My name is Michelle and I’m the founder of MSW Helper. I’ve been editing personal statements for Master of Social Work applicants since 2018. Over the years, I’ve noticed that MSW applicants often make the same mistakes when writing their personal statements. Here are the top 10 most common mistakes that can impact the quality of your personal statement.
Mistake #1: You don’t demonstrate your understanding of what social work actually is
When people first apply for their Master of Social Work, they often have a limited understanding of what social work is. I don’t blame them, in the media we often only see social workers employed in child welfare, case management, and clinical roles.
However, social work is so much more than that. Social workers work at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels of society in the pursuit of social justice. When applicants write a personal statement without an understanding of what social work is, it usually impedes their ability to answer the prompts thoroughly.
If you’re applying for your Master of Social Work, it would be helpful to look up common social work theories, principles, and ethical values.
Mistake #2: You Focus on the what but not the why
Many applicants fall into the trap of regurgitating their resumes. They talk about what they did and their skills, but don’t talk about the significance of those experiences. This is not what admissions committees are looking for in the personal statement. They want you to make sense of your experiences and demonstrate what you learned and why those experiences have motivated you to become a social worker.
Mistake #3: You concentrate on how grad school will benefit you
MSW applicants often make the mistake of talking about how an MSW will be beneficial for them. Here are some examples of what they say:
- “I want to get my MSW so I can get a higher-paying job.”
- “I want to go to your school because it’s the top program in the state.”
This doesn’t tell the reader anything about you. At worst, it can come off as self-serving. Instead, talk about how you’ll contribute to the school and the field of social work as a whole. Here are some examples:
- “A Master of Social Work will give me the skills I need to support my clients in a more meaningful way.”
- “The School of Social Work’s specialization in clinical practice aligns with my interest in becoming a clinical social worker for adolescents.”
Mistake #4: You recycle the cliche “I want to help people”
Many applicants say this in their personal statement, and it’s a really weak statement. Social workers help people in so many different ways, and there are a lot of other professions that would allow you to help others (such as teachers, nurses, doctors, police, psychologists etc.)
Instead of saying you want to help others, try to go a little deeper:
- Who do you want to help?
- In what way do you want to help them?
- Why do you need an MSW to do that? Why not another similar degree?
- What is it about social work that would allow you to help others in a way that would be meaningful to you?
Mistake #5: You humble-brag
Schools of social work often ask applicants to talk about an area of weakness or a time when they made a mistake. They ask this question because they want to see your critical thinking skills, self-reflection, and potential for growth. I see many applicants make the mistake of providing a humble brag (“I’m a perfectionist”, “I work too hard”) or avoiding the question altogether.
This is not the move.
Instead, it’s important to provide honest answers. You might choose to talk about how you have a hard time having difficult conversations, communicating when there’s a problem, or setting boundaries. Provide an example of a time when you struggled and what you did about it, and how you’ll address it in the future.
For example: “I sometimes struggle to not take my work home with me at the end of the day. In the past, this has impacted my personal life and emotional state. I found that one strategy that helps me is to change out of my work clothes as soon as I get home to symbolize that I am mentally done with work for the day. As a social worker, it’ll be important for me to set boundaries and implement strategies to help me compartmentalize my work and home life.”
Mistake #6: You don’t believe in yourself
If you don’t fully believe that you deserve a space in the MSW program, it often shows up in the personal statement. Here are some common phrases I often see:
- “If accepted to the program..”
- “It would be an honor to get accepted…”
- “I may not be the strongest candidate”
These types of statements signal to the reader that you don’t really believe that you deserve a space in the program. Unfortunately, the reader doesn’t have the time or mental energy to disagree with you, so if you make these types of statements you’re setting yourself up for rejection.
Instead, speak as if you know you’re going to get accepted
- “When I start the program…”
- “My MSW will enable me to…”
- I would make a valuable asset to the program because”
This will signal to the reader that you know you’d be an amazing social worker and that accepting you to the program is a no-brainer.
Mistake #7: Your personal statement is unorganized
Admissions committees read literally hundreds of personal statements each application season, so it’s likely that whoever reads your personal statement is going to quickly skim through your personal statement to find your answers. With that in mind, it’s important to make your personal statement as skimmable and easy to read as possible.
You can do this by adding headings that match each question or prompt so that the reader can easily see that you did answer each prompt.
You should also be concise and get rid of filler words and sentences that don’t directly answer the prompts.
Finally, you should always try to include an introduction and a conclusion in your personal statement where you summarize your experience, social justice problem, and goals. This will allow the reader to get your whole story in a few sentences, and leave them with a strong impression at the beginning and end of your personal statement.
Mistake #8: You haven’t followed the instructions
Schools will often provide specific instructions about what they expect from the personal statement. They may want it formatted a certain way, or there may be a word count/page limit. If a school is asking for specific instructions be sure to follow them to a tee. Not listening to instructions is an easy way for the reader to weed out your personal statement.
Mistake #9: You don’t treat your personal statement like an academic writing sample
When writing a personal statement, what you say is just as important as how you say it. Too often, I see applicants overlook the fact that the personal statement serves as an academic writing sample. Although the content is important, treating your personal statement like a writing sample will show whoever is reading your statement your ability to research and write in an academic manner. By using proper formatting, you prove to the reader your academic rigor.
Mistake #10: You haven’t given yourself enough time
The personal statement is one of the most important papers you’ll write in your academic journey. Don’t treat it like a school assignment where you can throw some stuff together and hope for the best. Start early, come up with an outline of what you want to say before you start writing, and give it the priority it deserves.
Avoid these common mistakes and you’ll be on your way to a strong personal statement. Now that you know what to avoid, here’s an article on what to write instead.