How do I get into a master’s in social work program?

The formal application process for the typical master’s-level program involves submitting documents that demonstrate your academic abilities, previous work experience and commitment to the field you plan to study. MSW applications usually include the following information:

Tests or Certifications

The GRE is often required for MSW applicants, but scores are sometimes waived for students with a high undergraduate GPA. The MAT may also be accepted at some schools.


Many programs are designed for students who already have experience as social workers or in other human services settings. Some schools offer curriculum tracks for students who are new to the social work field.


Bachelor’s transcripts from an accredited institution are required. Students who have earned a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) may find accelerated programs options. Students with liberal arts undergraduate majors are also encouraged to apply to most MSW programs.

Additional Materials

Check with each program for an up-to-date list of application needs. Social work programs may require a current resume, a personal statement, multiple letters of recommendation and other supplemental materials.

What can I do to improve my chances of getting accepted into a Master of Social Work program?

  • Gain experience working in a multicultural context. Social workers must maintain objectivity when working with people representing different genders, races, ethnicities, religions, abilities, sexual orientations and socioeconomic status.
  • Volunteer with a local organization that has a human services mission. Explore the role of these services within a community so that you will be able to better articulate your commitment to and interest in the social work profession.
  • Complete undergraduate coursework in behavioral science, social science, biology, social problems and statistics.
  • Maintain a high undergraduate GPA. Most MSW programs recommend a minimum GPA to submit an application, and competitive programs have a minimum of 3.0 or higher.

Application Process Timeline

  • Review program requirements.
  • Take standardized tests, as required.
  • Order undergraduate transcripts.
  • Prepare required documentation (i.e., write essay, request recommendation letters).
  • Submit a completed application by the program’s posted deadline.

Note: You will find there is a lot of variation in the application process program to program. Some only admit students at certain times of year, which may be based on semesters or accelerated terms. Others have a rolling admissions policy that allows students to apply any time and quickly enroll. Completion timelines also vary across programs within one institution or across a network of schools.

What are the degree options available at the master’s level?

The primary degree in the social work field is the MSW. The Council on Social Work Education also recognizes Master of Science, Master of Social Service and Master of Arts programs in social work, although these are not as common.

Program Length

Students enrolled in an MSW program can expect to complete 40 to 60 academic credits. These programs are usually completed in two to three years, and accelerated options are available. Accepted students who have completed BSW degrees are often granted “advanced standing” status and are exempt from taking many foundational topics. Part-time and accelerated programs are available.

Program Goals

MSW programs focus on preparing students for advanced practice in community organizations, private companies, educational institutions and other employment settings. Social work programs develop knowledge and skills in a wide range of human services concerns, such as social justice, social policy, diversity, interpersonal relationships, community advocacy and health and well-being. Many programs help students earn state licensure (e.g. Licensed Clinical Social Worker), but the educational requirements vary by state.


MSW programs often offer multiple areas of specialization, which vary by school. Possible concentration areas include organizational leadership and development, clinical practice with children and families, crisis and trauma, mental health, addiction and community program development. Some schools also offer joint degree programs in which an MSW student, through completing additional coursework, can concurrently earn an MBA, JD, MPA, M.Div. or MS in another discipline, such as public health, criminology or social policy.

Course Formats

Today’s learning options include traditional on-campus, online and hybrid programs. Students can choose the option that best fit their learning needs, preferences and schedules, and some schools offer more than one MSW program format. Online MSW programs that include internships, practicum experience and clinical assignments usually require students to participate in on-site activities either on campus or at an approved facility.

What do the major concepts and coursework look like?

While the specific learning objectives of each MSW program vary, students can expect to acquire advanced knowledge and skills related to delivering human services programs, conducting clinical practice with individuals and groups, conducting social research and providing community leadership. Some programs require students to complete a basic statistics course prior to beginning the MSW curriculum.


Core courses provide a foundation of knowledge in topics related to human behavior, social policy and service delivery. Common course subjects include:

  • Social Welfare Policy
  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment
  • Social Work Research
  • Policies and Strategies for Community Intervention
  • Cultural Diversity

Concentration courses prepare students for advanced practice in their specialization area and include classes like:

  • Clinical Practice with Families
  • Adult Psychopathology
  • Treatment of Couples/Marital Problems
  • Social Work in Schools
  • Advanced Policy Analysis

Electives are part of some degree plans and usually require advisor approval. These credits can include graduate-level courses in a wide range of topics, such as migration studies, urban populations, family therapy, global health and nonprofit management.

Field Education, Internship, Capstone

Most MSW programs include a practical learning experience requirement. Students who have previous social work experience may be able to waive this requirement or complete a reduced number of hours. The curricula can include one or more of the following: internship or supervised clinical assignments in the field, formal research and writing, comprehensive exams and capstone projects. These requirements are usually part of both traditional and online programs, and schools typically provide assistance with project planning and field placement.

What about program costs?

Getting In

The graduate admissions process typically includes costs related to the following:

  • Application: Printed and online forms require payment of a non-refundable fee ranging from $50 to $85.
  • Standardized tests: The GRE test administration fee is $195; additional fees apply for special handling and preparation courses.
  • Interviews: Not all programs require an interview, but those that do may provide travel and lodging costs for the prospective student.

Tuition and Fees

MSW tuition varies based on the type of institution, mode of instruction , full- or part-time enrollment and student residency. Each program establishes a schedule for tuition and provides an estimate of other fees associated with taking courses and completing program requirements.

When comparing the anticipated expenses of multiple MSW programs, look for the following information to help you make decisions about affordability:

  • Total costs: The amount paid to complete all courses and program requirements.
  • Annual tuition: This is calculated based on full-time enrollment for one academic year.
  • Cost per credit: Programs require different numbers of courses and credits. The program with the fewest number of credits required isn’t necessarily the least expensive.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average full-time graduate tuition and fees was $14,993 in 2011. The total costs associated with current programs cover a wide range from approximately $25,000 to $95,000.

Admissions and financial aid counselors can help research funding options to offset the total cost of attendance. Review our guide on scholarships, grants and financial aid advice for more information.

How does accreditation work?

What accrediting agencies should I be aware of for MSW programs?

CSWE: The Council on Social Work Education is the only recognized accrediting agency for social work programs in the United States. Accreditation evaluations include program mission and goals, curriculum and student assessment. As of February 2015, the CSWE listed 235 master’s social work programs with current accreditation.

How do I go about evaluating and selecting a program?

  • Make sure you can specialize in your area of interest. Not all programs offer all concentrations, but you will find a wide range of options across schools. Read program and course descriptions carefully to get a better idea of the coursework, research and practical experience requirements for each concentration area offered. Some schools may emphasize one area more than others, such as social policy, program development or clinical practice.
  • Review faculty profiles. Faculty qualifications are an important component of any academic program. Find out more about your future instructors’ educational backgrounds, expertise in the fields they teach, professional experience and current research interests in the many components of social work practice.
  • Gain experience while you study. Most MSW programs require internships, field placements and other preparation for the social work positions after graduation. Work with admissions advisors to find out how you can use these experiences to build on your previous work history, move forward on your chosen social work career path and if placement assistance is provided by the school.
  • Check accreditation status. For students that may continue to doctoral level programs, and for those who are interested in being licensed social workers at the state-level, accreditation is a critical component of a master’s program. Some employers also check for accredited degree programs when reviewing applicant materials.
  • Compare delivery format options. The decision to study online, on campus, or in a hybrid program isn’t always easy. There are advantages and disadvantages to each option. Students with work and family commitments may find the flexibility of online learning the best fit, while others prefer in-person interaction with instructors and classmates. Work with admissions advisors to clarify the requirements and expectations of each MSW program you are considering.

What are the keys to success once I’ve begun my program?

  • Commit yourself to being a graduate student. You may choose to add an MSW program to an already busy life, but it’s important to schedule time specifically for school work. Make the most of each course by completing readings and assignments, connecting with your instructors and collaborating with classmates.
  • Connect with available support services. Many services are in place at your institution to ensure you have the support you need to successfully complete your program. Attend all orientation sessions, and set up appointments with your advisor, other faculty members, research librarians and career counselors.
  • Fine tune your career plan. Do you want to work in a school or community program? What about the options in medical facilities and government offices? Many social workers specialize in policy or practice, or with a specific type of service such as addiction counseling or population like at-risk youth. Explore as many facets of the social work field as you can through your courses and field placements to find the best fit for you and your career.
  • Join a professional association. The National Association of Social Workers is just one of the organizations advocating for professionals working in this field. Membership opens up access to publications, industry news, job postings and other resources. Students can often join at a reduced fee.