Meet Instructor Dawn Apgar, PhD, LSW, ACSW
Dawn Apgar, PhD, LSW, ACSW, is an award-winning instructor and social worker at Seton Hall University who has helped thousands of her fellow social workers nationwide prepare for licensure examinations at all levels.
A prolific writer, her work on ethics, social work education, policy, has been published in eight books and numerous academic publications, ranging from Journal of Social Work Education to Mental Retardation to Journal of Teaching in Social Work. Often, her publications share results of her extensive research on licensure—work that is funded by the American Foundation for Research and Consumer Education in Social Work Regulation.
Dr. Apgar currently chairs the New Jersey social work licensing board. Now past-president of the NASW New Jersey Chapter—which awarded her its highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award, in 2014—she has served on NASW’s National Board of Directors.
Dr. Apgar has taught both in undergraduate and graduate social work programs and has decades of direct practice, policy, and management experience in the field. Her expertise has made her a popular and highly rated trainer among members of many NASW chapters, including New Jersey, New York, Montana, and, most recently, Michigan.
Not sure you want your license? Not sure you want to register for this course? Not sure what you need to best prep for the test? Skim this interview below for Dr. Apgar’s recommendations and insights for social workers on passing the exams, as well as the benefits of pursuing licensure in general.
Passing Your Social Work Licensure Exam: The Hows and Whys according to Renowned Instructor Dr. Dawn Apgar
Nationally renowned instructor Dawn Apgar, PhD, LSW, ACSW, became the new teacher for NASW Virginia’s exam preparation courses in 2020, and she brings a robust learning management system to course registrants in addition to the classes. Below, she discusses her approaches and content, which have led to the successful exam passage of thousands of social workers across the country.
NASW Virginia: What do you think is the most important tactic for passing the exams regardless of level?
Apgar: “Passing the exam requires four things. One, it requires taking time out of your schedule and developing a sound study plan. Two, to pass it requires commitment. You're raising yourself with the content that's on the exam and material that you learned in your formal social work program. Three is learning some test-taking tips about how to analyze the questions right and some common mistakes that people make. And lastly is just learning how to deal with test anxiety.”
Is there a particular area of the exam that many social workers seem to fear the most, and if so, why?
“It's interesting because what people fear the most is usually not as much a problem as other areas. People are usually very fearful about clinical diagnoses terms… They're very nervous, because the DSM is a very large book, and they're nervous they're not going to know it all. Yet that's an area where people don't generally have a problem.
“Where people can sometimes underestimate the difficulty is that this is a social work exam, so they are going to be asked about public policy. They're going to be asked about operating within organizational structures--what we call the mezzo or macro levels of practice--and often people are surprised that they're taking a clinical exam but are still being asked about policy or management. Those are areas that can be difficult.”
What do you think are the first one or two steps a social worker can take to help build some momentum and confidence moving toward that test date?
“Whether someone has a real test date or just a hypothetical test date of when they want to sit for the exam, the first step [is] to define how much time you are going to have to prepare. That will then define how much time you need to set aside within that time period each day to study in a manageable format.
“For some people, honestly, their lives are so busy, they might take a week off from work, and that's their study period, so they may be studying for long periods of time or within a short timeframe. For other people—just because of logistics—getting a test day is going to take them three or four months, a much longer period of study time. But first pick a test date and then, within that timeframe, look at the content areas and break them up by saying, ‘I'm going to study this material today. I'm going to focus on this material tomorrow.’
“I always say, ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’ It's the same way here; you have to make it into something that's manageable.”
Test anxiety is an issue regardless of your age or level. What are one or two effective exercises or tactics that you think help everyone?
“One thing I always hear from people who participate in the test prep course is that by the end of the course, their anxiety level has decreased because they learn about the exam, testing and conditions, and helpful strategies. Walking into the testing experience knowing what it's going to be like is extremely helpful, and they're going to get that as part of the course.
“The other thing I think is important--and that is stressed—is how to put together an effective study plan. I always tell people, ‘Of course, you're going to have anxiety; anxiety could actually be useful to motivate you to study for the test.’ But having a well-thought-out and defined study plan can be especially useful, because knowing that what you said you were going to do to get prepared at least allows you to walk into the testing site with the confidence that you carried out your plan as created.”
Do they walk away from the course with that plan, or is the course just part of the plan?
“The learning management system that they get as part of the course will help them put together a plan, and we talk about how to create a plan generally in the course.
“Everyone's study plan is going to be individualized. There will be some people coming into the course who've already started studying or who have a very short window to be able to take the test, so their study plan might be more abbreviated. Then there are other people where this is their first day, and they're going to be taking weeks to get ready. Everyone has a different situation, but they're going to understand the importance of a study plan and learn some ways in which they can break up the content into manageable segments.”
Can you talk about how you develop the tools that registrants can access on your learning management platform, and which are the most popular?
“There's a lot of anxiety about ‘What do I need to know?’ and ‘What are the strategies like?’ People really want everything under one roof. They want one-stop shopping to access everything in an organized manner. And I think that out of the other tools and products out there, I've been very effective [bringing] it all together, so people don't have to hunt for resources, strategies, or content on their own.
“The course and the learning management system are structured this way…. They're going to get a summary of all of the content areas and topics asked in the test, and they're going to get it in multiple mediums, meaning that the learning management system allows them to interact with the content.
“And there's a discussion board, so they can get their questions answered in a cohesive way. It's prepping in a box, … which is probably the most effective strength of the course and product.”
When you say that there’s a discussion board, can our course registrants post questions there, and they will be answered? So it's then not just a single six-hour prep course they’re registering for--it's like a six-month prep course, right?
“Yes. However long it takes. They will get access to the learning management system for six months from the date of taking the course. The course is very helpful, but [registrants] will be able to get their questions answered throughout that six-month period and have access to me as well.”
“… Another thing that distinguishes this product is that I'm a social worker…. A lot of books and things you see out there are written by companies, and some of them are not by social workers. What's important is not only having a course with a social worker, but also … you want to make sure you're using a product that's written by social workers because the Social Work Licensure exam is written by social workers.”
Which elements of the learning management system do you find are the most popular?
“They're on the discussion board. There's also a Game Center and interactive flashcards and other areas where they can interact with the material. Another positive about the learning management system is that it has the [comprehensive prep] e-book right on it with all the content. Anything where people can interact with the material is a favorite.
“… People really need mutual support, and they need information, [but] there wasn't a way for social workers to connect with one another. I think the discussion board is why I'm so excited about the learning management system. It provides an opportunity for people to see that there are others who are also anxious or studying and maybe going through the same things they are.”
You've published extensively on so many social work issues, especially around social work education. What have you found in your research that may also be relevant for course registrants?
“One thing I found is that social workers are often ill-prepared to take a four-hour, multiple-choice exam. This is very different from the way in which they may have been assessed at school. Often, we assess competency through papers and field instruction, experiential learning.
“This is a different kind of assessment process, and just like you don't see high schoolers walking into the SAT without having some sort of formalized preparation, it’s the same thing with [this exam.]. It's very beneficial to understand the test and take a test prep course, because it's probably been a while or maybe never that social workers have had to sit for this kind of exam.
Why do you think it's important to obtain a license to begin with, even when not required in order to practice?
“The literature says that only about half of people with social work degrees have licenses. To me, it's the natural next step after getting your social work degree. First, it distinguishes you from others. That's really important because it shows people that you've passed a national exam that tests your knowledge and your competency.
“Licensure also requires fingerprinting and others things, so it shows that you've been vetted. And if you will have the ability to practice within your state or jurisdiction, it gives the consumer or client a venue to be able to report malpractice, so the idea is it holds social workers accountable.
“I've always been licensed, and I've worked in many settings where a license hasn't been required. But I think licensure shows that you're a professional. Can you imagine going to a doctor who didn't have a license or a nurse? To me, it shows we value the consumer, and we as social workers are not afraid that accountability and professionalism are important.”
It also seems to communicate that you stay up to date on latest best practices if you know you're going to be recertifying, yes?
“That's true. Most jurisdictions or states require continuing education, and social workers would have to get it anyway, and most good professionals are going to seek that out, but licensure tells clients and the public that you have met those standards.”
Is there anything else you'd like potential registrants to know or consider regarding the course or obtaining a license in general if you are not in a state that requires it to practice?
“People need to view licensure as the next step after graduation. Whether this is going to be someone's first testing experience or first license, or they're looking at this as a career progression—a ladder or path to further professional credentials and licenses—it's critically important.
“[Also,] just because someone's not needing to be licensed in their state or jurisdiction now, they may need it later if they move and must be licensed somewhere else. I can't tell you how many people come to the course after a 30-year career because they've decided to move, and they never took the test because they didn't need to be licensed in their state.
“It's good to take it as soon as you're eligible to take it, because it's something that no one can take away from you, just like a degree.”
COURSE AND MATERIALS TESTIMONIALS
“Her logic and explanations for testing/content were spot-on, and the practice test with explanation on why the answer was the correct answer helped me pass the LCSW exam the first time. Her content and wording of the practice questions were the most like the actual ASWB LCSW exam.”
—Christine Mize, LCSW/Bereavement Counselor, Hospice of Southern Illinois
"After multiple attempts of taking the ASWB LCSW test, I had failed and was not finding a solution! My main question was: ‘Why is no one teaching LCSW candidates to pass the test with the ASWB components broke down?’ … I then went to Dawn Apgar's Clinical Exam Book and Test Manual. I worked through it, was able to implement her process, and find EXACTLY what areas of the ASWB components needed my attention! … I also spent the time and money to attend her class in NYC. She was direct, clear, and had common sense. No frills, no tricks, just good direction. I appreciate her and recommend her program and materials at whatever level you will test at. She is a gifted teacher and mentor."
—Carolyn Oliphant Suniga, MSW, LCSW
“[Dawn] presented the material in a narrative, while explaining the thinking/philosophy of a clinical exam. The introduction was very important, as were all 350 pages. If you are a social worker who needs to complete your clinical, get these materials, relax, and spend time immersing yourself in what you need to know. You won’t have to be concerned about jumping from book to book or among internet sites."
—Mercy Austen, Student
"Prior to taking the one-day intensive prep course with Dawn Apgar, I felt unprepared and incredibly anxious about the LCWS exam. After several supervised years in the field, I knew that my clinical skills were sufficient, but I also remembered from the LMSW exam that my real-world experience would not necessarily be reflected in the exam. After taking Dawn’s course, I was more confident in my ability to discern what the questions were actually asking and not get caught up in the sometimes-confusing wording. The course workbook also provided a great way to organize my study plan and have a course of action to minimize the preparation time. Overall, I would say that it was Dawn’s ability to imbue confidence and calm that decreased my test anxiety and allowed me to be prepared for the exam in a timely manner.
"—Arezou Paksima, Student