Tuesday, January 14, 2014

How To Approach Writing Your Personal Statement for Social Work Graduate School

by Jesus Reyes

This post is an excerpt from The Social Work Graduate School Applicant's Handbook, by Jesus Reyes.

I recommend that you perform a thorough self-assessment before writing your statement. Make a list of all jobs, volunteer positions, and internships you have ever held. In short, take an inventory of any experiences that somehow contributed to your interest in social work. Don’t neglect to also list classes that you may have taken that contributed to the development of your interests. For some people, even an individual field trip taken as part of a class may have been significant.

Chances are you’ve had some experiences in settings that you may not have previously considered related to social work. I’ve often met with students who tell me of jobs in research, legal offices, and other settings and then proceed to state they have no social work experience. They are surprised when I mention that certain types of research are very beneficial to aspiring social workers.

Even if the research was not directly related to social welfare issues, the exposure to the act of research is very useful. The aim of social research courses in MSW programs is to make students aware of the essentials of good research and the benefits of good research to an informed professional practice. Applicants seem equally surprised that an experience in a legal aid agency can serve as valuable exposure to clients who are at a crisis point in their lives and very much in need of assistance coping with many social systems around them.

Once you’ve made as comprehensive a list as possible, identify the skills you developed as a result of each particular experience. Keep in mind that the most important aspect in the experience is not necessarily the setting itself.

The most important elements are the skills you develop that are transferable to other settings. For example, the skills developed in interviewing clients are transferable to many other settings. People who seek services at a legal aid agency typically are experiencing financial difficulties, either of a temporary or chronic nature. They are also at a point in their lives when they are experiencing a life event of considerable stress, such as a divorce, eviction, or other event. They require an interviewer who can ease their anxiety and be empathic enough to allow them to express their needs at their own pace. Those skills are transferable to virtually any crisis setting.

 A review of your experiences will be helpful not only in making an inventory of the skills you may have begun to develop, but also in identifying the areas of social work where you may want to go in the future. That awareness can help you immensely in determining which of the programs you are considering can best train you to achieve your goals.

 By this point, you should be in an excellent position to make a strong case in your statement about why your experiences and goals are a good fit with the particular school’s programs. For example, if your experiences have been in a pediatric hospital setting, you have probably begun to develop skills in the areas of assessing the impact of the onset of childhood illness on the family system. A careful evaluation of those skills can serve as a good foundation for assessing a school’s maternal and child health program. In turn, the process can move to making a solid case for the suitability of the program to your educational and professional objectives.

 It is difficult to overstate the importance of presenting a thoughtful and deliberate case of your reasons for wanting to be a social worker and for wanting to attend the particular program in your biographical statement. All other aspects of two applicants competing for a place in the class being equal, the person with the better biographical statement will win out. In the schools with more competitive admissions, most applicants have excellent undergraduate records and stellar references. What often separates them is the biographical statement. It often weighs as much or more than the undergraduate record and the references combined.

This article is an excerpt from The Social Work Graduate School Applicant's Handbook, by Jesus Reyes. The book includes two chapters on writing your personal statement, as well as worksheets to help with the process. The book is available at Amazon.com in print and Kindle formats.