By: Robin R. Wingo, MSW, LISW
Applying for graduate school is a big step! Whether you are just graduating with your bachelor’s in social work or you have been out for a few years, preparing that application takes time, energy, and careful consideration. Your grades are only one indicator of readiness for graduate study. It is highly likely that you will be asked to write a professional statement or essay along with completing a standardized application form. Although some admissions committees conduct personal admissions interviews, your first representation will be in writing, and your readiness will be evaluated on how you present yourself, your experiences, and your professional aspirations.
Every graduate school’s application process is different. Some are fully online and others use hardcopy, but they are all looking for the same thing—students who can clearly and thoughtfully make a case for how they are the best fit for acceptance into that particular graduate program.
As that applicant, you want to be successful, but making the most of the application process is a relatively unexamined process. Each program will provide forms and directions as part of the application, but little direction is provided regarding what works to meet the expectations. The following are some key thoughts for putting your best application forward.
1. Don’t just download applications!
Each graduate program is looking for students who match its educational mission and goals. Go to the Web site of each program that interests you, and review! Decide whether you are a good fit for that particular program. Applying only to programs that are located close by may not be a successful strategy if you can’t make a good case for fit. Take opportunities in the application to write about why you are a good fit.
2. Read the application carefully, and follow directions!
That sounds like a no-brainer, but often in the haste to complete an application, key information will be missed or ignored. Use a highlighter to target items that use the words “must,” “demonstrate,” “provide examples,” or “identify.” Read the instructions for the professional statement or essay carefully and make note of the expectations!
3. Attend a pre-admissions meeting or ask to meet with a faculty member to talk about the program and your fit.
Go prepared! Read the Web site and the application and prepare questions. Make sure you introduce yourself.
4. Give yourself ample time to think, write, revise, edit, get feedback from an impartial reviewer, revise, edit, and submit!
Make sure your spelling, syntax, grammar, and punctuation are correct. Make sure your word choices clearly and accurately depict your thinking and that your ideas are presented in a professional manner. As you no, its easy two half misteaks even win wee are being vary careful too due it rite! (sic)
5. If you aren’t confident about your writing skills, during the application process, you might consider taking a writing class or working with an editor to improve your writing skills.
Graduate students can tell you they do a LOT of writing, and it is a skill you will use in every class.
6. If you are applying in your senior year or are a new graduate, keep in mind that the coursework, volunteer experiences, and field practica you completed have increased your knowledge and skills.
Don’t underestimate their value! Focus on your strengths and what you have to contribute, rather than on whatever deficits you may think you have. Rather than, “I hope to learn...,” think about saying, “I have learned and applied...,” or, “The skills I developed have led me to....” Graduate programs are looking for learners who will contribute to the learning environment. Give them examples of what you have to offer!
7. If you have been out practicing at the bachelor’s level, use your educational and work experience to highlight what you have accomplished, where you are headed professionally, and what you will contribute.
Draw specific examples from your work (without breaching confidentiality) to demonstrate skills, leadership, creativity, ethical practice, and professionalism. Sharing your successes is not bragging!
8. Some programs request that a résumé be submitted along with your application.
Make sure it is up-to-date and formatted in a clear manner. Current students can use the college/university career development center for consultation in creating a résumé. Typically, alumna can use the college/university career center, if convenient, for up to a year. Online sites also exist for templates and suggested formats. Consider dropping off employment or activities that occurred in high school or earlier.
9. Be honest in your application, your résumé, and your professional statement/essay.
Accurately portray your work experience, skills, and knowledge. If asked to identify challenges or deficits, instead of simply stating, “I overschedule” (for example), frame your response with what you are doing to remediate that—“As overscheduling is a challenge, I am careful to schedule time for completing paperwork and meetings using a day planner.”
10. Write your professional statement or essay for a specific program.
Generic letters read that way! Some ideas, phrasing, or perspectives may fit with many programs, but tailor your writing to the mission and admissions criteria of each program. And keep the names straight—nothing is more off-putting than to have one’s institution referred to by a competitor’s name!
11. Do you have specialized experience related to a specific part of the program mission?
Do you have professional expertise that would be augmented by study in an area of the curriculum or with a particular faculty member? Do you have experiences that would enhance the student body? Make sure that it is included in your professional statement or essay.
12. References are always required!
Applications will likely have reference forms or specific points they want covered by a reference. Be clear about what kind of reference you need. There is a difference between someone who watched you grow up and thinks you are fabulous no matter what you do (personal reference) and a professional reference who can speak to the specific qualities that graduate programs are looking for, such as leadership, ethical behavior, and academic readiness. Supervisors (past or present), instructors (past or present), or colleagues who have had sufficient time to know you and your work are all potential references. Talk to the people you ask to be a professional reference and make sure they are willing to address the specific questions the program is asking. Provide them with your résumé as an information source, and remind them of examples of your work. A letter that specifically addresses your application, the criteria, and your readiness for graduate study can make a difference. After you are accepted, thank them for their help.
13. Avoid anything that can make your application and or professional statement or essay difficult to read.
Colorful paper, exotic fonts, and illustrations are not appropriate for this type of writing. A white or linen colored paper, with an easy-to-read font of a reasonable size (Times New Roman, 12 point, for example), printed clearly and cleanly, are good choices.
14. Carefully review what should be mailed or done online, and by whom.
Some programs only accept references online, whereas others require them to be mailed in with the application. An 8½ x 11 envelope for mailing is a better choice than folding multiple pages into a legal size envelope.
Realistically, the graduate school application process is competitive, and you may not get in the first time you apply. Don’t give up! Sometimes graduate programs will offer you feedback—ask! Attend another information session, if available. Talk with a mentor about how to improve your chances. Talk with the admissions person about classes you can take at a graduate level to demonstrate your readiness and improve your GPA. Work and get additional experience. Developing a relationship with a social work program in your area can help you know if it is a good fit. If you have a BSW/BSSW, consider becoming a field instructor for an undergraduate student. Don’t give up! Rework the application and reapply! Many successful social workers did not get into graduate school with their first application!
Robin R. Wingo, MSW, LISW, joined the Department of Social Work at Minnesota State University, Mankato faculty in 2001. She received her MSW from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She annually reviews applications for admissions to the MSW program.
This article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER. Copyright 2012 White Hat Communications. All rights reserved.
Social Work (MSW)
Deadline: October 15 for fall admission cycle
Standardized Test Requirement: None
Essay: Personal statement of no more than 750 words addressing the following questions:
- What are the reasons you want to be a social worker?
- How do the mission and goals of the M.S.W. program at the University of Southern Maine School of Social Work fit with your career goals?
- Describe your experiences with diversity, discrimination, and/or oppression.
- What social issue is of particular concern to you, and why?
Please note: Social Work applicants should submit a Program Selection Form.
Tips for a strong application to the MSW Program*
When you apply to our MSW program, please note that we look at a combination of factors to assess your potential as a student and social worker. This document offers a description of our application review process with suggestions for submitting a strong application.
Each completed application is forwarded to the School of Social Work (SSW) by the Office of Graduate Admissions for review by the SSW Admissions Committee. The Admission Committee consists of SSW faculty members and professional staff. Each application file is assigned to two separate readers from this committee for thorough review. Using a rating form, each application is scored by these readers independently. The score is a total that is determined by adding the ratings on likert scales that assess the candidate’s essay content, essay quality, reference letter quality, work experience, and, if applicable, undergraduate field work experience. The reviewer also examines transcripts to ensure the applicant has the requisite undergraduate liberal arts foundation as well as introductory courses in sociology and psychology, and a statistics course. Once reviewers have assessed and scored applications, the Admissions Committee convenes to examine the rating scores of each reader for each applicant. A final rating is calculated and candidates are added to a pool. Once all applications are read and rated, the final incoming class is selected based on the scores, so those with the highest ratings are admitted first until we reach our class capacity; others might be denied admission or placed on a wait list. The two-reader rating system keeps the application review process unbiased and fair to everyone. We rely solely on the materials you submit to us to make our decision.
Because the success of your application relies on its quality, we provide the following to assist you by offering some tips on making your application as strong as it can be.
Take a look before you submit your application.
1. Your undergraduate performance. You must have an undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or better to qualify for application. If your GPA is lower than this, we may still review your file and you may be admitted if you otherwise have a strong application. We also require that applicants have a liberal arts foundation in their undergraduate work: at least 18 liberal arts credits, one introductory course in psychology and one in sociology, and a statistics course. If you have some but not all of these courses, you may still be admitted on the condition that you complete the requisite courses before beginning the program. We encourage people from diverse undergraduate programs to apply—we have had people in our program with backgrounds in all kinds of fields, such as music, english, journalism, biology, education, and even accounting!
2. Past and Current Work Experience. People apply to social work with diverse work backgrounds and we honor this—many people are changing careers entirely or are making a life transition. Certainly, work or volunteer experience of some kind that is related to social work is an asset to your application. But if you have no social work related experience, we also recognize that skills from other fields or life arenas may be transferable to social work and we take this into account in rating this area of your application. In any case, we want to know about you as a worker, in whatever form. It is a good idea to speak to this as part of your essay. It is also recommended that you have at least one of your 3 references from someone who has knowledge of your work capacity and skills (for instance, a supervisor) and can discuss this in a letter.
3. Reference Letters. As noted, we require 3 reference letters and we urge you to select your references carefully. People who know you well enough to speak about your work, your character, reliability, judgment, etc. and your ability to perform academically are good potential references. While friends, family members, and therapists (especially if they are social workers) might know you well, and it may be tempting to request references from these people, these are not usually the most credible reference sources. We are interested in learning from your references about your potential as a professional social worker and your capacity to withstand the rigors of graduate school as a student. As a general rule, it is a good idea to provide the Admissions Committee with references from select people who know you academically and professionally or in some work capacity.
4. Your personal essay. The essay is weighted heavily in the application assessment process. This is your single opportunity to let us know who you are, why you want to be a social worker, and why you want to come to USM specifically. What you choose to share with us and how you share it is very important. We examine and rate both the content of your essay and the quality of your writing as these are critical aspects of social work training and practice. Take a look at our program mission and objectives first to make sure that what we offer in our program fits with your interests and career goals. Please do not copy material from our program documents into your essay but rather speak to how our program is suited to you—we want your authentic voice to come through in your essay. Make sure you follow the instructions for the essay (instructions can be found at the Graduate Admissions web site), and as you write, think of the readers and what you want them to learn about you and your decision to apply to the social work program at USM. The essay is used in the review process, in addition to other materials, to assess how well your goals fit with what we offer, and whether it is evident that you are suited for the profession and capable of meeting the academic and practice demands you will face. Do take the essay seriously write it well and with honesty and clarity. A solid, well crafted essay is one of the most important aspects of this application—quality is more important than quantity for the essay, so please stay within 750 words.
5. Previous Social Work Field Training. If you are applying to the Advanced Standing Program (applicants with a BSW degree within the past 7 years), your fieldwork evaluations are a critical part of your application. You must include these evaluations and your application will not be complete until they are received. These evaluation forms are rated along with your other application materials.
We hope that making the Admissions Committee assessment process more transparent will help you as you construct your application. With attention to the areas above, you will improve the quality of your application and increase the likelihood of admission to the program. Good luck and feel free to contact the MSW program coordinator, Jeanette Andonian (firstname.lastname@example.org), if you have further questions.