Applying for graduate school is a big step! Whether you are just graduating with your bachelor’s in social work or you have been out for a few years, preparing that application takes time, energy, and careful consideration. Your grades are only one indicator of readiness for graduate study. It is highly likely that you will be asked to write a professional statement or essay along with completing a standardized application form. Although some admissions committees conduct personal admissions interviews, your first representation will be in writing, and your readiness will be evaluated on how you present yourself, your experiences, and your professional aspirations.
Every graduate school’s application process is different. Some are fully online and others use hardcopy, but they are all looking for the same thing—students who can clearly and thoughtfully make a case for how they are the best fit for acceptance into that particular graduate program.
As that applicant, you want to be successful, but making the most of the application process is a relatively unexamined process. Each program will provide forms and directions as part of the application, but little direction is provided regarding what works to meet the expectations. The following are some key thoughts for putting your best application forward.
1. Don’t just download applications!
Each graduate program is looking for students who match its educational mission and goals. Go to the Web site of each program that interests you, and review! Decide whether you are a good fit for that particular program. Applying only to programs that are located close by may not be a successful strategy if you can’t make a good case for fit. Take opportunities in the application to write about why you are a good fit.
2. Read the application carefully, and follow directions!
That sounds like a no-brainer, but often in the haste to complete an application, key information will be missed or ignored. Use a highlighter to target items that use the words “must,” “demonstrate,” “provide examples,” or “identify.” Read the instructions for the professional statement or essay carefully and make note of the expectations!
3. Attend a pre-admissions meeting or ask to meet with a faculty member to talk about the program and your fit.
Go prepared! Read the Web site and the application and prepare questions. Make sure you introduce yourself.
4. Give yourself ample time to think, write, revise, edit, get feedback from an impartial reviewer, revise, edit, and submit!
Make sure your spelling, syntax, grammar, and punctuation are correct. Make sure your word choices clearly and accurately depict your thinking and that your ideas are presented in a professional manner. As you no, its easy two half misteaks even win wee are being vary careful too due it rite! (sic)
5. If you aren’t confident about your writing skills, during the application process, you might consider taking a writing class or working with an editor to improve your writing skills.
Graduate students can tell you they do a LOT of writing, and it is a skill you will use in every class.
6. If you are applying in your senior year or are a new graduate, keep in mind that the coursework, volunteer experiences, and field practica you completed have increased your knowledge and skills.
Don’t underestimate their value! Focus on your strengths and what you have to contribute, rather than on whatever deficits you may think you have. Rather than, “I hope to learn...,” think about saying, “I have learned and applied...,” or, “The skills I developed have led me to....” Graduate programs are looking for learners who will contribute to the learning environment. Give them examples of what you have to offer!
7. If you have been out practicing at the bachelor’s level, use your educational and work experience to highlight what you have accomplished, where you are headed professionally, and what you will contribute.
Draw specific examples from your work (without breaching confidentiality) to demonstrate skills, leadership, creativity, ethical practice, and professionalism. Sharing your successes is not bragging!
8. Some programs request that a résumé be submitted along with your application.
Make sure it is up-to-date and formatted in a clear manner. Current students can use the college/university career development center for consultation in creating a résumé. Typically, alumna can use the college/university career center, if convenient, for up to a year. Online sites also exist for templates and suggested formats. Consider dropping off employment or activities that occurred in high school or earlier.
9. Be honest in your application, your résumé, and your professional statement/essay.
Accurately portray your work experience, skills, and knowledge. If asked to identify challenges or deficits, instead of simply stating, “I overschedule” (for example), frame your response with what you are doing to remediate that—“As overscheduling is a challenge, I am careful to schedule time for completing paperwork and meetings using a day planner.”
10. Write your professional statement or essay for a specific program.
Generic letters read that way! Some ideas, phrasing, or perspectives may fit with many programs, but tailor your writing to the mission and admissions criteria of each program. And keep the names straight—nothing is more off-putting than to have one’s institution referred to by a competitor’s name!
11. Do you have specialized experience related to a specific part of the program mission?
Do you have professional expertise that would be augmented by study in an area of the curriculum or with a particular faculty member? Do you have experiences that would enhance the student body? Make sure that it is included in your professional statement or essay.
12. References are always required!
Applications will likely have reference forms or specific points they want covered by a reference. Be clear about what kind of reference you need. There is a difference between someone who watched you grow up and thinks you are fabulous no matter what you do (personal reference) and a professional reference who can speak to the specific qualities that graduate programs are looking for, such as leadership, ethical behavior, and academic readiness. Supervisors (past or present), instructors (past or present), or colleagues who have had sufficient time to know you and your work are all potential references. Talk to the people you ask to be a professional reference and make sure they are willing to address the specific questions the program is asking. Provide them with your résumé as an information source, and remind them of examples of your work. A letter that specifically addresses your application, the criteria, and your readiness for graduate study can make a difference. After you are accepted, thank them for their help.
13. Avoid anything that can make your application and or professional statement or essay difficult to read.
Colorful paper, exotic fonts, and illustrations are not appropriate for this type of writing. A white or linen colored paper, with an easy-to-read font of a reasonable size (Times New Roman, 12 point, for example), printed clearly and cleanly, are good choices.
14. Carefully review what should be mailed or done online, and by whom.
Some programs only accept references online, whereas others require them to be mailed in with the application. An 8½ x 11 envelope for mailing is a better choice than folding multiple pages into a legal size envelope.
Realistically, the graduate school application process is competitive, and you may not get in the first time you apply. Don’t give up! Sometimes graduate programs will offer you feedback—ask! Attend another information session, if available. Talk with a mentor about how to improve your chances. Talk with the admissions person about classes you can take at a graduate level to demonstrate your readiness and improve your GPA. Work and get additional experience. Developing a relationship with a social work program in your area can help you know if it is a good fit. If you have a BSW/BSSW, consider becoming a field instructor for an undergraduate student. Don’t give up! Rework the application and reapply! Many successful social workers did not get into graduate school with their first application!
Robin R. Wingo, MSW, LISW, joined the Department of Social Work at Minnesota State University, Mankato faculty in 2001. She received her MSW from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She annually reviews applications for admissions to the MSW program.
This article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER. Copyright 2012 White Hat Communications. All rights reserved.