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What is social work and what does a social worker do? Social workers help people in their communities overcome adversities and access the resources they need to thrive. If you want to make a positive impact on your community, you may want to consider a career in social work.

But before you can practice as a social worker, you need to complete your education. Most states require you to earn a master’s in social work (MSW) before you can apply for a social work license.1

If you’re wondering how to get a master's in social work, you’re in the right place. Below, we’ll outline the steps you can take to earn this type of degree.

#1 Reflect on Your Reasons For Pursuing Social Work

Social work practice can be a very rewarding profession, but it’s not for everyone. 

Before you invest the time and money into pursuing a career in social work, take the time to understand why you might want to become a social worker. Here are a few possibilities:

  • You have empathy for others and a desire to do good in the world
  • You’ve witnessed the positive impact of social workers in your own life
  • You have innovative ideas for helping communities in need
  • You want your career to provide you with a sense of purpose

If you resonate with any of these statements, social work may be the right profession for you. In turn, you can proceed with the following steps with clarity and enthusiasm. 

#2 Complete Your Undergraduate Education

Before you can enroll in an MSW program, the first step of how to become a social worker is completing your undergraduate education. It’s important to note that you can enroll in most MSW programs with any type of bachelor’s degree. Thus, if you already have a bachelor’s degree in another subject, all you’ll likely need to do is start looking for MSW programs. 

If you don’t have a bachelor’s degree yet, you may want to consider earning a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW). While having a BSW isn’t required for most types of MSW degree programs, it may offer you a better foundation of knowledge for your future career. You may also be able to qualify for advanced standing MSW programs, which may be completed faster than traditional MSW programs. 

Keep in mind that you’ll need to submit your undergraduate transcript and GPA during the Master’s in Social Work  program admissions process, so it’s helpful to earn good grades, regardless of your degree.  

#3 Take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE)

Depending on your MSW program, you may need to take the GRE.2 Some MSW programs may only ask for your GRE score if the rest of your application is on the cusp of their eligibility criteria. Other MSW programs may require all applicants to submit GRE scores. 

If your chosen MSW program requires GRE scores, you’ll need to study for and take the GRE before submitting your application. This standardized test contains three parts:

  • Critical thinking
  • Verbal and quantitative reasoning
  • Analytical skills

The GRE is very similar to the SAT and ACT in terms of how it's constructed. It contains writing and math sections, multiple-choice questions, and verbal questions.

#4 Research Potential MSW Programs

Once you’ve earned your undergraduate degree and taken the GRE, you can start looking for an MSW program. 

Here are a few things to consider when selecting a program:

  • Part-time vs. full-time – Some social work students can attend their MSW programs full-time. Other MSW students may need to work during the day or fulfill family commitments, making a part-time course schedule more desirable. Whether you want to study full-time or part-time, it’s a good idea to make sure your chosen program offers your preferred schedule. 
  • Online vs. in-person – Next, you need to decide if you want to attend your MSW degree program on campus or online. While in-person programs may feel more immersive and interactive, online master programs can be more convenient. 
  • CSWE-accreditation – Most importantly, you’ll want to look for an MSW program that’s accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). CSWE-accreditation indicates that an MSW program adequately prepares its MSW students for a career in social work. Additionally, most state licensing social work boards require social work licensure applicants to earn their MSW degrees from accredited universities.
  • Clinical offerings – Some MSW programs allow students to specialize in clinical social work. By attending one of these programs, you can become eligible for your licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) license. What is a clinical social worker? LCSWs are the only types of social workers who can independently provide mental health therapy, diagnoses, and other clinical services.3
  • Cost – Lastly, you’ll want to factor in the cost of tuition. The cost of MSW programs can vary depending on their length, location, and quality. If you need help paying for your program, you can look into financial aid, scholarships, and grants. You may be able to apply for this financial support from your university, the federal government, or your local National Association of Social Work chapter. 

#5 Apply to Your Top MSW Programs

Once you’ve found a few MSW programs that suit your needs and preferences, you can submit your applications. 

You may be asked to provide the following information within your MSW applications:

  • Undergraduate transcripts
  • GRE test scores
  • Essay or personal statement
  • Resume
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Background check

After you submit your applications, you’ll have to wait to find out whether or not you’ve been accepted. 

#6 Attend Your MSW Program

Once you are accepted into an MSW program, you can begin your studies. But how long does it take to become a social worker? Most MSW programs take two years to complete if you attend your courses full-time. Advanced standing MSW programs can take as little as one year. 

During your MSW program, you’ll likely learn about social work theory, best practices, and ethics. Your first year will most likely cover the generalist framework of social work. Your second year may allow you to explore social work specializations in greater detail. 

Generally speaking, your coursework will likely cover the following topics:

  • Human development
  • Human behavior
  • Clinical practice
  • Social policy
  • Assessment and diagnosis
  • Couple and family therapy
  • Substance abuse
  • Strategic planning for nonprofit organizations
  • Research

#7 Consider Your MSW Concentration

Social work practice is a broad field. As a result, some social workers specialize in working with specific populations. 

As you go through your studies, think about the areas of specialization that interest you most. Maybe you’re drawn to the idea of school social work or child and family social work. Maybe you’d prefer to focus on substance abuse counseling or people with disabilities. 

Here are a few of the potential types of social work concentrations available within many MSW programs:

  • Advanced generalist practice
  • Children and family
  • Leadership and social justice
  • Health care
  • Mental health and substance abuse
  • School social work
  • Community social work
  • Community planning and administration
  • Policy practice and advocacy

#8 Complete Your Required Fieldwork

Most MSW programs require you to fulfill a certain number of practicum hours each semester. Practicum is supervised fieldwork that enables you to put your social work skills to the test. By the end of your Master’s in Social Work program, you’ll most likely have 900 to 1,200 hours of fieldwork experience under your belt.5 

During your fieldwork, you can get an idea of what it’s like to work in various settings with different populations. You can also exercise your growing skillset and build your confidence.  

Keep in mind that your state board may have specific fieldwork requirements for licensure. It’s a good idea to make sure your MSW program enables you to fulfill these required fieldwork hours before graduation. 

#9 Hone Your Social Work Soft Skills

As you master your social work coursework, you can sharpen your soft skills, too. The following soft skills can set exceptional social workers apart:

  • Empathy
  • Patience
  • Critical thinking
  • Creative problem-solving
  • Resilience
  • Persistence

Your fieldwork can offer you opportunities to work on these skills and build your confidence as you prepare for your future career. 

#10 Think About Your Post-Graduation Career Goals

What can you do with a Master’s in Social Work? As you move through your MSW degree program, ask yourself what social work department interests you most. The potential employment options for graduates of MSW programs are vast, so narrowing down your focus during your studies may help you kickstart your career upon graduation. Are you thinking about continuing education to obtain Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) accreditation? If so, you may have even more career opportunities at your disposal. For more on MSW vs LCSW, check out our blog.

It’s also worthwhile to note that an MSW education may help you explore career paths outside of social work. Some people with a social service degree who study social work in graduate school go on to pursue careers in:

  • Human resources
  • Community outreach
  • Mediation
  • Advocacy

As you clarify the direction you want to take your career, you can take advantage of fieldwork, internships, and networking opportunities that align with your professional goals. 

Earn Your Master’s of Social Work at Alliant International University

As you can see, earning your master’s in social work can prepare you for rewarding career possibilities. Your MSW program can be completed in as little as a year or two if you already have a bachelor’s degree. Once you earn your MSW, you can apply for licensure in your state and start making a meaningful difference in your community. 

If you’re ready to enroll in an MSW degree program, consider applying to Alliant California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP). Our California-based MSW program can provide you with an excellent education, whether you prefer to attend in person or online. 

Learn more about our MSW program today. 


  1.  Social Work License Map. “Become a Licensed Social Worker in Your State.” Social Work License Map. Accessed March 26, 2022. 
  2.  Social Work Degree Guide. “Do MSW Programs Require the GRE?” Social Work Degree Guide.…. Accessed March 26, 2022. 
  3.  Social Work License Map. “LMSW vs. LCSW – What’s the difference?” Social Work License Map. Accessed March 26, 2022. 
  4. “Graduate Application Guide for Social Workers.” Accessed March 26, 2022. 
  5.  Master's of Social Work. “Field Education: Translating Pedagogy Into Practice.” Master's of Social Work. Accessed May 26, 2022. 

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