Here's a simple conclusion from a blog-post long answer on the subject at dictionary.com:
Sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters, while empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another.You might see this on the exam as a "which statement exemplifies the use of empathy"-type question. Watch out for distractors that involve sympathy, mirroring, congruence, or some other clinician behavior that isn't empathy.
Whether or not an empathy question comes up in the exam, it'll come up every day and every way in social work practice. Check with yourself: Are you expressing sympathy with clients at the expense of empathy. Sympathy has its place, of course. But expressing authentic empathy is the bread and the butter of good social work practice.
For more on the topic, try:
- Mincing Words: Empathy and Sympathy (NASW-DC)
- Breaking Boundaries with Empathy (New Social Worker)
- Can Social Work Students Learn Empathy? (Social Work Today)
Good luck on the exam!