If you’re a champion for social change, think with your heart as much as your head, or passionately advocate for those who can’t always advocate for themselves, you may be interested in a social work career. If so, you’re not alone. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), over 700,000 social workers practiced in the US in 2019. And, that number is expected to grow 13 percent—more than three times the growth rate of the overall US job market—by 2029.
Maybe you’re already a social worker, one who’s ready to step into a position of leadership, increase your earnings potential, or simply renew your sense of purpose. Or, maybe you’re working in a different field but ready for a change.
Either way, a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is a smart move. Many states require this credential to obtain a social work license, and all require it to earn licensure as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).
Whatever your reasons, you’ll need to know how to get into grad school. While some master’s in social work programs may have more competitive admissions processes than others, all generally use the same criteria to evaluate applicants. But what they often neglect to emphasize is that particular personal qualities can help prepare students for the challenges of graduate school—and equip them to thrive in the long run.
So, what are the requirements for getting a social work master’s degree? We’ll answer that by covering:
MSW admissions requirements
Unofficial MSW requirements
Can you get an MSW online?
The MSW application process mirrors that of graduate school programs in general, with admission requirements covering essays, official transcripts, and specific standardized test scores, among other criteria.
All social work master’s degree programs require a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. Proof of education requires students to submit official transcripts from all previously attended higher education institutions, with undergraduate records highlighting enrollment history, credits earned and attempted, and grade point average (GPA).
Those who apply to traditional standing MSW programs come from a variety of academic fields. Your undergraduate major helps determine whether you must complete foundational courses before commencing graduate study. If you earned a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) from an institution with Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accreditation, you should qualify for advanced standing admission. All other students enter with traditional standing, which requires the completion of foundational coursework in entry-level social work practice methods and research, theories, policy, and advocacy.
How long does it all take? Expect to commit two years of full-time study to complete a traditional MSW program or up to five years of part-time study. Advanced standing students, who may skip the foundational coursework (because they completed equivalent courses as undergraduates), can finish in about half that time. All students—traditional and advanced standing—complete courses in advanced clinical practice, advanced research methods, and various topics related to a student’s desired specialization or area of work or after graduation. They must also complete a field placement.
Some MSW degree programs also request an official Graduate Record Exam (GRE) score. This three-part standardized exam includes sections on analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning.
Some schools do not require GRE scores. Others recommend that prospective graduate students submit them to support their candidacy for specific scholarships or fellowships but otherwise do not require them. Some waive the requirement for applicants with a high undergraduate GPA requirement or those who possess a master’s degree or significant professional experience in social work.
Programs vary in the amount of work experience they require of prospective students. Some accept candidates fresh out of undergraduate programs. Others prefer a few years of work experience or volunteer experience with human services or social welfare organizations.
Regardless of background, all applicants must submit a copy of their resume highlighting their accomplishments, educational credentials, and experiences that showcase their unique abilities.
Letters of recommendation are another key component of the admissions process—and should be secured well before the application deadline. Most programs require students to include two to three with their application, whether from recent employers or supervisors with whom they have worked within social work, human services, health care, or a related industry or professors or instructors who can evaluate their potential in the field.
An admissions essay—sometimes called a personal statement—is another crucial component of MSW applications. This document is not only intended to highlight a prospective student’s ability to write a clear, coherent essay but to paint a more holistic portrait of themselves, their values, and their background than their resume, GPA, and GRE can.
Some schools leave the personal statement section open-ended, allowing applicants to write about whatever they feel appropriate and helpful to the admissions committee. Others provide specific prompts, usually asking candidates to identify what inspired them to work in the profession, describe traits and abilities that make them particularly suited for a career in the field, or explain why their school would benefit from the student’s presence. Some schools require multiple essays.
Applicants whose first language is not English must typically submit scores for either the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the academic modules of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). Some schools may also accept Duolingo English Test scores as an alternative to TOEFL and IELTS.
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. ( )
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. ( )
- 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
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Now that we’ve covered the “hard requirements” of the MSW application process, let’s take a look at the soft skills and intangible traits that can help students achieve success in graduate school and throughout their social work careers.
It’s important to note the distinction between empathy and compassion, as it can significantly affect social workers’ well-being. When we mentally and emotionally place ourselves in another person’s position to understand their situation, we’re practicing empathy or employing what’s often referred to as a “mirroring system.” Research notes that those who frequently feel the emotions of others through empathy can experience adverse effects, including decreased helping behavior—and of course, burnout.
Compassion, however, employs a different region of the brain than empathy. Instead of prompting us to feel what others feel, it uses a degree of rational deliberation to enable us to analyze, reflect, and improve on our decisions to help. For social workers, in particular, this allows for considering the goals, boundaries, benefits, and potential effectiveness of various means of care. And because compassion is intentional and solutions-focused, it is therapeutic rather than draining.
Staying organized can be difficult for social workers, who may juggle case management, training sessions, client meetings, and obligatory record-keeping on a given day. Whether through detailed spreadsheets or the classic to-do list, organization skills allow social workers to stay on top of their professional responsibilities and protect their work-life balance. It’s also crucial for staying on top of clients’ needs.
We’ve all met someone who never gives up and never stops trying, someone who does whatever’s required to accomplish a goal. That person is tenacious, a quality that’s imperative in the face of imperfect systems and inadequate funding, slow progress, and outright resistance. And so often, it’s grounded in a commitment to serve vulnerable individuals, families, and communities while dealing with the unpredictable. It usually requires other skills—patience, creativity, and analytical thinking—to buoy progress and achieve goals. Social workers understand this and have the uncanny ability to adapt and adjust quickly, even in the face of extraordinary circumstances that can make already tricky roles even more challenging.
Social workers are problem solvers, and that requires resourcefulness. This often means turning over as many stones as possible, whether by getting funding from nonprofit foundations and municipal and state agencies or leveraging an existing resource, like a volunteer network of health care professionals, lawyers, or community leadership professionals.
Remaining open-minded to new possibilities is critical to putting resourcefulness into action. Resourceful social workers may also take on projects or caseloads that require them to stretch outside their comfort zones and develop a willingness to constantly improve, learn new things, and keep current with the ongoings of their industry.
Curiosity has been recognized as an essential social work skill for many years, one that researchers note “can be used to manage risk, develop the therapeutic alliance, and facilitate knowledge building.” It requires the capacity and communication skills to explore, challenge, and understand what is happening within a given situation rather than making assumptions or accepting things at face value.
A sense of curiosity is especially crucial for social workers who work directly with vulnerable people in crisis. Social workers who conduct in-home interviews or other types of visitations, for example, need an ability to recognize potential client risks and opportunities for enquiring deeper and a willingness to ask questions and seek clarity.
Workplace versatility is associated with being good at, or familiar with, many things—or the ability to wear many hats. In social work, versatility may come up at times of significant organizational change or restructuring, such as when a new director or agency manager comes on board or a change of government leads to decreases in funding for social services.
In social work practice, versatility can also maximize the ability to recognize differences in client communication preferences and to adapt to make others more open and receptive. This can help create more effective and productive relationships with those they serve and maximize their effectiveness on the job.
Whether you’re a mental health social worker strategizing with psychologists, therapists, and counselors, or a government-appointed social worker developing standards and guidance for federal programs alongside policy analysts and administrators, there are common threads among all working partnerships in the field: the need for effective collaboration.
While social workers play an essential role in helping connect clients and communities to the appropriate and necessary resources, they can’t go about their efforts alone. Working collaboratively, those in the field can draw from a pool of knowledge, skills, and expertise, talk problems out, debate potential solutions, and navigate bureaucracy, protocols, and procedures more efficiently.
It’s not only experts from other disciplines on whom social workers rely to inform their work but also their colleagues, the individuals they work with, their family members, and members of their overall community. Many also benefit from collaborations and affiliations that allow them to interact with peers outside of their immediate work environment. They may find support from organizations such as the Clinical Social Work Association (CWSA), the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), or the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), as well as organizations that support social justice, human rights, and social development efforts at the micro, mezzo, and macro level.
Certain professions would cease to exist without the ability to compartmentalize. A firefighter, for example, may have a family at home that depends on them, but they must rush into life-threatening situations without hesitation to do their job. Being able to intentionally separate their thoughts and feelings about two distinct realities—their role within their family versus their role risking their lives to help people in immediate danger—allows them to perform under intense pressure.
Social workers might not have to put out literal fires, but the ability to compartmentalize is just as crucial in their line of work. First, it can help them leave their “social work hat” at work and avoid spending their time off-the-clock obsessing about the day or stressing over what needs to get done tomorrow.
Better still, it can help create the psychological clearing that allows social workers to move their attention away from the upsetting thoughts, feelings, and experiences they deal with in their day-to-day work. This helps them cope with stresses to continue supporting their clients to the best of their ability.
Social workers are known for their skills at serving vulnerable populations in times of crisis—and are often found doing their best work in critical circumstances. But in a career in which regular exposure to human suffering is the norm, so is the high risk of what’s known as “compassion fatigue,” or the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of helping others—often through experiences of stress or trauma.
Social workers may succumb to compassion fatigue when their patients’ experiences and stories start to affect their thoughts, moods, and well-being outside of work. They may also experience burnout, a cumulative sense of exhaustion, dissatisfaction, or lack of enthusiasm about their job. Such impairment can be detrimental—and makes self-care in the field as important as client care.
The American Psychological Association defines self-care as “a multidimensional, multifaceted process of purposeful engagement in strategies that promote healthy functioning and enhance well-being.” Practicing self-care as a social worker focuses on the mind, body, and spirit. It includes everything from monitoring how much sleep you’re getting and how you fuel your body to making a point to spend time with friends and family and even just taking a break from work when you need one.
Self-awareness refers to the ability to recognize our thoughts, beliefs, emotions, personality traits, personal values, habits, biases, strengths, weaknesses, and the psychological needs that drive our behaviors. While all people who are successful in their occupations know themselves, this ability is especially crucial in social work, where cultivating positive relationships with clients from all walks of life is necessary to establish quality care.
Self-awareness is so crucial that the NASW includes it as part of its “Standards and Indicators for Cultural Competence in Social Work Practice,” which provide the benchmarks for all social workers and social work students, regardless of their professional functions, the settings in which they work, or the populations they serve.
Social workers often serve people at the lowest points in their lives. They may be dealing with illness, depression, homelessness, substance abuse, unemployment, loss, and trauma, among a range of other hardships. In short, they deal with difficulty constantly. Add the pressures of heavy caseloads, lack of time, and lots of red tape to this emotional load, and, understandably, some would question their place in their field.
But in a world that too often fails to uplift those who need help most, many feel their role in social work is a calling—and find inspiration to continue contributing to the field from clients who share their stories of progress and colleagues who offer support. And through it all, they remain consistent in their desire to share good social work practice and produce better outcomes for all. If you don’t get some sense of enjoyment or satisfaction from this work, you are likely in the wrong field.
Although many choose to pursue an MSW through on-campus programs, a growing number of students opt for online MSW programs. Online master of social work programs are especially beneficial for the flexibility they offer to students juggling family obligations, full-time jobs alongside their education, or other commitments outside of school.
The online MSW at Tulane University, for example, is designed to fit into students’ personal and professional lives by removing the need for a daily commute and by allowing them to specialize in an area of social work that interests them most.
Tulane’s online MSW is available through both a traditional and an advanced standing program. Traditional standing students can complete their social work degree in 16 months on a full-time basis and just over two and a half years when pursuing a part-time education. Within the advanced standing track, full-time students can complete their MSW in a year. Those who opt for part-time study can complete theirs in two years.
Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) also offers a flexible online MSW. Its coursework is rooted in cultural competencies that provides students with a diversity of direct learning experiences to understand how to meet the basic and complex needs of all clients. VCU’s online MSW is also available in traditional and advanced standing formats, with part- and full-time options available for all students, as well as three intakes throughout the year.
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