NCE Overview

General Information

The National Counselor Examination (NCE) is a crucial certification test employed by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) to credential graduate-level counselors as National Certified Counselors (NCC). Notably, all states within the United States incorporate the NCE as a key component in their licensure process for professional counseling.

The NCE is designed to evaluate a candidate’s comprehension of fundamental counseling principles. These areas encompass professional practice and ethics; intake, assessment, and diagnosis; areas of clinical focus; treatment planning; counseling skills and interventions; and core counseling attributes. It’s important to note that the content of the NCE is intentionally broad, providing a foundational knowledge base that all counselors, regardless of their specific clinical focus, should master and understand.

The primary aim of the NCE is to gauge an examinee’s knowledge and understanding of the theoretical and skill-based aspects essential for safe and competent practice as an entry-level counselor. The structure and content of the exam are grounded in a national job analysis. This analysis, which involved more than 16,000 credentialed counselors, helps identify the most relevant empirically validated work behaviors crucial for competent counseling practice. As such, the NCE serves as a rigorous and comprehensive measure of a candidate’s readiness for professional counseling.

Measurement Focus and Target Population

The NCE aligns with the eight content areas outlined by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). As such, the relevance and validity of the NCE’s content are firmly grounded in the six work behaviors that have been empirically validated and deemed most pertinent for professional counseling practice, along with the eight educational standards set by the CACREP.

The target demographic for the NCE is entry-level counselors who possess the requisite counseling training as defined by the minimum qualifications for candidates. Hence, this examination seeks to assess the competence of those just beginning their professional journey in counseling, ensuring that they meet the professional standards.


The National Counselor Examination (NCE) is administered by the Center for Credentialing & Education, an affiliate of the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). At the same time, the electronic version of the exam is handled by Pearson VUE.

To take the NCE, you must register in advance. You can start this process by locating your state on the registration link provided. Suppose you need help finding a specific registration form for your state. In that case, you can reach out to the relevant state authority via the provided website link or the administrator’s email address. There are currently 170 examination sites spread across the country.

Although you may have thought your graduate school expenses were over, a fee is associated with sitting for the NCE. Fees can vary, so it’s recommended that you check with your state for the most current and specific fee information. Payment for the NCE registration can be made through various means: personal check, cashier’s check, money order, or credit card, and payment must be made at the time of registration. Please be aware that fees are non-transferable, non-refundable, and expire after six months.

Your journey towards sitting for the NCE begins on the NBCC website, where you’ll create a ProCounselor account to kick off the registration process.

Minimally Qualified Candidate

The minimally qualified candidate (MQC) for the NCE has graduated from or is a well-advanced graduate student in a counseling program* that has been accredited by CACREP or housed within an institutionally accredited college or university.

The counseling program must contain courses in the following content areas:

  • Professional Counseling Orientation and Ethical Practice
  • Social and Cultural Diversity
  • Human Growth and Development
  • Career Development
  • Counseling and Helping Relationships
  • Group Counseling and Group Work
  • Assessment and Testing
  • Research and Program Evaluation

*States may choose to allow candidates of comparable education levels from other related helping degrees to sit for the exam for licensure.

Test Content

The NCE comprises 200 multiple-choice questions (MCQs), with 160 scored and 40 unscored. The purpose of these 40 unscored questions is to gather statistical data that will be used to shape future examinations.

It’s important to note that both scored and unscored questions have the same format and are interspersed randomly throughout the exam, making them indistinguishable from the test-taker. You’ll be given a time span of 3 hours and 45 minutes to complete the test, providing ample time to consider each question carefully.

During the examination, you have the option to skip certain questions and revisit them later. You’re also permitted to review and change your responses before your final submission. It’s crucial to note that if the exam is not completed within the given timeframe, it will end automatically, and any unanswered questions will be marked as “incorrect.” Therefore, answering all questions is recommended, even if you must guess, particularly when time is running out. Given sufficient time, you may return to these hastily answered questions and reconsider your responses. Upon completing and submitting your test, a brief, computerized evaluation follows. Subsequently, you need to approach the exam proctor to receive your test report.

Remember that every version of the test, including the answer sheet for paper-based exams, is protected by copyright, and reproduction is strictly forbidden. Any unauthorized disclosure of test content is not only a violation of the NBCC Code of Ethics but is also expressly prohibited. It’s essential to uphold these guidelines to ensure the examination’s integrity and maintain the professionalism of the credentialing process.

Test Scoring and Results

Your test report will provide you with a “pass” or “fail” grade and detail your raw score, representing the total number of questions you answered correctly. It will also include sub-scores for each category, the mean (average) score, the standard deviation from the mean for each sub-section, and the minimum passing score.

The NCE uses a modified Angoff score to determine a passing grade, a statistical method that considers the difficulty level of the test questions in your specific exam version. Although the test consists of 200 questions, only 160 are scored—the remaining 40 are experimental questions used for assessing future exam content. A top score on the exam is 160. While the exact pass mark can vary, informal data suggests that answering approximately 100 out of 160 questions correctly (around 65%) is often sufficient to pass. However, state boards may have higher cut-off score requirements for licensure. It’s important to note that the NCE is not graded on a curve.

The entire scoring process typically takes about eight weeks. Once your scores are ready, they will be made available in your ProCounselor account, and you will be notified via email. If you took a paper-based exam, your results will be mailed to the address on your application within eight weeks. Please note that scores are not released over the phone, and all fees must be paid in full before the release of test scores.

If you pass the exam, congratulations! You should then contact your state board to proceed with the licensure process. You can retake the exam in three months if you do not pass. However, please be aware that you may only attempt the NCE three times within two years. Each new attempt necessitates re-registration and repayment of the application fee.

Job Analysis and Content Outline

The development of the NCE exam is based on an extensive national job analysis involving over 16,000 credentialed counselors. This process identifies work behaviors that are empirically validated and deemed most relevant for professional counseling practice. The most recent job analysis, completed in June 2019, facilitated the creation of the content outline for the exam. This outline was then approved by the NCE Exam Committee, a group of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in the field.

Among the committee’s key responsibilities were identifying professional components and related job tasks, creating survey items, and reviewing the instrument used to measure these components and tasks. The development of the job analysis survey took place at the Center for Credentialing & Education (CCE) and spanned one calendar year from May 2016 to July 2017.

Post-creation of the content outline, the committee also assessed the exam content for its alignment with the eight content areas specified by the CACREP. This exercise ensures that the examination is in line with current professional standards and offers valuable information for the examinees.

A typical NCE examination divides the content into six domains, each contributing a specific percentage and number of scored items. 

Table 1 would ordinarily present these domains along with their corresponding contributions to the total number of scored items.

Domain Percent of itemsDomain Percent of itemsDomain Percent of items
Professional Practice and Ethics1219
Intake, Assessment, and Diagnosis1219
Areas of Clinical Focus2947
Treatment Planning914
Counseling Skills and Interventions3048
Core Counseling Attributes813

Table 2 presents the knowledge, skills, and tasks under each domain of the Content Outline.

1. Professional Practice and Ethics

This section encompasses counselors’ knowledge, skills, and abilities related to maintaining

proper administrative and clinical protocols.

A. Assess your (the counselor) competency to work with a specific client

B. Understand statistical concepts and methods in research

C. Practice legal and ethical counseling

D. Clarify counselor–client roles

E. Discuss client’s rights and responsibilities

F. Discuss limits of confidentiality

G. Explain counselor agency policies

H. Review payment, fees, and insurance benefits

I. Explain counseling processes, procedures, risks, and benefits

J. Explain uses and limits of social media

K. Inform clients about the legal aspects of counseling

L. Obtain informed consent

M. Discuss confidentiality as it applies to electronic communication

N. Establish group rules, expectations, and termination criteria

O. Assess competency to provide informed consent

P. Monitor the therapeutic relationship and build trust as needed

Q. Review client records

R. Provide adequate accommodations for clients with disabilities

S. Provide information to third parties

T. Provide referral sources if counseling services are inadequate/ inappropriate

U. Advocate for professional and client issues

V. Seek supervision/consultation

W. Create and maintain documentation appropriate for each aspect of the counseling process

X. Awareness and practice of self-care

2. Intake, Assessment, and Diagnosis

This section encompasses counselors’ knowledge, skills, and abilities to effectively conduct

client intake, assessment, and diagnosis.

A. Conduct a biopsychosocial interview

B. Conduct a diagnostic interview

C. Conduct cultural formulation interview

D. Conduct an initial interview

E. Determine diagnosis

F. Perform a Mental Status Exam (MSE)

G. Consider co-occurring diagnoses

H. Determine level of care needed

I. Determine the appropriate modality of treatment

J. Assess the presenting problem and level of distress

K. Evaluate an individual’s level of mental health functioning

L. Screen clients for appropriate services

M. Select, use, and interpret appropriate assessment instruments

N. Use formal and informal observations

O. Assess for trauma

P. Assess substance use

Q. Obtain client self-reports

R. Evaluate interactional dynamics

S. Conduct ongoing assessment for at-risk behaviors (i.e., suicide, homicide, self/other

injury, and relationship violence)

T. Use pre-test and post-test measures to assess outcomes

U. Evaluate counseling effectiveness

3. Areas of Clinical Focus

This section encompasses counselors’ knowledge and skills related to areas of clients’


A. Adjustment related to physical loss/injury/medical condition

B. Aging/geriatric concerns

C. Behavioral problems

D. Bullying

E. Caregiving concerns

F. Cultural adjustments

G. End-of-life issues

H. Fear and panic

I. Financial issues

J. Gender identity development

K. Grief/loss

L. Hopelessness/depression

M. Loneliness/attachment

N. Hyper/hypo mental focus

O. Intellectual functioning issues

P. Insomnia/sleep issues

Q. Maladaptive eating behaviors

R. Remarriage/recommitment

S. Developmental processes/tasks/issues

T. Obsessive thoughts/behaviors

U. Occupation and career development

V. Physical issues related to anxiety

W. Physical issues related to depression

X. Physical/emotional issues related to trauma

Y. Process addictions (pornography, gambling)

Z. Racism/discrimination/oppression

AA. Religious values conflict

AB. Retirement concerns

AC. Ruminating and/or intrusive thoughts

AD. Separation from primary care givers

AE. Sexual functioning concerns

AF. Sleeping habits

AG. Spiritual/existential concerns

AH. Stress management

AI. Substance use/addiction issues

AJ. Suicidal thoughts/behaviors

AK. Terminal illness issues

AL. Visual/auditory hallucinations

AM. Worry and anxiety

AN. Adoption issues

AO. Blended family issues

AP. Child abuse-related concerns

AQ. Child development issues

AR. Dating/relationship problems

AS. Divorce

AT. Family abuse/violence (e.g., physical, sexual, emotional)

AU. Interpersonal partner violence concerns

AV. Marital/partner communication problems

AW. Parenting/co-parenting conflicts

AX. Emotional dysregulation

4. Treatment Planning

This section encompasses counselors’ knowledge, skills, and abilities to develop an

effective course of treatment.

A. Collaborate with client to establish treatment goals and objectives

B. Establish short- and long-term counseling goals consistent with clients’ diagnoses

C. Identify barriers affecting client goal attainment

D. Identify strengths that improve the likelihood of goal attainment

E. Refer to different levels of treatment (e.g., outpatient, inpatient, residential, etc.)

F. Refer to others for concurrent treatment

G. Guide treatment planning

H. Discuss termination process and issues

I. Discuss transitions in group membership

J. Follow-up after discharge

K. Use assessment instrument results to facilitate client decision making

L. Review and revise the treatment plan

M. Engage clients in review of progress toward treatment goals

N. Collaborate with other providers and client support systems (documentation and report


O. Discuss with clients the integration and maintenance of therapeutic progress

P. Educate client to the value of treatment plan compliance

5. Counseling Skills and Interventions

This section encompasses counselors’ knowledge, skills, and abilities to conduct effective


A. Align intervention with client’s developmental level

B. Align intervention with counseling modality (individual, couple, family, or group)

C. Align intervention with client population (e.g., veterans, minorities, disenfranchised,


D. Implement individual counseling in relation to a plan of treatment

E. Establish therapeutic alliance

F. Apply theory-based counseling intervention(s)

G. Address addiction issues

H. Address cultural considerations

I. Address family composition and cultural considerations

J. Evaluate and explain systemic patterns of interaction

K. Explore family member interaction

L. Explore religious and spiritual values

M. Guide clients in the development of skills or strategies for dealing with their problems

N. Help clients develop support systems

O. Help facilitate clients’ motivation to make the changes they desire

P. Improve interactional patterns

Q. Provide crisis intervention

R. Educate client about transference and defense mechanisms

S. Facilitate trust and safety

T. Build communication skills

U. Develop conflict resolution strategies

V. Develop safety plans

W. Facilitate systemic change

X. Provide distance counseling or telemental health

Y. Provide education resources (e.g., stress management, assertiveness training, divorce


Z. Provide psychoeducation for client

AA. Summarize

AB. Reframe/redirect

AC. Facilitate empathic responses

AD. Use self-disclosure

AE. Use constructive confrontation

AF. Facilitate awareness of here-and-now interactions

AG. Facilitate resolution of interpersonal conflict

AH. Use linking and blocking in a group context

AI. Management of leader–member dynamics

AJ. Model giving and receiving of feedback

AK. Address impact of extended families

AL. Contain and manage intense feelings

AM. Explore the influence of family of origin patterns and themes

AN. Address the impact of social support network

AO. Use “structured” activities

AP. Promote and encourage interactions among group members

AQ. Promote and encourage interactions with the group leader

AR. Use psychoeducation as a part of the group process

AS. Explain phases in the group process

AT. Identify and discuss group themes and patterns

AU. Create intervention based on the stage of group development

AV. Challenge harmful group member behaviors

AW. Address the potential interaction of members outside of the group

6. Core Counseling Attributes

This section encompasses behaviors, traits, and dispositions of effective counselors.

A. Awareness of self and impact on clients

B. Genuineness

C. Congruence

D. Demonstrate knowledge of and sensitivity to gender orientation and gender issues

E. Demonstrate knowledge of and sensitivity to multicultural issues

F. Demonstrate conflict tolerance and resolution

G. Empathic attunement

H. Empathic responding

I. Foster the emergence of group therapeutic factors

J. Non-judgmental stance

K. Positive regard

L. Respect and acceptance for diversity

M. Use foundational listening, attending, and reflecting skills

Table 3 presents the list of the eight common core areas by CACREP with which the

examination questions of the NCE are aligned.

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

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