The ASWB (Association of Social Work Boards) offers several levels of exams for social workers: the Masters exam and the Clinical exam are the ones taken the most often--around twenty thousand per year each.

Different states offer different licensure paths. Some states don't have an LMSW, so don't direct social workers to take the Masters exam. Find details about your state via your state licensing board--link list here.

What's the difference between the LMSW and LCSW exam? Take a look at the exam outlines on the ASWB website. You have to squint pretty hard to notice significant differences. There's more diagnosis and treatment planning on the clinical exam. Questions may be somewhat more complex. Both exams are 170 questions taken over four hours. Both exams cover a wide array of social work topics. The difference is more easily seen in purpose and outcome than content and process. Here are some key differences between the two:

  1. Purpose and eligibility:

    • Masters exam: This exam is designed for individuals seeking to become licensed as a Masters level social worker (generally LMSW). It is typically taken by those who have completed a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from an accredited program and are looking to practice beginning licensed social worker.
    • Clinical exam: The Clinical exam is intended for social workers who have completed their MSW degree and are seeking more advanced licensure as a clinical social worker. It is designed for those who want to work in a clinical setting and provide therapy or counseling services. Most states designate social workers who have passed the Clinical exam LCSW (LICSW and LISW are also used). 
  2. Content focus:

    • Masters exam: This exam assesses knowledge and skills related to non-clinical social work practice (eg case managers or macro social workers). It covers a broad range of topics, including human development, social welfare policy, research methods, diversity and cultural competence, direct practice, assessment, and interventions.
    • Clinical exam: The Clinical exam focuses on clinical social work practice. It tests knowledge and skills in the same areas as the Masters exam with a greater emphasis on diagnosis, assessment, and therapeutic interventions. It is designed to evaluate a social worker's ability to provide clinical services and make independent judgments in a therapeutic context.
  3. Level of difficulty:

    • Masters exam: The Masters exam is considered less challenging than the Clinical exam. It assesses foundational knowledge and skills acquired during a Masters level social work program.
    • Clinical exam: The Clinical exam is designed to be more advanced, requiring a somewhat higher level of expertise. It tests the ability to apply clinical knowledge, diagnose mental health conditions, and develop treatment plans.

It's important to note that the specific content of the ASWB exam changes over time. One version of the Masters exam may be more difficult, one version of the Clinical exam may be simpler. That also depends upon how prepared you are. Get started by taking full-length practice tests to assess and develop your readiness to pass.

Happy studying and good luck on the exam!

June 3, 2023
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