National Counselor Examination

Examination Purpose, Content, and Form

The National Counselor Examination (NCE) is a 200-item multiple-choice examination designed to assess knowledge, skills and abilities determined to be important for providing effective counseling services. The NCE is a requirement for counselor licensure in many states. It is also one of two examination options for the National Certified Counselor (NCC) certification. It may also be accepted by military health systems to become a recognized provider.

The NCE was first used in 1983 as part of the NCC application process, and continues to undergo regular review and development to ensure it represents the current reality of practice and research in the counseling profession.

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Options for Examination

You can take the examination as part the National Certified Counselor (NCC) application, which is covered in the NCE applicant handbook. The benefit of taking the examination via this method is that it allows you to get a head start on earning your professional credentials.

NCE Handbook: National Certification

You can take the examination on its own, as part of the state licensure process. For more information on this process, review the state licensure candidate handbook.

NCE Handbook: State Licensure

Prepare for the NCE

Study guides are available to help you prepare for the NCE.

View Study Guides

Download a Special Request Form

Forms are available for download if special accomomodations are needed for the NCE.

Special Exam Accommodation Request Form: NBCC/CCE Certification & Credentialing Candidates
Special Exam Accommodation Request Form: State Licensure Candidates

Content and Development

The National Counselor Examination (NCE) is a comprehensive exam designed to assess a candidate’s knowledge of the theoretical and skill-based tenets that are necessary for an entry-level counselor to safely practice. The scope of the NCE was informed by a thorough job analysis that was completed with the participation of over 16,000 credentialed counselors. The content of the NCE reflects each of the original eight Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) content areas and six empirically validated work behaviors that were deemed most pertinent for skilled counseling practice.

Download NCE Content Outline

The Eight CACREP Curriculum Educational Standards:

  1. Professional Counseling Orientation and Ethical Practice
  2. Social and Cultural Diversity
  3. Human Growth and Development
  4. Career Development
  5. Counseling and Helping Relationships
  6. Group Counseling and Group Work
  7. Assessment and Testing
  8. Research and Program Evaluation

Six Defined Work Behaviors (Domains)

The table below reflects the item distribution among these six defined work behaviors (domains), which are further described below. A thorough delineation of each domain and subdomain is available in the NCE Content Outline and NCE Handbook.

Table 1.The weight for each domain

Domain Percent of Items Number of Scored Items
1 Professional Practice and Ethics 12 19
2 Intake, Assessment, and Diagnosis 12 19
3 Areas of Clinical Focus 29 47
4 Treatment Planning 9 14
5 Counseling Skills and Interventions 30 48
6 Core Counseling Attributes 8 13
Total 100 160

  • Professional Practice and Ethics assesses counselors’ knowledge, skills, and abilities as they pertain to maintaining proper administrative and clinical protocols. This includes topics such as informed consent, client records, use of social media, and confidentiality.
  • Intake, Assessment, and Diagnosis consists of items designed to assess a counselor’s knowledge, skills, and abilities to conduct client intake, assessment, and diagnosis. Items in this domain may reflect content such as performance of Mental Status Exams (MSEs), assessment for substance use, and evaluation of an individual’s level of mental health functioning.
  • Areas of Clinical Focus is one of the largest domains on the exam, accounting for more than 25% of the scored items. This section allows for the assessment of a counselor’s knowledge and skills related to a broad range of potential client concerns. For example, items may be related to bullying, obsessive thoughts/behaviors, sleeping habits, adoption issues, divorce, etc.
  • Treatment Planning is the domain of the exam that is built to assess a counselor’s knowledge, skills, and abilities as they relate to effectively treating clients. This domain houses items that may cover everything from a counselor’s ability to identify barriers to client goal attainment, discussing termination, follow-up after discharge, revisions of the treatment plan, or collaboration with other providers.
  • Counseling Skills and Interventions is the largest domain on the NCE exam, accounting for over 25% of the scored items. This domain encompasses items written to assess counselors’ knowledge, skills, and abilities to conduct effective counseling. This is a broad and comprehensive domain that covers topics such as establishment of a therapeutic alliance, providing crisis intervention, use of self-disclosure, exploring the influence of family, and identifying group themes.
  • Core Counseling Attributes is the smallest domain of the NCE, and it assesses the behavior, traits, and dispositions of effective counselors. This domain is measured with items that address topics such as genuineness, empathetic responding, positive regard, and respect for and acceptance of diversity.

Multiple examination forms are published on an annual basis with different questions, but all forms are built based on these fixed specifications. Each NCE examination form consists of 200 questions, 160 of which are scored (see table above). The remaining 40 items are unscored field-test items. Field-test items are included on the examination to gather item statistics to evaluate their performance for use on future examinations.

NCE Sample Examination Questions

Following are six sample questions in the same style and with similar content as will be on the examination. Use the sample questions to verify your understanding of the topics on the examination. Answers are provided for the sample questions.

1. How would a counselor apply cognitive behavioral theory?

  1. Challenge irrational thoughts.
  2. Identify repressed feelings.
  3. Establish defense mechanisms.
  4. Identify stages of change.
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2. How would a counselor build a therapeutic alliance with a client?

  1. Offer solutions for client problems.
  2. Determine treatment goals.
  3. Provide a release of information.
  4. Give an empathetic response.
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3. What is the purpose of using basic attending skills?

  1. to gain the trust of the client
  2. to reinforce the client behavior change
  3. to decrease the client’s irrational thoughts
  4. to link client experiences in a group session
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4. When do group counselors expect members to express genuine thoughts and feelings?

  1. the initial stage
  2. the transition stage
  3. the contemplation stage
  4. the working stage
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5. Which of the following work behaviors are counselors ethically required to follow?

  1. Give free counseling services to 25% of minority clients.
  2. Provide 10% off of services for clients with children.
  3. Devote a portion of services for which there is little or no payment.
  4. Charge clients with higher income more and those with lower income less.
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6. What term represents the process in which a counselor and client create a plan to help the client change?

  1. screening
  2. informed consent
  3. free association
  4. goal setting
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