How to Become a Licensed Social Worker

Three Parts:Attaining a Masters of Social Work DegreeWorking in a Supervised PositionPassing Your ASWB Social Work Licensing Exam

Social workers contribute vital forms of support to their communities by helping people in need. They focus on issues such as poverty, unemployment, mental health, and abuse; they also work in a diverse range of industries, including state and local government, education, health care, and the non-profit sector. Social work is also a growing field; between 2012 and 2022, it is expected to experience a 19% increase in job growth.[1] This article will explain how to attain a social work license so you will be able to work at the most advanced level in the profession.

Part 1
Attaining a Masters of Social Work Degree

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    Apply for an accredited Masters of Social Work (MSW) graduate degree. Although some states will grant varying degrees of licensure to workers who have a Bachelors of Social Work (BSW), most clinical social workers are required to have an MSW in order to attain a license to practice.[2]
    • While a BSW is generally a strong asset for entering a MSW program, many programs will also consider applicants with a broad range of degrees. Having an undergraduate degree in a related field such as psychology or sociology will also help your chances of admission. If you do not have a BSW, your program will most likely require 60 semester hour credits whereas BSW applicants may complete 30 semester hour credits.[3]
    • If your undergraduate degree is in a field unrelated to social work, consider volunteering at an organization that performs social work, such as a shelter for women and children, a mental health clinic, or an after-school program for at-risk youth. This will indicate to the admissions committee of your MSW of your interest in their program.
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    Spend significant time preparing your application materials. Most MSW programs will require a good GPA (3.00 or higher), GRE scores, 3-4 letters of recommendation, and a 1-3 page application essay. [4] You should consult the career center at your undergraduate institution for guidance on tailoring your application materials to each MSW program. They can also give you advice on improving your resume and help you study for the GRE.
    • Make sure that your MSW program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). There are more than 238 accredited MSW programs and you can find a directory of these programs here: [1]
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    Select a specialty in your MSW. Most MSW programs will require you to select a particular field of focus in your research. You will have to consider if you wish to work in a clinical or non-clinical setting, as clinical work will require that you obtain a license as a mental health practitioner.[5] You may also have to focus on a particular population of people to work with, such as children, families, the elderly, or veterans. Other programs offer specializations in substance abuse, community development, corporate organization, health care and education.
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    Complete your field work or internship. Most MSW programs will require that you complete at least 900 hours of fieldwork with a diverse range of clients in the community. As you are researching potential MSW programs, consider what kinds of organizations they have as fieldwork partners in the community.
    • You should also select fieldwork opportunities that afford practical skills that can be applied to a broad range of positions. This will include skills such as conflict resolution, project management, grant writing, data analysis, etc. Being able to express how your degree has given you hands-on experience practicing in-demand skills will distinguish you from other candidates.[6]

Part 2
Working in a Supervised Position

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    Complete 2-3 years of work in a supervised position. In most states, you cannot obtain a license for clinical work immediately after graduating from your MSW program. Instead, you are required to complete an extended period of paid, full-time work after you obtain your MSW but before you take a clinical licensing exam. For all the requirements for your particular state, you should consult the Association of Social Work Boards.[2]
    • Many states also require supervised work for nonclinical social workers in addition to clinical social workers.
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    Consult the career center at your graduate university for help in finding a supervised position. You will probably already have a professional network in place from your field work experience during your MSW; you should explore all your connections from your field work to look for supervised work. You should also talk to your professors, your colleagues, and alumni from your program about potential job opportunities.
    • You can conduct a nation-wide search for supervised work at the JobLink section of the National Association of Social Workers web site.[3]. You can also check job listings on government web sites for health and human services, hospitals and mental health clinics, school districts for educational roles, etc.
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    Find an appropriate supervisor. Many states require that your supervisor have a degree in Licensed Clinical Social Work (LCSW) and an MSW if you are being supervised for clinical work. That means you cannot complete work under a supervisor who has a different kind of license for mental health care.[7] Make sure that your supervisor is approved by your state's chapter of the Association of Social Work Board; you do not want to spend time working in a position that will not count toward the hours you need in order to take the licensing exam because your supervisor does not have the appropriate credentials.
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    Fulfill the required hours of work. Most states require a minimum number of hours to in order to apply for a license; generally, this is around 3,000 hours. You must also document these hours according to your state's requirements.

Part 3
Passing Your ASWB Social Work Licensing Exam

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    Register for your state's Association of Social Work Board (ASWB) social work licensing exam. After you have completed your supervised work requirements, you will need to pass your state's licensing exam. There are four types of exams at different levels: bachelors, masters, clinical or advanced generalist. Most states require the clinical or advanced generalist after your supervised work, but you should check with your state's ASWB for their specific requirements. You have to be approved by your state's board before registering for the exam.
    • The fee for a Bachelors or Masters Exam is $230. The fee for the advanced generalist or clinical exam is $260.[8]
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    Learn about the format of the test. The exam generally takes four hours and covers 170 multiple choice questions.[9] It is graded on a pass-fail basis, with most states requiring a 70-75% score in order to pass. The ASWB offers a number of resources to help you study for the test. These include study guides such as the ASWB Guide to Social Work Exams (updated for 2015) which is available in print or ebook form. They also provide an on-line practice test for $85. Individual states may also require additional oral and written forms of examination to obtain a license.
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    Study for the test. The questions will generally cover a range of topics pertaining to clinical practice, especially human behavior and development and standards for diagnosis and assessment, as well as the standards for care in psychotherapy and other clinical interactions.[10]
    • Consider taking a review course prior to taking the exam. This course could be offered by your graduate university or your state's chapter of the NASW. The course will give you a comprehensive view of what kinds of questions you can expect to encounter on the test as well as providing helpful study guides and strategies.
    • Design a study schedule that works for you over an extended period of time. Do not cram for the test a few days before you take it. Give yourself time to practice a diverse range of questions for the test. Consider finding a study partner who will help you study over a series of weeks or months to prepare.
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    Receive your results. Because most states require that you have approval from the ASWB in order to register for the exam, the ASWB will also inform you of your results. In 2014, the pass rate for the clinical exam was 77.8%.[11] If you fail the exam, the ASWB will provide you an overview of your performance on the exam so you will know which areas require improvement. Some states limit the number of times you can re-take the exam, and all states require at least 90 days before you can register for the exam again.[12]
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    Remain current on your state's licensing requirements. After you pass your social work licensing exam, you should check on your state's ASWB requirements for keeping your license active and up-to-date. These might include additional certification or educational requirements. Keep in mind that if you move to another state, you will most likely need to re-certify since each state has different requirements.


  • Check the age requirements in your state to ensure that you have passed the minimum age prior to registering for your exam.
  • After you obtain your license, register with the National Association of Social Workers so you can obtain transferable credentials if you have to relocate to another state.
  • Foreign degrees in social work can be recognized in the United States by the International Social Work Degree Equivalency Recognition Service provided through the Council on Social Work Education. Additional state licensing requirements still apply to individuals with recognized foreign degrees.

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Categories: Careers in Government