Graduate Application Guide for Social Workers


Social work professionals interested in advancing their current career, as well as current students looking to start a new job in the field of social work, may benefit from applying to graduate school. However, before applying, you should keep a number of details in mind. For example, universities often have GPA, credit, and GRE score requirements. Some schools also expect students to have taken a certain number of credits covering specific subjects.

Students must be aware of all application deadlines because many traditional programs only enroll students once per year. A missed application deadline could push back graduation dates by an entire year. Students should also apply early to take better advantage of any social work graduate school scholarships offered by their target program. Alternatively, many online programs use a rolling admissions format, giving applicants more flexibility during the admissions process. Additionally, graduate social work programs often require three letters of recommendation from individuals who can speak to the quality of a student’s work ethic and character.

Social Work Graduate Program Prerequisites

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

To qualify for graduate programs in social work, students must hold a bachelor’s degree. It does not necessarily matter if that degree is in the field of social work, but it must come from an accredited university. Students with a bachelor’s in another field should make sure their university is regionally accredited, while students with a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) should check that their program holds accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The CSWE accredits undergraduate and graduate social work programs in the U.S. that meet certain educational standards. By earning a degree from a CSWE-accredited institution, a graduate assures other schools and potential employers that they have been exposed to the information and experiences needed to succeed in the field.

Students who did not obtain a BSW from a CSWE-accredited school — but earned a bachelor’s degree in another field — may be considered deficient in various subjects by social work graduate programs. However, many universities still allow students to enter these programs, despite lacking exposure to certain types of coursework. In this case, students may enter into an agreement to complete certain undergraduate coursework by a specific date. If a student violates this agreement, they may be removed from the program. Alternatively, some schools may not admit students until these prerequisite courses have been completed elsewhere.

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

Although students do not necessarily need work experience in social work to qualify for an MSW program, such experiences can boost their chance of admission. Additionally, because MSW programs help prepare students to be future leaders in the field, learners who lack social work experience run the risk of not fully understanding the demands of the field. Social work focuses on applying knowledge to create positive impacts on the lives of people in need. Without work experience, students may struggle to make practical connections with classroom content. Some graduate programs prefer students with 3-5 years of work experience. Additionally, relevant work experience can be applied to meet certain MSW field requirements, which may be around 3,000 hours (or more) depending on the program. Students with no work experience should consider volunteering with organizations where they can acquire applicable experience.

Do I Have to Take the GRE to Apply to a Social Work Graduate Program?

Many universities require students to take standardized tests and earn a minimum score to gain admission into an MSW program. The most common exam is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) general test, which is administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). This exam measures a student’s constructive thinking ability, quantitative reasoning, self-directed and corrective thinking patterns, and analytical writing. Students can also take subject-specific GRE tests in areas that include literature, chemistry, biology, math, physics, and psychology. Students can take the GRE with paper and pencil or on a computer at a test site. Students can take paper-based tests in September, October, and April of each year, while students can sign up for computer-based tests year-round. The general GRE test costs $205, while subject tests cost $150 each. The ETS’s GRE website offers some free preparation resources.

GRE Waiver

The GRE is a relatively expensive test and its cost can be non trivial, especially if an individual needs to take the exam more than once. Fortunately, students who demonstrate sufficient financial need may be able to apply for a GRE fee waiver. Individuals should check the GRE website to see if they qualify.

Alternatively, some schools allow certain students to waive GRE requirements. For example, students with a high GPA may not need to submit their GRE scores. Additionally, applicants who already hold a master’s degree may have their GRE requirements waived. Some schools also allow students with at least five years of professional experience to waive any GRE requirements. Keep in mind that admission offices typically consider waiving GRE requirements on a case-by-case basis only; if you have specific questions, contact the program directly. Finally, many programs do not view the GRE as a reliable indicator of student performance; if you don’t want to take the GRE look for these programs.

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Breakdown of GRE Scores

Students considering graduate programs that require the GRE should aim to obtain a score that exceeds that program’s average score. However, for students unsure of where they plan to attend, understanding GRE scores and general averages is important.

The score for the GRE general exam is broken into three categories: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. The first two sections receive scores on a 130-170 scale based on the number of correctly answered questions. Over the last year, the top 10% of test takers received 162 or higher on the verbal section, while 50% of test takers scored at least 151. Additionally, the top 10% of quantitative reasoning scores were at least 166, while the top 50% of test takers scored at least 153. The analytical writing section is based on a 0-6 score scale. This section is an essay and at least one trained grader reviews the essay for overall quality. The essay is also graded by a computer program to evaluate writing proficiency; a test taker’s score represents the average of these two grades.

When scores become available, individuals receive an email prompting them to visit their ETS account. Students may also request to receive their scores by mail, although it takes about a week longer to receive these. The ETS also sends scores to any graduate programs designated by a test taker.

GRE Score Percentiles for 2017–2018

Scaled ScoreVerbal Reasoning Percentile RankQuantitative Reasoning Percentile Rank

Source: ETS

Social Work Graduate School Application Requirements


Applicants must submit their transcripts to potential graduate programs to demonstrate their aptitude and level of dedication to the field. The rigor of a student’s undergraduate program is also important and indicates how well an individual might perform during graduate school.

Students can contact their undergraduate school and request that their official transcripts be sent to a graduate program. Official transcript processing often costs a small fee. If a student transferred during their undergraduate program they may need to request official transcripts from all other institutions of higher education they attended. It is important to order transcripts well in advance of any application deadlines as they can take more than a week to arrive. However, many schools allow alums to request transcripts online, which can lead to quicker processing times.

Test Scores

Upon registering for the GRE, students can select a maximum of four universities; the ETS will send scores to these schools for no additional fee. If students take the exam on a computer, they can fill in these designations themselves after completing the test. However, if students want to send their scores to more than four schools, they must pay a $27 fee for each additional school. Test takers can make this request by mail, fax, or online.


When applying to graduate school, students often find that universities require resumes as part of the application process. At the graduate level, universities use resumes for the same purpose an employer would; schools want to evaluate a student’s qualifications to gauge how well they will perform in a graduate program. To create a strong resume for a school, students should focus on their educational experiences and exposure to pertinent subject matter. Students should also include their GPA, the title of their undergraduate thesis, awards, and honors. Students who have published or co-authored academic or professional work should create a “publications” section in their resume. While professional resumes primarily focus on work experiences, many schools encourage students to also include volunteer work and internships. School resumes typically have fewer length restrictions; a 2-3 page resume is usually acceptable.

Essays and Personal Statements

Personal statements and personal essays represent important materials in an individual’s application packet. Although similar in content, the lengths of these documents typically differ. Personal statements help universities get to know prospective students by detailing an individual’s skills and experiences, describing how an applicant would be an asset to a graduate program. Individuals usually write 500-1,000 words when crafting these personal essays. Alternatively, admission essays tend to be shorter (generally fewer than 500 words).

When reading personal statements, universities look for specific information, including how applicants might differ from their peers. A graduate program wants to know that a student is passionate about their field and driven to succeed. The statement should indicate why a particular program is important to a student’s academic and career and goals and highlight their experiences. Skills acquired from other fields may be relevant as long as a student can explain how those skills will transfer and help them succeed as a graduate student. Personal statements must be written in an essay style and should avoid simply being a list of accomplishments. Irrelevant information should be excluded — keep the document focused — and essays should be submitted ahead of the deadline date.

Case Study Analysis

Some social work graduate programs require applicants to complete a case study analysis. These analyses consist of hypothetical scenarios a social worker might encounter in the field. Students examine the situation and discuss how they would respond using supporting evidence, highlighting how much they know about social work and how well they can apply related theories. Admissions officers also look for signs that an applicant possesses sound and ethical decision-making skills that would allow aspiring social workers to help their future clients.

Letters of Recommendation

Graduate programs typically ask applicants to submit letters of recommendation. These letters can play a crucial role in determining whether or not a student gains acceptance into a program. Thus, students should be selective about who they ask for letters. Recommenders must be able to discuss a student’s performance, work ethic, and potential to succeed at graduate school. Students should be conscious of the credentials held by prospective recommenders; universities consider this when evaluating the quality of a reference. Professors familiar with a student’s character and aptitude generally write the best letters. If students have completed an internship or volunteered in the field, they should also consider asking an old supervisor or mentor, especially if that person holds an advanced degree in their field.

Students should request letters of recommendation well ahead of deadlines to ensure recommenders have enough time to complete and submit their letters. Individuals should also create a plan for following up on letter submissions because many schools require recommenders to send the letters directly to the university; students may not review these documents. Students should also keep in mind the professional duties of recommenders. For example, professors tend to be busy around finals and midterms.

English Proficiency Tests

More and more students from around the world choose to complete education programs abroad. In the U.S., international students must complete certain exams to prove their proficiency in English. Common tests include the Test of English as a Foreign Language, the International English Language Testing System, and the Test of English for International Communication. Programs identify which exams an applicant must pass to gain admission. Categories on these exams include reading, listening, writing, and speaking.

Background Check

Students applying to graduate programs may need to submit to a background check. Social work is a hands-on field and coursework typically features required service hours to help students gain experience in the field. Additionally, graduate programs often include capstone courses where students spend many hours working under a licensed professional. Universities need to ensure that prospective students have clean backgrounds or they may not be able to complete field work.

How Do You Apply to Graduate School?

Figuring out how to apply to graduate school can feel daunting because the process contains many components. However, breaking down the steps can make the process more manageable. Aspiring graduate students should first identify research programs that meet their professional needs. Being confident about your potential fit in a program can help you avoid investing time and money applying to a school that isn’t quite right. Students should also establish an organization system to ensure they meet all application-related deadlines. Individuals should make a list of all the items they need to include in their application packets; some of these items (e.g., GRE scores, transcripts, and letters of recommendation) may take weeks to procure. Application costs vary by school, and students who demonstrate financial need may be able to obtain fee waivers when applying to schools. Finally, don’t hesitate to directly contact a school’s admission office if you have any specific questions about the application process.

Rolling Admissions

Some schools do not use hard deadlines for admission. These schools use a “rolling admissions” process, which means that students can submit applications throughout the year. Instead of evaluating all applications at once, universities continually review submissions until they reach limits for incoming class sizes. The rolling admissions format features multiple benefits. For example, students may receive notification of their acceptance status within weeks of applying. Also, rolling applications do not bind students in the same way that “early decision” options do in traditional programs. The level of competition with rolling admissions may also be smaller because the pool of applicants submitted at the same time is smaller. While traditional programs may still operate admissions on an annual basis, many state programs and online universities use rolling admissions.

Rounds Admissions

Rounds admissions represents another method for managing admissions. In this format, programs admit students multiple times per year — typically in the fall and winter terms. Few schools use a third round of admissions. The first round requires students to apply early in the year. These students tend to hold excellent academic records, diverse professional and volunteer experiences, and strong letters of recommendation. The school a student applies to in the first round is typically their number one choice. The biggest drawback of applying during this round is that if a student’s application is not strong, the high quality of other applicants may lower their chances of acceptance. The second round takes place towards the end of the summer. This gives students extra time to prepare and improve their application packages, but it also is when most students submit their applications.

Waiting for Acceptance Letters

Many students experience anxiety throughout the application process, especially while waiting on an acceptance letter. Applying to graduate schools can create a great amount of stress, especially if an individual is enrolled as a full-time student during the process. Throughout this period, students may also be working on difficult assignments or finishing their thesis, all while worrying about the future of their educational career. Students likely invested many hours into researching programs and putting together their application packages, putting a lot of thought and consideration into how a program might help them build a strong professional network and secure their dream job. As a result, many students fear rejection and tie their self-worth into being accepted.

While waiting, students should try and remain patient and optimistic and concentrate on things they can control. Response times can vary widely depending on the school and graduate program. First-round applicants anxious to receive updates about their status should consider waiting until March to reach out to admission offices. If a student gets rejected from their top school, they should try and avoid feeling overly disappointed. The next step is to simply consider the next admission round. Students can consult mentors, professors, and guidance counselors to discuss what can be done to strengthen their application moving forward.