15 Tips to Get into Top MSW Programs

Written By: Darby Faubion BSN, RN

Do you have a genuine desire to help and serve others? Do you have a bachelor's degree in social work and think earning a master's in social work is the next step for you? Maybe you earned a bachelor's degree in another field but want to transition your career to the field of social work. If so, an MSW program can help you make that happen. Have you considered becoming a Master of Social Work but wonder how to get into a top MSW program?

If this sounds like you, this article can help! As you continue reading, I will share insight into MSW programs, including what schools look for in candidates, 15 tips to get into top MSW programs, and a few mistakes to avoid that could keep you from getting admitted. With the information in this article, you can find top MSW programs that interest you and apply with confidence.



Admission to top MSW programs can be quite competitive. Schools look for candidates with a likelihood of academic and professional success and typically use a holistic approach to evaluating candidates. If you follow the tips provided in this article and follow through, you can increase your chance to get into top MSW programs.


Knowing what top MSW programs look for in potential candidates and working to achieve those characteristics or skills can help increase your chances of getting into a top MSW program. The following are five main things top MSW programs look for in applicants.

1. Excellent Communication Skills:

One of the most important things top MSW programs look for in candidates is the ability to communicate well. Excellent communication is vital for all social workers. You must be able to communicate verbally and nonverbally, be aware of nonverbal cues clients give, and learn to read body language. Throughout the application process, there are several things admission faculty use to gauge your communication skills, including your admission essay and how you perform in the admissions interview.

2. Someone who is culturally competent:

As a social worker, you will work with clients from many backgrounds. You must demonstrate the ability to show respect for their cultural or religious beliefs and practices, age, gender, socioeconomic class, and sexual orientation.

3. A commitment to learning:

Success as a social worker requires a commitment to lifelong learning. Admission faculty look for candidates who actively seek ways to learn and grow. Therefore, if you have opportunities to volunteer, participate in workshops, and attend seminars, do it... and highlight those experiences in your application.

4. Someone who is well organized:

Social work can be a demanding job. You may have several open cases for which you must organize and keep up-to-date documentation. Admissions teams understand the importance of being well organized and favor candidates who demonstrate that trait. Ways to show your organizational skills include submitting a complete application, making sure any requested documents are submitted on time, and respecting the admission team's time.

5. Good undergraduate grades:

Top MSW programs have challenging curriculums. Admission teams look for candidates with a proven track record of academic success. If you are still completing your undergraduate degree, work hard to exceed the minimum GPA required for top MSW programs. If you have already earned your degree and want to increase your GPA, consider taking a few college courses relevant to social work.


The following 15 tips will help you in your pursuit of getting into one of the top MSW programs in the nation.

TIP #1: Do not settle for the minimum GPA.

To get into a top MSW program, you must demonstrate the ability to excel academically. While most top MSW programs require candidates to have a minimum college GPA of at least 3.0, the higher your average, the better your chances of admission. If you are still earning your undergraduate degree, do your best in every class. On the other hand, if you have already completed a bachelor's program and want to increase your grade point average, consider taking some elective classes to help boost your average.

TIP #2: Take the GRE.

Many graduate programs, like master's social work programs, require prospective students to take the GRE as part of admission criteria. However, even if the school you hope to attend does not require the GRE as a condition of admission, taking the exam and scoring well could make you a more viable candidate. If your college grade point average is on the low end of the required minimum, I suggest taking the GRE even if it is not required.

TIP #3: Be prepared to explain any areas where you lack grades or relevant experience.

Getting into a top MSW program is competitive, which means you will answer questions about your academic and professional accomplishments, or lack thereof. While it is best to exceed minimum admission requirements to increase your chances of admission, do not be discouraged if some areas are lacking. While meeting general admissions requirements certainly helps, if you fall short, what is important is your ability to give an honest explanation and have a plan for how to perform better moving forward.

TIP #4: Take courses relevant to social work.

Although you need a bachelor’s degree to get into top MSW programs, you do not need a social work bachelor's. What this means is, depending on your previous degree, you may not have a strong base of social work-relevant college credits. The stronger your academic profile, the better you look to admission committees. If possible, consider taking some classes in sociology, psychology, cultural studies, and statistics. Putting forth the effort to take relevant classes, even when it is not required, shows your commitment to becoming a social worker and makes you a favorable candidate.

TIP #5: Nail the admissions interview!

Most graduate programs require candidates to participate in an admissions interview with program faculty. For some candidates, the interview is what makes the difference in whether they receive an admission offer. Treat the interview as the lifeline that determines your outcome in the application process. Prepare beforehand, dress professionally, and arrive early. Be ready to discuss your passion for social work and why you feel earning a master's in social work is the right path for your career.

One of the most important things to remember is to be honest. Trying to sugarcoat things or brush important details aside is sure to backfire. If there are things faculty may learn when checking your references or background check, lay it on the line. Explain the situation and the measures you have taken to resolve any negative issues.

TIP #6: Make sure you have glowing letters of recommendation.

All graduate programs request candidates to submit letters of professional recommendation as part of the admission process. Consider who you ask for references carefully. Choose someone who can speak to your character, work ethic, and the likelihood of succeeding when you get into a top MSW program. Former college professors and employers or supervisors are excellent choices. If you have mentors employed in a social work role, consider asking them.

TIP #7: Attend program information sessions.

There is more than one benefit of attending information sessions about MSW programs at schools where you plan to apply. The most obvious reason is you can learn specific program information and get a question you have answered by the right people. Another benefit that could help you get into top MSW programs is that you can meet faculty and admissions advisors. Make sure you introduce yourself to the faculty handing out fliers or brochures and get contact information for admissions advisors so you can follow up after applying. Most faculty and advisors have business cards available. Do not be afraid to ask for them!

TIP #8: Get relevant volunteer experience.

Even if you do not have an undergraduate social work degree, you can still gain relevant experience by volunteering. Admission teams look favorably upon candidates who take the initiative to participate in activities or projects focused on helping others. Some excellent options include volunteering at a homeless shelter or setting up a food drive for the needy. You can also consider volunteering at an after-school program, tutoring and mentoring children, or a nursing home. When you volunteer, get to know the leaders or directors of any facility where you serve. These people could be excellent choices for writing letters of recommendation.

TIP #9: Talk to current students or alum.

If you want to get into a top MSW program, there is no better source for tips than current students or former graduates. Many schools have message boards where prospective students can communicate with student ambassadors or offer student social worker support groups. Take advantage of opportunities to get to know some of these people and ask for their tips or insight on things you can do to improve your chance of admission.

TIP #10: Write an excellent admission essay or Statement of Intent.

If you want to get into top MSW programs, put effort into writing an excellent admission essay. Your statement or essay should include information about your academic and professional background, why you want to earn a Master of Social Work degree, and why you feel the program you are applying for is the best place to earn your degree. Think of your personal goals and discuss them, sharing how your personal values align with the ethics and values of the social work profession.

Keep in mind that the essay is evaluated on more than content. Admission faculty use your essay to evaluate your ability to write and synthesize information. When preparing to write your essay or statement, verify the school's guidelines, as some schools require candidates to answer specific questions within the essay's content or in addition to the essay.

TIP #11: Do the “Extras.”

While working on getting into a top MSW program, it's easy to skimp on things that are not on the "required" list. It is understandable, as you may need to write a different essay for each program you apply to or have a list of essential documents that varies from one school to the next. However, taking a little extra time to make sure your application stands out never hurts.

For example, create a professional resume that highlights your academic, professional, and volunteer experiences and lists references other than the people writing your letters of recommendation. Some schools require a resume, but even if the school you apply to does not, submitting one makes you look professional. It is a great chance to highlight your experience, especially the experiences you do not have time to mention in an essay or interview.

TIP #12: Get to know the people who work in the admissions office.

One of the best (and easiest) ways to help improve your chance of getting into top MSW programs is to get to know the people who make the decisions. Visit the school and introduce yourself to the admissions officers. Ask what they look for in applicants and what type of work or volunteer experience they like to see on applications. Despite what some people may think, this is not asking favors; it is doing your due diligence to get into your chosen program. Make sure you dress professionally when you stop by the admissions office and thank the admissions team for their time.

TIP #13: Research several schools and programs.

Accredited MSW programs follow a similar pattern when it comes to coursework and practical training. However, that does not mean every program is the same. It is important for you to research different programs to find those you feel are a good fit for you. Look at the program's web pages and read about its goals and expected student outcomes. Do they offer specialized training that interests you?

For example, one program may offer special field training in underserved populations, while another may have opportunities to focus on social policy reform. When you find programs with goals that align with yours, the task of making yourself "fit in" is not so difficult. Knowing program goals and student outcomes before your interview is essential because almost every interview includes questions about why you feel their school is the right place for you to earn your degree. If you know this ahead of time, you will not feel like you are grasping for answers.

TIP #14: Apply early!

One of the most critical steps to help improve your chance of getting into top MSW programs is to apply early. Every school has application deadlines, but what applicants often overlook is the priority deadline. If possible, submit your application before the priority deadline, as these are the applications the admission faculty review first. Make sure your application is complete.

TIP #15: Follow up on your application.

Colleges and universities today allow prospective students to create online accounts where they can submit their applications and any necessary documentation. You should be able to check the website under your account to determine if your application is marked as received, in review, or pending.

However, if you have yet to receive an email notification that your application is complete or in review, it is always good to follow up. Try sending a brief email to admissions a few days before the application deadline to confirm receipt of all necessary documents. This step is vital because admission to some programs can be competitive. You want to make sure your application is there and in the right person's hands if you want to get into a top MSW program.


You can follow all the tips in this article or dozens of other articles to help increase your chance of admission into a top MSW program. However, a few common mistakes could take that hard work and ruin your chance of getting admitted. The following are five common mistakes to avoid that could ruin your chance of getting into top MSW programs.

MISTAKE #1: Not Having a Clear Understanding of Your “Why”

Social work is a rewarding job, but it can also be challenging. Admissions committees look for candidates who understand what the role involves but whose reason for pursuing a master's in social work is stronger than any challenge the program or career brings. Your admission essay and interview are two opportunities you will have to explain why you chose this field and why a graduate degree in social work is important to you. If you are unable to explain why you want to earn an MSW, you could risk losing your chance to get into a top MSW program.

MISTAKE #2: Having Poor Undergraduate Grades

The minimum grade point average required to get into top MSW programs varies but averages 3.0 on a 4.0 scale. Although some schools consider applications holistically and take into account why you may have had poor grades in a previous program, all do not. Admission to top MSW programs can be competitive. So, you need to be serious about earning good grades. If your grades do not exceed the minimum GPA required, consider taking some electives to help boost your grade point average before applying.

MISTAKE #3: Trying to “Over-Sell” Yourself

There is a fine line between being confident and being arrogant. You want to come across as confident, professional, and approachable throughout the application process. You do not want to appear self-absorbed or try to make yourself look better than other candidates. Your application and relevant academic, professional, and personal history should tell the story of who you are as a professional and a student. Be careful not to compare yourself to other applicants or former students. Keep things direct, to the point, and polite.

MISTAKE #4: Asking to Reschedule Your Admissions Interview

We all have unexpected things that happen from time to time. Sickness, a death in the family, and car trouble affect everyone. It is understandable if you have a true emergency and must reschedule your admissions interview. However, do not ask to reschedule your interview because you overbooked yourself, forgot about prior plans, or because you just do not feel like it.

Remember that the admissions interview is usually the last step of the admission process. By the time you receive an invitation to interview, your application has been reviewed, references checked, and transcripts confirmed. This is your chance to make an impression on program faculty and could seal the deal when it comes to getting into a top MSW program. Also, if you do not show up, chances are someone else will be called to take your spot in the interview schedule and could receive an admission offer.

MISTAKE #5: Turning in a Late Application

This should go without saying, but I cannot tell you how many college applicants wait until the last minute to turn in their applications or turn them in after the deadline. Turning in a late application almost guarantees you will not get into a top MSW program. Social workers must prepare reports, case studies, and other essential documents and meet deadlines. If you do not show enough professionalism to turn your application in on time, admissions teams consider that a red flag indicating you may not complete assignments on time. Always beat the deadline!


Considering a graduate degree is a big decision. So, it is natural to wonder, who can tell me how to get into a top MSW program? In this article, we answered that question by sharing 15 tips to get into top MSW programs and a few examples of things to avoid to help you through the process. With this information, you can confidently apply to top MSW programs and increase the likelihood of being accepted. If becoming a Master of Social Work is something you truly desire, there is no time like the present to begin the process and achieve that dream!


1. When Is The Application Deadline For Top MSW Programs?

The application deadline for top MSW programs varies from one school to the next. Some schools accept applications on a rolling admission basis, while others have priority and final deadlines. It is best to confirm with each school you plan to apply to and verify their deadlines.

2. What Are The Admission Requirements For Top MSW Programs?

Top MSW programs require a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, a minimum GPA of 3.0, and letters of recommendation. You will also be asked to prepare an admission essay or Statement of Intent and likely participate in an admissions interview.

3. What Is The Average GPA Of Students Who Get Into Top MSW Programs?

The average GPA of students accepted into the top MSW programs is 3.5 on a 4.0 scale for the most recent college degree.

4. Can I Get Into A Top MSW Program With A Low GPA?

Some top MSW programs may accept you with a low GPA. If the school considers other factors in its review process, your chances are better. However, remember, admission to some programs is competitive. So, do your best to get your GPA up.

5. How Important Is Experience When Trying To Get Into A Top MSW Program?

Most of the top MSW programs use a holistic approach when reviewing applicants for admission. Although work experience may not be required, it can certainly help. Also, if you do not have relevant work experience, consider volunteering.

6. Can I Get Into A Top MSW Program Without Extracurriculars?

Yes, you can get into a top MSW program without extracurriculars. However, if you have extracurriculars, such as volunteer experience, be sure and highlight it on your application, as this makes you a more viable candidate.

7. Is There An Interview For Admission Into Top MSW Programs?

Most top MSW programs require an admission interview as the final step in the admissions process.

8. What Is The Admission Rate For Top MSW Programs?

The admission rate for top MSW programs varies, with the average being about 60%.

9. Is There A Waiting List For Top MSW Programs?

Many top MSW programs have waiting lists. This is one reason I recommend applying to at least four or five programs.

10. Will Applying Early Increase My Chances Of Admission Into Top MSW Programs?

Applying early can increase your chances of admission into top MSW programs. If possible, apply before the priority deadline.

Darby Faubion BSN, RN
Darby Faubion is a nurse and Allied Health educator with over twenty years of experience. She has assisted in developing curriculum for nursing programs and has instructed students at both community college and university levels. Because of her love of nursing education, Darby became a test-taking strategist and NCLEX prep coach and assists nursing graduates across the United States who are preparing to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX).