How to Become a Licensed Social Worker

counselor playing with young child
counselor playing with young child

When it comes to providing mental health services and resources to people in need of support, licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) are an essential thread in the fabric of our communities. In order to provide critical counseling services, social workers must obtain their social work licensure by passing the LCSW exam.

But what are the steps to take in order to reach that goal? This post will tell you everything you need to know to begin your LCSW journey.

What Is an LCSW?

Licensed clinical social workers are skilled mental health professionals who are able to assess, diagnose, and counsel clients. They may choose to serve a broad population through general counseling services, or choose to focus on a specific group such as individuals from immigrant communities or people struggling with drug addiction. 

How to Become an LCSW

In order to become a licensed clinical social worker, one must earn a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree and pass the LCSW licensure exam. Individuals who are interested in becoming an LCSW but hold a bachelor’s degree in another field do not need to worry—there are master’s in social work programs available to meet their academic needs.

MSW degree programs are available in a variety of forms, including on-campus, online, full-time, and part-time. Online, part-time Master of Social Work degree programs are ideal for working professionals who want to continue gaining professional experience while pursuing further education. 

Once an aspiring LCSW completes their master’s degree in social work, they may need to complete additional coursework and clinical hours according to the requirements of their respective state. Then, aspiring LCSWs must pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) LCSW exam. Depending on the state where the aspiring LCSW dwells, the state will either notify them of their results or the test taker will need to contact the board. 

Why Pursue an LCSW? 

From a positive job outlook to high levels of personal fulfillment, there are many reasons that people pursue a career as a licensed clinical social worker. 

BSW graduates with experience in entry-level social work jobs have often seen the impact that social work can have on the lives of others. Witnessing and participating in that positive impact may prompt BSW-holders to desire a longer career path in social work.

For those who hold a bachelor’s degree in another field, clinical social work can be very appealing as well. The local, national, and global events of the past few years have led many professionals to wonder if they are spending their careers in ways that are truly meaningful to them. A master’s degree in social work, and pursuing a career as an LCSW, may be a purposeful option for those who desire to impact people’s lives in clear and concrete ways through their work. 

counselor meeting with older man

LCSW Job Responsibilities 

Licensed clinical social workers are equipped to assess, diagnose, and treat a variety of mental, emotional, and behavioral challenges. They tend to work on interdisciplinary teams to provide comprehensive care. 

Oftentimes, social workers will help clients who are facing specific, acute challenges such as addiction, homelessness, or a serious health problem. They may also work with individuals who are struggling with mental health issues like depression or anxiety, or who are struggling with behavioral challenges or eating disorders. 

LCSWs provide counsel, connect clients with resources, and help the people they serve to improve their lives and situations. Settings where LCSWs work include:

  • Private practices
  • Community-based care facilities
  • Telehealth providers 
  • Government assistance agencies
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Criminal justice settings
  • Hospitals

In addition to working with individuals, social workers are often on the front lines of advocating for whole communities. An LCSW, for example, may be especially focused on ensuring that the healthcare needs of children are met, and work with community partners to provide health services to children at risk for a lack of healthcare. Or an LCSW may recognize that there is a gap in their community’s understanding of mental health challenges and organize workshops to provide community education and facilitate needed discussions. 

While their roles may vary, the common foundation of LCSWs is a passion for improving the lives of others. 

LCSW Job Outlook and Salary

In addition to the motivations for pursuing social work, the job outlook and career stability is also quite strong. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that overall employment of social workers is expected to grow by 12 percent from 2020 to 2030, which is faster than the average for all occupations. 

U.S. News and World Report found that those employed in the role of clinical social worker enjoy average upward mobility and flexibility. As of May 2021, the BLS reports that the median annual wage for social workers was $50,390

people taking LCSW exam

The LCSW Licensing Exam

Each state is responsible for licensing the social workers in their state, but the exams are all written by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). So, while the role of licensing itself falls to each state, the content on the social work licensing exams is developed at the national level.

The ASWB delineates licensing responsibilities in the following way:

  • State or province: determines licensure eligibility, issues licenses, handles license renewal
  • ASWB: registers candidates to take licensure exams, issues score transfers

Minimum Standards for Taking the Licensure Exam

While states may have variances in their LCSW requirements, there are some nationally agreed upon social work licensing standards as well. 

In order to take the LCSW licensure exam, individuals must be graduates of a master’s of social work degree program that has been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. While the number of hours will vary, each state also requires that social workers complete supervised practice hours after graduating with their MSW degree. Typically, the number of hours will be around 3000, but each individual seeking licensure will need to determine the guidelines for their state. 

Registering and Preparing for the LCSW Exam

Once individuals have completed the required coursework and supervised practice hours to take the ASWB exam, they will register to do so through the ASWB website. The Clinical exam costs $260 and the fee is nonrefundable. ASWB provides a comprehensive list of exam registration FAQs, as well as information on nonstandard testing arrangements. Once candidates receive an official ASWB Authorization to Test, they will schedule their testing appointment with Pearson Vue according to the instructions in the Authorization. 

ASWB exams measure entry-level practice competencies and questions are designed to reflect what a social worker is expected to know. While some preparation may be necessary, especially if there is an area of practice the candidate has not reviewed recently, the ASWB Exam Candidate Handbook assures MSW-prepared candidates that the exam will not introduce new topics but instead correlate with their coursework. 

The ASWB offers exam content outlines, an exam guide, and LCSW practice exams, all of which are linked in the candidate handbook. 

LCSW Exam Format

The ASWB examination features 170 multiple-choice questions. Only 150 of those questions will count toward the candidate’s score, though, since 20 of the questions are being pretested for possible inclusion on future ASWB examinations. The candidate will not know which questions count toward their score and which do not. 

Candidates have four hours to complete the examination. They will take the exam on a Pearson VUE computer within a program that allows them to:

  • Move freely through the exam
  • Change their answers
  • Flag questions to return to later
  • Skip question
  • Review questions

Exam Day 

ASWB encourages candidates to locate the test center a few days prior to their test date. They also recommend arriving 30 minutes early to the testing appointment. 

Bring two forms of identification, a primary and secondary:

  • Primary: unexpired, government issued ID including driver’s license, passport, military ID, or permanent residence visa/Green card
  • Secondary: credit or debit card, U.S. Social Security card, Canadian Social Insurance card, professional license card, work ID, student ID

Late arrivals are treated as no-shows, and no-shows will forfeit their examination fee and not be able to reschedule their exam until they re-register with ASWB and pay for another exam.

Upon completing the exam, candidates receive a printed, unofficial score report featuring diagnostic information. State and province social work boards receive official scores from ASWB within 14 days of the examination date. 

LCSW Exam Pass Rate

ASWB reports that 74.5% of 2021 first-time Clinical exam-takers received a passing score. 

Step Toward Your LCSW Career with an Online MSW from Florida State University

The Online MSW program at Florida State University equips students for meaningful careers as social workers, and prepares them for the LCSW exam. Both the Advanced Standing MSW (BSW required) and Traditional MSW (BSW not required) are CSWE-accredited and clinically focused to qualify students for social work licensing

Broaden your career horizons and make a difference in the lives of others with an online MSW from Florida State University.

This blog was initially published in July 2022. For the most updated information, please visit the Association of Social Work Boards website at: