A master of social work (MSW) is highly sought after because the degree opens up professional options within the social welfare field.
With an MSW, social work professionals can practice clinically in many different areas (this ranges from kids through geriatrics and from addition to marriage and family counseling). An MSW is also considered a strong cornerstone degree to pursue other social welfare-related opportunities such as management and administration.
MSW-level professionals hold a variety of social work positions. Initially, most professionals will work as counselors, crisis staff, case managers, and other specialty positions in community mental health, public health, or medical social work.
Later in their careers, many MSWs choose to go into private practice. Other MSW-level professionals will write policy, oversee programs, and do contract work at the state and federal level. MSW coursework prepares students to work with individuals as well as in administration for a large organization or agency upon graduation.
Steps in choosing the right degree program
Consider the future
While MSW degrees are often lumped together, there are many distinguishing characteristics between programs. Some MSW programs have a pronounced clinical focus, while others have more of an administrative or management focus.
The cost degree programs will vary slightly with regard to prerequisites. However, most social work graduate degree programs will have baseline requirements that look similar. The following prerequisites are standard:
All MSW programs will require a bachelor’s degree unless the program is a BSW to MSW (bachelor of social work to master’s of social work) bridge program.
A bridge program is an accelerated program allowing the student to finish their BSW and go directly into an MSW program within the same university. The benefit is that students don’t need to go through the admissions process again.
Most standalone MSW degree programs require a bachelor’s degree in social science. Common examples include a bachelor of social work (BSW), bachelor of science in psychology or sociology (BS), and other popular humanities majors.
Most programs will require that applicants received their degree from an accredited undergraduate program.
Undergraduate experience should demonstrate basic math, sciences, history, and political science. Additionally, most MSW programs require completion of a statistics course or multiple courses within a certain number of years.
This is an important requirement because so much of understanding trends and data in the field is completed by research. During an MSW degree students are expected to complete research
Grade Point Average (GPA)
All schools will likely have a required GPA that the applicant obtained during their undergraduate career. The average GPA that schools list on their application materials is somewhere between a 3.0 and 3.5
Graduate Record Examination scores (GRE)
Some schools will require GRE scores that are current from within several years of the application date. The GRE is a standard test to ensure that applicants have a baseline understanding of academic writing, decision-making, and reading comprehension.
The GRE tests for an MSW generally include verbal reasoning, analytical writing, and quantitative reasoning. The scores for the verbal reasoning section range from 130-170, with competitive scores averaging from 158-162 points.
The scores for the analytical writing section range from 0-6, with competitive scores averaging 4.5. Finally, the scores for the quantitative reasoning section range from 130-170, with competitive scores averaging from 159-164 points. Potential students should aim for these scores or higher.
Seven steps to help identify potential MSW degree programs
After getting the background steps out of the way, it’s time to focus on more specific master of social work program details. Some of the more important things to think about include:
- Location – Do you have to move to enroll in your preferred program? If you answer no, have you checked out online MSW programs?
- Cost – Some programs will be more expensive than others based on the status of the university being either private or public — and the overall amount of financial assistance available.
- Program focus – Does the focus area of the program align with your overall career interests. For example, some programs will focus heavily on child welfare while others might focus heavily on medical social work.
- Requirements for admission – Admission requirements vary school-by-school, so its best to make a checklist.
- Length of program – Different programs will require differing levels of participation. Full-time participation for two years is standard for many degree programs and others will allow for part-time participation for three to four years.
- Acceptance rate – It can take applying to several different schools and programs before getting accepted into an MSW program. So make sure and set reasonable expectations about getting into a social work graduate school program. Luckily, admission rates and the data is usually available from each school to help with expectation setting. According to 2015 data from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the acceptance rate into a master’s program is higher than into a Ph.D. program. Data from 2015 indicated that 45,640 people had applied nationally to an MSW program and 29,793 applicants were granted admission (CSWE, 2015). It is likely that the increasing need for social workers in recent years will drive an increase in MSW program applicants. Of course, top-ranked schools can have very low acceptance rates. For example, the University of California at Berkeley is ranked among the top 10 schools nationally and had an acceptance rate of 27.5% in 2015 (MSW Programs, 2020).
- Ranking — Not all MSW programs are created equal. Check out the rankings for degree programs over the past few years.
Understand degree requirements
Just as some programs have different prerequisite requirements than others, the degree completion requirements also vary from school-to-school. The MSW program at the University of Washington, for example, does not have a thesis requirement (while many MSW programs do). Instead, the University of Washington’s program requires a capstone project.
Another place where schools differ is that some require social work research-related courses to complete an MSW. While others do not.
Core MSW classes will include a historical perspective of social work, policy courses, behavioral health and assessing/diagnosing courses, individual, group, and family counseling courses, research courses, and the chosen electives based.
Understand the admission requirements and process
Most universities have similar admission requirements for an MSW application. These could include the following but are subject to change depending on the chosen university for application:
- Transcripts from previous universities/colleges showing proof of completion of all pre-requisite courses and grade point average
- Letters of recommendation from previous professors and/or employers
- Completion of a personal statement or essay indicating why the potential student wants to earn a master of social work degree and what life experiences brought them to this application
- Completion of a personal statement or essay indicating why the potential student is a good fit for that specific university’s degree program
- Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores for many programs
Universities will have very specific timelines regarding when applications are due. Most will be approximately nine months to one year prior to the start of the program.
It can take universities many months to accept or deny potential students. Some students may be given a preliminary acceptance letter that will become a full acceptance after completion of additional prerequisites (for example a more recent statistics course).
Generally upon receiving an acceptance letter, there will be a timeline for accepting or denying the place in the MSW program.
Once you accept an offer to join a program, there is usually an orientation component, which will allow you to meet your advisor, program professors, and other students.
Because there will be a practicum course eventually where students will be required to work under supervision with community members, they will also likely to complete a health physical, ensure proof of vaccinations, and receive a flu shot. These requirements will change depending on the specific program as well.
Increasing the chances for MSW admission
If you know what university or universities you are interested in applying to, there are several common strategies for increasing the chances of getting accepted.
Meet with an advisor or program students to ask questions
Meeting with the advisors at the university is an incredible way to understand the program’s ideal student profile. This information will allow you to tailor your application materials, especially with things like the personal statement and essays. Additionally, previous students will be able to offer inside information about the application process and what might stand out.
It can be helpful for some students who do not have stellar GPA scores to retake a few classes to increase their GPA. If you fall into this group, retaking select course could increase your chances of acceptance.
Enroll in a GRE study program
Good GRE scores are of the cornerstone of a strong admissions application. Because it is a difficult and expensive test to take, enrolling in a study course or paying for private study from a professional is an incredible way to boost GRE score results.
According to the National Center for Education Services, the average cost of an MSW degree per year at public universities is $13,800.00 (Cost Helper, 2020). The average cost per year at a private university is $36,000.00. You also need to include the cost of textbooks as well as account for any time they may have to take off from work to complete their degree. For example, during practicum requirements it becomes difficult to work full-time because you may have to complete 10 to 20 hours per week of practicum hours that are usually unpaid.
Social work career outlook
There is currently a great demand for social workers as the baby boomer generation continues to age. This segment of our population will require social work services at high rates. There is also a crisis nationally with homelessness, substance use, disability, and mental health supports that are needed.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2018), between 2016 and 2026 the number of social work jobs added to the workforce will be 109,700 jobs overall. This shows a 16 percent growth rate in the upcoming years. (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018).
Because of these factors, social workers finishing school should expect to find employment rather quickly. While community health work and public health work like this may not pay extremely well, generally the benefits are great. Because an individual with an MSW can earn licensure to independently practice counseling, there is an opportunity to launch a private practice, where clinicians generally may very good salaries for themselves. According to 2017 data, the average social worker salary was $47,980.00.
Future social workers will be able to support and help individuals in all different life situations. Social workers service patients across the lifespan: from birth until death. This makes the profession one that is both satisfying and readily available for employment. Because the need for social workers is expected to grow so much, choosing the right program becomes necessary for future professionals.