Deciding to take on a masters of social work is an awesome accomplishment. You have the opportunity to learn so much in these advanced classes and what you learn here can put you on the path to help a lot of people as a social worker. However, there is a steep learning curve! This is going to be nothing like what you faced in your undergrad studies, so make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into and have a solid plan on how to achieve your goals.
To help you get started, here are our top 7 tips for new MSW students:
Tip #1 – Focus On Content, Not On Grades
In undergrad, your grades were always a top priority as they would help determine what graduate program you got into. However, once you’re already in grad school that numerical grade isn’t as important. The point of these courses is to help you become the most knowledgeable and well-equipped social worker you can be, which means what matters is what you learn.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should brush off your assignments. Your assignments and exams are designed to help you practice important skills you will need later and are still worth doing, but it’s the content that really matters. Your MSW program will provide you with a well-rounded education on mental health, and you should take advantage of this time to soak up every bit of knowledge you can. If you spend the bulk of your energy focusing on the actual learning rather than studying for a test, you’re sure to still pass your classes just fine and you’ll also be a better social worker overall.
Tip #2 – Social Policy Matters
Your social policy class is going to be one of the most (if not the most) important classes of your master’s program. This is the class where you’ll go over the NASW Code of Ethics, which is something you will need to be incredibly familiar with as you start your practice. There is a lot of history to this code and a lot of nuance to it, so make sure you pay extra attention here so that you don’t run into trouble later.
Tip #3 – Stay Organized
One of the most important things you can do in these higher-level classes is to stay organized. You’re going to have clubs, classes, projects, papers, readings, work, social events…the list is endless. There’s so much to do it can be easy to drop the ball here or there, which will put you further behind as you try to catch up.
Don’t underestimate the value of a planner and a to-do list. Keep track of all of your important deadlines and refer to your class syllabi often. If you can, try giving yourself deadlines ahead of the official deadline too, so you don’t end up procrastinating and pushing things off until the last minute. This can help you make sure that you have days off regularly to give your brain a break and let you relax for a bit. There’s a lot to do but pushing yourself to the point of burnout isn’t going to help either!
If you’re not used to creating such a tight schedule for yourself, check out the official NASW Social Work Blog for some more tips.
Tip #4 – Create A Study Space
Did you know that working in your bedroom or living room can negatively impact not only your comprehension but your ability to relax later as well? It may feel convenient to get work done sitting on your bed, but studies show this actually makes it harder for you to fall asleep later as your brain can confuse that space as being a place for work rather than rest.
To make the most out of your study time, create some kind of space that can be completely dedicated to your work. Whether that’s an office or even just the dining room table, it’s important to have a space that’s free from distractions and that’s separate from the areas of your home you go to for relaxation.
Tip #5 – Network
Your classmates are not your competition. Social work is a collaborative field where you all work together to make each other better and to grow. It’s also a very small field, which means you’ll most likely be working with one or more of your classmates later on in your career.
Take this as an opportunity to network and get used to working with your fellow Masters of Social Work classmates and professors. Even if you don’t yet know what type of social work you want to go into, knowing people in different fields and hearing their perspectives can help make you a more well-rounded professional later on. Communication is a huge part of this field, and this is the perfect opportunity to practice these skills while building relationships that have the potential to last throughout your career. You never know, these classmates may even be in a position to help you land that job later on!
Tip #6 – Speak Up
If you went to a bigger undergrad school, you may be used to showing up to listen to a large lecture before going home and being just another number in a class.
In a masters of social work program, your contribution matters—and not just because a lot of your professors will have a “participation” grade. You will be challenged, and you will be forced to interact with your fellow students to contribute to the class. If you try to hide behind your computer screen, you’re going to find out quickly that there’s not a whole lot you’re going to get out of the class. If you want to make the most out of your classes, you need to dive in headfirst and don’t be afraid to ask questions during class or write them out in a conversational tone to share with your virtual classmates.
Tip #7 – Ask For Help
As overwhelming as all of this may seem, don’t forget that you’re not alone! Your professors are eager to help, and even just stopping by during office hours can make a world of difference. Even if you don’t have specific questions yet, simply just admitting that you don’t understand something gives you the opportunity to work with your professor so they can figure out exactly what went wrong. They’re there to help you learn so you can be a better social worker, so take advantage of every opportunity.
If it’s the ASWB LMSW exam that you’re worried about, there are plenty of resources available to help you with that too as long as you know where to look. LMSW prep courses and tutors can be a great resource to help you prepare for the exam, and there are always study groups you can join through your school. There are plenty of people out there who want to see you succeed, so don’t be afraid to ask for help!