by David C. Prichard, Ph.D.
This article focuses on the central role that the personal statement plays in the MSW application process. Strategies are presented for writing an effective statement that will highlight and emphasize applicant strengths congruent with the values of particular Schools of Social Work. The author has chaired the MSW Admissions Committee at the University of New England (UNE) over the past three years, and has assisted in the review of several hundred MSW application packages. During this period, the application procedures were completely revamped, and UNE was subsequently acknowledged in 1995 by the Council on Social Work Education in its Site Visit Report for reaffirmation of accreditation as having developed an admissions process that is "one of the more elaborate, perhaps, in social work education," and for using " . . . as primary sources of decisions, its applicants' personal statements and references." It is from this background that the author offers practical insights and suggestions for writing a personal statement that will increase the likelihood of a good match between student applicant and MSW program.
The Admission Process
Admission policies and procedures among Schools of Social Work vary widely; so too, do the criteria used to evaluate MSW applicants. In general, schools use GRE scores and academic transcripts as quantitative measures to predict academic success. The personal statement, letters of reference, and the application form (including employment and other social work-related experience) are qualitative indicators that may be used to suggest the "fit" between the applicant and the particular school. As the validity of GRE scores comes under increasing criticism (Donahoe & Thyer, 1992), Schools of Social Work, like UNE, are increasingly relying on the personal statement as a qualitative measure of the likelihood of an applicant's "success" with a particular MSW curriculum.
UNE may be representative of a more heavy emphasis on narrative to evaluate MSW applicants. In this approach, two faculty review each student application on the following 6 criteria:
GRE scores are not considered, and the use of undergraduate GPAs is minimized. The faculty reviewers are made familiar in advance with the application materials, particularly regarding where data related to each of the six evaluative criteria may be located within the materials. Reviewers are instructed to consult the student's personal statement for data in all categories but references; the data in all categories are in turn measured against the School's mission statement. Given this approach to evaluating MSW applications, applicants should craft their personal statements carefully, keeping the School's mission statement in mind.
The Personal Statement and the School Mission Statement
The personal statement should reflect careful consideration of the schools to which the applicant has chosen to apply. It gives applicants the opportunity to highlight experiences and reasons for their interest in the field, and allows the school's Admissions Committee to evaluate the compatibility between the values and goals of the applicant and those of the school, while maintaining and assuring diversity within the student body. Without question, well-developed personal statements have contributed to the acceptance of many applicants; poorly written ones to the non-acceptance.
The values and goals of Schools of Social Work vary greatly, and applicants should seek schools whose mission statements fit well with their own values and goals for practice. What are the values and principles that form the foundation of the school? Applicants should reflect upon these carefully. What do they mean? If a school emphasizes the concepts of oppression, social justice, empowerment, dignity, compassion, and respect, what do these mean and how has the life of the applicant been affected in these areas? One of the tasks of the applicant is to tap into her internalized experience of these values to allow the richness of her life to come alive.
The purpose of a well-written personal statement is three-fold. First, it should describe how the applicant's interest in social work developed; second, it needs to consider the applicant's perception of personal strengths and areas in need of development in relation to becoming a professional social worker; and third, it should describe an understanding of the school's mission statement in relation to the applicant's experience and vision of professional social work.
What events in her total life experiences have led the applicant to the field of social work? What is her story, and how did it lead her to apply to this specific school? This is the opportunity to show the link between what may appear on the surface to be disparate life experiences. It is the chance for the applicant to narrate her story and come alive to the faculty reviewer and become a living, thinking, feeling human being with a life full of meaningful experiences.
A Case Example
Using the values of the mission of the UNE School of Social Work, let's examine how an applicant might incorporate the values of the School to carefully craft a summary paragraph in a personal statement. The mission statement of the UNE School of Social Work states, in part, a commitment ". . . to the values of human dignity, individual and cultural diversity, individual and collective self-determination, and social justice . . . to struggle against oppression including all forms of discrimination, social and economic injustice, and violence . . . assessment of social, psychological, economic and organizational oppression, (and) their impact on people's lives, and the strengths people have developed to endure, resist, and change . . . and to promote human relationships grounded in mutuality, compassion, and dignity."
An applicant might present her life and professional experiences using the language and terminology consistent with the values of the stated mission of the School. A paragraph in the personal statement, then, might read as follows:
The values that the School presents in its mission statement are not just words for me. As a lesbian, I have lived the oppression of a society grounded in heterosexist patriarchy, and have experienced firsthand the social and economic injustices suffered by my women and lesbians friends, as well as the working poor. A quiet person by nature, I have discovered a voice that I did not know I had. I have added my voice to those seeking equal rights for same sex partners and continue my struggle to receive health care benefits for my partner of 15 years. I have come to recognize and value the strengths and resiliencies I have developed by necessity to survive the neglect and abuse of my childhood and use these in my ongoing struggle against the discrimination and societal injustices that I experience as a woman and as a lesbian.
Notice how this excerpt from a fictional applicant allows the applicant to come alive to the reader in a passionate, enthusiastic manner while clearly using the language and the values presented in the mission statement of the School. It should be clear that the values of the School and those of the student appear compatible and that there might be a good match here.
In the following fictional excerpt, note the apparent incongruence between the values and goals of the applicant and those of the School, suggesting a poor fit between the School and applicant.
In conclusion, I have always been intrigued by psychological issues, and have actually done quite a lot of reading in the field. I feel that I am an excellent communicator and that I would be able to help clients deal with their problems. My ultimate goal is to become part of a group private practice, and although I am concerned about the current insurance problems and third party reimbursement concerns, I believe that there continues to be a need for MSWs to help people with their psychological and social problems. I believe that the MSW is the most powerful degree to have to provide psychotherapy to clients, and that we will become increasingly recognized by HMOs and managed care companies as the most effective providers. This is the degree that will most aptly enable me, as a psychotherapist in private practice, to help those afflicted with mental illness to become more productive members of society.
Either of these excerpts may be acceptable and, perhaps, even appropriate, depending on the School to which the applicant is applying; however, given the summary of the values of the above School, the first excerpt clearly represents a better fit than the second. In the first we experience a strengths-based perspective and a genuine sense of the struggles and of the "voice" of the applicant-the person behind the words; in the second, we see a more traditional pathology-based perspective and an emphasis on the career ambitions of the applicant.
Four general recommendations are offered to applicants. First, they need to come to a clear understanding of their own values and career goals, and how these are informed by their total life experiences. Second they should come to a clear understanding of the values and goals of the School of Social Work to which they plan to apply. This may be accomplished through faculty, field instructor, and alumni interviews, review of mission statements, review of past core curriculum syllabi, and a library search and review of the literature produced by current faculty. Third, they need to determine which Schools have values that are compatible with their own. Fourth, they need to develop personal statements that reflect the influences in their lives that contributed to an interest in the profession of social work. These statements should reflect a clear understanding of the mission statement of the particular school.
In summary, the purpose of the application process is to give the applicant and the school the chance to screen one another. Applications should be completed only after careful examination of the mission and goals of particular schools, and personal statements need to show a clear understanding of and connection to the values and goals of the school and its curriculum. Perhaps the most useful recommendation for potential applicants is to take the time to reflect on and write out the values and beliefs that guide their lives, inform their behavior, and provide meaning to their life experiences, and to seek out schools that are compatible to these. This done, the personal statement should flow naturally and genuinely, because it will be based on the knowledge, truth, wisdom, and authenticity of personal life experience.
David C. Prichard, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Social Work and Chair of the MSW Admissions Committee at the University of New England.