Laura Berlinsky-Schine 5 min read Career Path Breakdowns

How to Become a Social Worker: Steps to Take from High School

So, you want to make the world a better place by helping people. Becoming a social worker is one way to impact humanity and do good. In many ways a selfless occupation, social work is all about assisting people with working through problems in their lives, from mental health to homelessness to addiction.

 

If this type of work is your calling, you should know it’s a demanding role — but one that you’ll likely find gratifying and worthwhile.

 

What Does a Social Worker Do?

 

There are many types of social workers, as well as settings in which they work. Clinical social workers, for example, might assist people with mental health issues. Others work with:

 

  • people coping with addiction and substance abuse
  • survivors of domestic violence
  • homeless populations
  • at-risk youth
  • people in hospice
  • veterans
  • the elderly
  • students at schools
  • entire communities

 

Ultimately, the role is about helping people, especially vulnerable populations. Social workers must earn a master’s degree and become licensed to understand how to navigate difficult situations and help people cope with the problems in their lives. They work in:

 

  • private practice
  • hospitals, clinics,
  • rehabilitation centers
  • detention centers
  • schools, community centers, child services
  • nonprofits
  • nursing homes
  • hospices
  • government agencies
  • other places of employment

 

Responsibilities vary according to your specialty. Typically, however, social workers will assess people’s needs and create a plan of action, working with the individual to help them cope with and solve problems. They will also advocate on behalf of individuals or communities. This might mean finding them food and housing, protecting children or victims of domestic violence, connecting them to additional services they need, researching community problems, or treating patients for mental health disorders, among many other responsibilities.

 

Keep in mind that social work is not any easy job, and you may be placed in emotionally-charged and difficult situations. Some people may act hostile towards you and refuse your help. You will need to be level-headed and have a strong spirit to not let this get to you.

 

How Much Do Social Workers Make?

 

The median annual salary for social workers was $50,470 as of May 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Services. Wages vary according to many factors, such as experience, place of employment, and specialty.

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How to Become a Social Worker

 

High School

 

Take a Broad Curriculum that Helps You Build Key Skills.

 

To enter a bachelor of social work program, you probably won’t need to take any specific courses in high school, other than the general requirements for admission to the college or university. However, because social work involves a variety of skill sets and a wide body of knowledge. You should prepare by taking courses like statistics, biology, government, and psychology, especially at the AP level. Also, because social work relies heavily on communication, you’ll want to take plenty of English and writing courses. If your school offers courses in sociology, public speaking, and journalism, it’s a good idea to take these, too. 

 

In some cases, you may be tasked with working with people who don’t speak English, so becoming competent in a foreign language, particularly Spanish and Mandarin, will serve you well. 

 

Volunteer.

 

Volunteering and performing community service will help you build important skills you’ll need as a social worker, such as communication and problem-solving. Look for positions in community centers, hospitals, schools, clinics, and nonprofits, where you’ll gain exposure to the types of clientele and work you’ll encounter in your career. 

 

Learn About the Profession.

 

Before you decide to become a social worker, you should learn as much as you can about the field. There are many different specialties, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with as many as possible so you choose the right role for you. For instance, you should talk to professionals in social work and read books about the profession. You may also ask to shadow a social worker, though keep in mind that this may not always be possible for confidentiality reasons.

 

College

 

Earn a bachelor’s degree in social work or another field.

 

You don’t need to earn a bachelor of social work (BSW) to be accepted into a master of social work (MSW) program, but you do need to have a bachelor’s degree. So, if you’re set on social work, why not earn a BSW? This will allow you to gain the knowledge and skills you’ll need in graduate school and your career. Some MSW programs may also grant you advanced standing if you have a BSW.

 

Here’s a complete list of colleges with a social work major.

 

Complete Fieldwork.

 

Even as an undergraduate, you’ll likely need to gain nonclinical experience in social work. At this level, your work will be somewhat general, while at the graduate level, you’ll start focusing on your particular niche. Many BSW programs require you to complete a certain number of numbers of fieldwork, and many graduate programs will expect it, too.

 

Apply to an MSW program.

 

A graduate degree is usually necessary for becoming a licensed social worker. Apply and gain admission to an accredited MSW program to meet the requirements for licensing.

 

To be eligible for MSW programs, you’ll need a bachelor’s from an accredited university, and potentially a certain number of core liberal arts credits. Some programs may also have a minimum GPA requirement and ask that you take the GRE. You’ll likely need to write essays and submit rec letters as part of your application, too.

 

Graduate School

 

Earn an MSW.

 

An MSW curriculum will prepare you for a career in social work. You’ll take courses in human services, social welfare policy, human behavior, research, advocacy, diversity, therapy, and other areas.

 

Choose a Specialty.


Graduate school is the time when you should hone in on the particular area of or specialty in social work you’d like to pursue. In your program, you should be able to complete electives in your niche to help you gain exposure to the principles of your field. 

 

Gain Real-World Experience.

 

An MSW program usually requires real-world, hands-on experience in the field. Find placement at a facility in your niche, where you’ll work with and receive mentorship from licensed social workers. Many programs have relationships with organizations that employ graduate students in this capacity.

 

Obtain Your License.

 

In most cases, you’ll need a license to practice social work. Requirements vary by state, so check with your state licensing board to find out what you need to do. 

 

Continue Your Education.

 

To maintain your licensure, most states require you to complete a certain number of hours of continuing education credits and renew regularly.

 

Interested in pursuing a career in social work? You’ll need to have a top-notch profile. Find out your chances of getting into the best colleges with BSW programs using CollegeVine’s Chancing Engine. Not only will you learn your real odds of success, but you’ll also receive tips for optimizing your academic and extracurricular profile. Get started today — it’s free!

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and works as a freelance writer specializing in education. She dreams of having a dog.