While studying may seem daunting, you can pass your NCE and CPCE exams without excessive stress. These are the best and most helpful study tips and habits I used to score in the 98th percentile on my NCE. Read on to discover how!

The CPCE and NCE are the tests most states use to assess your eligibility to graduate and become a counselor. Dreaded by many, they are akin to taking 8 final exams at once, and the outcome determines whether or not you will be able to work in your profession! It is no wonder that many counselors-to-be find these tests extremely nerve-wracking. Some of the material you may not have covered since your first semester of school a few years ago, while others (I’m looking at you, research methods!) are challenging to remember and simply not intuitive.

Many students become overwhelmed by the test and put off studying until the last minute. While this may have worked for you in school, it absolutely will not work for your exam. There is simply too much information. On the other side of the spectrum, some students commit to reviewing every page of notes they took during their graduate program. While this level of commitment is admirable, it is not necessary. Many study resources exist which will streamline your study process and help you study what is most important.

I have compiled a list of the study and preparation methods I used to score a 115/136 on my CPCE and a 136/160 on my NCE. According to a test analysis report prepared by the CCE for the NBCC in 2012, the mean score for the NCE is 108 and my score of 136 falls into the 98th percentile! You may be relieved to hear that I did not resort to inhumane study hours or read several books to attain these scores. I simply budgeted my time, spread out my studying, did my research, and took care of myself. If you want to feel prepared for the exam, use your time wisely, and feel relaxed on exam day, check out this list of study habits and tips. 

Set Yourself Up for Success with a Plan

1. Check with your school and/or state to find out how to register and take these exams. It might take a month or two before you’re actually able to sit for your exams. Your professors and classmates may be able to give you a ballpark estimate so you can give yourself enough time to study. 

2. Take your test at a convenient time for you. If you’re still in school, consider taking the exam during the summer or between fall and spring semesters. You are likely to have more free time when you’re not in school, and you can use the extra time away from school to study.

3. It is generally recommended to begin studying 1-3 months before the exam. Decide in advance how much time you want to devote to studying and mark it on a calendar.

4. Chart out how much you want to study and divide it up into the amount of time you have. For example, if you want to get through 1000 practice questions in 2 months and are willing to study daily, that is about 17 questions per day. If you’d rather study every other day, that is about 34 questions per day. You get the picture!

5. Choose your study materials. The study materials I used almost exclusively are The Encyclopedia of Counseling by Howard Rosenthal and the accompanying app. The Encyclopedia of Counseling is not really an encyclopedia, but rather a book of 1050 questions with a detailed explanation of not only the correct answer but also the incorrect answers. Throughout, you will be learning about a lot of different theories and concepts in piecemeal form. While this may feel like a strange way to study, the exam doesn’t group each content area together, and you may be required to use knowledge from many content areas and concepts for a single question.

6. If you choose Rosenthal’s tools, I recommend getting the app and taking a “pre-test” to assess what areas you’re strongest in. As you are studying, keep in mind your baseline level of knowledge and consider spending more time on the areas you are not strongest in.

7. Request to borrow or share your study materials from a classmate, colleague, or professor.

What and How to Study

8. One comprehensive guide can be sufficient. For the most part, I found Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia to be sufficient. However, it can be useful to consult other sources for some content areas, such as ethics, research methods, and diagnosis.

9. Review the ACA Code of Ethics, since it may have been revised since your study materials were published. You can either review the code of ethics itself (I found this tedious) or find a good summary like this one.

10. Use YouTube. If you struggle to grasp research methods, especially if you never took a statistics class (like me!), then you may benefit from searching for some concepts on YouTube. There are hundreds out there, just make sure to look at how highly they’re rated to assess quality! This will be especially helpful if you find it easier to grasp concepts when someone is explaining them to you with diagrams, pictures, and examples. 

11. Take notes on the material you struggle with so that you can review it a second time. 

12. Use mnemonic devices. A “mnemonic device” is a fancy term which means a tool that aids in easy storage and retrieval of information. This can take the form of rhymes, alliteration, songs, acronyms, a play on words, or associating the material with something/someone you already know. The well-known “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” and “ROYGBIV” are mnemonic devices. 

13. Review the DSM diagnostic categories and look up any disorders you are unfamiliar with if you want extra exam security. There will be a handful of questions on diagnoses. 

14. Consider treating yourself to studying at your favorite library or coffee shop. This will make studying more enjoyable!

15. Recognize some content areas have more weight than others. According to the test analysis report listed above, the test is comprised of 8 dimensions spread across 5 job analysis domains. You may want to consider spending the most time on ethics and helping relationships, for example. 

8 Dimensions:

  • Human Growth and Development (12 questions)
  • Social and Cultural Foundations (11 questions)
  • Helping Relationships (36 questions)
  • Group Work (16 questions)
  • Career and Lifestyle Development (20 questions)
  • Appraisal (20 questions)
  • Research and Program Evaluation (16 questions)
  • Professional Orientation and Ethics (29 questions)

5 Job Analysis Domains:

  • Fundamental Counseling Issues (64 questions)
  • Counseling Process (22 questions)
  • Diagnostic and Assessment Services (19 questions)
  • Professional Practice (26 questions)
  • Professional Development, Supervision, and Consultation (29 questions)

Self-Care is a Must!

16. Eat healthy with lots of protein, fruits, and vegetables throughout your study time and especially starting the few days before your test.

17. Make sure to get enough sleep. As I said before, DO NOT CRAM. You are better off spending the night before the test sleeping than cramming! 4 hours is a marathon, and you need energy or you will crash. 

18. Fuel your brain. If you don’t already, take a good multi-vitamin and some supplements for your brain like fish oil capsules. 

19. Make sure to MOVE! Balance study time with walking and/or exercise such as the gym, cardio, or yoga. The gym or cardio will help your nervous system return to a healthy baseline if you have stress hormones pumping through your system, and yoga will help gently balance your nervous system through a combination of postures and breathing. 

The Final Countdown… (0-7 Days in Advance)

20. DO NOT CRAM, especially in the days before/day of. This will hurt more than help. Your brain can only take so much at a time. You could actually end up self-sabotaging since your brain could feel like mush by the time you actually sit for the exam!

21. Review your notes. Remember those notes I suggested you take on the material you struggle with? Begin reviewing them a few days to a few weeks before the exam. If there is material you REALLY struggle with, consider making more notes on just that material so you can review it the day or two before the test.

22. Reserve the last few days before the test date for a meta-review. This could mean reviewing notes you took or taking a practice test on the Rosenthal app. Notice which areas you’re weakest on and spend some time brushing up. This will also give you some hope and optimism since I’m sure your post-studying score will be drastically better than the pre-test you did!

23. Look up the location of the test center and figure out how long it will take to get there in advance, and then add extra time to that to avoid being late. The testing centers usually recommend getting there 30 minutes early, but I would budget more time than that. On my way to my CPCE, I took a wrong turn and almost didn’t get there on time! You want to feel fresh and calm going into the test, so avoid cutting it close. If you get there early, you can always review your notes one last time in the parking lot.

On Test Day

24. Moderate your sugar and caffeine intake the day of the test. You may be tempted to drink more coffee, soda, or tea to keep you alert, but if you have a sensitive nervous system like I do, extra caffeine on top of nervous adrenaline may send you over the top and keep you from being able to concentrate.

25. Eat a healthy, wholesome breakfast and lunch for sustained energy throughout your test without an energy crash or hunger spike. Fruit, nuts, protein bars, eggs, lean protein, and vegetables are all good candidates. 

26. Take a break and do some yogic breathing if you find yourself becoming stressed.

27. Take a break during the test to use the bathroom, drink water, and walk around even if you don’t feel like you need to. The exam will take about 2-4 hours to complete, and your brain and body will need a break!

28. Approach the test and the questions within it as problems you are curious to solve, not as an assessment that determines your future! Viewing the test as “high stakes” will increase your anxiety levels.

Practical Test Information

29. Take the exam all the way through once, answering questions you know for certain, and flagging any questions you’re unsure about. After you finish, you will get the chance to review all the questions you’ve flagged.

30. When in doubt, go with your first answer unless you have had a stroke of insight which changes your perception of the question.

31. Choose the “best answer” out of all the choices. It can normally be narrowed down to 2 out of 4. Answer the question as most people in your field would answer, not as you personally would answer it.

32. Answer all the questions! There is no penalty for guessing.

33. Take your time! I am a fast test taker, but I was able to finish both tests with at least 1.5 hours to spare, even when taking my time and reviewing the answers. Unless you tend to be an extremely slow test-taker, don’t worry about the time limit.

34. Be aware that while 136 questions on the CPCE and 160 questions on the NCE are scored, you will be asked to complete 160 questions and 200 questions, respectively. The extra questions are being normed on test-takers and do not count towards your score. You will not be told which questions counted. 

35. Get ready for your results! If you take your exam electronically at a Pearson testing center, be prepared to be handed your results right when you walk out of the test room! No more anxiously awaiting your test results for weeks on end. 

36. Last but not least, make sure to celebrate when you pass! Passing these exams is a big achievement!