Sure, some schools heavily value certain criteria. For example, a small number of programs require the GRE, whereas others do not. Others still only require the GRE if an applicant’s GPA is lower than a 3.0. And while a strong GPA is a plus at any school, there are many programs that place far less weight on grades than other factors. With all of this variability, it can be tough to come up with a solid admissions plan.

Here are some things that you should consider:

What Really Matters In Getting In

All schools value experience, maturity, and personal readiness This is best articulated through your essays and personal statement. Why do these "soft" character traits matter so much? Because getting an MSW is hard work. Managing coursework along with two back-to-back fieldwork experiences is challenging, and requires a significant time commitment. Admissions committees want to admit students who are resilient, motivated, and, most importantly, likely to graduate.

MSW programs also want students who are appropriate for their particular school or institution. Because social work involves introspection, emotional insight, and the study of human behavior, it can attract those looking to learn more about themselves, or those hoping to solve some nagging problem of their own. This is not the right reason to head to graduate school. MSW admissions officers have become expert at sniffing out this type of applicant. If they sense that a student’s motivations are more selfish than selfless, they may ding that applicant no matter the grades or scores.

The bottom line is that while many individuals become drawn to social work after an experience of adversity – they have a moment of awakening, or experience a sudden calling – admissions committees favor those applicants who are emotionally stable and eager to become solid professionals in the field.

Finding a (Great) School Will Want to Accept You

With this in mind, you will need to think about your own qualifications in order to shore up your candidacy. If your GPA is not what it could be, for example, you can use your personal statement to explain why that is, and how you have matured since undergrad. You could also attend evening classes at a local university, taking (or re-taking) related subjects such as psychology. Just make sure to receive an "A" to further support your MSW application. Another option would be to volunteer at a local agency, and log some serious service hours. These extra efforts will all help your application and make it stronger.

With a weaker candidacy, the question also becomes: should you just shoot for the easiest MSW to get into? When your scores, grades, or prior experience are not at the levels you wish, is it best to simply hedge your bets? The answer may be less about your grades and scores, and more about understanding where your application has the best chance of doing well. It’s also helpful to know how hard the schools themselves are working to fill their seats. Everyone worries about whether they will get into a program; remember, programs need students too.

The first thing to consider is the quality among schools. In the world of MSWs, reliability is fairly easy to guarantee. Because all accredited MSW programs share a foundational curriculum and core set of competencies and practice behaviors that must be mastered, you should be able to count on a consistent, high quality education no matter where you go. In fact, MSW accreditation actually dictates coursework and fieldwork learning. In many ways, this levels the playing field amongst all schools. There may be little or no curricular difference between a tough school and one that is "easy" to get into. Sometimes a school’s selectivity means that it is better, but this is not proof positive.

Second to note is that you shouldn’t fully rely on published school rankings to develop your admissions strategy. If you review the methodology used by US News and World Report for creating graduate social work rankings, you’ll see that it differs dramatically from their ranking methods for other popular grad programs like the MBA. USNWR’s rankings for social work rely on just one metric, peer ratings, which barely scratch the surface on an MSWs worth. These rankings in no way capture what really matters in a program, or the pedagogical signature experience of social work – the fieldwork placement. So avoid giving the rankings too weight as you try to determine where you might get in. Go straight to the school to determine where you stand.

The Skinny on Getting into Easy Admit Schools

Anecdotally, many MSW students have reported that private universities, even those that boast more competitive admissions standards and cost more to attend, may be easier to get into. This may seem like twisted logic…a higher ranked school that it easier to get into? Some believe that costly schools (i.e. private ones) are more liberal in accepting students with lower credentials, because fewer applicants can afford to go there. While a program may be highly ranked and prestigious, their yield – the percentage of accepted students who ultimately enroll in the school – may be lower due to expensive tuition. By comparison, state and public MSW programs, where tuition is much lower, are actually very popular destinations for students. This is largely because of their affordability. So to state the obvious, anything that is popular is going to be harder to get into, regardless of ranking.

If you have average credentials but can afford hefty tuition without scholarships or financial aid, you may have a strong chance of being admitted to a more academically competitive (but expensive) school. Conversely, less expensive programs, with less stringent acceptance criteria, may have so many more applicants that getting in will not be as easy as it seems.

What’s the best way to figure all of this out? Do your homework in researching programs. Prepare yourself to be the strongest applicant possible. Consider your financial situation. Apply to a range of schools, and see where you get in. Hopefully, you will have many options and will soon find yourself on the path to becoming a professional social worker.

Nedda
Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.