Social Work

MSW Admissions 101: What Does it Take to Get into a Masters of Social Work Program?

MSW Admissions 101: What Does it Take to Get into a Masters of Social Work Program?
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Nedda Gilbert profile
Nedda Gilbert March 31, 2018

More than most graduate degree programs, the barriers to entry for a Masters in Social Work (MSW) are low. Said another way, one might consider admissions for social work programs to be more qualitative, open and well-rounded.

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Do you want to create lasting change? Are you an empath to almost critical degree? Have you ever found yourself speaking up for underserved people? If you’ve answered, “yes,” to all three, a career in social work may be the perfect fit. Sharaine Conner, who earned her master of social work (MSW) degree from the University of Iowa, explains why so many decide to go into social work: “In this field, I get to be a voice for all who cannot advocate for themselves. Making this world a better place one person at a time, is worth it.”

A career in social work calls that you enter people’s lives when they’re facing changes and challenges in their lives—such as illness, substance abuse disorder, or unemployment—with guidance and support to help ensure that their situations improve. If social work is calling you, then you’ll start by earning your bachelor’s degree. While you can go the social work route as an undergrad, you could also consider a related degree such as health and human services or sociology. From there, earning your MSW degree and your license will qualify you for more (and better paying) opportunities down the line.

If you’re considering applying to graduate school and earning a master’s degree, it’s important to understand the common MSW program requirements. You may already be well-prepared with everything an application will require, or you may need to do a little work to put a few additional pieces in place before you’re ready to apply. Which is we we come in.

I Want Details! What Is a Master of Social Work?

After earning a bachelor’s degree, an MSW degree is the next academic stage that will prepare you for a social work career. Many human services jobs will require that you have a MSW degree, and some positions may also require licensure. According to the Association of Social Work Boards, depending on the state in which you practice and the required license, you may need a MSW degree and additional supervised experience or clinical experience.

MSW coursework will cover many topics including research, human behavior, social work policy, among others. Additional coursework will depend on your specialization. Degree programs often offer a variety of specializations, including mental health, child welfare, substance abuse, and clinical social work. When you choose a particular specialization, you’ll take courses that will further develop your knowledge and experience within that niche.

According to PayScale , social workers who have their MSW make an average salary of $52,000. With a MSW degree, you can hold a variety of positions including the following, which are broken down by average annual salary.

  • School social worker: $47,791
  • Social worker: $47,833
  • Clinical social worker: $53,545
  • Non-profit program director: $60,340
  • Social services director: $60,488

With an MSW degree, you can work in settings including state and local government, education, health care, as well as in religious organizations. As for employment opportunities, there are plenty for social workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016 there were 682,100 social work jobs across the U.S. Those jobs are predicted to grow by 16% by 2026, which is more than twice as fast than the average growth for all occupations.

Of the growing social work fields, some specializations are predicted to grow faster than others. The demand for healthcare social workers will increase as the aging population and their families need assistance with health challenges and lifestyle changes. There will also be a continued need for mental health and substance abuse social workers as people seek treatment for drug abuse issues and in some cases, are sent to drug rehabilitation programs.

Below are three social work fields and their job outlook into 2026:

  • Mental health and substance abuse social workers: 19% growth to add 23,900 new jobs
  • Healthcare social workers: 20% growth to add 35,400 new jobs
  • Child, family, and school social workers: 14% growth to add 45,000 new jobs

In total, an additional 109,700 social work jobs should be added by 2026. This means promising employment opportunities for social workers. With the social work field expanding, now is an ideal time to pursue an MSW degree.

In most cases, it will take about two years to earn an MSW degree. A variety of factors can affect the amount of time that you will spend on your master’s degree, including the number of credit hours required by your program, whether you have transfer credits, and if you study full-time or part-time.

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“I Want to Be A Social Worker!”

There are a couple of significant practical considerations:

- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification

Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:

- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. (source)

A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. (source)

- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees

University and Program Name Learn More

Let’s Talk About MSW Program Requirements.

When compared to other competitive professional graduate programs (for example, psychology, business and law school), the barriers to entry for a MSW are relatively low. Admissions requirements for social work programs are more qualitative, open, and well-rounded, rather than heavily relying on criteria such as grades and scores.

This means good news for students who may not yet have top-tier grades and test scores, but who are hoping to be admitted to an MSW degree program. It works something like this: At the top schools, admissions into degree programs like graduate psychology or graduate business programs depends on applicants having top grades and test scores. And admissions will be fierce. These schools favor students with scores and grades within a certain range, using those numbers as admissions benchmarks.

But MSW programs take a different approach. The admissions process is holistic. It relies heavily on an applicant’s prior volunteer and work experiences, and importantly, their mindset and readiness for the degree. You won’t be denied admission because you failed to score in the 95th percentile on a standardized test.

While the below information on common MSW degree program requirements can give you an idea of what to expect, remember that every school creates its own set of admissions requirements for its programs. While the core admissions requirements will probably stay consistent from school to school, expect to see some variety in those stipulations, especially when it comes to GPA requirements, essay questions, letters of recommendations, and other specifics.

How Important Is a Bachelor of Social Work Degree, Anyway?

Many students applying for the MSW hold a bachelor of social work (BSW) degree. While the BSW is a worthwhile degree to have, it is not required when it comes to getting into a MSW program. The value of a BSW degree is that it demonstrates to the school you are committed to the field. You’ll also be able to use your bachelor’s degree to secure applicable work experience, such as roles in community outreach, case management, and behavioral management. The greater value may be that it qualifies you for advanced standing in the admissions process.

Depending on the program you apply to, the BSW degree may allow you to matriculate into an advanced standing program and earn the MSW degree in just one year, since your prior academic coursework and field work experiences may meet some of the graduation requirements for the MSW degree. This will put you on a fast track. MSW programs that offer advanced standing include
Boston University
, Columbia University, Simmons College, and many more.

Most Applicants Hold an Undergrad Degree in the Humanities.

While you won’t need a BSW degree to be admitted to a MSW program, you do need some sort of a BA or BS degree. Interestingly, the majority of students who apply for graduate social work come from a liberal arts background. You do not need to have pursued an undergraduate major that’s specific to the human services field. That BA in anthropology will not hold you back, nor disadvantage you when you apply to a MSW program.

What About Gpa and Standardized Tests? Do I Have to Take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE)? And what the Heck Is Probationary Admission?

The majority of social work schools don’t require the GRE or any standardized test, which is a relatively novel development in the world of social work masters programs.

As for your grades, they matter, but only to a certain point. Generally anything from a 3.0 GPA and higher will put you in good standing with most schools. That 3.0 (B average) seems to be the magic cut-off for admissions. This is not to say that great grades are not helpful. Depending on the school, a high GPA could give you an advantage.

But a low GPA – below that 3.0 – could be problematic. This is where your GPA may intersect with the need for the GRE, since some MSW programs require you take the GRE if your GPA is below a 3.0. You will need to do your homework to determine how your GPA may be weighted at a particular school.

In some cases, schools may be willing to admit students who have a low GPA on a probationary period. Students admitted on probation are given a predetermined amount of time to earn acceptable grades in the program and prove that they have the skills, knowledge, and capability to successfully complete the degree. If you are confident that you can earn good grades in the MSW program, then you may want to inquire about whether a school offers probationary admission.

Any Other Requirements I’m Missing?

Because the admissions process for MSW programs is more holistic, your prior work and volunteer experiences will be one of the most important parts of your application. You will also need to submit an essay or two—and how good are you on camera? Some schools are now asking for brief video introductory statements with your application. Depending on the school, you may be asked for an in-person or video interview.

Many schools require MSW program applicants to submit at least two letters of recommendation. In most cases, schools require that these letters be from a current or former professor or supervisor. Although it’s helpful to submit an application with a solid GPA from your undergrad institution, your maturity, passion, and prior experiences will likely matter more.

What Really Matters to MSW Admissions?

More than anything, your readiness for the MSW program is the most important aspect of your application. How do admissions officers define readiness? They consider your emotional and social readiness, your level of maturity, and how well your current lifestyle can accommodate the demands of the degree.

Taking on a MSW and becoming a social worker is not for the faint of heart. The schools weighing whether you are an appropriate candidate for their program will screen for this. One of their primary concerns will be, are you ready? Do you have what it takes? What is your mindset in choosing this profession? Why are you seeking this degree?

A cornerstone of the graduate experience is a two-year fieldwork experience. Many MSW students are poorly prepared for the impact and time investment of a 3-4 day a week fieldwork job in addition to schoolwork. You can use your essays and personal statements to convey your maturity, your preparedness, and your capability to handle the demands of a MSW program.

Some MSW students are inspired to seek the degree because of their own experience with adversity. While this may not automatically disqualify you from being admitted, you should approach this topic with caution. If you are pursuing a social work degree in part to solve your own issues—or in lieu of psychotherapy—you’ll raise red flags. There is a fine line between being inspired to help others because of your own life experiences, and attending school for the purpose of figuring your life out.

Some applicants to MSW programs present this way and reduce their chances of being admitted. Schools want future MSWs who are compassionate and sensitive, but also mentally healthy. They want applicants who understand their job will be to serve others. Importantly, they want students who will engage classroom learning appropriately and identify with the professionalism of the degree.

Because of this, any applicant to a MSW program should use the essays and interview to communicate a level of readiness emotionally and professionally, as well as the ability to adapt to the program with their current lifestyle. If you are unsure of how a third party may interpret your essays, ask your current professors, a mentor, or even an employer to read your essays and give you some feedback.

Tell Me About the Best MSW Degree Programs.

The above information on MSW degree admissions requirements will vary from program to program. If you’re considering earning a MSW degree, then the best way to understand what requirements you’ll need to meet is to identify the programs that you’re interested in and review their admissions requirements. But where do you start?

If you’re looking to identify the top MSW schools, then yes, MSW programs are ranked. But it’s also important to take the MSW rankings for what they are: a limited yardstick of measurement. The jockeying that goes on for a top spot in a ranking is less important in this process than zeroing in on a MSW program that will offer you the expertise you need for your career. Location should matter as well because it will impact your fieldwork assignment.

Think about finding and getting into a MSW program in this way. The number one MSW program is just the number one for you – because it will get you the training you need. MSW admissions officers understand the importance of matching your interests to a school’s offerings. Make this clear in your application, and you will benefit from an admissions process that is more personal and evaluative.

Okay, so How Do I Choose the Best One for Me?

Finding the social work program that’s right for you will require some thought about your goals and what you’re looking for in a school. The program that’s consistently ranked among the best MSW programs won’t be good fit for you if it’s in the wrong location, doesn’t have the specialization you’re looking for, or is lacking in appropriate field placement opportunities. Consider the following factors when researching and evaluating MSW programs.

Program Accreditation:
While it is possible to find human services positions that do not require a social work license, if you suspect that you may ever want to get your license, you should consider this when you choose your MSW program. According to the Association of Social Work Boards, most regulatory boards require that you must earn a degree from a social work program that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency. The Council on Social Work Education and Canadian Association for Social Work Education are two such agencies.

Because of this accreditation requirement, you should verify that any program you are considering is fully accredited by one of the above associations. Even if you do not plan to pursue a license, a degree from a non-accredited institution may not carry the same weight with employers that an accredited program would.

Program Length:
Most MSW programs can be completed in two years, but the exact length will vary from program to program. You should clarify the number of credit hours required by each program, and, if you will need them, find out if part-time study options are available. If you have existing graduate credits from another institution, it’s best to contact the program you’re considering to find out how many of those credits can transfer over.

According to The New Social Worker, the Council on Social Work Education requires that MSW students complete the program within four years, so even if you plan on a part-time study plan, you should be prepared to complete the program by that deadline.

Delivery Format:
Many graduate schools realize that MSW students need to balance work or family obligations with school, so graduate classes are often offered at nights or on weekends. Some schools may offer part or all of their MSW programs online, giving you additional scheduling flexibility. Schools that offer summer semesters or accelerated study plans can help you to quickly progress through the degree. Another perk? Completing your degree in less time can also offer financial savings over a more extended course of study.

Specializations Offered:
Depending on your professional interests and goals, you may want to pursue a particular specialization or concentration. Many schools offer at least two specialization or concentration options, so look for a social work program that offers the field that you want to focus on. Common specializations include:

  • Mental health
  • Clinical social work
  • Children, youth, and families
  • Aging and their families
  • School settings
  • Occupational social work
  • Social program administration
  • Social work services in health

Remember how particular social work fields are projected to grow quickly, like healthcare and mental health and substance abuse? If it suits your career goals, choosing a relevant specialization could be a strategic move.

Field Placement Opportunities:
The field placement component of a MSW degree program is particularly important, not just for your own experience, but also as an addition to your resume. Potential employers will certainly want to see that you have relevant and quality real-world experience, and a field placement offers a valuable opportunity to gain exactly that.

Finding the ideal placement opportunities for you is simple. Ask about the availability of field placements through any program that you’re considering. Find out what types of placements are offered, and make sure that the placements will help to prepare you for your career goals.

Location:
For students headed to a campus for their MSW degree, school location will impact your life for the next two years, so it’s important to look for a school in a location where you’ll enjoy living. If you can find a school in the area where you plan to practice after graduating, you may be able to network and establish valuable relationships that can help you to find a job. Your fieldwork may also lead to employment opportunities, so even if you don’t plan on staying in the area after graduation, a good employment offer may change those plans.

In addition to considering school location, you’ll want to think about the cost of living in the area. How will you cover your housing and other costs during school? City-based schools may be appealing, but it’s much more expensive to live in urban areas than in more rural settings. You may need to find a roommate to help keep the cost of living manageable. Some schools may offer on-campus housing for graduate students, which may be more affordable than traditional housing options.

Program Cost and Available Financial Aid:
The overall cost of getting a MSW degree varies between programs. When calculating the cost of a school, don’t forget to account for your housing costs, especially if you’ll be living off-campus.

Most schools offer a variety of ways to help you pay for your degree. If you’re interested in a particular school, contact a financial aid counselor and find out what options are available, such as:

  • Grants
  • Loans
  • Scholarships
  • Work study
  • Teaching assistantships
  • Research assistantships
  • And more

Some schools fund scholarships specifically for MSW students. In addition, you should inquire about any available payment plans that make financing your degree as easy as possible.

Success of Previous MSW Students:
Here, we recommend that you look for information about the overall success of a MSW program’s students, whether asking students themselves, admissions, or doing research online. Inquire about the types of jobs that the program’s graduates are getting, as well as the average amount of time that it takes graduates to get a job after graduating. The number of program graduates who successfully pass their licensure test on the first try can also indicate the quality of the program and how well it prepares students for the social work field.

Online MSW Programs:
At first glance, an online MSW program may seem like an ideal option. Fully online degrees require little to no travel to campus, meaning you can consider schools across the country without having to give thought relocating. Hybrid degrees, which combine online learning with on-campus sessions, also offer more scheduling flexibility and convenience than traditional programs provide.

A cohort structure can be a valuable part of your online education. Many programs are designed so that students enter and progress through the degree in set groups. With this format, you’ll get to know your peers and be a member of a supportive group of students throughout your entire education. If a program uses synchronous (or pre-scheduled) courses, you’ll have chances to interact with your peers, and may also work together on group projects.

Online study isn’t without its downfalls, so it’s important to consider whether an online MSW degree is the right option for you and your career. Many online programs require you to find your own field placement, which can be a challenging and time-consuming undertaking. You may also experience less flexibility in terms of when you can take electives because of the cohort structure of many online programs.

Online MSW programs can offer many benefits, but some online programs have less structure than in-person traditional programs. This means that while you have the ability to work at your own pace as your schedule allows, you will need to be self-disciplined enough to log in regularly and consistently complete your coursework.

So, Is This Right for You?

The social work profession requires maturity, tenacity, and resourcefulness. Picking the right school and demonstrating your readiness will go a long way toward winning admission to your preferred program—and with those those skills in your pocket, you’ll be ready to launch a truly successful career.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Author

Ms. Nedda Gilbert is a seasoned clinical social worker, author, and educational consultant with 25 years of experience helping college-bound and graduate students find their ideal schools. She is a prolific author, including The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and Essays that Made a Difference. Ms. Gilbert has been a guest writer for Forbes and a sought-after keynote speaker on college admissions. Previously, she played a crucial role at the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company and was Chairman of the Board of Graduate Philadelphia. Ms. Gilbert holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University and is a certified interdisciplinary collaborative family law professional in New Jersey.

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

To learn more about our editorial standards, you can click here.


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