Acronyms: Do They Really Work?

By Heidi Tobe on April 1, 2019

"Tell Me About Acronyms" written on screen

At least several times each week I receive coaching emails inquiring whether it is recommended to use the acronyms FAREAFI and AASPIRINS on the exam. And understandably so! How wonderful would it be if there were a mnemonic we could apply to the challenging reasoning based questions that make up the vast majority (80-85%) of the ASWB’s clinical social work exam? So, do they work? Does TDC recommend the use of them in conjunction with our program and strategies? Unfortunately, the answer to both of these questions is a resounding ‘no’ (which is why we will not be going into a breakdown of these specific acronyms; we do NOT recommend them).

Why Acronyms Don’t Always Work

We discourage the use of acronyms and other mnemonics for reasoning based questions, because in our experience, they don't work well consistently across questions. If they did, we would absolutely teach them! We want to provide our customers with anything and everything that will increase their chances for success on their exams. Unfortunately, these acronyms encourage people to think that there is a formula that can be used to figure out these scenarios-and that just doesn't hold true to this exam. If you have a question that asks what you should do FIRST or NEXT, the answer will vary greatly and could be anything from acknowledging feelings to assessing further to making a referral depending on two things. 1. The information in the stem (what the client has already said and done) and 2. The answer options available to you. 


When sharing TDC’s stance on acronyms, I receive a lot of ‘buts’ in response. Things like, “but my friend passed the social work exam using these” and “but I watched a video and used the acronyms they taught with their practice questions and I answered ALL of them correctly.”

Will these acronyms get you to the correct answer some of the time? Of course. If they didn’t, no one would be using them. The problem is that other times they will absolutely get you to the wrong answer, because (as mentioned above), the questions-like our work with clients-are not formulaic. Naturally, if someone is teaching this acronym (via a blog, Youtube video, etc.) they are going to choose sample questions where this technique works. But there are just as many questions for which these acronyms will not work.

ASWB Clinical Practice Question

Let’s look at a practice question where using one of the above mentioned acronyms will get us to the wrong answer:

A social worker in private practice meets with a 28-year-old female who recently broke up with her boyfriend of 5 years after learning of ongoing infidelity. The woman tearfully shares “he was my whole world. I am just crushed. There are days I just don’t think I can go on without him.” What should the social worker do FIRST?

A. Complete a biopsychosocial assessment.

B. Acknowledge the client’s feelings of loss.

C. Initiate Involuntary Hospitalization.

D. Explore whether the client has any thoughts of harming herself.

While we aren’t going to take the time to teach the acronyms (since we don’t recommend them!), we’ll say that FAREAFI is the acronym recommended for FIRST/NEXT questions. The first ‘F’ stands for Feelings and states that ‘feelings of the client should be acknowledged first above all.’ So according to this, what should the answer be?

The answer should be B, right? Wrong. The correct answer is D, to explore whether the client has any thoughts of harming herself. On the exam, if a client makes any type of statement that could indicate suicidal thinking, we have to explore this first. The client stated that ‘there are days I just don’t think I can go on without him’ which indicates possible suicidal thoughts. For purposes of the exam, the expectation is to first and foremost assess for risk of harm to self in a situation like this.

Now, if we had taken out that last sentence stating ‘There are days I just don’t think I can go on without him’ the first thing we would do would be B. But that’s just the problem with acronyms. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. They are inconsistent, and relying on them for our work with clients or questions on this test can lead to unpredictable outcomes. This is just one example of how strictly following the formula of an acronym can easily lead to the wrong answer.

A Final Word of Warning

It’s really hard to unlearn patterns of thinking. Not impossible, but difficult. We’ve had countless new customers sign up for TDC and share their experiences of unsuccessfully using acronyms on previous exam attempts, and it takes a LOT to unlearn this thought process. While it can be tempting to try to test out and see if acronyms will be helpful for you, it’s a dangerous and slippery slope. We honor every person’s self-determination when it comes to studying and trust you know what is best for you and your learning process. We also wanted to take a few minutes to share our experience with acronyms and how they have hindered many successful social workers from passing their exams.

So what is TDC’s alternative to acronyms?

TDC teaches reasoning based skills differentiating how to approach FIRST/NEXT vs. BEST/MOST questions. We cover these in a lecture in step 1 of our program, model how to apply these to questions in our step 2 ‘Top 50 Topics’ lecture series and provide hundreds of practice questions and corresponding rationales. And if this is something you’re still struggling with as you’re going through our program, you can email your coach at any time for additional support.

Masters and Clinical Exam Preparation

Have you been using acronyms to prepare for your ASWB exam? If you're looking for a better way, we encourage you to read through some of our real customer testimonials from thousands of social workers who used TDC to PASS their social work exams. Part of what makes our program different than other programs out there is we don't overwhelm you with content. Instead, we teach you the strategy you need to approach the reasoning based questions that make up the vast majority of the ASWB's social work exams. You can also learn more on how to get a social work license broken out by state. Are you ready to PASS your social work licensing exams with TDC? Sign up today!


Commenter Name
April 1, 2019

Blog Updates

Commenter Name
April 4, 2019

Do you have study material for the ASWB BSW LSW exam?

Commenter Name
May 9, 2019

My sister wants to be a social worker and pass the board in order to have a license. It was explained here that using acronyms can help her memorize things easily. Furthermore, it's recommended to consult professionals when in need of social work licensing.

Commenter Name
May 24, 2019

Thank you for this. My experience after daily study with TDC for 3 months for the exam was a reality check. The night prior to the exam I came across the acronym videos and wondered why my beloved team did not mention this. I memorized the acronyms and going into the exam thinking it would be like a warm fuzzy back up, especially since I had arrived frazzled and almost missing the exam due to getting lost. What I found interesting is that yes it was exactly as you said, they worked some of the time. My reasoning skills won out over the acronyms, however there were times when the question stem was so convoluted I was unsure of what the question was. Enlisting my warm fuzzy just added additional stress. (Which angered me because why make it so ridiculously confusing) As a Suma Cum Laude graduate I had my fanny handed to me which reminds me to KISS.

Commenter Name
May 24, 2019

You're so welcome, Leslie. Acronyms can be so tempting to use (I like how you put it: a 'warm fuzzy back up'). Continue to email with coaching questions-you'll pass this thing!

Commenter Name
July 31, 2019

I have heard something before that may make me use the acronyms to a modified point. Those who have successfully passed the test for clinical level said they erred on the side of safety and liability. If I keep that in mind, I would then disregard the acronym in the sample question you showed. Would that me right?

Commenter Name
July 31, 2019

You can definitely keep safety in mind on the exam without utilizing acronyms. Our program does a great job presenting you with crisis scenarios and teaching you how to respond in the moment to them in the way the test expects you to respond.

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