Chances are you're interested in becoming a social worker because you have a deep-rooted desire to help people. This drive, and a bit of research, might lead you to the conclusion that your best bet at both career advancement and better pay in social work is to pursue your Master of Social Work (MSW).
While completing a social work master’s is not a guarantee that you'll receive a bigger paycheck, it will create more job opportunities and place you in a higher salary bracket than candidates with only a bachelor's degree. As always, you'll need to do your own calculations to determine if the investment of both time and money toward your social work degree is worth it—and decide if you want to study online or in-person, and full- or part-time.
While your heart is set on improving people’s lives as a social worker, it is important to ascertain the likelihood of your being accepted to the best graduate school for your area of concentration. In this article, we'll look at what a social work master’s is, how long it takes to earn this degree, the admissions process and requirements, figuring out your odds of admission, and what to do if your plan to pursue your MSW at your ideal school doesn’t pan out.
The Master of Social Work is segmented into three main areas of concentration: micro, macro,or mezzo. While coursework in any of these areas will overlap, you will need to decide which type of social work you are interested in practicing. Each has a particular set of goals and populations/institutions they serve, and determining your own career goals will help you choose the course of study that is right for you.
Micro social work focuses on one-on-one or family group work, and is for social workers who have strong interpersonal skills and seek direct interaction with clients. Social workers in this area will work with individuals in school, hospital, and other institutional settings, providing social services, mental health evaluations, and counseling to students, patients, or employees. They may provide support to patients being readied for discharge from a hospital, family counseling in courthouses, substance abuse counseling for homeless populations, or child welfare support for incarcerated parents.
Macro level social workers provide guidance and framework for a wider focus on social welfare. This large-scale approach can help shape government social policy and community support systems, and advocate for at-risk communities. This type of work helps influence how government institutions can meet the needs of specific populations, and can set standards for how policy is implemented.
The mezzo focus of social work exists in the intersection between macro and micro, mixing work with individuals as well as the institutions that serve their communities. This type of social work might include collaboration with religious organizations within a city, or in the shelter system of a community, or within a school district to help ensure that the individual needs of people within the larger systems of care are met.
In all three areas of concentration, coursework will overlap, giving you a comprehensive overview of the impact of social work on society. For example, the online MSW program at Tulane includes classes in human behavior, public policy, community organization, clinical-community practice, program evaluation, and a focus on data analysis and interpretation. All of their MSW students participate in internships, or a field practicum in order to graduate, and will clock many hours in practice as well as in theory. Field education will be one of the most important aspects of your training in preparing to become a social worker, and will help you determine the direction and focus of your work.
As in any field that works closely with health and welfare systems, the coursework for future licensure in the US must be from a graduate school of social work approved and overseen by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).
So, how do you see yourself making a difference? Take some time to picture yourself in your future role as a social worker. What are you most concerned and passionate about? Will you be most comfortable working one-on-one with women and children in the shelter system, or do you see yourself setting fair and compassionate policy for veterans and military personnel? With the pressures and demands that very clearly define this type of work and study, figuring out your ideal role in social work will help you plan and prepare for a satisfying and lasting career.
Typically, an MSW degree can be obtained in two years of full time study, in combination with a field practicum. As a degree candidate, you should think about whether you are interested in following this traditional approach, or if you'd like to enroll in a part-time course of study because of work or other obligations. You also could choose an online MSW program, which can provide even greater flexibility. For instance, Virginia Commonwealth University offers a competitive program with three different start dates and field placements close to where you live, and ranks as one of the top social work programs in the US.
So, how do you successfully navigate the MSW application process? It’s important to carefully customize each application you submit, as every graduate school has its own requirements and seeks specific qualities in their candidates. It’s essential that you underscore how your experience and educational/career goals relate to—and align with—that particular program’s focus and mission.
Let's look at some of the key MSW admissions requirements and how they will impact your chances on being accepted to your program of choice:
It is not necessary to obtain your Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) before applying to an MSW program. In fact, graduate schools welcome applicants with bachelor's degrees from a broad range of concentrations in the liberal arts. However, if you did earn a BSW, it will give you advanced standing and may accelerate your MSW course of study, allowing you to complete your degree program in one year instead of two, as you’ve already done field work and logged practicum hours (and a BSW demonstrates your dedication to the field of social work to an admissions counselor).
A solid undergraduate GPA will certainly bolster your application—but if your GPA was lower than a 3.0, you may need to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) to help nullify less-than-stellar undergrad grades. Not all schools will require this, so the GRE may be optional, but those that do will most likely want to see a current result (only a few years prior to the application date) and scores within an accepted range. The GRE will test you in verbal reasoning (your score should be between 158-170), analytic writing (4.5-6), and quantitative reasoning (159-170).
Presenting a compelling and well-organized resume or CV is a critical piece of your application, as it’s an opportunity for you to list all of the accomplishments and relevant experience that make you a strong candidate for a school’s program. Of course, you'll want to list your professional and volunteer work experience in the field to demonstrate your readiness for the program—and be sure to include any special skills you've acquired, accolades or honors you’ve earned, and all of your professional social work affiliations. Be sure to edit your resume/CV for each application, so wherever possible it clearly relates to each program’s focus and mission.
Depending on the school, you may be asked to provide up to three letters of recommendation as part of your application, which will help the admissions officers to determine your readiness and fit for their program. Tulane requires a minimum of two letters from professors or advisors in your major, or one from a supervisor or employer if you are currently working in human services. Letters should always be of a professional nature, and not written by a friend, family member, or a therapist. To provide proper context, the letter should describe how the writer knows you and in what capacity.
These letters are an excellent way to provide the schools with more information about you and how you work with others in the field—and if you excel in certain areas of study or practice. Make sure to give your professors and employers plenty of time to meet the application deadline, and let them know your goals for the program. The admissions office will provide you with a link to pass along to your references, so they can send their letters directly to the admissions office.
While each school will have their own guidelines and prompts, the primary purpose of the personal statement is to give you an opportunity to convey what you want the admissions office to know about you. What experiences—professional or otherwise—inspired you to pursue a masters in social work? What are your strengths in this field (and what perceived weaknesses do you seek to improve)? What do you hope to accomplish in your social work career? How will your course of study in this particular program help you achieve your professional goals? In what ways can you illustrate your resourcefulness and grit? Keep your essay subjective with specific and compelling examples of the points you want to make (people remember well-told or unusual stories!), and be sure that your essay ties into that program's priorities and mission.
Applicants who are from non-English speaking nations and have not completed a bachelor's degree or higher in an exclusively English-speaking program may need to provide test scores from either Test of English as a Foriegn Language (TOEFL) or International English Language Testing Systems (IELTS). NYU's Silver School of Social Work lays out the details for any international student applying, with specific test score ranges accepted. Make sure that you are able to supply the necessary test results and data specific to the schools you are applying to by their application deadline, as testing and reporting scores may take additional time to procure.
When admissions teams are able to combine all of an applicant’s quantitative data like test scores and a student's undergraduate GPA with more qualitative indicators like their work experience and letters of recommendation, a clearer and more complete picture of each student emerges. An applicant’s personal statement and interview responses are much better indicators of their capacity for empathy, critical thinking and communication skills, resourcefulness, tenacity, and other qualities critical to an impactful career in social work. The holistic admissions process fosters greater equity in the application process by not solely relying on test score thresholds/cut-offs and giving greater weight to a more varied and comprehensive means of evaluation that helps more fully gauge an applicant's experience, readiness, fit, and potential.
Many undergrad and graduate schools are adopting holistic admissions practices. The Graduate School at the University of Washington has a comprehensive guide for faculty and staff training called Promising Practices which seeks to "develop an admission review rubric that reflects departmental values, and discuss the rubric with review committee members to achieve a shared understanding of department/program mission, focus, and diversity, inclusion, and equity."
So, how do you predict your odds of being admitted to a particular MSW program? Talk to people in the admissions office and make more than one call to ask questions (they like to see your demonstrated interest in their program and it helps support your application!). Admissions counselors are there for more than just processing your application fee and discussing financial aid. They’re the team who make the decisions about the make-up of the graduate student body. So, ask about their classes and other aspects of their program that attracted you to their school, or about any challenges you’re having with your application. Cultivate a relationship with people in the admissions office and show your enthusiasm for this program while having your questions answered. This will allow you to better understand their criteria for admission and the qualities they’re seeking in their admitted students—and to help you realistically assess whether you’re a strong candidate for their program or not.
Then spend some time looking up both the acceptance rate and yield rate for the schools you're applying to. These can be found in the rankings of U.S. News' Best Social Work Programs or in the FAQ section of the program’s website. This bit of research will help you determine your likelihood of acceptance, particularly as you sort out which schools are aspirational/long-shot "reach schools" from those that are a better fit with you and your qualifications.
Sometimes, despite your best effort, you might receive some bad news back from your top pick, or that school in a city you had hoped to relocate to. Receiving a rejection letter will feel awful at first, but it’s also an opportunity to re-evaluate your expectations (were they realistic?), check your readiness for enrolling in an intensely rigorous program (do you have the time to devote to your studies?), and can even help you narrow the list of schools you were considering.
Remember that social work is a field that demands social and emotional fitness, maturity, determination, and commitment (you will be practicing under a code of ethics that requires fidelity to cultural competency, privacy and confidentiality, and strict moral conduct in order to safely and ethically serve clients)—and that graduate schools are looking for applicants who they believe are right for their particular program. They want their students to be successful in their studies, and then embark on long and productive careers.
So, take a moment to reflect: Is this the right career for you? What is your motivation for pursuing a career in social work? Have you accumulated enough related experience in this field to earn a spot studying for this advanced degree? Maybe you are a better fit with the macro-level focus of social work than the micro, and would be better at writing policy focusing on social justice than working one-on-one with clients. Or perhaps you just need a little more time to gain additional work experience before applying again.
If your thoughts and conclusions about that rejection letter leave you more determined than ever to find the right school and move ahead with your educational and career goals, congratulations! You clearly have the drive and focus you’ll need to achieve! So, take some time to process the feedback you've received and then begin to design a new approach that will play to your strengths as an MSW applicant, help reach your educational objectives, and set you on a path to professional success!
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