By comparison, other competitive professional grad programs (for example, psychology, business and law school) rely heavily on admissions criteria such as grades and scores. Those numbers are used as admissions benchmarks - meaning those schools favor students with scores and grades within a certain range. It works something like this: at the top schools, top grades and scores will be required. And admissions will be fierce.

But MSW programs take a different approach. The admissions process is holistic. It relies heavily on an applicant’s prior volunteer and work experiences, and importantly, the mindset and readiness for the degree. You won’t be denied admission because you failed to score in the 95th percentile on a standardized test. This is helpful to know.

MSW Rankings and Admissions

As for identifying top MSW schools, yes, MSW programs are ranked. However the MSW rankings should be taken for what they are; a limited yardstick of measurement. The newsworthy jockeying that goes on for a top spot is less important in this process than zeroing in on a MSW program that will offer you the expertise you need for your career. Location should matter as well because it will impact your fieldwork assignment.

Think about finding and getting into a MSW program in this way. The number one MSW program is just the number one for you - because it will get you the training you need. MSW admissions officers understand the importance of matching your interests to a school’s offerings. Make this clear in your application, and you will benefit from an admit process that is more personal, and evaluative.

Is the BSW Required?

Many students applying for the MSW hold a Bachelors in Social Work (BSW). While this may be a worthwhile degree to have, it is not necessary. The value of a BSW is that it demonstrates to the school you are committed to the field and have applicable work experiences. The greater value may be that it qualifies you for advanced standing. Depending on the program you apply to, the BSW may allow you to matriculate into an advanced standing program and earn you the MSW in just one year. Your prior academic coursework and field work experiences might meet some of the graduation requirements for the Masters. This will put you on a fast track. Learn more about MSW programs that offer advanced standing social work programs.

Most Applicants Hold an Undergrad Degree in the Humanities.

As we said, a BSW is not required to be admitted to a MSW program. You do need a BA or BS. Interestingly, the majority of students who apply for graduate social work hail from a liberal arts background. You do not need to have pursued a major that predisposes you to be in service. That BA in anthropology will not hold you back, nor disadvantage you.

What about GPA and Standardized Tests? Do I Have to Take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE)?

Happily, the majority of social work schools don't require the GRE or any standardized test. Learn more about which MSW programs do not require the GRE for admissions.

As for grades, they matter, but only to a certain point. Generally anything from a 3.0 GPA and higher will put you in good standing. That 3.0 (B average) seems to be the magic cut-off for admissions. This is not to say that great grades are not helpful. Depending on the school, a high GPA could advantage you.

But a low GPA - below that 3.0 – could be problematic. Here is where your GPA may intersect with the need for the GRE. Some MSW programs require you take the GRE if your GPA is below a 3.0. You will need to do your homework to determine how your GPA may be weighted at a particular school.

What Other Requirements Need to Be Met to Apply to a MSW Program?

Because the admissions process for MSW programs is more holistic, one of the most important parts of your application will be your prior work and volunteer experiences. You will also need to submit an essay or two. Depending on the school, you may be asked for an interview. Although it is helpful to submit an application with a solid GPA from your undergrad institution, your maturity, passion and prior experiences will likely matter more.

What Really Matters in MSW Admissions?

More than anything, your readiness for the MSW program is the most important aspect of your application. How do admissions officers define readiness? They consider your emotional and social readiness, your level of maturity, and how well your current lifestyle can accommodate the demands of the degree.

Taking on a MSW and becoming a social worker is not for the faint of heart. The schools weighing whether you are an appropriate candidate for their program will screen for this. One of their primary concerns will be, are you ready? Do you have what it takes? What is your mindset in choosing this profession? Why are you seeking this degree?

Some MSW students are inspired to seek the degree because of their own experience with adversity. While this may not automatically disqualify you from being admitted – if you are headed off to social work school in part to solve your own issues – or in lieu of psychotherapy – it will raise red flags. There is a fine line between being inspired to help others because of your own life experiences, and attending school as an emotionally needy, I–hope-to-figure-my-life-out sort of student.

Because of the nature of social work, some applicants to MSW programs present this way. Schools want future MSWs who are compassionate and sensitive, but mentally healthy. They want applicants who understand their job will be to serve others. Importantly, they want students who will engage classroom learning appropriately and identify with the professionalism of the degree.

Because of this, any applicant to a MSW program should use the essays and interview to communicate a level of readiness emotionally, professionally and also the ability to adapt to the program with their current lifestyle. A cornerstone of the graduate experience is a two-year fieldwork experience. Many MSW students are ill prepared for the impact of, and time investment of a 3-4 day a week fieldwork job in addition to schoolwork.

A Final Thought on Getting the MSW

Getting the MSW and succeeding as a professional social worker requires, maturity, tenacity, and resourcefulness. Picking the right school, and demonstrating your readiness, will go a long way towards winning admission to your preferred program and launching your career.

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.