The State Board Theory Exam

Read Time: 5 Minutes
Expertise Area: All Career Fields
Career Stage: Student

The state theory exam, also known as the written exam, is a test used to validate your knowledge of your field in the beauty and wellness industry: cosmetology, barbering, esthetics, massage therapy, and nail technology. The theory (written) exam is one of two exams needed to become certified in your state and launch your career as a licensed professional. Whether you’re in school and about to take your theory exam for the first time, are transferring state licenses and need to test in your new state, or are getting a second license, this guide will answer all of your state board theory exam questions.

What is the State Board Theory Exam?

The Format

The Theory exam is a written (digital or in a booklet-testing format) that students must take in order to get licensed and begin working as a beauty and wellness professional. Most states require completion and passing of at least one written exam. This exam confirms your knowledge on the basic science and acknowledged best practices of your field of study. For example, skin and hair anatomy and histology has scientific concepts that are universally true no matter what state you live in.

The Languages

Thirty-eight states are contracted with the National Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology or NIC. NIC provides standardized valid exams, both theory (written) and practical in thirteen different skills, including cosmetology, nails, barbering, and esthetics. Tests are in English, Korean, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

The Time

NIC tests typically allow 90 minutes for completion. Breathe deep and thoroughly consider every answer. The questions are not set up to be “trick” questions. If you study thoroughly, there’s no need to stress.

Where Do I Take The Theory Exam?

The responsible state agency will have specific information about the testing process. In an effort to decrease costs, some states have outsourced the state exam to a third party. For example, in Washington state, you can take your theory (written) exam at a Department of Motor Vehicle Office, while in Oregon you must take your test at the Board of Cosmetology. Some testing centers require an appointment and others are walk-in, where you can pay and take the test at any time. Verify the process with your state’s testing agency and if you need help, always ask your beauty school for guidance.

What Do I Need To Take The Theory Exam?

Before the day of your state board theory exam, you need to know what supplies and information you should have ready for testing. Here are some common supplies needed and things you should think through:

  • State-issued Photo ID: You can expect to have to provide photo ID at your test when you arrive.
  • Acceptable Form Of Payment: Before you sit for your theory exam, contact your state licensing agency to find out what form of payments are accepted. Most agencies will take a debit or credit card, and some do not accept personal checks.
  • School Information: Your application for testing may require you to list your school’s information so have that on hand the day of your test. This might include your school’s name, address, phone number, etc.
  • School Transcripts: Prior to testing there is typically a coordination between the school and the state agency to authenticate your education via official transcripts. If you must provide a sealed copy of your transcripts, make sure you don’t break the seal on the envelope! If the seal is broken, your transcripts become invalid.
  • Testing Tools: If the test is the old-fashioned fill in the circle, you will need a #2 pencil. Bring at least two pencils, an eraser, and a pencil sharpener if this is the case.

As for what not to bring the day of your theory exam, keep your cell phone and personal items at home or safely hidden in your car. You will not be able to take your cell phone or other personal items into the testing area and only some testing centers provide lockers to store your belongings. Our pro tip: bring your essentials and leave the rest locked in your car.

How Should I Study For The Theory Exam?

All students preparing for a state board theory exam should take practice tests to conquer test anxiety and get comfortable with the testing process. The best part? With a practice test, you can take as many exams as you need to feel at ease for the real thing. Check out our state board theory exam study tips here.

Do I Have To Retake My Theory Exam When I Move?

Some states may require a second written exam that pertains to the rules and regulations of the new state. The second exam may deal with your knowledge of the length of time your license is valid or the number of continuing education hours required to renew your license.

The governing body that controls the state exam process may be slightly different in each state. Some states have a board of cosmetology that regulates the state exam process. Other state exams are performed under the rules of the board of health or with the board of education. You will have to research which agency is responsible for administering the theory exam in your new state. Your school will certainly be a resource for you for this first step after graduation from your program.

The state board theory or written exam is just one part of your licensing exams; you will also have to take a to take a practical exam to become fully licensed. As long as you take the time to study, research your state’s guidelines, and follow our state board test prep tips, you should be prepared to pass your theory exam and be one step closure to licensure.

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