by Felicia L. Townsend, MBA, M.Ed.
Are you considering applying to graduate school but you just don’t know where to start? The pursuit of a graduate education is a financial and personal investment. It’s important for students to make an informed decision before committing to an advanced degree of study like a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. It’s almost like purchasing a new car. The average car buyer will visit several dealerships before making a final purchase. The same strategy should apply to selecting the MSW program that will fit your needs.
Any major decision in your life that will affect your financial, academic, and professional career should be approached with a plan of action that will help you make practical decisions. One way to demystify the journey to obtaining an MSW is to create what I have coined as a Graduate Education Action Plan (G.E.A.P). The plan consists of three key components that will make your pursuit of obtaining a graduate degree more attainable: Purpose, Research, and Apply. It’s that simple. The G.E.A.P is similar to a business plan that an aspiring entrepreneur would create before embarking on a new business venture. The plan will provide you with a roadmap to sort out your reasons for wanting to earn an MSW or any graduate level degree.
Purpose: Why do you want to obtain an MSW?
The first part of the G.E.A.P should focus on your purpose for applying to an MSW program. Remember that the decision to pursue an advanced degree, like an MSW, should be your decision and no one else’s. Just because your best friend or relative is a social worker does not necessarily mean that social work is a good fit for you. To be truly successful and fulfilled in an MSW program, you have to possess the passion and motivation to want to earn the degree in order to make a meaningful contribution to the field of social work. You should not expect to find your passion once you get to graduate school—you should come into the program motivated and driven to contribute and gain new knowledge in the social work field.
Also assess why you want to apply to a particular type of MSW program at a particular university. For example, will the universities that you are applying to provide you with the skills to reach your goal to better serve your community, individuals, and families? Will the MSW degree provide you with the conceptual and practical knowledge you need to achieve your lifelong dream of addressing international issues? Is the university conducive to learning? If the answers are yes, then you should start applying to those graduate schools of social work that you feel are conducive to learning and that will best prepare you to practice international and family-centered social work. If the answers are no, or if you have different goals, I recommend that you continue your research until you find the university that provides the MSW program that will meet your academic and career goals. Whatever the outcome, you should feel proud in knowing that your diligence in following a plan of action will yield a more rewarding and beneficial outcome.
During the initial stages of the admissions process to a particular institution, students begin to form their first impressions of the social and intellectual character of the institution (Tinto, 1993). Therefore, it’s critical for prospective students to take the time now to thoroughly investigate various universities and their graduate programs to make sure that it’s the right fit. The G.E.A.P will help you make informed decisions that will ultimately turn your purpose into reality.
Research: Which universities will provide the knowledge base to help you become a proficient social worker?
Typically, students start their research of graduate programs by visiting the university’s Web site and requesting a program brochure and admissions application. To get the information you need to make a well-informed decision, you must incorporate other research components in your G.E.A.P.
Information Sessions. Most graduate schools hold monthly information sessions that are designed to give the prospective student an opportunity to visit the campus and learn more about the program and university from the director of admissions, faculty, and dean. This is a great opportunity for applicants to take a tour of the campus and to inquire about program prerequisites, testing, the program structure and curriculum, admissions criteria, and financial aid.