By: Mary Alves Sella
Choosing the Right Graduate School for You
by Mary Alves Sella, MSW, LCSW
As you begin your search for the right Master of Social Work degree program, the options may seem overwhelming. Below are listed ten frequently asked questions that may help you narrow your options to a more manageable number. It is recommended that students begin their graduate school search at least one year before they plan to enter a graduate program.
1. Is the School of Social Work accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)?
Many agencies will require that you be licensed before or soon after you are employed and in many, if not all, states an accredited degree is a prerequisite to licensure.
The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) publishes the Directory of Colleges and Universities with Accredited Social Work Degree Programs. This directory lists accredited baccalaureate and master's programs, including new programs in candidacy (pre-accreditation) status. At this time, there are 117 Master of Social Work degree programs that are accredited by CSWE. Nine programs are in candidacy.
For further information, check with your advisor, or write or phone CSWE, Accreditation, 1600 Duke Street, Alexandria, VA 22314-3421; (703) 683-8080; fax (703) 683-8099. CSWE can also be contacted on the Internet at CSWE@access.digex.net.
2. What concentration areas are offered by the School of Social Work?
Many schools of social work offer two or more concentration areas from which to choose. It is important to be sure that the school of social work you choose offers a concentration area that fits with your professional interests and your career goals. Below are listed several examples of concentrations that might be offered:
- clinical social work
- social program administration
- services in health
- services in mental health
- services to the aging and their families
- services to children, youth, and families
- planning and management
- social work practice in industry
- social work practice in school settings
- occupational social work
Some schools also offer dual degree programs. These are programs that allow you to work on more than one degree simultaneously. Below are listed several dual degree programs offered by some schools of social work:
- criminal justice and social welfare
- sociology and social work
- social work and public health
- social work and business administration
- social work and Jewish studies
- social work and law
- social work and urban planning
3. How long does it take?
How many semesters or quarters will it take for me to complete the master's degree? The average length of a program for a full-time student is 4 semesters or 6 quarters. The average number of months it takes a full-time student to complete an MSW program is approximately 21 months. Many schools provide advanced standing programs which can be completed in one calendar year.
How many hours are required to complete the program? Typically 60 semester hours (or 90 quarter hours) are required to complete the Master of Social Work degree. Advanced standing programs usually require fewer hours.
Is there a variety of programs available which lead to the master's degree (i.e., advanced standing, work study, weekend college, part-time)? If so, how long does it take to complete each program? How do these programs fit my individual situation or schedule? The Council on Social Work Education requires that the Master of Social Work degree be completed within a four-year period.
4. What are the criteria for admission?
Is there a minimum GPA requirement? Does the school admit students conditionally or on probation? Does the school require an entrance exam? If so, is a certain score required on the entrance exam? Two entrance exams commonly used for schools of social work are the Miller Analogies Test (MAT) and the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). If an entrance exam is required, you may find it helpful to purchase a study guide for taking the exam. These study guides can be found in most university supply stores and provide hints for successful test-taking, as well as sample tests.
5. What are my financial aid options?
Talk to the program director or admissions counselor in the school of social work about financial resources that are available through the school. Also talk to the financial aid counselor at the university you plan to attend. Ask about grants, loans, scholarships, work study programs, fellowships, tuition waivers, teaching assistantships, research assistantships, stipends for field placement work, and so on. Ask about the procedure and deadline for applying for each type of financial assistance.
Visit the reference section of your local public library or a nearby university library. Ask the librarian for reference books about financial aid, such as Peterson's Paying Less for College 1994 and Gail Ann Schlachter's How to Find Out About Financial Aid and Directory of Financial Aids for Women 1993-1995.
6. Where is the school?
Is the school located in a large city, a small town, a rural area? Consider what type of area you would like to live in while you are pursuing your master's degree. Also think about where you would like to work after you receive your degree. It can be beneficial to go to school in the state or area where you plan to practice. Students are able to do a lot of networking while they are in school, especially during their field practicums. This networking could potentially lead to a job.
Family might also be a factor in where you choose to pursue your degree. Living in an area near family members can often provide a greatly needed support system for a student.
If you have never been to the campus, go for a visit. A visit often answers many questions. Be sure to make an appointment with someone at the school so he/she can schedule time to meet with you and give you a tour of the school and campus.
7. What's the cost of living?
Some areas of the country cost considerably more to live in that others. Be sure to factor this in as you look at your budget for graduate school. Ask yourself, "Will I need to find a roommate in order to meet basic living expenses? Will I have to alter my lifestyle?" Also, check into availability and cost of on-campus housing.
8. What is the tuition?
Tuition costs vary tremendously from school to school. The average tuition for schools on the semester system which charge a uniform rate regardless of residency status is about $5337 per semester. For schools with separate rates for residents and nonresidents, the average tuition is around $1612 per semester for residents and $4063 per semester for nonresidents.
The average tuition for schools on the quarter system which charge a uniform rate regardless of residency status is $4506 per quarter. For schools with separate rates for residents and nonresidents, the average tuition is $1162 per quarter for residents and $2848 per quarter for nonresidents. As you can see, tuition may be an important factor if you are working with limited financial resources.
9. What types of field placement opportunities will I have?
The field placement experience is an integral part of the educational process. Be sure that there will be field opportunities that match well with your career goals. Most schools have plenty of placements in traditional settings, such as mental health centers and family service agencies. However, if you have your heart set on a career in a nontraditional setting, check with the school first to see if an appropriate placement will be available.
10. When should I apply?
Be aware of application deadlines. Many schools have final deadlines for application as early as January or February and some schools begin reviewing applications as early as October. Ask about priority deadlines. Students who apply by these deadlines are given priority consideration for admission. Some schools may have what is called a "rolling" admissions system where applications are reviewed as they are submitted. If you are applying to a school that has a rolling admissions system, the earlier you can submit your application, the better!
Your completed application should be submitted by the stated deadline for application. This includes transcripts, letters of reference, and all other application materials. Check with the school about three weeks prior to the deadline to be sure that your application is complete. Follow up on parts of the application that have not yet arrived.
As you read through the catalogs and brochures from various schools of social work, you will find the answers to many of the above questions. You may, however, find it necessary to contact the program director or admissions counselor at some of the schools to ask more specific questions. The Directory of Colleges and Universities with Accredited Social Work Degree Programs will provide you with the name and title of the appropriate contact person at each of the accredited schools.
Mary Alves Sella, MSW, LCSW, is Assistant for Student Services at the University of Alabama School of Social Work, Tuscaloosa, AL.