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Passing State Nail Exams

I’ve written a lot about what it’s like to go to nail school. I’ve graduated from nail school, and have passed my Colorado State exams – I am now officially licensed as a manicurist! I have a few more posts planned about nail school related things. Today I’m going to share what my licensure experience was like! A caveat: official testing varies by state (and widely differs by country), so my experience in Colorado may be different than what somebody in another state goes through to become licensed.

manicurist exam

Practical Examination

In Colorado, nail students must complete 600 hours of education before they are eligible to begin their testing. Once you’ve officially graduated and receive all the necessary paperwork from your school, you can sign up to take the practical exam. The exam is administered by PSI, a national testing company.

There are VERY specific guidelines about what the test will be like, in two regards:

Testing Kit

The practical exam covers specific procedures, and therefore what you can bring into the testing area is also very carefully specified. The main concern with testing is to demonstrate that you understand disinfection and safety procedures, so even though everything you do falls somewhere in between mock  and real, you have to show that all your tools have been disinfected. This means you have to bring your own trash bag and throw everything away once you’re done using it. In truth, this is kind of strange, because some of the stuff you “throw away” isn’t really trash, and you have to fish it out after the test is done! It also means that everything in your kit has to be in plastic bags, labelled “sanitized.” I had everything I needed for each section in its own little bag. For example, for the manicure section, my bag had a cuticle pusher, polish remover, base coat, top coat, polish, a little container of soapy water, nail clipper, nail file, and cotton. After the manicure section was over, I dumped the entire baggy’s worth of stuff into the trash. The other thing I did a lot of was disinfect my space – I brought a roll of paper towels and a spray bottle of disinfectant, and I wiped down my table after every step.

I also needed to bring was a mannequin hand, already prepped. This means that it has to have nail tips glued to each vinyl finger that act as the natural nail. So during the tip application section of the exam, I actually glued a tip onto a tip (since the first tip was the pretend natural nail)! I ended up bringing two mannequin hands with me, just to make sure that if I royally messed up I would have another hand to work on. manicurist exam kit

This is picture of what my kit looked like before the exam – you can see the vinyl hands, a clamp that I used to attach the hand to the table, and the plastic baggies with each service’s tools. The kit was enough stuff to fit in a small rolling suitcase, though there were people at the testing site with large plastic containers that fit everything they needed.

Last thing on the kits: I ended up renting a kit! I was in the middle of moving, and my entire apartment was a huge mess. It ended up being about a million times easier to rent a kit, with everything all set up. I spent some time going through and familiarizing myself with everything. It ended up being a total time saver, though it did cost about $50 to rent.


Testing Procedures

I was so completely nervous during my test. Oh my gosh, I was just one giant, raw nerve.

The testing company provides each candidate with a booklet of procedures. There are three separate exam forms, which they change in order to prevent cheating. This basically means that the order in which you do different services changes, as well as there being a few different combinations of services. Each section is clearly marked with specific steps you have to do – and you get 1 point for each item in the list. You do get some points for things like setting up your station, sanitizing your station, closing your trash container, etc.

There are several exam proctors in the room at the same time. One person administered the exam – she was in charge of all the time keeping and other admin tasks. There were also two people who walked around the room with clipboards, checking each station and each person as they went through the test. This was kind of scary – imagine somebody judging your work, leaning over your shoulder, and touching your acrylic nail to see how smooth your application was!

Written Examination

The written exam was done on a computer. It was 72 multiple choice questions, and I was given two hours to finish the test. If you want to know the truth, the entire thing only took about 20 minutes. Of course I double checked everything, but I found it to be a really easy test. Although I tried to study up on anatomy, biology, and all that science stuff, the exam really focused on sanitation and safety regulations. There were some questions about specific nail services and diseases, as well. I’m a good test taker, generally – so for some people, this may be more difficult.

Tips for your written and practical exams

Written exam:

  • Keep up with reading as you go along in your course. Having a baseline understanding of everything is so helpful before you start to review!
  • Don’t cram – that just adds a world of stress! Instead, make a study schedule for yourself.
  • There are lots of online tools, including flash card sites! Some of them even have manicurist terms loaded already.

Practical exam:

  • Organize your kit in a way that makes sense. If you’re renting a kit, be sure to familiarize yourself with the contents!
  • Memorize the procedures in the correct order, so you can develop a rhythm and feel comfortable.
  • Run through the scenarios a few times to make sure your timing is right!

Share this article

  • First, congrats again on passing! This was so interesting to read, seems like there is definitely a LOT that goes into it! I have to say though, the fake hands creep me out!!

    • The Dalai Lama’s Nails

      The fake hand (I call her Diana) IS SO WEIRD. But I also kind of love her.

  • I loved reading your series, and this is such a great informative post. You’ll be helping a lot of people who might stumble across this. I’m with Kirby though, those fake hands freak me the eff out!! LOL 😛

    • The Dalai Lama’s Nails

      Thank you! I know, definitely weird.

  • Seriously congrats on being all licensed and ready to rock! The exam process sounds maddening, but I’m glad you were able to rent a good kit!

    • The Dalai Lama’s Nails

      There was a ton of rigamarole, but I’m glad I made it through!

  • Congrats on passing your exam and becoming a licensed manicurist! How exciting. It was so helpful to learn what the exams entailed too.

    • The Dalai Lama’s Nails

      I’m glad it was helpful!

  • Again congrats on passing! I think the process is more detailed in Co than her in Mn. At least from comments I’ve gotten from friends in the industry. Makes me a little leery about going to salons here.

    • The Dalai Lama’s Nails

      It definitely may be – some states require fewer hours at school and have easier tests!

  • TKny

    Imagine, 600 hours is four months of full-time work and you do what you are REALLY interested in now that you passed! It’s just great for you and I wish you every success. Who knows, maybe you are the next Estee Lauder?

    • The Dalai Lama’s Nails

      ohhh la la – maybe!

  • Amber

    Congrats on passing!! So happy for you! 🙂

    • The Dalai Lama’s Nails


  • Congrats! This was such an informative post!

    • The Dalai Lama’s Nails

      I’m glad you enjoyed 🙂

  • Yay – congrats on finishing & passing! It’s been really interesting to see what goes into getting licensed!

    • The Dalai Lama’s Nails

      I’m so glad you found it interesting!

  • Novita Erasma

    Thanks for sharing your experience and everything that you had to do to finally become a manicurist. It bugs me whenever people say ‘oh you should do nails’, uhm, just because I can paint my own nails doesn’t mean I can do others, there are steps to take! (rant over) lol.

    • The Dalai Lama’s Nails

      I know – so true! You’re preaching to the choir 🙂

  • Congratulations! I hope you’ll share client manis with us. I always say when I’m fed up with social work I’m going to go to nail school so I enjoyed this series very much 🙂

  • Thank you so much for sharing – and congratulations, again!

  • This is so interesting! I’ve considered going to school to be an esthetician here in Gainesville since I moved but the whole things seems terrifying! Congratulations on passing!

  • Yay congrats! Very cool Hannah! I hafta say, those disembodied hands creep me out HAHA 😉

  • Congrats again! I agree with everybody else about Diana’s being quite creepy!

  • Congrats on passing!! I love reading these posts. I would have been so nervous taking the tests haha!

  • Congrats again! Such an informative post! If I didn’t have to touch feet I would be all for going to school to do nails!

  • Congrats Hannah! Gah, that is a ton of work! You are amazing for getting through it!

  • Wow, congratulations! That is really interesting. The fake hands are a little weird, like those fake fingers I see sometimes. You are licensed though! That is sweet!

  • Lothwen Akira

    Congratulations!!!!!!!!!!!! I loved reading this, I might do it in the future… *DREAM*

    • Lothwen Akira

      And by “it” I meant “becoming a licensed nail tech” 🙂

  • Jennifer Channell

    Congrats!! One day I’m going to need those hands. I totally want to go to school to be a manicurist. It’s a goal of mine.