Graduate Application Guide for Social Workers

A master of social work (MSW) is designed for professionals who seek upper-level positions in the social work field. Students who plan on applying to a graduate school of social work for an MSW must have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school, and graduate programs often have a GPA, minimum semester hour, and GRE requirement. Some schools also mandate that a certain number of credit hours go to each subject of study, and test of English as a foreign language (TOEFL) students must complete additional testing.

Students who plan on applying to a graduate school of social work for an MSW must have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school

Graduate program applicants should be cognizant of deadlines. Many traditional MSW programs only enroll students annually, in which case missing an admission deadline may have a severe impact. Graduate social work programs typically require three letters of recommendation from their applicants, and some perform applicant interviews as well. Students preparing for an interview should review and be ready to discuss their social work experience.

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Social Work Graduate Program Prerequisites

Do I Need a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work to Earn a Social Work Graduate Degree?

Students with a bachelor’s in a non-social work field should make sure their university is regionally accredited

To qualify for a master’s degree in social work (MSW), students must have a bachelor’s degree. The degree can be in any field, but it must come from an accredited university. Students with a bachelor’s in a non-social work field should make sure their university is regionally accredited. Learners with a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) should ensure that their program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. The CSWE accredits both undergraduate and graduate social work programs that meet the 2008 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards. CSWE accreditation indicates that the program equips its students with the necessary skills to properly perform their jobs.

In some cases, graduate programs may accept students from non-CSWE-accredited schools, but these students must prove their undergraduate education met CSWE standards, or the standards of their chosen graduate program. Some students whose undergraduate schools were not CSWE accredited might be considered by graduate programs to be deficient in certain subjects. In these cases, graduate programs may still accept students, as long as they agree to complete the coursework in their deficient subjects by a specific date. Students who violate this agreement will be removed from the program. Some schools may not admit students at all until the coursework is complete.

Is Work Experience a Prerequisite to a Social Work Graduate Program?

Students are not necessarily required to have work experience in social work to qualify for a MSW program, but work experience does give students the benefit of understanding the demands of their field. It also gives students the opportunity to make connections between their hands-on work and their coursework. Many graduate schools prefer applicants to have three to five years of work experience, which may also apply to MSW field requirements. This requirement usually demands at least 3,000 fieldwork hours. Students with no work experience should consider volunteering with social work organizations.

Do I Have to Take the GRE to Apply to Social Work School?

Many universities require applicants to meet a minimum standardized test score to qualify for their MSW programs. The most common standardized exam for aspiring graduate students is the GRE, which assesses students’ critical thinking skills, self-directed and corrective thinking patterns, quantitative reasoning abilities, and analytical writing. GRE subject areas include literature, chemistry, biology, math, physics, and psychology. GRE scores range from 200 to 990 on 10-point increments. Students can take the GRE either online or on paper, though paper tests are not offered as often as computer exams are. Students can sign up for paper tests in September, October, and April of each year, while online tests are offered year-round. The general GRE test costs $205, while subject tests cost $150. Prep courses usually add extra expenses, but the GRE website offers some free preparation resources and training packages.

GRE Waiver

Some schools offer GRE waivers, of which there are two types: fee waivers and test waivers. Fee waivers reduce exam costs for students who meet certain criteria, while test waivers exempt students from taking the GRE altogether. Students with a high GPA may qualify for the test waiver, as might students who already have a master’s degree and some professional experience. Some schools accept five or more years of professional experience in place of the GRE, while others simply don’t see the exam as a good indicator of student performance.

Breakdown of GRE Scores

GRE scores are broken into three categories: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. The first two sections are reported on a 130 to 170 scale, based on the number of correctly answered questions. The top 10% of test takers receive at least a 162 on the verbal section, while 50% of score at least 151. The top 10% of test takers score at least a 166 in quantitative reasoning, while the top 50% score at least 153. At schools like Harvard, the average verbal score is around 161, and the average quantitative reasoning score is around 162. The analytical writing section is scored on a 0 to 6 scale, with at least one trained professional reviewing the essay for overall quality. The essay is also submitted to an e-rater, which is a computerized program evaluating writing proficiency.

When GRE scores are available, students get an email prompting them to visit their ETS (Educational Testing Service) account. Students may also request for scores to be mailed, which takes an additional week after online scores become available. Students also have the opportunity at the time of test taking to select four universities to receive their scores, and ETS will automatically send scores to those schools once they become available.

GRE Score Percentiles for 2017–2018
Scaled ScoreVerbal Reasoning Percentile RankQuantitative Reasoning Percentile Rank
Source: ETS

Social Work School Application Requirements


Universities consider transcripts for graduate applicants because grades demonstrate students’ dedication to learning. Graduate programs also take into account the rigor of students’ undergraduate experiences, which provides insight into how well a student might perform in their graduate program of choice.

Graduate program applicants should contact their undergraduate school and request that official transcripts be sent to their program of choice, which often costs a small fee. Students who attended multiple colleges to complete their undergraduate degrees should contact their admissions offices to request official transcripts from all the universities they attended. You should order transcripts in advance, since they can take up to a week to be sent. Many schools also have an online transcripts option available through their student accounts.

Test Scores

The $205 fee for the GRE includes complimentary score delivery to up to four universities. If students take the exam on the computer, after completing the test, students fill in these designations. Those who take the paper exam will tell the person who registers them where the scores should go. To send scores to additional universities, it costs $27 per school.


Universities often require students to include their resume with their graduate program application. Admission offices use student resumes to accurately evaluate their qualifications. Strong university resumes focus on applicants’ educational experiences, and their exposure to foundational knowledge. Students who have published or co-authored academic or professional work should create a section for this on their resume. They should also include their GPA, the title of their undergraduate thesis, awards, and honors. Schools also encourage students to discuss volunteer work and internships. Resumes are not typically required to be a certain length, since graduate programs want to get to know students in-depth. A two- to three-page resume is ideal. Make sure to include a variety of educational and professional experiences, and remember to be concise and proofread your resume before submitting it.

Essays and Personal Statements

Part of the application process includes a personal statement, which is separate from admission essays. Personal statements provide an overview of applicants by showcasing their relevant skills and experiences. These statements are typically between 500 and 1,000 words. Admission essays are usually shorter than personal statements, averaging up to 500 words in length, but their content should be similar to that of a personal statement.

Admissions officers look for specific information in applicants’ personal statements. They highlight the applicant’s strengths, plus their potential weaknesses in the social work field. These statements should also indicate why the chosen program is important to the applicant’s career and long-term goals. Writers should include rhetoric that conveys why they are a good fit for the program, describing what they’ve learned both through their education and their work outside the classroom. They should also note how their skills from work in other fields would transfer to the social work industry. Schools also like to see that students can think critically and plan for success. Applicants should avoid simply compiling a list of their accomplishments and make sure to exclude irrelevant information. They should also submit their essays well ahead of the deadline.

Letters of Recommendation

Almost every graduate program requires letters of recommendation. Grades and test scores are the most important parts of a graduate program application, but recommendation letters also play a big role. Students should be selective about who writes their letters of recommendation. These writers should be able to discuss students’ performance ability, and ideally have impressive credentials of their own. Good options include professors, prior employers with advanced degrees, and supervisors from volunteer or internship positions.

Students should request letters of recommendation well ahead of the deadline to ensure writers have enough time to compose and submit them. Applicants should follow up on their letter of recommendation submissions, since many schools require letter writers to send their letters directly to the university, without the applicants’ review. Students should also keep in mind that their professors are particularly busy around midterms and finals.

English Proficiency Tests

To assess international students’ English abilities, universities require them to complete the TOEFL exam. Other exams include the International English language testing system and the test of English for international communication, but students do not typically have to take all three exams. Graduate programs will identify which exams are required or acceptable. Categories on these exams include reading, listening, writing, and speaking.

Background Check and Drug Screening

Students applying to graduate programs may have to complete background checks. To practice social work, professionals must have a clean legal history. Coursework may include service hours to allow students to gain experience in the field, and graduate programs also often include capstone courses that require students to spend many hours working under licensed professionals at their place of work. Students are also encouraged to complete internships that are often offered through the school. For this reason, universities need to make sure candidates have clean backgrounds.

How Do You Apply to Social Work Graduate School?

Students should begin their application process by finding programs that meet their professional goals. This allows students to focus on the requirements and avoid wasting time and money. Applicants should take note of application deadlines and create personal deadlines for the GRE and letters of recommendation, since those steps can take a while. Graduate program applications are more complicated than undergraduate applications, because graduate schools do not use a common application, and most have varying requirements. Because of this, graduate applicants may have to invest more time in the admission process. Application costs vary by school. Students who need financial assistance could qualify to receive it from their university, but they should contact the admission office ahead of application due dates to find out.

Rolling Admissions

Many schools follow traditional fall enrollment, but some offer rolling admission. This means students can submit applications at any time of the year. Rolling admission universities review applications as they come in, until the incoming class is filled. This can benefit students who would prefer to have secured placement in one school while they’re considering other options. Schools with rolling admission notify applicants of their admission status within weeks of receiving their application. Rolling applications aren’t binding, and students who apply at the last minute or after traditional deadlines can still start school around the same time as other applicants, and graduate within a reasonable timeframe of their anticipated graduation date. There’s also less competition for rolling admission schools, because the applicant pool is smaller. Ivy League and traditional graduate programs operate on an annual basis, but many state programs and online universities offer rolling admission.

Rounds Admissions

The rounds admission system allows students to apply twice per year in the fall and winter semesters. Not many schools offer a third round, which accepts students late in the year. The first admissions round is for early enrollment. First-round applicants tend to be confident and prepared, with diversified professional and volunteer experiences, and strong letters of recommendation. First-round applications indicate that the school in question is a top choice, and the first round is relatively competitive. The second round takes place mid-year, giving students extra time to prepare. It’s also when most students submit their applications. For universities that have a third admissions round, this round is usually a students’ last chance for application, at which point financial aid is usually gone.

Waiting for Acceptance Letters

Graduate program applications can be complicated and taxing, and often demand lots of time and energy from their applicants. Some applicants apply to graduate programs with an end goal in mind, relentlessly questioning which programs might assist them in building a strong professional network. At the same time, many applicants fear rejection, feeling as if being accepted to their top choice would determine their own self efficacy. Either way, optimism and patience are vital. Response times vary by school, for which reason students should refrain from reaching out to admission offices until after March. Until then, the offices are typically very busy. Once a student receives a response, they should take a deep breath and acknowledge their worth before looking at it. If their application is denied, they may apply again in the next admission round, and in the meantime consult mentors, professors, or counselors to discuss how their application could improve.