Tips to Survive the Standard Written Exam

A guest post by Melanie Masters, M.A.

A guest post by Melanie Masters, M.A.

Tips From the Other Side, or What I learned from Surviving the SWE

By: Melanie Masters M.A., MFT Intern

Preparing for the exam

Choose the right study program for you and your learning style. 

  • Therapist Development Center
  • Gerry Grossman
  • Berkeley Training

Tips for Making the most of your study materials

  • Make sure to sign up for a program to review the material that fits with the way you like to learn
  • Pace yourself and go through the program once or twice             
  • Take the mock exams
  • Make sure to review the rationales of the mistakes you made so you understand the concepts and why you had problems

How to take care of yourself while you are studying

  • Try to study in 1 hour sessions with breaks as needed
  • Eat well
  • Sleep well
  • Continue seeing friends and loved ones
  • Exercise
  • Meditate
  • Use Hypnosis
  • Practice Relaxation Techniques
  • Develop Positive Affirmations
  • Practice taking mocks in exam mode or using similar time frames as the test.  Take your breaks and have your juice or snack when you practice

  • Take a practice run to the testing center to time how long it will take to get there,  at the same day/time that you will be taking your test

  • Visit the testing center so you will be able to visualize where you will be, and make sure you will be comfortable

Apply for Special Accommodations

If you have a verified disability, apply for special accomodations (check out this tutorial here).  This is not a crutch, it is self-care

  • Types of disabilities might be GAD, Depression, Fibromyalgia, Back Issues, Vision Problems, Learning Disabilities, ADHD, etc.
  • Extra time can really help
  • A pillow for your back
  • Breaks, stretching, moving your body, bathroom
  • Eye drops, tissues

The day/night before the exam

Make sure you have everything ready to go

  • Your ID
  • Directions
  • Accommodation letter (if using them)
  • Pillow
  • Snacks
  • Select clothes you will wear (no pockets, hoodies, scarves, etc).  Layer, so that you will comfortable, not be too hot or cold.

Try to take your mind off of the exam

  • Visit with friends
  • Have a massage, pedicure
  • Exercise
  • Go to a movie

The day of the exam

  • Give yourself plenty of time to get ready
  • Try to eat something nourishing, and sustaining
  • Meditate
  • Exercise/Stretch

On the way to the exam

  • Grab all the things you set out last night
  • Leave earlier than you need to, this will allow you to chill in the car when you get there
  • Listen to motivating music on the way (your favorite, or the theme to Rocky)
  • Tape the word PASS onto your dashboard and realize you will be seeing this at the end of your test

When you begin the test

  • Before you start, ground yourself, feet on floor, look around, touch the desk
  • If you feel it will help, use the ear plugs or noise cancelling headphones
  • Write your affirmations at the top of your paper to use as reminders during the test
  • Jot down anything you are worried you might forget (DSM timelines or such)
  • If you feel the need, write down some time markers for yourself for completing so many questions by what time (ie by the first hour I will be done with 50 questions…)
  • After the computer practice test, reground yourself before you begin
  • Stay present with the information, pretend you are in the room with the client or doing a case consultation.  What would you do?
  • Make sure to take your break, eat your snack or drink some juice
  • Take the test in chunks, 20 questions at a time,  Tell yourself, ”Ok I’m almost there”, as you near the end of  each sections, then stop and close your eyes or look away from the computer, do a few eye circles or rolls
  • Pretend the stem is a puzzle to solve, read it first and before you look for the answer, ask yourself what you would do
  • Take the stem literally, do not read or assume more info than is given
  • Do not take time to read the DSM 5 questions if you are taking it before 1/1/15, these do not count, so don’t waste your time.  If you want to, mark something and move on
  • Mark the ones that feel hard or that you are unsure, if you want write down the ones you think you might change later on your paper.  You can key these in at the end and take another look.. Jot down the two answers you have narrowed down to,  so you do not have to read them all again later
  • Remember there are experimental questions on the test.  If it seems impossible, it probably is, and does not count
  • Mark an answer for every question.  At the end of the test look at the top of the test to make sure you didn’t leave skip or leave any unanswered.  There is a button for “unanswered” questions.  If you did, go back and put something in, even if it is a guess
  • Go back, if you have time, to check only your marked answers,  only change them if you are sure you  made a mistake and have the “aha” factor of knowing it was wrong.  Leave all other choices alone, your gut was most likely right.

After the exam

  • No matter what the outcome, remember this exam does not define you as a therapist
  • Celebrate your success at having come this far and having worked this hard
  • If you passed, take some time to rejuvenate and get ready for your next exam
  • If you do not pass, consider how much you learned from this experience, and how much more prepared you will be next time

Remember you are not alone.  Connect online to others, take it one step at a time.  Good luck!!!

Melanie Masters

Melanie Masters, M.A., MFT Intern has completed her Standard Written Exam, and is in the process of preparing for her Clinical Vignette Exam.  In addition to being a MFT Intern, she is a Learning Disabilities Specialist at Moorpark Community College, where she teaches Study Strategies and does counseling and testing for learning disabilities.  She specializes in working with ADHD and Learning Disabilities and hopes to be able to re-open her practice in the Thousand Oaks/Westlake Village, CA area as soon as she completes her licensing.

Becoming a Therapist: How to choose a school


While this blog is mostly focused on what happens AFTER you start your graduate degree in Psychology or Marriage and Family Therapy- I've been getting more questions about how to choose the right school if you want to be a counselor, MFT, social worker, or therapist. 

Questions like: 

The closest on campus school is 1.5 hours away. I could go to one school that’s accredited according to the MFT website. However, there is another school, Liberty Univ, that gives a discount to veterans(me). But I’m nervous that its not accredited and practices may not want to hire me because of that. Is that critical in my decision. Online would be better for me. Going with Liberty would also be thousands less expensive.


I am considering programs for my Masters in MFT. I am considering 2 online programs and since you are a consultant in the field i thought you may be able to shed some light on the topic of online education for MFT’s. The 2 programs I am considering are both COAMFTE Accredited and meet my states requirements. do you know how important the school you get your degree is? is there professional sigma attached to either Capella or North Central University? Or are the therapist’s internships more important?

These are wonderful questions to be asking prior to applying to grad school. I want to give you a few tips for choosing the right graduate school for you- in no particular order. I also hope that some of the other people in the MFTGuide community will post their suggestions in the comments below: 

Explore the benefits of accreditation: 

I didn't go to a COAMFTE accredited school-GASP! Honestly, when I applied to graduate school- I was completely lost. I didn't know that about additional accreditations and chose the school that was closest to me and that fit in my budget. Was it the end of the world? No. Did it have some drawbacks? Yes. 

COAMFTE Accreditation

If you are planning to move around the country and want to be a MFT specifically- I'd consider springing for the COAMFTE accreditation. When it comes to licensure as a MFT- it is a state by state process. Many states see COAMFTE as a national standard and it can make the process of getting licensed in those states a little less complex. In other words- you won't need to submit syllabus of each class you took in grad school. 

While we are at it- keep those syllabus. I know it sounds crazy. I wouldn't have EVER considered that they would be useful for anything- but scan them in- put them in a file so you have them in case anyone asks during the licensure process. Your grad school should keep them on file- but it can be a pain to get them to send them to you sometimes. 

Has my ability to earn an income been stilted by not going to a COAMFTE program? No. However, I'm self-employed. In my particular area of the world, there were few COAMFTE programs- and it wasn't a determining factor when I was out in the job market. In your area- it might be. Check it out, make some connections- you might even find a local mentor along the way!

Check out the job market for therapists in your area

Go and look at the job descriptions of positions in your area that you would love to have. What do they ask for? Is it considered a "desirable" qualification to have a specific accreditation- take that into account when choosing schools. 

While you are at it- see if you can schedule a quick chat with a supervisor or employee at your dream job. You might even pay them for an hour of consultation (very much worth it)- and find out what the market is for internships in your area. Will that make the difference in getting a paid internship? 

Or, will you simply have an extra 100k in students loans and still be working for free? I know wonderful people who paid to have an EXCELLENT grad school education- who still couldn't find paying gigs out of grad school. 

How easy is it to get an internship?

To be honest, my biggest questions that I would be researching would be related to the relationship the college has in the community with internship sites, the % rates of employments of graduates, etc. 

In some cases, you may be better of going to a state school at a low price, and investing that additional 50k in advanced training and certifications like getting trained in EMDR, Emotionally Focused Couple's Counseling, DBT, etc. These advanced certifications will also give you more hands-on expertise for working with clients in the real world- which will make you a better therapist! 

Get an internship now

Ok- not exactly possible in most cases. However, I'd recommend trying to move into a paying job related to the field asap. It isn't always plausible- but even volunteering 5 hours a week with a local non-profit while working your Full-time gig can put you miles ahead of your classmates when you interview for practicums, internships, and jobs. 

I was lucky to grab a job at a local non-profit right as I started graduate school. My boss at the insurance agency I worked for, handled the non-profit's insurance policy. He gave me a glowing recommendation which helped in making such a drastic shift! Never underestimate the power of personal relationships and connections! 

What about online vs in-person graduate programs? 

The truth is, our world is changing. The biggest concern employees have related to your degree program is its preparation for you to do great work. I've seen in-person programs be therapy mills, and some REALLY cool online programs. However, whether in-person or online- you need to immediately find a place to start implementing what you are learning. The sooner you start working in the field- the better. 

It won't just change your job prospects- it will transform the way you take in information. Your questions will be at a different caliber than your classmates, you can start to develop expertise before you ever graduate! I remember shortly after I graduated a professor coming to me to consult on a domestic violence case. I was shocked- but she knew from having me as a student my passion, expertise, and knowledge in the area. 

Ok- so this is getting LONG! I might have to do a follow-up- I feel like I have SO much more to share! If you have particular questions- or want to share your tips: Share them in the comments below! 

Miranda Palmer

I have successfully built a cash pay psychotherapy practice from scratch on a shoestring budget. I have also failed a licensed exam by 1 point (only to have the licensing board send me a later months later saying I passed), started an online study group to ease my own isolation and have now reached thousands of therapists across the country, helped other therapists market their psychotherapy practices, and helped awesome business owners move from close to closing their doors, to being profitable in less than 6 weeks. I've failed at launching online programs. I've had wild success at launching online programs. I've made mistakes in private practice I've taught others how to avoid my mistakes. You can do this. You were called to this work. Now- go do it! Find some help or inspiration as you need it- but do the work!