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How to Become a Licensed Social Worker Step-by-Step

Licensed social workers play a critical role in a variety of fields, from promoting the safety and well-being of children in schools to providing mental health services. If this career interests you, continue reading for a detailed breakdown of how to become a licensed social worker.

Author: Kathleen Curtis
Editor: STEPS Staff

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Step 1

Make Sure a Career in Social Work Is the Right Fit for You

Committing to a career in social work is a big decision, so you should make sure this career aligns with your skills and interests before taking the plunge. You should also understand the education commitments required. Use these five questions to help better ascertain if this is the right choice for you.

  • Do I enjoy interacting with people of many different backgrounds and life experiences on a daily basis?
  • Do I possess the ability to leave my work at the office, maintain healthy boundaries, and protect my mental health when helping people facing difficult circumstances?
  • Am I good at handling a heavy caseload, managing my time effectively, and not feeling overwhelmed by a never-ending list of tasks?
  • Am I able to show empathy when listening to clients explaining their situations? Can I understand their feelings in a non-judgmental way?
  • Do I possess the creativity and outside-the-box thinking needed to find innovative solutions to myriad problems and situations?

If you answered “yes” to most of the questions above, a career in social work is likely a good choice for you.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Social Worker?

The length of time required to become a social worker depends on various factors. In addition to considering the level of education, you should also take into account the type of licensure you intend to hold, post-graduation requirements (such as fieldwork placements and supervised hours), and whether you plan to study full-time or part-time. The timelines provided in the table below offer a general idea of what to expect, but the actual duration is dependent on the learner, current education level, specific degree program, and state licensing requirements.

Licensed Bachelor Social Worker (LBSW)Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)Advanced Generalist Social WorkerLicensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
Years of College4 years2 years (post-bachelor’s)2 years (post-bachelor’s)1-3 years (post-bachelor’s) depending on whether student possesses a BSW or unrelated degree
Post-Degree Licensing Requirements Bachelor’s licensing examMaster’s licensing exam2 years of supervised work experience

Advanced Generalist licensing exam
Additional coursework

2 years of full-time supervised clinical work experience

Clinical licensing examination
ETA to Career Start4 years+ 2 years from bachelor’s+ 4 years from bachelor’s+ 3 to 5 years from bachelor’s
Step 2

Decide If You Want to Become a Non-Clinical or Clinical Social Worker

Two distinct paths exist for social workers: clinical and nonclinical. Deciding which to pursue early on is important, as this will directly impact whether you need to complete a bachelor’s degree (required for nonclinical positions) or a master’s degree (required for clinical positions in all 50 states). Here’s some points to consider when making your decision:

Choose non-clinical path if …

  • You want to work in more administrative positions that focus on program and/or resource management rather than assessing and treating clients
  • You’re interested in taking up positions focused on policy creation and implementation
  • You’re passionate about improving service delivery and assessing program effectiveness

Choose clinical path if …

  • You want to work in direct service roles that require you to assess needs and create plans
  • You’re passionate about connecting clients to resources and support mechanisms based on their individual needs
  • You’re interested in providing psychological services, such as counseling and psychotherapy
Step 3

Explore Your Social Work Education Options

Now it’s time to explore education options and determine which degree aligns with your skills, interests, and professional objectives. Keep reading to understand the differences between bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work and decide whether you prefer on-campus or online degree programs.

Choose a Degree Path

Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work (BSW)

Bachelor’s degrees in social work are geared towards preparing students for non-clinical, entry-level positions in settings such as schools, hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, mental health clinics, and social service agencies. They also act as a great starting point for those seeking to pursue a master’s in social work and advance to clinical or other higher-level positions. Although BSW degree graduates are qualified for direct service roles, they cannot work in positions that involve creating treatment plans or providing any clinical services. Students cover fundamental topics in social work policy, social welfare, community interventions, and human behavior in diverse social settings.

Learn more about online bachelor’s degrees in social work.

Master of Social Work (MSW) Degree

Master’s degrees in social work are beneficial for those with BSW degrees as it allows them to qualify for advanced positions in diverse professional settings. Graduates of these programs can take on clinical roles, enabling them to create treatment plans, supervise other social workers, and assume leadership roles in the field. Nowadays, many schools offer micro and macro MSWs, where the former path focuses on direct care positions, while the latter path emphasizes administrative positions. Common coursework includes studies in social and economic justice, working with at-risk populations, social welfare policy, and direct practice with diverse clients.

Learn more about the online MSW degree.

Decide How You Want to Earn Your Degree

Social work programs at every degree level exist both at brick-and-mortar campuses and online via distance learning platforms. Students who do their research can find a program that meets their scheduling needs and learning preferences without sacrificing flexibility or academic quality. The following sections take a look at specific considerations.

Campus-Based vs. Online Programs

Both traditional campus-based social work degrees and online programs offered through digital platforms have their advantages and disadvantages. For some students, the in-person component of on-campus learning, coupled with regular classroom attendance, makes it easier to stay motivated and feel connected. Other students, however, may have other obligations that make online degree programs more feasible, as they provide greater flexibility and the ability to complete work at times that suit their schedules best. When choosing a program, consider how the everyday requirements of each format align with your lifestyle and learning objectives. Ask yourself these questions to determine which program best suits your needs.

Part-Time vs. Full-Time Program

Despite the flexibility offered by degree programs, some students may find that full-time learning is not feasible for them. Fortunately, many social work programs offer part-time options to accommodate the needs of these learners. Before committing to a program, students should inquire about part-time availability, the length of the program, the availability of summer classes, and any additional fees charged by the school. These types of programs are particularly useful for single parents, working professionals, and individuals with other external commitments.

Narrow Your List of Potential Schools

After deciding what type of social work degree you want to earn and whether you plan to do so in-person or online, it’s time to focus your search and find two or three schools that truly fit your needs and offer a quality education. Review our checklist to make sure you pick a school that ticks all the right boxes.

Social Work School Checklist

Following this checklist can make your process of narrowing schools easier and ensure you find a top program.

  • Is it accredited by the Council on Social Work Education?
    Students who attend unaccredited programs will struggle to attain licensure, so pay special attention to this component.
  • Does it fulfill licensing requirements in the state you want to practice?
    Check with your state board of social work if you’re unsure of the exact requirements.
  • Does the program format work for my schedule?
    If you can only study part-time but the school doesn’t offer this path, take it off the list.
  • Can I realistically afford tuition and other costs?
    Ask admissions panels both about cost and available funding (e.g., scholarships, fellowships) to ascertain the answer.
Step 4

Complete Prerequisites and Apply to College

After finding the ideal schools you want to apply to, it’s time to consider the application process. While all schools require you to fill out an application and pay fees (unless you receive a fee waiver), some also require you to meet prerequisite requirements.

Prerequisites

Prerequisites vary based on type of degree and specific school. At both degree levels, most departments require students to possess a minimum GPA, diploma or degree from a high school/accredited college, and completion of specific coursework. At the bachelor’s level, graduates of associate programs typically need to demonstrate completion of lower-level courses before applying. At the master’s level, programs often require the completion of a certain number of upper-division courses alongside a class in statistics or research skills. Prospective students should review prerequisites prior to applying to avoid paying an application fee for a program to which they do not qualify.

Application Process & Fees

While the application processes vary by school and department, most institutions have similar requirements. Students are required to complete an application and pay any necessary fees, which generally range from $50 to $125. Applicants must also submit transcripts from any previous schools attended, provide two to three letters of recommendation, and include a personal statement explaining their motivation for studying social work at that particular institution. Additionally, if the program is highly competitive, applicants may be required to participate in an online or in-person interview. International students must provide TOEFL or IELTS scores to demonstrate English proficiency.

Step 5

Look for Ways to Help Pay for Your Social Work Degree

Given the ever-rising cost of higher education, many prospective social workers look for ways to lower their costs and avoid significant student loan debt. Fortunately, plenty of financial aid options exist. Students can take advantage of scholarships and grants provided by universities, state and local governments, professional associations, and nonprofits to cover costs. Learn more about your financial aid options as well as degree-specific scholarships on our dedicated guide pages.

Step 6

Complete Course and Fieldwork Requirements

Social work degrees at the undergraduate level provide students with a broad base of knowledge designed to qualify them for many entry-level, nonclinical positions. Students build generalist skills in areas of policy, legal and ethical concerns, understanding government and nonprofit systems, coordinating referrals, research, and data-driven decision making. At the master’s level, degree seekers begin to specialize their knowledge in advanced topics and sub-disciplines while also building clinical skills. Some courses you may take while enrolled in a BSW or MSW include:

  • Foundations of Social Work Practice
  • Social Welfare Policy
  • Advanced Clinical Practice
  • Social Work Policy
  • Program Development for Diverse Populations

Fieldwork requirements vary both by location of the school and level of degree. At Loyola University Chicago, for example, students enrolled in the bachelor of social work program must complete approved coursework before participating in a field experience lasting no less than 480 hours. They must also participate in fieldwork courses while completing the hours. At Fordham University, master’s students must complete at least 1,200 hours of fieldwork, 600 of which focus on generalist skills-building and 600 of which are devoted to specialist training. Check with potential schools to get a clearer idea of expectations.

Step 7

Acquire a Social Work License in Your State

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that all states require clinical social workers to be licensed, and many mandate licensure and/or certification for those in nonclinical roles.

Research How to Become a Licensed Social Worker in Your State

Students seeking further information about the steps for licensure in their state can find details on licensure, jurisdiction, supervision, and continuing education requirements through the Association of Social Work Boards. Some states may also require learners to obtain certification. If you live in California or Texas, refer to the spotlight sections below for information on requirements in these states.

How to Become a Social Worker in California

Individuals living in California have the option of becoming Associate Clinical Social Workers (ASWs) or Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs). They must possess an accredited master’s in social work degree, fulfill course requirements, register as an ASW, complete a live scan and criminal background check, pass the California Law & Ethics Exam, complete 3,000 supervised hours, pass the Association of Social Work Boards clinical exam, and receive their LCSW license. The Board of Behavioral Sciences provides more in-depth information.

How to Become a Social Worker in Texas

If living or planning to practice in Texas, you can become a Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW), Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW), Licensed Master Social Worker-Advanced Practice (LMSW-AP) or Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). Requirements vary by licensure type, but students must typically provide a completed application and fee, transcripts from an accredited social work program, proof of passing the Jurisprudence Exam, successful completion of the appropriate ASWB exam, security information details, an employment history form, and proof of completed supervisory hours. Visit the Texas State Board of Social Worker Examiners for more details about the process.

Pass Your Exam from the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB)

After meeting all other requirements, candidates must successfully pass their Association of Social Work Boards examination to receive licensure. The organization provides five categories of examinations based on level of education and whether working in clinical or nonclinical roles. Regardless of test, each contains 170 multiple choice questions – 150 of which count towards the final score. These are administered worldwide by Pearson Professional Centers and accommodations exist for examinees with disabilities. The exam costs between $230 and $260, depending on type.

Complete Additional State Licensing Requirements

If your goal is to become a licensed clinical social worker or advanced generalist, you must meet the supervised work experience requirements before becoming qualified in your state. Clinical social workers usually need at least two years of full-time, direct supervised experience, while those seeking advanced generalist positions require two years of non-clinical supervised experience. To obtain specific requirements, consult your state board.

Step 8

Apply to Social Work Jobs You’re Passionate About

Social workers find jobs in many settings and industries, ranging from nonprofits and hospitals to schools and rehabilitation facilities. Because the industry offers so many different specialty areas, students can find jobs that speak to their passions and interests. Use these resume and interview tips to ace the hiring process.

Resume Tips

1

Understand your skills.
Social work exists as a wide-ranging field, so understanding and highlighting specific skills and competencies in the discipline shows hiring managers what you actually bring to the table.

2

Write for the job you want.
Most individuals focus on explaining the job they already have rather than leveraging skills gained to demonstrate their preparedness for the job they want.

3

Use industry lingo.
Social work has a lot of specific vocabulary (e.g., patient-centered, case management, intervention, crisis management). Use this language to demonstrate your knowledge of the field.

4

Demonstrate improvement.
Rather than simply listing tasks, try to quantify and qualify your accomplishments. Did you increase program involvement? Grow retention rates? Use numbers to show how you improved outcomes.

5

Leave room for questions.
Without being vague, try to pique the resume readers’ interest in a way that will make them want to bring you in for an interview to learn more.

Interview Advice

1

Research the organization.
Interviewers are impressed by job candidates who clearly spent time getting to know the place where you want to work. Look at their website, LinkedIn pages of employees, and partner organizations to gain insight.

2

Prepare yourself for common questions.
The Balance provides a list of common social worker interview questions so you know what to expect and don’t get caught out by predictable queries.

3

Ask detailed questions yourself.
Job candidates can show great insight by having a list of questions to ask the interviewer at the end. Make these specific to the organization and don’t ask anything that can easily be found online.

Interested in related career paths? Learn more about other jobs you can get with a social work degree.

Step 9

Consider Getting Professional Certification in Your Social Work Field

After earning your license, you can further demonstrate the National Association of Social Workers provides many different professional certification options for you to further demonstrate your skills and knowledge. While not always required for employment, these certifications alert employers and clients to your commitment to continued education and your understanding of best practices. Check out the table below to learn more about your certification options.

Focus AreaNASW Professional Certification
Addictions
Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco & Other Drugs Social Worker (C-CATODSW)
Case Management
Certified Social Work Case Manager (C-SWCM)
Certified Advanced Social Work Case Manager (C-ASWCM)
Clinical
Qualified Clinical Social Worker (QCSW)
Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology (CSW-G)
Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco & Other Drugs Social Worker (C-CATODSW)
Education
Certified School Social Work Specialist (C-SSWS)
Gerontology
Social Worker in Gerontology (SW-G)
Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology (CSW-G)
Advanced Social Worker in Gerontology (ASW-G)
Healthcare
Certified Social Worker in Health Care (C-SWHC)
Hospice and Palliative
Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Social Worker (CHP-SW)
Advanced Certified Hospice and Palliative Social Worker (ACHP-SW)
Leadership
Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW)
Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (DCSW)
Military
Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families – Social Worker (MVF-SW)
Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families – Advanced Social Worker (MVF-ASW)
Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families – Clinical Social Worker (MVF-CSW)
Youth and Family
Certified Children, Youth, and Family Social Worker (C-CYFSW)
Certified Advanced Children, Youth, and Family Social Worker (C-ACYFSW)
Step 10

Renew License and Complete Continuing Education Requirements

Given the ever-evolving nature of social work, nearly every jurisdiction in America requires professionals to participate in continuing education programs to qualify for biannual license renewal. The number of hours and types of courses vary by jurisdiction, but individuals can check with their state board of social work to learn more. The Association of Social Work Boards also provides general information and advice about continuing education mandates.