Social Work Test Prep Strategy
Unfortunately, it’s often not enough to be a good social worker when it comes to taking and passing the social work exams. While having a good handle on information relevant to social work practice is important, this may also not be enough. Even very good social workers sometimes have a tough time passing their exams. Why might this be? Two reasons: 1) anxiety management and 2) test-taking strategy. The latter can often be the cure for the former.
When you don’t have a strategy about how to approach test questions, your anxiety rises. When your anxiety rises, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode, which is not in the least bit helpful when sitting for your exam. This may cause you to skip important details or it can cause you to over-focus on irrelevant details and lose focus on what is important.
While experiencing some anxiety when taking your test is unavoidable, anxiety does not always have to be crippling. For many, having a plan or a strategy when approaching a new question can help bring the anxiety level down to manageable. However, test-taking strategy is not something that is usually taught in school. In classroom exams, questions tend to be focused on simple information recall, but in the social work exams, many questions are essentially asking you to demonstrate that you think like a social worker, not just know what a social worker is supposed to know. These are two different things. Again, information recall is important, but it is not the whole deal!
An information recall question might ask, “What are interventions that Bowen would use in the middle stage of therapy?” Either you know the information or you don’t. A critical thinking question would ask, “How would extended family systems interventions help Frank achieve his goal of wanting to feel less anxious?” or “What is the social worker’s hypothesis about the underlying issues in this scenario?” The latter two questions ask the exam candidate to demonstrate their ability to think like a social worker.
A couple of different test-taking strategies can help the candidate improve their performance on these kinds of questions. 1) read the question stem (the part of the paragraph that actually asks the question – usually the last sentence) first and pause and think about what is being asked for a moment. Is the question asking about interventions (what you do) or is it asking about goals (what you want to accomplish)? Is the question being applied to a specific person (if it’s a couple or family case)? Is the question framed at a specific time of therapy (early, middle or late stage)? 2) rephrase the question in your own words. This forces your brain to process the question – you cannot rephrase a question unless you actually think about it. 3) read the case and look for specific information that answers the question. Because you have thought about the question for a moment before reading the case information, you will have a good idea of what you are looking for. Reading the question stem first can also help you ignore information that isn’t important. (“Because the question was asking about Frank, I don’t need to worry about his wife, Janet.”)
While using a new strategy or skill might slow you down at first, it’s worth learning how to really analyze a question and modify your approach to question analysis. However, the more you practice test-taking strategy, the faster and more efficient you’ll become. Take the knowledge and ability you already have, add test-taking strategy, and increase your odds of passing your social work exam!
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