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Applying to a Master of Social Work Program
By Michelle Bruxer

The most common questions in the personal statement and how to answer them.

Writing a personal statement for a Master of Social Work (MSW) program can be intimidating, as most applicants aren’t taught how to answer the prompts effectively.

Following are the five most common questions admissions committees ask in the personal statement and how to answer them.

1: Tell us about your experience and motivation for becoming a social worker.

Admissions committees almost always ask this. Many applicants make the mistake of restating their résumé and focus too much on talking about their job duties and responsibilities. Admissions committees are looking for applicants to uncover the insights they gained from their experiences and discuss why they want to pursue a career in social work.

An example: An applicant worked at a summer camp between semesters as a university student. Her job duties included planning activities, preparing snacks, maintaining safety, and watching up to 25 children at a time. But her insight was this: The summer camp had no resources for kids with extra needs, and as a result, children with mental health challenges, behavioral needs, and disabilities were often excluded and even kicked out of summer camp. This experience motivated her to become a social worker so she can advocate for resources for children who need additional support in the community.

When applicants focus on their insights instead of their specific job duties, they create a more compelling personal statement.

2: Tell us about a social justice issue and how social workers can solve that issue.

A mistake applicants often make when responding to this second most common prompt is choosing to talk about a social justice issue that has nothing to do with their experience, motivation, and goals. For example, someone who wants to work as a hospice social worker shouldn’t choose a social justice issue that has to do with child welfare. Instead, applicants can strengthen their personal statements by creating cohesion between the social justice issues they discuss and their own goals.

Someone who wants to be a hospice social worker, for example, may choose to talk about the conditions of government-funded hospice programs. They can include relevant research to back up their points to prove that there’s a need for social workers in this area and talk about what they will do as a social worker to work toward solving that issue.

3: Tell us about an ethical dilemma you faced or how your personal values align with the social work profession.

When admissions committees ask about ethics and values, they are looking for applicants to demonstrate their alignment with the social work profession. To answer these questions, applicants should first ensure that they know what the core ethical values are. Applicants in the United States should review the Code of Ethics from NASW. If applicants have experience in the field, it would be beneficial to talk about an ethical dilemma they faced in their work. They should identify the ethical dilemma, the decision they made, and why they arrived at that decision. If they do not have experience, they should research common ethical dilemmas in the role they are hoping to pursue.

4: How will you manage the demands of graduate school and/or is there anything we should know about your application?

Admissions committees are looking for applicants to prove that they have thought about and have a plan for managing the demands of graduate school. Applicants should discuss how they will balance coursework, placement, jobs, and finances. Admissions committees also often give applicants space to talk about issues such as low grades, gaps in employment, or anything else that might be considered a negative in the MSW application. They do this because they recognize that applicants may have circumstances beyond their control that caused these issues. Admissions committees also recognize that the hardships people faced that caused problems such as low grades also contribute to the potential for that person to be a more empathetic social worker.

5: Tell us about a weakness you possess or about a time you disagreed with someone.

When admissions committees ask about weaknesses or conflicts, they are looking for applicants to demonstrate their critical thinking skills and ability to self-reflect—both crucial skills for social workers. “I’m a perfectionist,” “I work too hard,” and “I care too much” are standard answers applicants often give. People also often avoid answering this question because they don’t want to give a reply that might be a dealbreaker. Instead of humble bragging (or worse, avoiding the question altogether) applicants may choose to discuss their power and privilege and how their social location might influence their work with certain populations. Or maybe there’s a skill applicants need to learn or develop further as a social worker. Many people struggle with skills such as boundary setting, having difficult conversations, or navigating the line between demonstrating appropriate levels of empathy and when working with individuals. This ability to critically reflect is an important skill admissions committees want to see expressed in personal statements.

Applying to an MSW program can be a daunting. The personal statement is an important tool with which applicants can demonstrate to admissions committees their critical thinking skills and their potential to contribute to the field, yet most applicants aren’t taught how to effectively answer the prompts to showcase their skillsets. This list gives applicants a starting point on how to answer the most common prompts.

— Michelle Bruxer is the founder and CEO of MSW Helper, where she helps MSW applicants write top-notch personal statements for grad school. She understands how stressful applying to MSW programs can be and strives to help applicants feel confident about their applications.