by Laura Lewis, Ph.D., LSW, and Bora Pajo, Ph.D.
Senior year is quite challenging and extremely busy with an internship, coursework, trying to fit in extracurricular activities, and—for many—a part-time job or family responsibilities. To top it all off, the question of what’s next after undergraduate school looms large. Some anxiety is typical, whether you are the student who has long known that graduate school is the next chapter and has already been searching for the best fit of schools, or whether you are a senior still debating what to do after graduation. This article provides suggestions to help students reduce their anxiety about applying to graduate school, whether it is during their senior year or down the road.
Don’t Delay—Just Get Started
Applying to graduate school is a bit daunting for many. Fear of not being accepted, fear of not succeeding academically, costs, and making the time to do the necessary research and complete the application process are a few of the factors that stand in the way of getting started. For those who have done poorly academically in undergraduate programs, apprehension may be valid. If you are doing well in an accredited undergraduate social work program, in all likelihood you will get into an MSW program, albeit maybe not your top choice. You will never find out unless you apply. Also, if you are doing well academically in an undergraduate program, you should be equipped for success in an MSW program. Time and again, we have heard alumni talk about how prepared they were for graduate studies. Don’t let fear keep you from getting started.
The costs of an MSW program are a real concern for many, but for most should not be the reason not to apply and see what kind of financial aid package is available. Applying is not committing to matriculate, so there is no need to put off getting started because you don’t know how you will pay for it. Although some students do have financial obligations that are prohibitive, this is not true for most. Students are sometimes surprised at the financial assistance provided. And although it is still an expensive endeavor in the short run, graduate education has significant long-term benefits.
Finding the time to research institutions and apply is another hurdle, but we make time for what is most important to us. Your education is of utmost importance. It is ideal if you get started researching potential graduate schools during your sophomore or junior year, but very often, students enter their senior year before getting serious about getting into graduate school. This is not too late. You just need to move it to the front burner and make it a priority.
Which Program Is Right For Me?
An initial way to develop a list of programs that appeal to you is to browse the websites of different universities. Also, use your networking skills. Your current professors can be a great resource. They may be able to suggest schools for you to look into. They can tell you about where they went to graduate school, and although the culture of their alma maters may have changed since they attended, they may still know and be able to put you in touch with faculty there. Your faculty can also put you in touch with alumnae from your undergraduate program who attended, or are attending, the graduate schools that are of interest to you.
There are many factors to consider as you begin your search. Make a list of priorities. What are you looking for in a graduate program? Here are some factors to consider as you start your search:
- areas of interest in terms of faculty research, i.e., if there a good fit with what your topical interests are (reading faculty profiles online will give an idea of faculty interests)
- opportunities for MSW students to work closely with faculty on projects
- internship opportunities
- opportunities for a joint master’s (if you are interested)
- geographic location
- culture, e.g., diversity of student body
- balance in focus on research vs. teaching
- what the program’s focus is in terms of rural/urban, clinical/community development
- whether it is online, campus based, or a blend
- financial aid offered
- test scores or grades required
- job placement rate
- application deadlines
You can stay organized by creating a spreadsheet with the factors you want to consider and then filling it in for each school. It is ideal to keep your pool of potential universities broad to begin with, and then narrow it down, acknowledging practical limitations (fear of venturing away from home does not count) you have in regard to geography, financial resources, and family responsibilities.
There is no magic number of schools for your long list, nor is there a rule for the exact number of applications to make. Once you come up with five to ten programs of interest, a discussion with your advisor or faculty member may help you in deciding how many, and which ones, you will look into further. If there are no serious constraints, consider attending a graduate school away from home and expanding your horizons. The program itself is key, but moving to a new location opens the door to a new culture, new experiences, and new perspectives. If you have never lived on your own, this is a great opportunity to get to know yourself better.
Websites are good for general information, but once you decide which schools make the first cut, talking to faculty and students at your potential picks can provide perspectives and answer questions that can help refine your search even more. Setting up school visits in which you talk to admissions staff, faculty, and students is the ideal, but this is not always feasible. Short of an on-site visit, reaching out to the program director or e-mailing a faculty member or two at the school is a good way to get a better sense of what the program might be like. Moreover, you can get a sense of how competitive the admissions process is and ask questions that were not answered on the school’s website.
After gathering the information for your short list, which may now be three to seven schools, carefully read through the application process for each program. It may be helpful to lay out another spreadsheet for each of the schools you are applying to, with the following information:
- the application deadline
- contact information
- admission requirements
- what process is used for acquiring letters of recommendation
- writing sample, if required
- statement of purpose
- where to send transcripts
- any other requirements listed for the application process
Statement of Purpose or Personal Statement
A Statement of Purpose or Personal Statement is standard, although not all programs ask for exactly the same material. Many schools also ask the applicant to discuss a social issue. Whatever the specific request for this section entails, follow the directions closely. If different schools ask for different information in the essay, it is important to not use the same essay for each, but to tailor them accordingly. Although all parts of the application are important, this section will take the most time and effort. It provides an opportunity for the selection committee to get to know who you are and what you will bring to the program and the profession.
We have watched students labor over these statements (often more so than any paper they write for a class) to get them just right. It is a lot of work and a good learning experience. It will take numerous drafts to develop a well-crafted essay, so don’t procrastinate. Set a time, sit down, and just get some ideas on paper. Once you have completed a solid draft, find a trusted classmate, mentor, parent, or staff at the writing lab to review it and give feedback. Work on it some more, and then approach a professor or two and ask if they will provide feedback. Timing is the key. Avoid asking professors at the end of a term, and don’t give it to them a day or two before you want it to be completed.
Letters of Recommendation
Similarly, letters of recommendation are an important part of your application package. At the same time you are researching schools, think about which faculty members to ask for letters. Most often, three letters are required. Some, if not all, must be from faculty. Once you know who you want to ask, ask them if they are willing to write recommendations for you. Let them know at this time that you are just giving them a heads-up, and that you will be sending a request in writing via e-mail. You will want to give those you ask at least three weeks advance notice. Also, ask those who agree to write letters if they would like a résumé, any information about you, or any information regarding the programs to which you are applying.
Let the faculty member know if you will be sending the reference form online or if you will be providing it in paper form. If it is a paper form, the student is often required to gather the recommendations and send them together with the other application material. Sometimes, the instructions are for the recommender to send the recommendation directly to the program. If the latter is the case, make sure to provide a stamped, addressed envelope, so the recommender can easily send it directly to the school.
Students who leave asking for letters of recommendation to the last minute risk being told “no” by one or more faculty members, or worse, the faculty may agree to do one but not have ample time to write a quality letter. Worse still, the faculty member may not get the recommendation completed by the deadline.
Other Considerations and Miscellaneous Tips
Some graduate programs offer assistantships or other programs, such as Title IV-E (for those interested in child welfare) that help with expenses. Not all graduate assistantships and special funds are listed on websites, so it is important to inquire about this. Some programs have paid internships, and others don’t. Some programs are affiliated with research centers that take on research assistants at the MSW student level. Again, these are often not advertised on the website, so make sure to ask about them.
Study abroad experiences are excellent opportunities for growth and understanding of the profession at a different level from what you can get otherwise. If this is something you desire, it is wise to ask about these opportunities before finalizing your decision about where to apply.
A final tip: confirm with the programs your application packets are complete once you believe everything is in, even if you sent it all together in an envelope. It does not happen often, but there are times when all the application materials sent do not get to the intended recipient, or they don’t all end up together in the correct file. With online applications, the school may have a system that notifies you that everything is in, but do not count on that.
Once you complete your applications, a weight will be lifted from your shoulders, and all that is left is the waiting. If you are not accepted, it is appropriate to contact the school and find out what prevented acceptance. This information may be very useful in helping you improve your overall application package. Use it to your advantage.
If you have done well academically, been involved in extracurricular activities, can demonstrate a passion and commitment to the social work field, and have followed the above suggestions, chances are good that you will be heading off to graduate school.
Laura Lewis, Ph.D., LSW, is a professor of sociology and social work at Mercyhurst University. She helped initiate and is engaged in a community-wide movement that serves as a catalyst for fostering system alignment to address poverty and improve the community.
Bora Pajo, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of sociology and social work at Mercyhurst University. A key area of interest, and one in which she has completed, is the use of psychiatric medication in children diagnosed with emotional and behavioral problems.