When I decided to apply for a Masters in Social Work, I was worried that my lack of experience would make me a weak applicant. I’ve spent the past several years as a journalist, writing about everything from breast cancer to beer halls. I had never been a caseworker or counselor, and I was nervous I would seem too green to an admissions committee.
But as I began to write my application essays, I realized that the opposite was true. I may not have had social work experience, but I did have years of talking with people—and understanding their perspectives—under my belt. I knew what it was like to come up against limitations. And, if nothing else, at least I can handle a high-pressure situation. By the end of the application process, I hadn’t just convinced a handful of admissions committees that I was the right fit for an MSW, I had also convinced myself.
Chances are, your less-than-conventional background is an asset, too. Here’s how to prove it in your application.
Did your current job open your eyes to inequality? Have you finally decided to put your people skills to better use? Are you interested in researching the ways we interact with one another, and how those interactions impact our emotional wellbeing? The more you know about why you want to study social work, the better. You should be able to articulate why you want to pursue an MSW, and how your experience informed or prompted that decision.
In my case, I learned through my writing career that I’m fascinated by the stories we share—how we describe ourselves and experiences and why, and how those stories shape our lives and the lives of those around us. I know this because I’ve interviewed hundreds of sources, helping them to tell their stories, and I can’t get enough. So I decided to take the next step, from extracting stories to really examining them, and in some cases, helping their tellers to rewrite them.
Maybe you’re passionate about social services or combatting inequality. Whatever it is, find it. Identify it. It doesn’t have to be a direct result of your current job, but you should be able to point to past experiences and explain what about them piqued your interest in an MSW.
As a writer, I’ve figured out what’s important in understanding a situation and what’s extraneous. I’ve learned how to find the right people to help me build a story, or solve a problem. I can handle a deadline. All of these traits are skills I’ve picked up as a journalist, and all of them make me a better MSW candidate.
If you’re working in marketing, then you know how to grab attention and make people listen. Currently teaching? Congratulations. You’ve mastered the art of distilling important information, and chances are you can read people pretty well. If you’ve always worked retail, or in the service industry, then you understand the importance of treating everyone with the respect they deserve.
Think back to the jobs you’ve held in the past—what’s been the takeaway? Even if they seemed like dead ends, at least you’ve learned persistence. Just because you haven’t used those skills in a social work setting doesn’t make them any less valid—to you, or to an admissions committee.
My background may have been in interviewing and writing, but I wanted to go deeper than that. After getting my MSW, I hope to go on to become a psychotherapist, working with people one-on-one. So that’s what I wrote: I explained that I wasn’t sure about the specifics (I’ve considered focusing on palliative care, but haven’t committed), and why that might actually be a good thing. Since I’m going in fresh, I’m open to any and all possibilities.
What do you hope to get out of an MSW? What do you plan to do with the knowledge you’ve gained? How will you use it to make the world—or your city, or community—a better place? Share that. Even if it feels naive, or short-sighted, it’s informed by your experiences.
Still unsure you have what it takes? Think back to when you began your first job. You applied, submitted your near-empty resume, and got the gig. Did you know everything you know now? Did you even know the basics? If you’re anything like me, the answer is no. But you got the job anyway, and then you figured things out. You made it work, pulling on lessons you’d learned in school, or from your parents, or your favorite childhood movie. Your past helped you to succeed—just as you will as a social work student.
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