Is graduate school really for me? This is the most important question to ask yourself, and you should ask it well before you start thinking about filling out applications. Graduate school can be a long and expensive commitment. Make sure you talk to a lot of people and do a lot of internet research so that you know what you're getting into before you decide to apply. Every year thousands of students drop out of masters and doctoral programs either because they weren't prepared for graduate study or because they didn't realize what kind of a commitment graduate school would be. You need to be honest with yourself and decide whether you really want to put up with more difficult schooling, because graduate school is not for everyone.
What are the absolute rules of getting admitted into social work programs? There are none! Whether you are an excellent student or a poor student, you may or may not get into certain programs. Obviously, better students will get into more programs than poor students, but factors outside of your control are going to play a big part in determining whether you are admitted. Some of the tips on this page include general guidelines about what kind of grades and experience you should have, but there are no hard and fast rules: different programs have different standards about what makes an applicant "look good".
So what kinds of things will probably give me a better chance of being admitted? A few things: your grade point average (GPA), your Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores, your letters of recommendation, and your work and volunteer experiences are the most important pieces of preliminary information that admissions committees will use to decide on your application. After these things, your application essay (also called statement of purpose or letter of intent) is also very important.
What is a "good" GPA? The following guidelines are very rough. No GPA will guarantee you admission, and no matter how horrible your GPA may be, you might be able to compensate for it with other strengths and still be admitted so some program somewhere. But in general, if all of your qualifications are extremely good, a 3.5 or above GPA should get you admitted to almost any Masters program and most doctoral programs. A 3.0 or above GPA will get you admitted to many Masters programs and some doctoral programs. If your GPA is below a 3.0, there may still be some Masters programs in some places that will admit you, but it would be very difficult to get into a doctoral program. (Remember, these guidelines are very rough--there are no hard and fast rules!)
What should I do if I have a disappointing GPA?
If you messed up your GPA and you have good excuses for why it is as low as it is, you should discuss your GPA in the essay you submit with your application. If you started college as a biology or physics major, for example, your less-than-optimal grades during your first two years of college may be perfectly understandable. Also, admissions committees will usually look more carefully at your recent grades than the grades you received two or three years ago. Consider recalculating your GPA in sensible ways and reporting those recalculations in your essay. For example, you might say things like, "If you removed all of my pre-med classes from my transcript and recomputed my GPA, it would be a 3.71."
How important is volunteer or work experience in the field? Quite important, but this doesn't mean that your experience needs to be extensive. Even if all you can do is volunteer for 40 hours at the library of a psychiatric hospital, that experience will make you look a lot better than having no experience at all. It is also best to have experience with the types of populations you want to work with. So if you intend to specialize in adoption services, for example, it would be ideal if you could show that you have experience with children (even if the experience is just a day care job). In short, you don't need a ton of work or volunteer experience to get admitted into most programs, but you definitely need some.
What is the application essay all about? This essay (which is sometimes called the statement of purpose or letter of intent) is your opportunity to demonstrate that you write well. It also gives you a chance to explain your background and goals. It usually only needs to be between 1 and 3 pages, but it is important that it is written very well. Make sure you have several intelligent people proofread it for you and give you their honest reaction, because almost no one writes as well as they think they do! There is a separate webpage devoted to advice on writing the application essay that can be accessed by clicking here.
How many programs should I apply to? One of the best ways to ensure that you are able to go to graduate school after the first time you apply is to apply to as many graduate programs as you can, and to apply to a wide range of them. But every application has a fee, so don't be ridiculous. Apply to two or three long-shot schools that you probably won't get into, two or three schools that you feel quite confident you will get into, and one or two safe-bet schools that you know you will definitely get into. How can you decide what the long-shot and safe-bet schools are? Try using the U.S. News and World Report rankings, and try to find out how your own qualifications compare to the qualifications of other students who have been admitted already. You may be able to find the email address of a graduate student or two who are already in the program, and you can email them to see what they think of your qualifications (of course, do this very politely--they'll be doing you a big favor if they respond).
How valid are the rankings of programs that I have seen on sites like the U.S. News web site? Not all that valid, but sort of valid. The rankings don't mean anything at close range. For example, although the 10th-ranked school may be quite a bit better than the 60th-ranked school, the 10th-ranked school may be just as good as the 19th-ranked school. At close ranges, the rankings are arbitrary, so don't make the mistake of telling yourself, for example, that it's easier to get into the 10th-ranked school than it is to get into the 5th-ranked school.
Is graduate school expensive? Yes it is, especially if you are applying to masters programs. Doctoral students often get assistantships that cover their tuition expenses and provide a small stipend (between roughly $6,000 and $15,000 U.S. per year) in exchange for their work as research or teaching assistants. However, masters students almost never get these kinds of assistantships. For this reason, a student who enrolls in a masters of social work program at a private school (like Columbia University) may accumulate a lot more debt than a student who enrolls in a Masters of Social Work program at a public school (like SUNY-Buffalo). You should also think very carefully about the cost of living in the area where you will get your education (the cost of living in New York City is almost 3 times greater than the cost of living in Buffalo, for example). You may also want to think about whether you will be living in a place where you will be able to get a decent part-time job in case you have to pick one up to financially sustain yourself.