MSW) and usually qualifies applicants for the licensed master social worker (LMSW) credential. Again, the exact title may vary by state—Indiana calls these professionals licensed social workers, for example.
The master’s-level exam tests your foundational understanding of the social work field and evaluates your application of specialized skills gained during their MSW program. Licensees know how to apply advanced practice skills and specialized knowledge in their roles.
LMSWs can drive social change and justice for various communities. In some states, they can provide clinical therapy with oversight from an LCSW. The registration fee for this ASWB exam category is $230.
The advanced generalist category is tailored to prospective LMSWs who aspire to work in macro-level roles. This means working with large populations, such as entire states and countries. The advanced generalist ASWB exam indicates a desire to work with public policy, state or national campaigns, or other government initiatives.
To sit for the advanced generalist ASWB exam, you must hold a master’s degree in social work plus two years of nonclinical professional experience.
With a fee of $260, test takers can prove their expertise in social justice, public policy and administration, and public welfare to their state licensing boards.
The minimum requirements for this ASWB category include an MSW and two years of clinical experience. The clinical ASWB test serves prospective social workers who want to provide mental health services in clinical settings.
LCSWs (who may work under different titles, depending on where they practice) provide psychotherapy services to prevent, diagnose and treat mental illnesses. Through individual or group therapy, these professionals help people struggling with emotional distress.
Clinical social workers practice independently in various settings, including hospitals, schools, psychiatric facilities and social service agencies. Registering for the clinical ASWB exam category costs $260.
Signing Up for the ASWB Exam
Apply for a State License
First, you must get your state board’s approval to register for the ASWB exam. Approval processes differ depending on the state where you want to practice.
Typical requirements vary by state and license level but may include college transcripts, a license application fee and proof of supervised experience, which you can send to the board via email or fax. Some states may also require you to provide fingerprints and undergo a background check.
Sign Up for the ASWB Exam
Once you receive approval from your state social work board, you must register for the appropriate ASWB licensure exam, either online, via mail or by fax. Registration costs between $230 and $260, depending on your exam category.
If your registration is successful, you’ll receive an “authorization to test” email from ASWB.
Schedule Your Test with Pearson VUE
Pearson VUE provides testing centers for licensure applicants nationwide. You can schedule, cancel and reschedule exam appointments with Pearson VUE through the testing authorization email.
Preparing for the ASWB Exam
Understand How the exam Is Structured
The ASWB exam is a four-hour, computer-based test comprising 170 multiple-choice questions that test your expertise and decision-making skills as a social worker.
Exam questions cover various content areas and competencies you should have covered during your degree program. You may also find knowledge, skills and abilities statements resembling real-life situations that require critical thinking. To pass the licensure exam, you must answer about 100 out of the 150 questions correctly.
Take a Practice Test
Although self-study is necessary to pass professional exams, practice questions can help you prepare better. By taking a mock test, you can identify loopholes in your study plan, learn the testing software, understand your strengths and areas for improvement, and prepare for complex questions.
After you register for your exam, ASWB offers a 30-day window to take a VCE exam for an additional $85. Practice exams exist for all categories except the advanced generalist exam.
Other test prep resources offer free practice tests, but ASWB warns against those resources because their content may be misleading.
Know What to Expect on Test Day
ASWB enforces several security measures on test day to ensure a reliable exam process. Prepare to present two photo IDs and sign a confidentiality agreement.
Pearson VUE test centers are fitted with surveillance tools to detect exam malpractice. Exam Center personnel may also walk through the room at intervals.
You cannot enter the testing center with personal items, but you will receive erasable note boards, markers and other necessary materials from the Exam Center personnel. You must return the items after the exam or risk invalidating your score.
The testing equipment should look like a typical computer setup. Test administrators may provide a short on-screen tutorial to help you navigate the software.
Decompress After the Exam
Upon completing the licensure exam, you’ll receive an unofficial score report at the Exam Center indicating your performance. ASWB will then send the official score report to your state’s social work board two weeks after the exam.
Note that your scores cannot be altered at any point, so all you can do is wait for your state board to contact you or go ahead with other state-specific requirements. This may take anywhere from two weeks to a month.
If you fail the licensure exam, you can retake it after 90 days.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About the ASWB Exam
What does the ASWB exam stand for?
The ASWB exam stands for the Association of Social Work Boards examination. This test determines whether a candidate is fit to practice social work at their desired licensure level.
What percentage of people pass the ASWB exam?
A accurate ASWB report showed that 75.8% of first-time test takers passed the clinical exam category in 2021. The master’s and bachelor’s categories had pass rates of 73% and 68.7%, respectively.
What is a passing score on the ASWB practice exam?
Specific passing score thresholds on the ASWB exam may vary with each passing year. ASWB recommends that testers correctly answer 90 to 107 of the graded questions to pass the licensure exam.