Admission Requirements for Master of Social Work (MSW) Programs

Completing an MSW program is a time and effort-intensive endeavor that involves, not only advanced graduate-level coursework, but also several hundreds of practicum hours (field education) in real social work settings. To ensure that their students have the determination and relevant academic and professional experience to succeed in their graduate social work studies, MSW programs generally have quite rigorous standards for admission. As such, applying to an MSW program is a challenging process that requires a significant degree of preparation.

The majority of MSW programs require the following from applicants:

  • Completion of a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution (undergraduate degree requirements vary between traditional and advanced standing MSW programs—see below for more information).
  • Transcripts of all post-secondary academic coursework.
  • A professional resume.
  • A personal statement.
  • Two to three (or more) letters of recommendation from academic and/or professional references.
  • A minimum GPA that typically ranges from 2.5 to 3.0 depending on the program.
  • The passing of a formal background check for field practicum approval purposes.

Additional admissions requirements that may be required by some programs:

  • Standardized test scores like the GRE or MAT.
  • An interview either in person or online through video conferencing.
  • A non-refundable application fee.

Students should note that almost every MSW program has a selective admission process, which means that even if a student meets the requirements for admission, they may not be accepted by the program. Many programs also cap the number of students they admit for each cycle, which means typically only a fraction of the students who apply are accepted. Therefore, depending on the program, admissions can be highly competitive with students often needing to exceed minimum requirements to be accepted into the program.

This article discusses the admissions requirements for different types of MSW programs, including traditional and advanced standing MSW programs. It also discusses the distinctions between the admissions requirements for online vs. campus-based programs, including geographic restrictions/state authorizations.

Do MSW programs require applicants to have completed a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program to be considered for admission?

Whether students need a BSW degree or not in order to apply for an MSW program depends on the type of MSW program. Traditional MSW programs do not require a BSW for admission. However, advanced standing MSW programs do require applicants to have earned a BSW degree from a program that has been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

Note: For students who are not familiar with traditional versus advanced standing MSW programs, please see our FAQ entitled: What is the difference between a traditional MSW program and an advanced standing MSW program?

Traditional vs. Advanced Standing MSW Admissions

Applicants to traditional MSW programs and advanced standing MSW programs share many commonalities, including a commitment to social justice, human services, and supporting vulnerable populations. However, while traditional MSW programs consider applicants who might not have an academic or professional background specifically in social work, advanced standing MSW programs require their applicants to have formal academic training in social work, as well as professional experience in the field.

Traditional MSW Programs

Traditional MSW programs allow students who do not have a BSW to apply, as long as they meet certain academic and professional criteria. As a result, applicants who received their degree in a discipline other than social work—for example, sociology, anthropology, human biology, or political science, among others—have an opportunity to enroll in a graduate social work program. To be considered for admission into a traditional MSW program, applicants are generally expected to have the following credentials, in addition to the requirements described above:

  • While specific prerequisite course requirements vary by school, some programs require a minimum number of credits in courses that typically prepare students for advanced instruction in social work. Such classes may include social work-related courses as well as courses in sociology, psychology, statistics, biology, cultural studies, and/or anthropology, depending on the school.
  • One to two years of experience in a social work or human services context.
  • Evidence of strong interest in and dedication to the social work discipline, as demonstrated through work experience, strong letters of recommendation, and a compelling personal statement.

Advanced Standing MSW Programs

Admissions requirements for advanced standing MSW programs have even more stringent requirements than traditional MSW programs, as students of these programs start their advanced and specialization coursework immediately upon enrollment. Unlike traditional MSW programs, advanced standing MSW programs require students to possess formal social work training in the form of a BSW degree, as well as professional experience specifically in social work and social justice. In addition, advanced standing MSW programs typically require applicants to have the following credentials:

  • Completion of a BSW program accredited by the CSWE within the past five years prior to their application to the MSW program.
  • A minimum overall GPA requirement, typically 3.0 or higher (although some maybe as high as a 3.5, as well as a minimum GPA in all social work-related courses (3.0 or higher).
  • Evidence of excellent performance in one’s BSW field practicum experiences, as illustrated through a copy of one’s field placement evaluation (and possibly a letter of endorsement from one’s field practicum supervisor).
  • Two (or more) years of professional experience in a social work setting.
  • Evidence of strong commitment to the profession demonstrated through work experience, strong academic and professional letters of recommendation, and an advanced standing-specific personal statement.

Students with a BSW degree who do not meet the requirements for admission to an advanced standing MSW program must typically apply to a traditional MSW program if they wish to earn a master’s in social work. Therefore, BSW graduates interested in an advanced standing MSW program should contact a program administrator or admissions advisor about their eligibility for admission before applying.

Online MSW Programs Admissions vs. Campus-Based MSW Program Admissions

Campus-based MSW programs and online MSW programs typically have similarly rigorous admission requirements. In fact, schools of social work that offer campus-based and online versions of their MSW program will generally have equivalent admissions requirements. Students who are considering earning their MSW online should prepare their application the same way that they would for a campus-based program, and vice-versa.

One way in which online MSW programs and campus-based MSW programs differ in terms of admissions, however, is the fact that some online MSW programs have geographic restrictions or what is commonly referred to as state authorizations. Some programs do not accept online students from every state. This typically has to do with state regulations, licensing requirements, and/or the availability of field education sites. Most campus-based programs do not have this issue as out-of-state students must relocate to attend on-campus programs that are not within commuting distance from their residence.

In addition, while not as common as state restrictions, some online programs do not accept students who reside within a certain radius of their school’s main campus, as they would prefer these students to attend the campus-based program. For students interested in online programs, it is always best to confirm with the program that they are eligible for admission before applying.