The Big Guide to NIC Testing: What It Is & How to Prepare

The National Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology (NIC) creates beauty licensing exams used by over half of US states. Though your chosen beauty school should help you prepare for your state's test, if you are preparing for a NIC test, you may want to know more.

Read on to learn about NIC testing, including what it is, what theory and practical tests entail, how to register and take your exam, and more.

Editor’s note: In this article, we'll focus on the NIC Cosmetology exams. Cosmetology covers topics from most other beauty exams, so this choice should give you an idea of what to expect on the other exams. However, each subject has specific, unique content, so visit the NIC site for more details on your field.

What Is NIC Testing for Beauty Licenses?

NIC creates theory, practical, and written-practical tests for beauty or beauty-adjacent disciplines. Each covers anything you could reasonably expect to learn in your school or apprenticeship program.

The tests offered by NIC are:

Some exams also have add-ons covering specific skills. Your state will say if it requires one of these.

If your state requires you to pass additional tests not directly connected to a standard beauty curriculum—such as one on state laws or bloodborne pathogens—that test wouldn't be created by NIC. Your state should provide details about how to take these exams.

However, NIC has announced it's creating a new Safe Practices test. No details are available as of our date of publication, so keep an eye out!

Does My State Use NIC Testing?

Over half of US states use one or more NIC tests for beauty licensure. However, you may see a different name like D.L. Roope (a Prometric company), Prometric, or PROV instead of NIC on your state board's website. These aren't test creators; they're the groups that administer tests. You might visit one of their centers or sign onto their website to take your test.

In February 2022, NIC published a list of state-reported details about whether they used NIC testing.

Types of NIC Tests

NIC offers three types of tests: Theory, practical, and written practical. In this section, we'll discuss the three types of tests, using the cosmetology tests to illustrate the ideas. Each subject has one or more tests focusing on those subjects, and we'll talk about which type of exam is used for each subject later.

NIC Theory Test — Answering Questions About Beauty

The NIC theory test is a written test covering the concepts and tools beauty professionals need to know about. Let's look at the cosmetology NIC theory test:

  • Exam Time: 90 minutes
  • Number of Questions: 110, with 100 being scored
  • Domains:
    • Scientific Concepts: 35%
    • Hair Care and Services: 45%
    • Skin Care and Services: 10%
    • Nail Care and Services: 10%

NIC offers sample test questions on its candidate information bulletins (CIBs), such as these from the cosmetology theory CIB.

Cosmetology Theory CIB Example

NIC Exam

As you can see, Question No. 5 asks about using a tool, while Question No. 6 asks about a scientific definition.

NIC Practical Test — Showing Off Your Beauty Skills

NIC practical tests are hands-on demonstrations in front of a test proctor. You show off your skills in specific areas, which you're told about beforehand. This can get a little bit complicated.

Taking the NIC cosmetology practical test as our example, the CIBs are divided into several types. Each state determines which practical tests you must take. On the Cosmetology Practical Core test (which everyone takes when going for a cosmetology license using a NIC test), the organization explains further.

Cosmetology Practical Core Test Example

NIC Exam

The core test covers hair treatments. It includes 10 domains, broken down as follows:

  • Exam Time: 155 minutes for your work time; plan to spend at least three hours at the exam site
  • Domains:
    1. Work Area and Client Preparation and Setup of Supplies (First Client): 15 minutes
    2. Thermal Curling: 10 minutes
    3. Haircutting: 35 minutes
    4. Work Area and New Client Preparation and Setup of Supplies (Second Client): 15 minutes)
    5. Chemical Waving: 20 minutes
    6. Predisposition Test and Strand Test with Simulated Product: 10 minutes
    7. Highlighting with Foil, Virgin Application with Colored Simulated Product: 15 minutes
    8. Hair Color Retouch with Colored Simulated Product: 10 minutes
    9. Virgin Hair Relaxer (No Base) Application with Colored Simulated Product: 15 minutes
    10. Blood Exposure Procedure: 10 minutes

Domain list directly from the NIC National Cosmetology Practical Examination CIB, 2022 edition

The CIB for this practical exam walks you through exactly what to expect during the exam, including the verbal instructions, a list of tasks to expect, and, in some cases, how the test proctor will examine your work.

Some states require practical exams over additional services. Your cosmetology school's curriculum should cover anything that appears on every test you have to take.

NIC Written Practical Tests

The NIC written practical tests are safety and "how-to" exams. You answer multiple-choice questions about how you would perform certain treatments on clients. This test lets you show your state you understand all your job's hands-on skills without demonstrating them.

Here are the basics of what to expect at a NIC cosmetology written practical exam:

  • Exam Time: 120 minutes
  • Number of Questions: 75, with 65 being scored
  • Domains:
    • Scientific Concepts: 20%
    • Hair Care and Services: 45%
    • Skin Care and Services: 15%
    • Nail Care and Services: 20%

Each question is multiple choice, some using words and others using images. We'll include screenshots from the cosmetology NIC test's CIB below.

For example, this question reminds you that you need to understand how to identify nail issues and asks about treating a specific one.

Cosmetology NIC Test CIB Example

NIC Exam

And this one asks you to identify part of a tool.

Cosmetology NIC Test CIB Example

NIC Exam

Registering for Your NIC Test

What to expect when registering for your NIC test varies by state and testing provider. In some cases, the state may need you (or your school) to provide details before you can register for the test. Others may allow you to register for the test without going through the board. Check your state's details before moving forward with NIC beauty testing registration.

When you sign up for your test, you'll almost definitely need to create an online account with the provider and choose a test location and date.

Prov, Inc., which administers NIC tests in many states, created a video to help with scheduling an exam with them.

That said, you can expect a few commonalities shared by most states, regardless of test provider:

  • Provide your name and contact information
  • Submit your Social Security number or proof of citizenship or legal residency
  • Prove you've met educational requirements to sit for the test
  • Sign up for a testing date, time, and location online
  • Wait for an email confirming your test details
  • Read through the email and provide any other information requester

You may need to apply for your license simultaneously, allowing you to get going as soon as you pass the test. Otherwise, you apply afterward with proof of your passing scores.

What to Expect at Your NIC Test

Nearly every NIC exam occurs at a specific testing center, each of which has rules. You can find detailed information on the testing provider's website and your test's CIB.

In general, you want to arrive at least 30 minutes early so you have time to check in and get any last-minute information you need. There's a good chance someone at the testing center will have you empty your pockets and ask to check out your glasses, shirt sleeves, and lower part of your pants to ensure you aren't cheating. You also might go through a metal detector or have a detector wand used on you.

You'll likely be under video surveillance. You also may be asked to stand for a photo, and Prometric requires fingerprint scans.

Prometic created a video about what to expect when you get to one of their testing centers.

And Prov has one about what to expect during your test.

Break time policies vary by location. Breaks can usually last no longer than 10 minutes. If you go to your bag or other items during that time, you may need to go through a metal detection and clothing check again.

When you finish your test, tidy your area and collect all your belongings. Some states allow you to receive your test score immediately, while others make you wait.

Be sure to thank your examiner and the person at the reception desk. There's no requirement for this; it's just a nice thing to do!

What to Bring to a NIC Test — And What Not to Bring

NIC beauty testing locations are very strict about what you can and can't bring to your tests, so read the rules thoroughly for your specific location before you go.

Typically, you can bring:

  • Identification
  • Test registration details
  • Required testing materials (e.g., your student kit) and attire

Generally, you may not bring:

  • Bags
  • Electronic devices
  • Hats, scarves, or coats
  • Other people, including children
  • Test materials

Exceptions may be made if you have prearranged Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodations for your NIC test.

Remember that many testing centers don't have safe storage areas, and none provide child care.

NIC Testing and Language or Disability Accommodations

If you have a disability covered by the ADA, you can almost definitely get an accommodation with prior notice. If you speak English as an additional language, your state decides whether you can get help, use a translation dictionary, or take the test in a language other than English.

NIC tasks each testing site with the following ADA requirements: It advises locations to follow all ADA requirements. However, you can't walk in on the exam day and expect accommodations. Instead, you must ask your testing location for the accommodations at least a month in advance.

When it comes to English language learners, again, the state determines whether you can take your test in a language other than English. To avoid security breaches, NIC doesn't allow test-takers to bring in readers, dictionaries, or other language assistance. However, in some cases, the state may allow an approved assistant or dictionary to be present as opposed to one you supply yourself.

You can find an English-to-Korean, -Spanish, or -Vietnamese guide on the NIC site. This provides direct translations of words that may appear on a NIC test.

Cosmetology Theory CIB Example

NIC Exam

NIC Testing Resources

NIC Testing Exam Resources
NIC page for practice exams and exam overviews for purchase

NIC Candidate Information Bulletins
NIC page for accessing details about each test for free; many available in several languages

Aurie J. Gosnell Scholarship
Yearly scholarship in memory of the first appointed NIC president

NIC Events
Information about NIC's conferences, networking opportunities, and other events

Prov Practice Exams
Testing provider offers $39 practice NIC exams in cosmetology and nail technology

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