Passing the National Barbering Exam on Your First Try

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Congratulations, you tonsorial artist, you. The fact that you’re looking for tips on how to stack the deck in your favor when it comes time to take the NIC barber exam tells me you’re nearing the end of your barbering program – or that you might be a little OCD. In any case, don’t expect your state board to just hand you a license and a sharp pair of shears and turn you loose on the public. You still need to be vetted, bud, and the NIC (National Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology) barber exam is still the flaming hoop of choice for quite a few states.

The NIC barber exam is designed to accomplish several important goals:

  • Promote the highest level of consumer safety
  • Standardize the field of barbering
  • Make it easier for barbers to move from state to state while maintaining their professional credentials
  • Forge relationships with partners in the barbering industry

We know you’re eager. But holster the shears, Tex and we’ll show you the way …

Meet Your Proctor

Even though the NIC owns the barbering exam, your state board contracts with one of several third-party proctor agencies that you will work with directly when preparing for and scheduling the exam:

The first step to success on the exam is to register correctly. As obvious as this may seem, it should not be overlooked; every year countless would-be barbers delay their careers because of glitches signing up the test. Your barbering school or apprentice master should walk you through every step of applying for, and passing, the NIC exam. You should also be able to find all the information you need regarding registration through your state’s board of barbering/cosmetology. Each state has its own regulations regarding testing.

The actual process of registering for the barbering exam depends on your state’s policies. Usually it will involve completing your education/apprenticeship and then registering with one of the aforementioned proctoring agencies. You may be required to submit proof of completion of your barbering education/apprenticeship to your state’s board of barbering/cosmetology, which will then authorize you to register with a proctoring agency. In other cases, authorization to test may be conferred through your school or apprenticeship.

Another important element of registration is exam type. The NIC sponsors two different types of barbering exams, each designed to accommodate the rules governing the services barbers can perform as defined by different state boards of barbering and cosmetology:

  • Barber Styling Examination, the most common of the two exams, is divided into a written and practical exam that covers all barbering services, including the use of chemical hair products.
  • Barber 1 Examination (no chemical) covers all services other than those involving the use of chemical products and is also comprised of written and practical portions.

The differences between these exams will be explained soon, but for now you just need to focus on registering. Your instructor should tell you which of these exams you will need to take from the moment you begin your studies. Just make sure that you select the correct examination when you register with your state’s proctoring agency.

Registering for Your Exam by State

As you can see below, the NIC’s Barber Styling Examination and Barber 1 Examination (no chemical) are the preferred written/theory and practical exams chosen by many state boards of barbering/cosmetology. In fact, 26 states use this exam for their written and/or practical evaluation of would-be barbers. Even if your state doesn’t use the NIC’s exam, as a national benchmark in foundational knowledge this exam reflects all the basic competencies you will need to be successful on your home state’s written and practical exams.

Find your state to see which testing agency you register with. Note that some states contract with one agency to provide the written/theory exam, and another agency to provide the practical exam:

DL Roope Administrations

  • Idaho – barber styling (written and practical)
  • Maine – barber styling (written and practical)
  • Montana – barber styling and barber 1 (written and practical exams for each)
  • New Hampshire – barber styling and barber 1 (written and practical exams for each)
  • West Virginia – barber 1 (written and practical)

National Testing Network – NTN (in partnership wtih Ergometrics)

  • Kansas – barber 1 (written)
  • Virginia – written and practical exams, not affiliated with the NIC
  • Washington – barber 1 (written and practical)

Pearson VUE

  • Pennsylvania – written and practical exams, not affiliated with the NIC
  • Wisconsin – written and practical exams, not affiliated with the NIC

PSI Exams

  • Alabama – barber styling (written exam)
  • California – barber styling (written), practical exam is not affiliated with the NIC
  • Colorado – written and practical exams, both not affiliated with the NIC
  • Delaware – barber styling and barber 1 (written exams for each)
  • Georgia – barber styling (written) and barber 1 (practical) (these are the two tests required for licensure in Georgia)
  • Illinois – barber styling (written), Illinois does not require a practical examination
  • Indiana – written exam, not affiliated with the NIC (Indiana does not require a practical examination)
  • Iowa – barber styling (written and practical)
  • Maryland – written and practical exams, both not affiliated with the NIC
  • Michigan – written and practical exams, both not affiliated with the NIC
  • Montana – barber styling and barber 1 (written and practical exams for each)
  • New Jersey – written exam not affiliated with the NIC
  • New Mexico – barber styling (written)
  • New York – practical exam is not affiliated with the NIC, and does not require a written exam
  • Oklahoma – barber styling (written)
  • Rhode Island – barber styling (written)
  • South Carolina – barber styling and barber 1 (written)
  • Tennessee – written and practical exams, both not affiliated with the NIC
  • Texas – written and practical exams, both not affiliated with the NIC
  • Utah – barber 1 (written and practical)

Professional Credential Services – PCS

  • Alabama – barber styling (practical)
  • Delaware – barber styling and barber 1 (practical exams for each)
  • Missouri – barber styling (written and practical)
  • New Mexico – barber styling (practical)
  • South Carolina – barber styling and barber 1 (practical exams for each)
  • Vermont – barber styling (written and practical)

Prometric

  • Connecticut – only requires a written examination, not affiliated with the NIC
  • Hawaii – only requires a written examination, not affiliated with the NIC

Directly with your state board of barbering/cosmetology

  • Alaska – barber styling (written exam), provides its own practical exam that incorporates characteristics from the NIC’s barber styling practical exam
  • Arizona – written and practical exams, not affiliated with the NIC
  • Arkansas – written and practical exams, not affiliated with the NIC
  • Kansas – practical exam, not affiliated with the NIC
  • Kentucky – written and practical exams, not affiliated with the NIC
  • Minnesota – written and practical exams, not affiliated with the NIC
  • New Jersey – practical exam, not affiliated with the NIC
  • Oklahoma – barber styling (written), practical exam is not affiliated with the NIC
  • Rhode Island – barber styling (practical exam)
  • Mississippi – barber styling (written and practical)
  • Nebraska – written and practical exams, not affiliated with the NIC
  • Nevada – written and practical exams, not affiliated with the NIC
  • North Carolina – written and practical exams, not affiliated with the NIC
  • North Dakota – written and practical exams, not affiliated with the NIC
  • Ohio – written and practical exams, not affiliated with the NIC
  • Oregon – written and practical exams, not affiliated with the NIC
  • South Dakota – barber styling (written), practical exam is not affiliated with the NIC
  • Wyoming – written and practical exams, not affiliated with the NIC

Preparing to Shred the NIC Exam

As a national test, you can find plenty of resources that provide information on preparing for the barbering examination:

  • Resources provided by your barbering school or apprentice master
  • Resources provided by your state board of barbering/cosmetology
  • Resources provided by the NIC
  • Resources provided by third-party companies

The NIC issues a candidate information bulletin (CIB) for each state, which includes state-specific information for testing and unique requirements. Your state board of barbering/cosmetology also often provides these CIBs. The NIC also issues general CIBs:

You can always find the most up-to-date candidate information bulletin on the NIC’s exam CIB webpage. That same webpage provides information about ordering a DVD with an examination overview. The content of the exams is derived from a source you will recognize from your barbering classes, Milady’s Standard Professional Barbering, 5th Edition. Information about sanitation and infection control is derived from the NIC’s Infection Control and Safety Standards.

Practice Makes Perfect

Rehearsal is an important part of passing the NIC national barbering exam on your first try, especially on the practical section. Practice each section of the practical examination with a friend until you have it basically committed to memory. The CIB details verbatim what your examiner is going to tell you, and specifies exactly what you are graded on. You need to make sure details regarding hygiene and sanitation are second nature, in addition to the basic barbering procedures you will be graded on.

Barbering is both a performance and a physical art, right? Think about any other performing/physical artist and how much they rehearse before a show – musicians, comedians, magicians, actors, acrobats, et cetera. At this point your practical exam is the most important show of your career. Months before you take your practical exam you should have assembled a complete examination kit as detailed in the CIB and practice each procedure until you can do them with your eyes closed.

Speaking of the practical examination – some states require live models while others require you to bring a mannequin head. Whichever is the case for where you are taking the exam, make sure you have plenty of practice with your partner too. If you do need to bring a live model, make sure they meet these requirements:

  • They must be at least 15 years old and cannot be a practitioner or student of barbering or any other related field
  • They must have a valid state ID or driver’s license
  • They must be willing to partake in all parts of the practical examination
  • They must not communicate with, or assist you, in any way

It’s also important to show up at your testing center with the appropriate supplies. The practical examination CIB details exactly what you must have in your barber kit – from barbering tools to labeled bags. Don’t forget to consult the CIB for the written examination as well – this details exactly what you can and cannot have on your person as you take this examination. For example, you are not allowed to have a cell phone during either of your examinations.

Finally, be on time and know where you’re going. It’s important to scout out your testing location ahead of time, especially if you’re from a different city. Consider yourself fortunate if your exam takes place in your hometown, and plan on getting there early. If you must travel to a different city for your testing and you can’t arrange to visit the site earlier, make sure to give yourself a few hours’ of leeway. Think of your exam as a flight to your next career level – you wouldn’t show up five minutes before your flight takes off, would you? Most state boards recommend showing up to the exam site at least 30 minutes ahead of time to register.

And last but not least, remember to bring two pieces of official government-issued idea, with at least one of those being a picture ID.

Know Your Exam Contents

The CIB provided by the NIC details exactly what you will be evaluated on. Being aware of these points of assessment and how they are evaluated is indispensable to passing your exam. The following details cover the written and practical exam contents for the national Barber Styling Examination. Typically candidates first take the written portion of the exam, and upon successful completion, proceed to the practical exam. However the specific procedure can differ according to the state you’re in. Both exams are often, though not necessarily, administered back-to-back at the same site testing location.

The written exam is offered in English, Korean, Spanish, and Vietnamese. The practical exam is offered in English. Depending on your state, additional language options may be available for both the written and practical exams. All factory labels on manufactured products, when required, must be written in at least English.

States typically accept a scaled score of 75 as passing on both the written and practical exams, but check with your state to confirm its own passing standards.

Passing the Written Exam on Your First Try

The National Barber Styling Theory Examination (written exam) is typically offered in a multiple-choice format on a computer, and involves 50 questions that must be completed in 90 minutes. It may also contain 10 interspersed pretest items that are not scored. The exam is divided into these sections:

Scientific concepts – 27 percent:

  • Microbiology
  • Infection control
  • Federal regulations
  • First aid
  • Basic human anatomy
  • Basic human physiology
  • Basic principles of chemistry
  • Basic principles of electricity

Hair services – 40 percent

  • Properties and structure of the hair and scalp
  • Hair analysis and hair quality
  • Stages of hair growth
  • Hair loss
  • Disorders of the hair and scalp
  • Client consultation
  • Client draping
  • Elements and principles of hair design
  • Facial shapes
  • Shampooing and conditioning
  • Scalp massage and scalp treatments
  • Basic principles of hair cutting
  • Tools, implements, and equipment
  • Body positioning
  • Hair cutting procedures
  • Neck shaving procedures
  • Head shaving
  • Procedures for hairstyling, including wet styling, thermal styling, and natural hairstyling
  • Wigs, hair pieces, and hair enhancements
  • Chemical services such as relaxing, waving, and curling
  • Hair coloring and lightening
  • Safety

Facial hair services – 17 percent

  • Client consultation, including skin analysis and health history
  • Draping for facial hair services
  • Shaving tools and implements
  • Facial shaving preparations
  • Mustaches and beards
  • Safety

Skin care and facial services – 16 percent

  • Anatomy of the skin
  • Functions of the skin
  • Skin disorders
  • Client consultation
  • Client draping
  • Facials, including tools, implements, equipment, products, massage, and safety
  • Electrotherapy and light therapy

For barbers taking the exam that does not include chemical services, the topics detailed above are the same (except for the obvious exception of chemical services) but they comprise a different percentage of coverage on the test:

  • Scientific concepts – 30 percent
  • Hair care services – 50 percent
  • Facial hair services – 10 percent
  • Skin care and facial services – 10 percent

Passing the Practical Exam on Your First Try

This exam consists of at least six fundamental sections, and up to nine sections of evaluation depending on your state. During this exam you can expect to have at least a 15-minute break. You will probably spend at least two hours – but no more than four – completing the exam. The total amount of time it takes depends on how many sections your state evaluates and the length of your break.

These are some of the most important guidelines that govern the practical examination:

  • You must bring a full and complete barbering kit, labeled according to NIC regulations
  • Once your examination begins you will be evaluated at all times
  • The proctor reads all verbal instructions twice
  • Aside from reading instructions, the proctor will not communicate with you
  • Each section of the exam has a time limit, except for the shave with a straight razor
  • If you finish a task early you may indicate so to the proctor
  • If the timer runs out you must stop what you are doing
  • When required, all manufacturers’ labels must be factory – not hand written – and must be in English (additional languages on the factory label are fine)

Content Domain Sections

Your practical exam covers at least the following sections, performed in this order and graded on the terms listed:

Set up and client protection – 10 minutes

  • Sanitize hands
  • Disinfect work area
  • Set up work area with clean, labeled instruments
  • Use a neck strip and drape for your client
  • Complete these procedures in a sanitary and safe manner
  • Dispose of soiled items appropriately

The proctor will inform you when you have five minutes remaining.

Haircutting – 30 minutes

  • Sanitize hands
  • Use a comb and clipper (with and without a guard) to perform a tapered haircut
  • Use a comb and shears to finish the haircut
  • Handle shears and clippers in a safe and appropriate manner
  • Cut at least half an inch of hair neat and evenly
  • Clean up adequately
  • Dispose of soiled items appropriately

The proctor will inform you when you have 15 minutes remaining.

Shaving with a straight razor – untimed (two minutes to set up)

  • Sanitize hands (including wrists) and set up supplies in a sanitary manner
  • Apply drape and towels appropriately
  • Lather beard and mustache using proper technique
  • Apply damp steam towel appropriately after testing its temperature on wrist
  • Remove steam towel and lather
  • Re-lather using the proper technique
  • Shave using appropriate strokes: freehand – areas one, three, and four; backhand – area two; reverse freehand – area five
  • Apply toner or astringent appropriately
  • Shave in a safe and sanitary method
  • Clean up and dispose of soiled items appropriately

Chemical Waving – 20 minutes, plus two minutes to remove/set up supplies

  • Set up supplies in a hygienic manner and sanitize hands
  • Sub-section hair evenly and straight, no longer than the length of the rod
  • Wrap hair evenly and smoothly around the rod
  • Distribute hair evenly across the end paper, and extend the end papers beyond the hair ends
  • Place bands correctly
  • Use the same rod base placement throughout the section
  • Wrap hair at least 1.5 times around the rod
  • After finishing, apply cotton and/or protective cream near the nape, while wearing gloves
  • Apply the simulated product across the length of all rods
  • Unwrap rod at least 1.5 turns
  • Maintain proper client protection, safety procedures, and infection control throughout the procedure
  • Dispose of soiled items appropriately

The proctor will inform you when you have 10 minutes remaining.

Virgin hair lightening and hair color retouch section – 20 minutes total, two 10-minute segments, plus two minutes to remove/set up supplies

  • Set up your supplies in a sanitary manner and sanitize hands
  • Perform the predisposition test with the simulated product behind the model’s ear
  • Divide the head into four equal sections
  • Apply protective cream around the hairline
  • Wear gloves during the application of the simulated product
  • Sub-section hair in 1/4-inch-wide sections or less
  • Apply the simulated product half an inch from the scalp, and up to (but not including) the last inch of hair
  • Cover the mid shaft of hair completely with the simulated product

(end of first section – move on to hair color retouch)

  • Outline hair color retouch quadrant with simulated product
  • Sub-section hair half an inch wide or less
  • Apply simulated product on scalp out to two inches
  • Completely cover new growth with simulated product
  • Keep the product away from the skin perimeter
  • Maintain client protection, infection control, and safety procedures throughout the procedure
  • Disinfect implements and dispose of soiled items in an appropriate manner

The proctor will inform you when you have five minutes remaining in each segment.

Chemical Relaxing, virgin and retouch – 20 minutes total, two 10-minute segments, plus two minutes to remove/set up supplies

  • Set up supplies in a sanitary fashion and sanitize hands
  • Apply protective cream around the hairline
  • Wear gloves during the application of the simulated product
  • Sub-section hair one-quarter-inch-wide or less, and apply simulated product half an inch from the scalp up, but not including, the last inch of hair
  • Completely cover the mid shaft of the hair with the simulated product

(move on to virgin relaxer application)

  • Sub-section hair one-quarter-inch-wide or less, and apply simulated product half an inch from the scalp up, but not including, the last inch of hair
  • Completely cover the mid shaft of the hair with the simulated product

(end of first section – move on to relaxer retouch)

  • Sub-section hair one-quarter-inch-wide or less
  • Apply simulated product beginning slightly off the scalp, up to one-quarter inch from the scalp, and out to two inches
  • Completely cover new growth with the simulated product

(move on to relaxer retouch application)

  • Show the smoothing of the sub-section in the direction of hair growth
  • Keep the product away from the perimeter skin
  • Maintain client protection, sanitary measures, and a safe work environment throughout the procedure
  • Dispose of soiled items appropriately

The proctor will inform you when you have five minutes remaining in each segment.

Potential Additional Areas of Evaluation

Depending on your state, you may also be evaluated on any of the following segments. Check with your state’s board of barbering/cosmetology or your barbering school/apprenticeship to find out what your state’s exam entails. When required, these segments are performed in the order listed, starting after the straight razor shaving section and coming before the chemical waving section:

Basic Facial – 10 minutes, plus two minutes to remove/set up supplies

  • Set up implements in a sanitary way and sanitize hands
  • Apply a hair drape to the client
  • Re-sanitize hands
  • Remove face cleanser and cleanse the client’s face using the proper procedure
  • Apply a damp steam towel after checking its temperature on your wrist
  • Remove from container, and apply massage cream using the proper procedures
  • Apply toner or astringent appropriately
  • Maintain proper hygiene technique throughout the facial
  • Disinfect items and dispose of soiled items appropriately

The proctor will inform you when you have five minutes remaining.

Blow-dry styling – 15 minutes, plus two minutes to remove/set up supplies

  • Set up supplies in a sanitary way and sanitize hands
  • Use a neck strip or towel, as well as a drape
  • Direct air flow to protect client’s scalp
  • Control hair with a comb or brush
  • Dry hair on top and on one side of client’s head
  • Maintain proper infection control procedures and a safe work environment

The proctor will inform you when you have eight minutes remaining.

Thermal curling – 10 minutes, plus two minutes to remove/set up supplies

  • Sanitize hands
  • Test the temperature of the iron prior to placing it in the hair
  • Sub-sectioned hair should be the same width as the barrel of the iron, and not wider than three inches
  • Establish a base
  • Evenly distribute the hair around the iron
  • Form a complete curl and ensure the hair is smooth and unmarked
  • Protect the scalp from the iron with a comb
  • Use iron safely throughout the procedure while maintaining proper infection control techniques
  • Dispose of soiled item appropriately

The proctor will inform you when you have five minutes remaining.

Barber 1 No Chemical Practical Exam

If you are from a state that provides an option for barber licensure without chemical treatments, and this is the license you’re pursuing, you will be evaluated on the following core subjects:

  • Set up and client protection
  • Haircutting
  • Shaving with a straight razor

Your state may also evaluate the following optional areas, which are completed in this order after the straight razor shave. Check with your state’s board of barbering/cosmetology to confirm if any of these optional areas are included on your exam:

  • Basic facial
  • Blow dry styling
  • Thermal curling

In these categories, the time limits and points of evaluation are the same as those in the full Barber Styling Examination.

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