Finally, you finished your cosmetology program and are ready to start doing what you love every day, what could feel better? There’s only one thing left to do: take the written and/or practical examination through the National-Interstate Council of State Board of Cosmetology, or NIC exam.
I was right there with you. I finished school and couldn’t wait to start my career, but I was terrified to take the exam. I always struggled with test-taking due to the pressure of a time limit and questions being worded ambiguously, so I began to feel more stressed than excited about taking the next steps in my career. That’s why I wanted to put together a helpful, comprehensive guide to acing the NIC exam for other cosmetologists, so you can focus on celebrating – while studying, of course – instead of letting anxiety take the spotlight of your incredible accomplishment. In this article, I’ll walk you through how to sign up for the exam, test content, fees, how to retake it, and tips for managing test anxiety.
Which states use the NIC exam?
Currently, 38 states use the NIC as a standard examination to grant licensure to cosmetologists. These states include some of the highest cosmetology salaries nationwide, like California, New Jersey, and Hawaii. Depending on your state of residence, you’ll have to take the written exam, practical exam, or both. Florida is one of the states that has its own cosmetology exam.
Always check with your school, but per current regulations, states like Washington, Maine, Ohio, and South Carolina require both written and practical exams. You’ll likely be directed to sign up through your states’ cosmetology board; each state is a bit different, so I would recommend asking your current instructor for the best way to sign up. Your instructor will be most up to date on state-specific procedures, such as where to take the test, and will be able to help you with any specific questions to make sure you’re ready for test day.
On exam day, you’ll be assigned an exam proctor who will instruct you about how to successfully complete the exam, and once completed, your results and proctor’s approval will be submitted for licensure on your states’ website.
And the good news is if you decide to move or transfer your cosmetology license to another state, many states accept the NIC exam – so you don’t need to take it again once you pass.
How much does the NIC exam cost?
The cost of the NIC exam is another variable that is contingent upon your state but on average, the written portion has a $65.00 fee, and the practical portion has a $55.00 fee. Typically, these fees are nonrefundable but apply to any test date within a one-year period.
I really liked the leniency of this because it helped me relax before taking the test. Instead of feeling like one date defined the rest of my career, I was able to study calmly, knowing that I could reschedule if I felt like I needed it. At this point, you might wonder, what happens if I fail one, or both, parts of my exam? While this may not seem like an ideal situation, there’s nothing to worry about.
What if I fail the NIC exam?
“Do not be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again.” —Richard Branson.
Many successful cosmetologists have failed their NIC exam when they were in your shoes, but it didn’t stop them from having great careers. Most states allow an unlimited number of attempts to retake the exam, though there may be additional fees depending on your state. For more information about retaking your exam, or any aspect of the test, ask your program coordinator or check the NIC exam bulletin.
What happens during the NIC exam? What will I be tested on during the exam?
Once the written examination begins, you will have 90 minutes to finish. I know, this seems daunting, but with the right preparation, you’ll feel calm and confident on the big day. The exam is broken into the following categories: Scientific Concepts (30%), Hair Care and Services (40%), Skin Care and Services (15%), Nail Care and Services (15%). Because the best study plans are highly personalized, I’ll outline each of these categories in detail so you can see which areas you need to review most:
- Infection Control: Microbiology, First Aid, Federal Regulations, Methods of Infection Control
- Human Anatomy: Cells, Organs, Tissues
- Basic Physiology: Types of Joints, Nervous System, Skeletal System, Excretory System, Muscular System, Endocrine System, Respiratory System, Circulatory System, Integumentary System
Hair Care and Services
- Trichology: Properties and Structure of the Hair and Scalp, Hair Analysis and Hair Quality, Stages of Hair Growth, Hair Loss, Conditions of the Scalp and Hair
- Draping Procedures: Shampooing, Hair Cutting, Chemical Services, Thermal
- Shampooing, Conditioning, Massaging, and Brushing Procedures: Scalp Analysis, Shampooing, Conditioning, Scalp Treatments, Scalp Massage
- Principles of Hair Design: Elements of Hair Design, Principles of Balance and Design, Facial Shapes
- Haircutting Procedures: Client Consultation, Principles of Haircutting, Tools and Safety, Basic Haircuts
- Hairstyling Procedures: Client Consultation, Wet Styling, Thermal Styling, Braiding
- Wigs, Hair Enhancements, and Extensions
- Chemical Service Consultation
- Chemical Services: Chemical Waving, Chemical Hair Relaxers
- Hair Coloring Procedures: Law of Color, Types of Hair Color, Hair Color Applications
Skin Care and Services
- Skin Histology: Composition of the Skin, Conditions of the Skin, Functions of the Skin
- Skincare Services Consultation
- Draping Procedures for Facial Services
- Temporary Hair Removal: Shaving, Tweezing, Waxing, Depilatories, Threading, Sugaring
- Facial Procedures: Skincare Tools, Facial Treatments
- Facial Makeup Application: Makeup Color Theory, Cosmetic Application Procedures, Artificial Eyelashes, Eyelash and Eyebrow Coloring
Nail Care and Services
- Nail Care Service Consultation
- Nail Structure: Nail Composition, Nail Growth, Nail Conditions
- Manicure and Pedicure Procedures
- Advanced Nail Care: Preservice and Post-Service Procedures, Nail Tips, Nail Wraps and Overlays
- Nail Art
I know, that seems like a lot of information to cover in 90 minutes! But don’t worry, if you study a little bit each day, you’ll ace the exam on your first try.
Tips for finding NIC exam study guides and material
If you’re really concerned about seeing the test for the first time on exam day, or if you just want to practice, you can purchase a practice exam from the NIC’s partner website. The practice test is administered online, from the comfort of your home, so it allows you to simulate the experience of test day in a comfortable environment. Additionally, studying the information in the structure you’ll encounter on the real exam leads to improved test scores.
Personally, I found the practical exam much easier and much less intimidating than the written exam. It’s comprised of hair-shaping, chemical waving, chemical relaxing, thermal curling, and hair lightening and coloring. While I found the practical exam to closely mirror the practical components of my program, you can prepare by purchasing the NIC Examination Overview DVD. The DVD is $30.00 and covers the practical portion extensively, but if you don’t feel like spending extra money, you can always brush up with credible YouTube videos.
Since you’re already a trained and soon-to-be licensed cosmetologist, you’ll likely be able to spot videos that are unreliable a mile away but to be sure, you can always check the source for credibility. If you see a video posted from an established cosmetology program, you can rest assured it contains accurate information.
Don’t forget to check out your app stores. There are many reliable options there too for studying on the go. Just remember to use the reliable options again.
Tackling Exam Anxiety – More Study Tips
Now that we’ve covered the basics of how to sign up, fees, and most importantly exam content, it’s time to talk about how to deal with pre-test jitters. As a naturally anxious person, I squirmed at the thought of having to take a two-hour – combining the written and practical portions – test that carried professional consequences. I finally got to the point where I decided to take control of my anxiety rather than let myself be intimidated. Like me at that time, you’ve studied dutifully to finish your program, so why wouldn’t you be prepared to take it?
Once you realize you know over ninety percent of the information already, it’s just a matter of reigning in your nerves and systematically reviewing the information you were taught. The most important aspect of learning to be calm on test day is to establish a positive relationship with the test material. To accomplish this, I recommend studying in small spurts on a regular basis, so you don’t overwhelm yourself with a seemingly insurmountable quantity of information. The Pomodoro technique is a common study technique that uses small study sessions, check it here: Pomodoro Technique.
Try to make studying something you look forward to by going to your favorite coffee shop and ordering a latte and even planning group study sessions with your classmates. Additionally, it helps to use more than one book, video, or practice test. Encountering the information in multiple contexts helps you feel prepared to face the unknown on test day. Another benefit to the practice exam is that it introduces you to the wording and terminology used on the test and gives you an opportunity to simulate test conditions. Practicing this way helps calm your nerves when you take the exam since you’re already familiar with the experience.
Above all, I find that consistency beats cramming every time because your experience studying is pleasant, rather than rushed, and you feel more prepared. This allows you to take a step back the day before the test and relax! It’s crucial to give yourself a break the night before. Allowing your brain to rest will help you to think clearly the next day and remember more when it really counts.
Exam anxiety is a real thing. And it keeps many people from even taking their NIC exam. But, I have found in my many years, those people often regret not taking it and then wind up years later taking the exam. If that is you, you can pass this exam years later. If you are one of those people thinking about postponing your exam indefinitely because of anxious feelings, I have so many people that would beg you to take the exam now.
Your career awaits. Go get it!
On the other side of this exam is a career waiting for you. Just like the NIC exam, it will be hard work too! But, you chose cosmetology to express your creative side and to help others feel their best. Isn’t that exciting. This exam is just one last hurdle. You have already accomplished so much. You can do this too. Best wishes!
See you in the salon soon.