You might be considering earning your Master of Social Work (MSW) degree but are unsure what the process entails and how to get accepted to your preferred program.
This guide reviews the components of an MSW application packet, the process and timeline of applying, and tips for a successful application, even if your grades are less than stellar. Read on for how to apply and what to do to increase your chances of being accepted into an MSW program.
Overview of MSW admissions requirements
The field of social work looks at individuals in a holistic manner. For example, the ‘person in environment’ is considered, meaning an individual and their behavior are looked at in terms of the environmental contexts in which they live and act.
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This also means that MSW admissions committees look at applications holistically as well. No one piece of the application packet is weighed much more heavily than others. Rather, the entire person is considered (such as did they complete their degree while also raising a family or working full time), along with their experience, goals, academic success, and references.
An application packet to an MSW program typically consists of the following:
- Application fee
- Personal statement or essay
- Test scores, usually the GRE
The application fee is charged by the University to process one’s application packet. The application fee ranges from $50 – $95. Some schools have waived application fees since the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is unknown if or when these fees will resume. If an applicant is experiencing financial difficulties, some schools will reduce or waive the application fee, if the expense is a barrier to applying and earning a degree.
Official transcripts must be submitted with one’s application packet. The admissions committee reviews transcripts for the following information:
- Overall Grade Point Average (GPA)
- GPA in courses within one’s major
- Types of courses that were taken
Most schools will require a minimum GPA of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale. Some may require a 3.5 GPA for all social work classes taken (if the applicant has earned a Bachelor of Social Work). A few will accept students with GPAs of 2.5. If the GPA is below 3.0, many schools will have an additional document to be completed where the applicant can sufficiently explain and describe the extenuating circumstances that caused their GPA to drop and describe their plan to succeed in graduate studies.
The types of classes taken are also considered, as some applicants may have completed rigorous classes and not earned high grades, and this may be considered against students who had all A’s but did not take particularly challenging courses.
Personal statement or essay
At least one essay or personal statement is required as part of an MSW application. Schools of social work will often ask applicants to write a personal statement about their background, why they want to enter the field of social work, their career goals, how those goals fit with the values and ethics of the social work profession, and why that particular MSW program is a good fit for helping the applicant achieve those goals. This essay is not only evaluated on its content, such as how prepared the applicant is for an MSW program and how clear they are on their career goals, but also to determine if the applicant can write and synthesize information at a graduate school level.
Some schools have additional essay questions that relate to social work principles that must be answered as part of the application. Examples of these types of questions include:
- Discuss an experience that has fundamentally transformed the way you think about someone else’s cultural behavior or beliefs.
- Choose one of the following areas: mental health, gerontology, child welfare, substance abuse, or corrections. What do you see as one of the most important ethical issues of our time within that field? In what ways has this issue been important historically?
A minimum of two, but most often, three recommendations are required as part of an MSW application. These confidential recommendations (typically written and submitted online to the school directly from the recommender) can be from an employer if the applicant has worked in social services-related position so they can describe if and how the applicant is suited for the field. Often, at least one recommendation is required from a previous professor, so the application committee can assess the applicant’s ability to comprehend and perform at a graduate school level.
The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) used to be required for admissions to most MSW programs, but this is becoming less common. When it is required, schools typically do not list a minimum required score on each section and an overall score, but rather compare the applicant’s score to their GPA, and consider it against the scores from other applicants and previous students to determine if it falls within a range of scores earned by their graduates.
Educational Testing Services, the company that creates and administers the GRE released a report that summarized the scores of test takers in the years between 2013 and 2016. Graduate students in social and behavioral sciences earned on average a 153 out of a maximum of 170 on the verbal reasoning portion of the exam, a 151 out of a maximum 170 in the quantitative reasoning portion of the exam, and a 4 out of 6 for analytical writing.
International applicants will likely need to complete exams to demonstrate their proficiency in English and show that they would be able to comprehend the information taught in MSW courses, actively participate in class and be able to complete homework, essays and theses in English. Examples of these exams include the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).
MSW admissions process
A suggested rule of thumb is to apply to five graduate programs that meet the applicant’s requirements for location, specializations offered, cost, etc.: one that is the applicant’s top choice, which may be a stretch to gain acceptance into; two that are competitive but still within reach; and two that are considered easy shoo-ins: the applicants’ grades and qualifications mean that it would be no problem to get accepted into these less-competitive programs. This increases the likelihood of being accepted into a few different programs and can then be compared against each other to determine in which one the applicant will enroll.
MSW admissions timeline
Some schools have rolling admissions, meaning they accept applications throughout the year. Others have strict deadlines. Applicants will need to research the schools they are interested in to determine the deadline to have all application materials submitted.
Once all materials are submitted, schools take approximately 3 to12 weeks to decide. Metropolitan State University of Denver reports a 10 to 12-week turnaround, and Florida State University reports a three to six week timeline. Most schools report notifying applicants of their decision in approximately six to eight weeks.
Decisions can include acceptance into the program, acceptance but placed on a waitlist, a provisional acceptance, or rejection of the application. A waitlist means that they have been accepted, but there are currently no open spaces for that student. If a spot opens up, they would be able to enroll in the program.
Provisional acceptance means that the applicant is accepted into the program, with some stipulations. This could mean that additional coursework would be required the summer prior to entering the program, to improve upon a poor grade or build upon writing skills.
If the applicant has a low GPA but had extenuating circumstances, the provisional acceptance could also include close oversight with regular meetings with an advisor to ensure the student is keeping up with homework and grades are strong. If at the end of the first semester, the performance of the provisionally accepted student is lacking, the student may be removed from the program. If progress is satisfactory, the student will be allowed to continue in the program.
In contrast, full acceptance means that there are no stipulations to their enrollment – no additional coursework is required, nor will there be additional oversight during their first semester of classes.
Sometimes, schools will request an applicant inform them of their final decision of enrollment within a few weeks of receiving their acceptance notification. This allows the school to accept those who were on a waitlist when an applicant decides not to enroll.
Acceptance rates vary from school to school. The University of Michigan states that around 1,300 applications are received each year, and they admit 430, which is a 33 percent acceptance rate. The University of Denver reports a 56 percent acceptance rate. A study conducted by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) found that schools on average reported a 77.8 percent acceptance rate for applicants with a BSW from their own institution, and a 74.4 percent acceptance rate for applicants with a BSW from another institution. This also indicates that acceptance rates are higher for those with a BSW as compared to bachelor’s degrees in other fields.
Admission requirements and processes for MSW programs are straightforward. Applicants will need to research the specific programs in which they are interested to determine requirements and deadlines, but with hundreds of MSW programs across the nation to choose from, and many offering online MSWs, those with a solid application packet including a 3.0 GPA, volunteer or work experience in social services, and strong recommendation letters in addition to a carefully crafted, insightful personal statement and essays should feel confident in their likelihood of being accepted into one of their preferred programs.