To be licensed, psychology graduate students must pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. But in 21 states and most Canadian provinces, students must also pass an oral exam. These tests vary significantly in content and style from state to state, so it's vital to do your homework and determine what is covered on yours.
Some states provide a theoretical case for you to discuss in detail to demonstrate your clinical knowledge and competence. Others ask questions related to professional ethics and your state's mental health laws. Some states blend both types of information. Other states' exams are unstructured.
Once you've determined the kind of exam you'll have to take, plan on 30 to 40 hours to prepare, experts say.
Oral exams can add an important piece to the testing process, providing a chance to assess students' clinical learning in a more holistic way than the EPPP's multiple-choice format, notes Thomas J. Vaughn, PhD, former board member of the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards and editor of "Psychology Licensure and Certification: What Students Need to Know" (APA, 2006). In addition, by vetting students in person, oral exams can add an extra layer of public protection, he says.
How can you prepare for this final licensure hurdle?
Get the skinny on your state's test. Learn about exam content and style directly from your state licensing board rather than trying to glean that information from online buddies, emphasizes Judy Hall, PhD, executive director of the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology, a credentialing body for licensed psychologists.
To access your state board, visit www.asppd.org, which links to all of the boards in the United States and Canada (see "Licensing Board Contact Information" on the home page). ASPPB's home page also houses a "Handbook on Licensing and Credentialing," which includes most jurisdictions' standards for passing the orals.
If a board's Web site doesn't include all the information you need to pass, call them, says Hall. For instance, while most board Web sites list rules and regulations for the profession, others may not post the state's mental health laws you need to learn, she says.
If the board doesn't provide concrete information about how an exam is structured, ask specifically if it is unstructured—those with no specific criteria on which applicants are assessed. Asking for clues on how they assess applicants can help you prepare. You can also ask boards for data on their exams' reliability and validity and to view pass/fail rates by year, says Hall.
Practice with a mentor. Some internship and postdoc sites hold mock oral exams, says Vaughn. If yours doesn't, assemble your own team to prepare for the clinical piece of the exam, he advises.
"It's very useful to get together with people—hopefully including a mentor or two, possibly from their postdoc or internship—who can help you go through a case and discuss all aspects of how you might handle it," he says.
If such mentors are unavailable, call your state association, adds Vaughn. As president of the Oklahoma Psychological Association, he has helped several students prep for the exam.
Bone up on content. Know your state laws and professional ethics codes inside and out, states can vary in some aspects of mental health law, for instance, says Vaughn. If your exam includes an ethics component, study APA's Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. Know whether and how APA and your state differ, Hall says.
Trust yourself. Studying and practicing are important, but you also need to have faith in your clinical know-how, says Vaughn. In essence, the oral asks you to talk intelligently about material you've been working on for a long time.
"This is stuff you've been doing since your first practicum, and hopefully you've gotten a whole lot more integrative as you've gone along," he says.
Understand your examiners' perspective. The purpose of the oral is to make sure the public is protected from those who are truly unfit to be in the profession—not to assess whether you'll be the next Marty Seligman or Donald Meichenbaum, Hall adds.
Therefore, enter the test with confidence, knowing you've already passed your education and training requirements and the EPPP, she advises.
By Tori DeAngelis
Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.
Who requires an oral?
Twenty-one states and most Canadian provinces require that licensed psychologists pass an oral exam.
Prince Edward Island