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NCE Prep: Everything You Need To Know

Posted by Stephanie Adams on December 3, 2012 at 10:30 AM

Today's guest post comes to us courtesy of the amazing Ann Stonebraker, who helps new counselors craft their ideal internships. Her next workshop is December 11 in Austin, TX.

I remember sweating bullets before taking the SAT and then, later on, the GRE.  I was petrified both times.


And when I graduated from my counseling program, I felt the same way about the National Counseling Exam (NCE).  I was so worried I wouldn’t pass!


But it turns out this exam wasn’t quite as scary as I thought.  And I've found some really great ways to prepare effectively for this test. I'm going to show you how: we will start with the basics, cover some test prep tips, and finish up with some good news.


So pull up a chair.  Let’s get acquainted with this sloppy stack of questions. 


(What can I say?  I find irreverence to be one effective way of coping with anxiety.)


National Counseling Exam:  The Basics


This test has 200 questions. Of those, 160 will count towards your score.  The other 40 are questions that the test developers are norming for future versions of the test. Sorry, you don’t know which questions are which, so you obviously have to give your best effort on all of them.

All the questions are multiple-choice. And these aren’t those freakish a-through-j option multiple choice questions.  Just options a-d. 


The test costs $195. Depending on your state, you may have to pay additional fees to sit for the exam.  To find out the testing requirements for your state, visit


Test content is based on eight subject areas. Chances are quite high that you had a class in your graduate program that was devoted to each one of these topics. 


Test Prep Products


I’m going to kick this part off by saying that I’m not getting any kind of commission for endorsing the book I mention here. I used it—it was great.  And I’ve received feedback from many other very happy students who used it as well.  So, this recommendation is based on personal experience.


Howard Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of Counseling is the best method I know to study for the exam.  Here’s why this book is so cool:

1)  It has a great format. This book contains over 1,000 multiple choice questions.  They are just like the questions on the NCE!  That’s a lot of great practice.

2)  It explains just about everything.  Each question has a thorough explanation of why the right answer’s right, and why the wrong options are wrong.

3)  It is thorough. Every chapter has 100 questions on a particular content area, so you won’t miss any of the core content that’s likely to be on the test.

4)  It is cheap. Test prep materials can be really expensive.  This book costs less than $50 on Amazon.

Test Prep Tips


There are a few things to consider when preparing for the test itself.


1)  Set a study schedule.  It’s easy for something like this to get crowded out in your day to day life.  So put it in your planner to keep yourself honest and on track.


2)  Think about what kind of learner you are. The Encyclopedia of Counseling is great, but it’s a lot of reading. Some people prefer to learn by listening—and it turns out that Rosenthal has review CDs that cover lots of great content, too.  Pick your study materials based on your learning style.


3)  Don’t wait until the last minute to study. There is simply too much material to cover in a week’s time.  Everyone prepares differently, but most folks I know who passed this test the first time took at least a few weeks to really commit to their test prep.


Lots of Good News


(It never hurts to look on the bright side of things!)


1)   You have four hours to take the exam.  That comes out to more than a minute per question.  I have yet to hear of anyone running out of time on the test. 

2)  The right answer is always in front of you. That’s the beauty of multiple choice questions.  Even if you’re not sure what the right answer is, if you rule out the wrong ones, you’re all set.

3)  Some standardized tests have tricky point systems, where you are penalized a portion of a point for each question you get wrong (instead of leaving the question blank).  Not so with the NCE!  So, there’s no reason to leave any questions blank—you aren’t penalized for guessing, so if you’re not sure, guess!

4)  The passing score varies depending on the version of the test, but it usually ranges between 60-70%.  You don’t need to ace this thing.  In fact, no one cares if you do.  You just have to scoop up enough points to pass. You need a D to pass.

5)  This test cannot tell if you are a good therapist or not.  It is an attempt to protect and standardize our profession.  So, if you do not pass, it is not some sort of pronouncement about your ability as a therapist.


A Final Tip

Lots of people have comforting rituals to help them gear up for an exam.  Me?  I like to wear fuzzy, silly socks to the test site under my very business-like black boots.


It helps me keep perspective, and I feel like my feet and I have a secret.


Maybe that’s strange (ok, it’s definitely strange, I know)—but it gives me the confidence I need to keep a clear head and do my very best.


So if you don’t already have a ritual, make one up-- it’s important.


Best of luck with your exam!


Ann Stonebraker is a counselor in Austin, Texas who helps folks quit people-pleasing.  She writes weekly for her own practice blog at Labyrinth Healing, as well as at her latest project,, a resource site for counseling students and interns. Don't forget to enroll in her next workshop, there are still some spots available!

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Reply Ryan Espinoza
4:05 PM on May 16, 2013 
I would concur that this book is a great resource. I found an older copy at the local library (after placing it on a long hold!) and found it helpful. Fortunately, I don't suffer from any type of test anxiety, but this book was great (and still likely is!)!
Reply Erica Anderson
12:00 PM on October 4, 2013 
I've been using his book & CD's to study & have found it very helpful. I'm testing in the next two months and feel better about taking the test. I'm staying positive.
Reply ny88
9:40 AM on December 9, 2013 
My professor told me he aced the exam with the encyclopedia. I've never heard of the book you mentioned but I will definitely look it up. I'm horribly petrified because in order for me to graduate I have to take the test and pass. I wish I had the option of at least receiving my degree and then preparing for the test.
Reply Stephanie Adams
1:40 PM on December 10, 2013 
NY - I totally understand the fear. Anyone would feel worried about this! I did. But I hope I can encourage you in that I believe that the pass rates are quite positive and I've found that test prep materials nearly always make their work harder than the real test, so that they can claim high pass rates for those who use their materials...i.e. if people study to pass a "harder" version of the test they are more likely to pass the "regular" version. Do I have any data on! But I've seen enough that I think it's likely. I consistently JUST passed my NCE prep tests..but got a HIGH pass on my real test. Hope that's some encouragement!

ny88 says...
My professor told me he aced the exam with the encyclopedia. I've never heard of the book you mentioned but I will definitely look it up. I'm horribly petrified because in order for me to graduate I have to take the test and pass. I wish I had the option of at least receiving my degree and then preparing for the test.