This is the broad brush of social work. If you’re pursuing a Master’s of Social Work (MSW) program, however, you should also consider the particular populations you want to serve and the exact work you want to be doing. This will help you orient your coursework and field experiences around an area of specialization. Some of the more common practice areas for MSWs are clinical/mental health (for private practice and counseling), substance abuse, gerontology, and community outreach.

As you explore areas of specialization, you might also discover that social work is not for everyone. It’s obviously helpful to know this before you apply to school, rather than after. A desire to help others doesn’t have to take the form of social work; for some, the challenging and sometimes heartbreaking work involved in this profession is a nonstarter.

One of the best ways to learn about social work is to volunteer. Volunteering allows you to gain hands-on, direct experience in the profession. If your undergraduate major was outside of the field, your volunteer experience will also serve double duty; having volunteer work on your resume will demonstrate to MSW admissions committees that your decision to pursue the degree was not spur of the moment.

MSW programs are wary of admitting students who lack the motivation, resilience and maturity for social work, so your commitment to understanding what’s involved will make you a valued applicant. A high priority for any MSW program is to admit students who can demonstrate emotional readiness and maturity.

Finding Volunteer Work

There are limitations to the duties you will be allowed to perform as a volunteer. However, numerous organizations and agencies utilize volunteers, and they can all provide a meaningful experience. Most will require you to send in some form of application in order to start volunteering; some may even require an in-person interview or a background check.

There are many ways to volunteer, and many organizations that match individuals with volunteer opportunities. To learn more about volunteer work in your area, a resource such as Volunteer Match may be helpful.

Wondering where to start? Organizations and settings where you should consider becoming a volunteer include:

  • Big Brothers//Big Sister

  • The Red Cross

  • In a disaster relief effort

  • As a CASA Volunteer Special Advocate

  • Animal Shelters or Hospitals

  • Senior Centers or In-house hospital programs

  • Domestic violence/Women’s Shelters

  • Hospital Emergency Rooms

  • A Community Center that services low-income individuals

  • HIV/Aids Support Programs

  • A nonprofit or hospital serving low-income individuals or a vulnerable population

  • Homeless Shelters or programs

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.