Passing the National Cosmetology Exam on Your First Try

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After completing your cosmetology program, the last thing that stands between you and the career of your dreams is the National-Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology’s (NIC) written and/or practical cosmetology exams – assuming you live in one of the 38 states that requires them for licensing. It’s an exciting time—your career as a stylist is finally within reach!

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But it’s not time to celebrate just yet – now you must focus all your efforts on taking and passing the cosmetology exams required for a license in your state. Preparation is the key to success, so it’s important to understand the components of the exams and what skills and knowledge you’re going to be required to demonstrate.

While some states require both the written and practical NIC exams, like Washington, Ohio, Maine, and South Carolina. Other states use either the practical or written exam, like Louisiana, Illinois, and Alaska.

Check with the NIC or your Board of Cosmetology/regulatory agency to learn more if your state participates in these national cosmetology exams.

If your state uses the NIC cosmetology exams, it’s time to get acquainted with how these exams are structured and what you’ll need to know so that you can pass the NIC cosmetology exam on your first try:

NIC Practical Cosmetology Exam Core Content

A practical examination is an important component for assessing your competence in cosmetology. The NIC cosmetology practical examination covers the following core content:

  • Hair-shaping
  • Chemical waving
  • Chemical relaxing
  • Hair lightening and hair coloring
  • Thermal curling

Further, depending on your state, you may also be tested in the following areas:

  • Blow-drying styling
  • Shaping and pin curl placement
  • Roller placement
  • Facials
  • Manicuring
  • Sculptured nails

Preparing for the Cosmetology Practical Exam

Although you should always refer to your state guidelines for a list of required supplies, the required general supplies for the NIC cosmetology practical examination include:

  • Dry storage kit/container
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Mannequin head and a table clamp
  • A towel placed between the clamp and the table
  • EPA registered disinfectant
  • Container/bag for soiled/trash items
  • Container/bag for items to be disinfected
  • Cloth and paper towels
  • Neck strips
  • Shampoo cape
  • Hair clamps
  • Combs/hair brushes
  • Spray bottle
  • Protective cream
  • Spatula
  • Protective cotton
  • Protective gloves
  • First aid supply kit
  • Tape

You can purchase pre-assembled and labeled exam kits through your cosmetology school program or through vendors that meet your state’s requirements.

You may prepare for your NIC cosmetology practical exam by purchasing the NIC Examination Overview DVD. The DVD provides students with an informative overview of NIC testing procedures for cosmetology practical examinations. The cost of the DVD is $30.

When taking the NIC cosmetology practical examination, you will want to ensure you follow all exam rules and instructions, including:

  • Do not leave the exam area without permission.
  • You must bring your own exam kit in sanitary condition.
  • You must bring a container of water if needed for any section of the exam. You may also bring a thermos of hot water, if desired.
  • You will be given 10 minutes for client protection and for setting up your supplies.
  • You will be given 2 minutes in between each section of the exam for setting up the required supplies.
  • You will receive verbal instructions twice before beginning each section of the exam.
  • Once you have completed the tasks of a specific section, step back from your work station to indicate that you have finished.
  • Always ensure you are following all appropriate public protection and infection control procedures during all phases of the exam.
  • You may not bring your cell phone or any other electronic device, handwritten notes, or any other printed materials into the exam room.
  • You may not talk with any other candidates during the testing period.

Depending on your state, you will use either a live model or a mannequin head/hand for the exam.

If you are allowed to use a model, you must adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Your model must be at least 15 years old and cannot be a licensed cosmetologist or cosmetology student.
  • Your model must present ID to gain admittance into the exam.
  • Your model must agree to submit to all services during the exam and may not participate in any way during the exam.
  • Your model cannot talk to you at any time during the exam.

If your state uses mannequin heads, you must bring a mannequin head. If your state uses mannequin hands, you must apply a set of nails to the mannequin hand before reporting to the exam.

The Evaluation Process

You will be evaluated on the following tasks during each section of the cosmetology practical exam:

Set-Up and Client Protection

  • Disinfecting your work area using protective covering
  • Disposing of soiled materials using infection control procedures
  • Sanitizing your hands
  • Setting up your work area and ensuring all supplies are clearly labeled
  • Setting up implements, ensuring they are visibly clean and sanitary
  • Using neck strips/towel and applying a drape
  • Practicing infection control procedures throughout the setup process
  • Maintaining a clean work area throughout the setup process

Thermal Curling

You will be evaluated on the following tasks:

  • Your demonstration of curling
  • Testing the temperature of the iron before applying it to the hair
  • Ensuring the subsections of hair are the same width as the barrel of the iron
  • Ensuring the length of the subsection is no longer than three inches
  • Establishing a base
  • Distributing hair evenly around the iron
  • Forming a complete curl
  • Protecting the scalp from the iron using a comb
  • Following all safety and infection control procedures

Haircutting

You will be evaluated on the following tasks:

  • Using a razor to establish a nape guide
  • Cutting the nape with elevation using the razor
  • Handling the razor and shears safely at all times
  • Using consistent subsections/partings while cutting hair
  • Cutting the nape line to a uniform length
  • Cutting the sides to a uniform length
  • Blending the haircut evenly
  • Cutting at least one inch of hair throughout the haircut
  • Following all safety and infection control procedures

Chemical Waving

You will be evaluated on the following tasks:

  • Demonstrating chemical waving
  • Ensuring subsections of hair are straight and even
  • Ensuring subsections of hair are no longer than the length of the rod
  • Ensuring subsections of hair are the same width as the diameter of the rod
  • Wrapping hair evenly and smoothly around the rod
  • Distributing hair evenly across the end paper
  • Extending the end papers beyond the hair ends
  • Placing bands correctly
  • Using the same rod base placement through the section
  • Wrapping the hair at least 1 ½ times
  • Demonstrating saturation
  • Applying cotton and/or protective cream at the nape
  • Wearing gloves during the application of the simulated product
  • Applying the simulated product across the entire rod safely
  • Demonstrating a test curl
  • Following all safety and infection control procedures

Virgin Hair Lightening Application and Hair Color Retouch

You will be evaluated on the following tasks:

  • Performing patch test with simulated product behind the ear or in the fold of the arm
  • Dividing the hair into four, equal sections
  • Applying protective cream around the hairline
  • Wearing gloves during the application of simulated lightener and hair color products
  • Following all safety and infection control procedures
  • Virgin Hair Coloring
    • Making subsections of hair 1/8 inch wide or less
    • Applying simulated produce ½ inch from the scalp
    • Applying simulated product up to but not including the last one inch of hair
    • Completely covering the subsections with simulated product
  • Hair Color Retouch
    • Outlining hair color retouch quadrant with simulated product
    • Making subsections of hair ½ inch wide or less
    • Applying simulated product into the scalp out to two inches
    • Completing covering the subsections with simulated product
    • Keeping the perimeter skin free of product

Virgin Relaxer Application and Relaxer Retouch

You will be evaluated on the following tasks:

  • Applying protective cream around the hairline
  • Wearing gloves during application of simulated hair relaxer product
  • Following all safety and infection control procedures
  • Virgin relaxer application
    • Creating subsections of hair ¼ inch wide or less
    • Applying simulated relaxer product ½ inch from scalp
    • Applying simulated product up to but not include last one inch of hair
    • Completely covering the subsections with the simulated product
  • Relaxer retouch
    • Creating subsections of hair ¼ inch wide or less
    • Applying simulated product starting slightly off scalp, up to ¼ inch from scalp and out to 2 inches
    • Completely covering subsections with simulated product

Additional Services

Depending on your state regulatory agency, you may be required to perform additional services as part of your cosmetology practical exam. Contact your state regulatory agency to obtain a list of these services:

  • Blow dry styling
    • Demonstrating blow drying
    • Directing hair flow to protect scalp
    • Controlling hair with brush
  • Shaping and Pin Curl Placement
    • Shaping
      • Demonstrating ridge curl
      • Forming a ridge shaping
      • Carving pin curls from ridge shaping
      • Forming pin curl shaping protecting ridge
      • Forming pin curls without disturbing ridge
      • Clipping pin curls securely
    • Pin Curl Placement
      • Demonstrating C shaping
      • Forming a C shaping
      • Carving pin curls from C shaping
      • Forming pin curls without disturbing C shaping
      • Clipping pin curls securely
    • Roller Placement
      • Demonstrating roller placement
      • Sub-sectioning hair straight and evenly
      • Sub-sectioning hair same length as roller
      • Sub-sectioning hair same width as roller
      • Wrapping hair evenly and smoothly around roller
      • Placing roller #1 on base
      • Placing roller #2 half off base
      • Placing roller #3 off base
      • Clipping roller securely
    • Basic Facial
      • Demonstrating facial
      • Removing cleanser from container using infection control procedures and applying to the entire face safely
      • Removing cleanser from face without dragging or pulling skin
      • Removing massage product from container using infection control procedures and applying to entire face safely
      • Demonstrating massage; maintaining continuous contact
      • Removing massage product from face without dragging or pulling skin
      • Removing all residual massage product safely
      • Applying toner/astringent safely
    • Hair Removal of the Eyebrows
      • Tweezing
        • Demonstrating tweezing procedure
        • Applying antiseptic to the eyebrow area safely
        • Holding skin taut
        • Tweezing in direction of hair growth
      • Simulated waxing
        • Removing simulated wax product from container using infection control procedures
        • Testing temperature of simulated wax product on wrist safely
        • Applying simulated wax product in direction of hair growth
        • Applying simulated wax produce along entire area under eyebrow safely
        • Applying an even, thin layer of wax product safely
        • Smoothing fabric over simulated wax product in direction of hair growth
        • Holding skin taut
        • Pulling fabric in opposite direction of hair growth
        • Applying post-epilation product to treated area safely
        • Applying antiseptic to treated area safely

You can find more information on the cosmetology practical exam by downloading the most recent exam bulletin on the NIC website.

How to Pass the NIC Written Cosmetology Exam on Your First Try

You can prepare to take the written portion of your cosmetology exam by ordering an online practice examination. The cost of the exam is $39, and it is delivered through a computer-based delivery partner, ISO Quality Testing (IQT). You can contact IQT with any questions at 1-866-773-1114 or registrations@isoqualitytesting.com.

The NIC cosmetology theory (written examination) consists of the following cosmetology topics. You will have 90 minutes to complete the examination:

Scientific Concepts – 30 percent

  • Infection control
    • Microbiology
    • Methods of infection control
    • Federal regulations
    • First Aid
  • Human Anatomy
    • Cells
    • Tissues
    • Organs
  • Basic Physiology
    • Skeletal system
    • Muscular system
    • Types of joints
    • Circulatory system
    • Endocrine system
    • Respiratory system
    • Integumentary system
    • Nervous system
    • Excretory system
  • Ergonomics/Body Positioning
  • Basic Principles of Chemistry
  • Basic Principles of Electricity

Hair Care and Services – 40 percent

  • 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
    • Hair analysis
    • 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 Services 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 – 15 percent

  • 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 – 15 percent

  • 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

You can find more information on the cosmetology written exam by downloading the most recent exam bulletin on the NIC website.

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