When it comes to applying for your Master of Social Work (MSW), the personal statement is the most important – and often the most daunting – part of the application process.

Schools of social work are looking for your ability to think critically and contribute to the social work field. This is more important than your grades and experience. I know this because I’ve seen people with high grades and a ton of experience get rejected from the program because they weren’t able to articulate their critical thinking skills (and I’ve seen it go the other way too, where applicants with low grades and little experience get accepted because of their strong personal statement).

So, let’s talk about how you can write an effective personal statement for your grad school application.

Michelle is the Founder of MSW Helper, where she helps Master of Social Work Applicants write top notch personal statements for grad school. Michelle understands how stressful applying to the MSW can be, and strives to help applicants feel confident about their applications. 

Check out her website to learn more: https://www.mswhelper.com/

What schools of social work are looking for

In my experience, most schools of social work ask about these key areas:

  • Your experiences that motivated you to become a social worker, including personal, professional, academic, and other experiences
  • A discussion of a social problem and how social workers can work towards solving it
  • Your goals as a social worker

In addition, schools of social work typically assess your personal statement for the following:

  • Evidence of critical and analytical thinking skills
  • Potential contribution to the field of social work
  • Your ability to communicate clearly and succinctly

This is how you can demonstrate all of the following key areas seamlessly.

Contribution to the field

Let’s look at a personal statement of a past MSW applicant:

Applicant name: Sally

●        Experiences: Sally works at a women’s shelter and talks about what she learned there.
●        Social Justice Issue: Sally decides to talk about an issue within child welfare.
●        Goal: Sally mentions that she wants to get an MSW so that she can qualify for a job at the hospital.

There are a few issues with Sally’s personal statement.

First, there is no cohesion between her experience, social justice issue, and goals, which makes it hard for the reader to understand why she wants to pursue an MSW and how she’ll be an asset to the field.

Second, Sally is talking about how an MSW will be beneficial for her, which comes off as a bit self-serving. When writing a personal statement, it’s important to talk about how pursuing an MSW will allow her to help others.

With this in mind, let’s see an example of how Sally could improve her personal statement:

Applicant: Sally

●        Experiences: Sally works at a women’s shelter and talks about what she learned there.
●        Social Justice Issue: Sally discusses an insight from her time at the women’s shelter, and backs it up with research that proves that her observation is part of a larger social problem. 
●        Goal: This issue that Sally noticed at the women’s shelter inspired her to get her MSW so that she can address that issue and support her clients in a different capacity and advocate for women’s rights at the macro level.

Better, right?

In this version of her personal statement, Sally demonstrates a high level of critical thinking by talking about her insights and backing them up with research, and she demonstrates her potential contribution to the field by discussing how a Master of Social Work will allow her to serve others in a greater capacity. 

If you’re planning to write a personal statement, a great place to start is to think about insights and problems you’ve observed from your work, volunteer, placement, and personal experiences, and use those insights to develop your social justice problem.

Evidence of critical and analytical thinking

In addition to demonstrating your potential to contribute to the field, there are some tangible ways you can demonstrate your critical thinking skills.

First, make sure you understand what social work actually is.

This might sound obvious, but there are a surprising number of applicants who have a pretty limited understanding of what social work entails. I don’t blame them. The media often portrays a specific image of what social workers look like (usually involving child welfare, case workers, or therapists).

However, social work is so much more than that. Social workers work at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels of society, and can work in many areas at each of these levels.

Also, many applicants pursue social work out of a desire to help others, but it’s not good enough to say that in your personal statement. There are a lot of other jobs you can do that would allow you to help others. Think about how social workers are different from other helping professions (such as nurses, psychologists, police officers, teachers, lawyers, etc.).  Why do you want to be a social worker and not another helping profession?

Understanding what social work is will help you provide a stronger and more thorough answer to the question of “why” you want to become a social worker.

Finally, connect your insights to the bigger picture by integrating research into your personal statement.

It’s one thing to talk about the issues you’ve noticed from your experiences, and it’s another to connect your insight to the bigger picture with the help of research.

Let’s look at Sally again.

Sally’s role at the women’s shelter is to help her clients who experienced domestic violence find housing. Sally noticed that many of her previously housed clients got evicted and ended up back at the shelter.

Sally also did some research and found studies to suggest that women who experience domestic violence have an overall higher rate of housing instability due to barriers such as income loss and lack of social support.

This knowledge motivated Sally to pursue a Master of Social Work so that she can move into a policy role to advocate for income and social support for women who experience domestic violence.

Connecting experience to research will demonstrate a high level of critical thinking.

Ability to communicate clearly and succinctly

When it comes to writing your personal statement, it’s not only what you say, but also how you say it. Admissions committees are typically assessing your personal statement for your writing ability.

Make it easy to read: 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.

Treat your personal statement like an academic writing sample: Many applicants don’t realize that the personal statement is a sample of your academic writing and research skills. One way to stand out is to treat your personal statement like a school paper. I often advise applicants to use full APA formatting when writing their personal statement, as this will make your personal statement look more professional and will stand out from the crowd. 

Creating Your Own MSW Personal Statement

When writing a personal statement for your MSW, it’s important to demonstrate your potential contribution to the field, critical thinking skills, and strong writing ability. If you follow these tips, you’ll be on your way to writing an effective personal statement that stands out.