How I Got Into a Top 10 Social Work School | My Tips for Getting Accepted to Your Top Grad School

One thing I’m excited to write about more on my blog in 2021 is my journey toward becoming a trauma therapist. For anyone who wants to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW or LICSW, depending on the state you live in), graduate school is a non-negotiable part of that journey.

Do you need a Master’s degree to become a social worker? If you’re interested in macro practice — like working at a hospital or non-profit — the answer is, probably not. But if you want to become a clinical social worker, then a social work program that will prepare you for licensure is a must. Many, if not all, states include a Master’s degree in their list of requirements for licensure.

I finished my graduate school application process, including taking the GRE, at the end of November 2020. This week, I heard back from — and committed to — my top choice social work school, Boston College. It’s tied with my alma mater, Boston University, as the #10 social work school in the country. Fun fact: the two schools are fierce hockey rivals, and now I’ll have degrees from both!

Now, here’s the caveat: school rankings don’t mean much of anything. The meaning we ascribe to them is entirely personal, since sites like U.S. World Report rank based on factors that don’t have anything to do with education — like donations and new buildings. (Don’t believe me? Watch this clip from the show Adam Ruins Everything.) What was most important to me was to go somewhere that had a good clinical program, which BC does: they offer a specialized track in Clinical Practice.

That’s why the alternate title of this post is “My Tips For Getting Into Your Top Grad School.” Because I’d rather help you get into your favorite program than into a program you don’t love but which has that top 10 ranking. That being said, I’ve learned a thing or two along the way throughout the admissions process at Boston College. Here are some tips based on what I’ve learned to help you get into your top MSW program.

Tip #1: Show Off Relevant Experience

Social work programs don’t require a background in social work, but they do usually require you to have majored in the liberal arts. Your grad school applications typically ask for a resume and a personal statement of varying length. These are your opportunities to show off the places where you really shine — and that are most relevant to your future in social work.

Because I didn’t know I wanted to do social work in college, my undergraduate experiences weren’t that closely tied to my choice of graduate program. So, instead of stressing the internships I had on my resume — on the Massachusetts Coordinated Democratic Campaign in 2018, for example — I talked about my volunteer experience in mental health. I also paid $20 to get certified in administering Naloxone and another $20 to get trained in suicide prevention so I could a) learn and b) put these certificates on my resume.

You probably won’t put coursework on your resume, so your personal statement is your opportunity to talk about these. Many graduate programs specifically ask you to address relevant courses you took in college. For social work, that could mean psychology — but it could also mean any course that challenges your critical thinking and teaches you valuable skills. For example, I also talked about how I took a Statistics course and minored in Political Science, and how those helped prepare me for a graduate level program.

Even more so than your experience in social work or mental health, MSW programs are looking to see that you’re mature and capable of handling a rigorous program. They need someone who can juggle classes and fieldwork, and represent their school well at a fieldwork placement outside the school. My advice is to worry less about how impressive you are as an applicant and focus on showing them that you’re capable of succeeding now.

Tip #2: Customize Your Personal Statement

One of the most important things I did for each school that I think helped me get accepted to Boston College was to customize my personal statement to the school I was applying to. Again, many of the schools I applied to specifically asked me to address why I wanted to attend their program. However, for BC, I was especially excited to write about why I wanted to go there because of their specific Clinical Practice concentration.

Instead of copying-and-pasting the exact same personal statement for each program, I highly recommend finding at least one specific thing you like about each school and mentioning it in a short paragraph. Here’s a trick you can take directly from my applications: look into the school’s mission statement and see if you can quote it directly. Don’t plug a two-paragraph quote in, but if you can use two or three words from the school’s mission statement in your personal statement, it shows them that you did your research.

Tip #3: Take the GRE if Your GPA is Low

I had a difficult second year of college (I say second year because I graduated in three years, so I didn’t have a typical freshman-sophomore-junior-senior experience). I was struggling with my mental health, struggling with my relationship with my dad (whom I no longer talk to), and struggling to adjust to being single after a breakup. As a result, I partied too hard, caught a recurrent case of strep, and got Cs in most of my classes. This really dragged down my GPA.

At the time, I wasn’t worried about my GPA because I thought I would be done after college. I never anticipated going back to grad school because I didn’t think it was necessary for a career in communications. I still don’t, but obviously, a career change is in my future — one I never could have expected! But that put me in a bit of a pickle when I decided to apply for graduate schools. My undergraduate GPA was a 3.2, which is just over the 3.0 minimum for many graduate school programs.

While I technically passed muster, I was worried that my GPA might drag down my application. So, I made the decision to register for the GRE test. GRE scores aren’t required for most undergraduate programs unless you have a GPA below a certain threshold (usually, that threshold is 3.0 or lower). But, because I’m good at standardized tests, I knew that it would help my application to take it. If you aren’t good at standardized tests, I would look into other ways to strengthen your application.

Since I’m a good test taker, I decided to go for it. After studying for a month and a half, I got a 321 and was in the 96th percentile for verbal (the part of the test that’s more important to MSW programs), so you could say I know myself pretty well!

Tip #4: Choose Reliable Recommenders

When people give advice about recommendation letters, they tell you to pick the recommender who will write you the strongest letter of recommendation. I happen to think there’s one thing that’s more important than writing you a good letter, and that’s how reliable your recommender is.

I had three great recommendation letters from two coworkers and a professor, but my experience with recommendation letters highlighted how important it is to choose someone you can rely on, even more so than someone who likes you or whose class you got a good grade in. Unfortunately, two out of three of my letters ended up being a bit of a chase. It all worked out for me in the end, but I wish I would have taken into consideration speed when I was creating a plan for my recommendation letters.

Of course, many professors are busy, and when you’re relying on them for a recommendation, it’s impossible to avoid working with their schedule. If that’s the case for you, I recommend thinking about your recommendation letters months ahead of time. Ask them to submit your letter way before the deadline — because chances are, they’re going to submit it a little later than you ask them to.

Most schools won’t review your application at all if you don’t get the materials in on time, including recommendations, so it’s important to follow up and stay with it. I sent so many emails and Facebook messages I started to feel like a broken record, but in the end, that’s how I was able to push my recommenders to get their letters in on time.

A Girl’s Guide to Mental Health Medication

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. My information comes from research and my experiences as a patient. Be sure to talk to your doctor about any medications you’re considering for your mental health!

I was eighteen when I started taking Lexapro for my anxiety. I still take Lexapro today, plus two more medications for my mental health. Clearly, I’m not someone who balks at the idea of medication for mental illness.

But depending on where you live or who you hang out with, you may have heard otherwise. Some people believe needing medication makes you “weak” (it doesn’t), that mental health medications aren’t safe (they are) or that taking medication will change your personality (it won’t).

While everyone is entitled to their opinion, it’s my opinion that my mental health medications saved my life and gave me the boost I needed to start working on my mental health. That’s why I support movements like #WearYourMeds — and why I’m writing this post to educate you all about mental health medication. (Remember: I’m not a doctor, and you should never start a new med without talking to your doc first!)

Why People Take Medication

People take medication for mental illness for a variety of reasons. When it comes to anxiety, many people say that meds “take the edge” off just enough to allow them to use their therapy skills to calm themselves down (this was the case for me when I started Lexapro). Or, someone with depression might find that medication gives them more energy, allowing them to take part in more positive activities throughout the week (this is also the case for me and my two other medications).

Medication is often associated with severe cases of mental illness, but you don’t have to be hospitalized or incapacitated to need or want psychiatric medication. So, when should a person start to consider taking medication for their mental health? There’s no simple quiz you can take to determine if you need medication, but here are some situations where medication might be necessary:

  • To stabilize acute symptoms (i.e. while in the hospital, while suicidal or when having a panic attack)
  • To treat conditions that are resistant to other types of treatment, like talk therapy
  • To treat conditions where medication is the first line of treatment, such as schizophrenia
  • To treat patients who feel they need additional help beyond therapy
  • To counteract the side effects of other psychiatric medications (for example, Wellbutrin is sometimes prescribed to counteract sexual side effects of SSRIs)

Even if you have a therapist, a doctor (as in, an MD or a DO) is the only person who can prescribe medication, whether they are a psychiatrist or your primary care physician. Make a doctor’s appointment to chat if you’re curious about starting psychiatric medication — I’ll offer tips on talking to your doctor about psych meds later in this post!

Types of Psychiatric Medication

When you decide to talk to your doc about starting psychiatric medication, there are a host of different types of medications they might mention during your conversation. I recommend researching them in advance, so you’re at least aware of what the different medications are for your condition. To get you started, I talk about some of the most common types of mental health medication below:

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) work by inhibiting, or stopping, the reuptake of serotonin by neurons, so more serotonin is available in the brain to make you feel happier and healthier. SSRIs include Lexapro (escitalopram), Prozac (fluoxetine) and Zoloft (sertraline). They’re frequently prescribed to treat depression and anxiety.

Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) work the way SSRIs do, but they block the reuptake of another chemical called norepinephrine in addition to serotonin. SNRIs include Effexor (venlafaxine), Cymbalta (duloxetine) and Pristiq (desvenlafaxine). They’re frequently used to treat depression and anxiety.

Antipsychotics are prescribed to treat psychotic symptoms, yes — but they’re also prescribed for a host of other reasons. For example, antipsychotics are also prescribed to treat bipolar disorder, and as a supportive therapy for depression alongside traditional antidepressants (that’s why I take one!). Antipsychotics include Abilify (aripiprazole), Seroquel (quetiapine) and Risperdal (risperadone).

Other drugs used to treat mental illness include atypical antidepressants (like Wellbutrin/bupropion), BuSpar/buspirone (used to treat anxiety) and Lithobid/lithium (used to treat bipolar disorder).

Talking to Your Doctor About Medication

If you’re contemplating starting medication for a mental health concern, your first step is to make an appointment with your primary care physician or a psychiatrist. They do not have to be a specialist: as long as the clinician has a medical degree, they can prescribe psychiatric medication.

But talking to your doctor about something as sensitive as mental health medication can be scary — which is why I’ve compiled a list of tips to help you talk to your doctor about medication:

  1. Write down what you want to say. If you’re anything like me, you might rehearse what you want to say for an hour, only to forget it the minute you get to the doctor’s office. Write down what you want to say, and especially any questions you want to ask, to prevent this effect.
  2. Explain why you think medication is a good idea. Remain calm and rational (or as calm and rational as possible), and get specific. Explain yourself in clear, concise terms. For example, you could try saying “I’m ready to try medication for my mental illness” or “I want to know if mental health medication is an option for me.”
  3. Communicate with your doctor. Your doctor will likely have their own opinions about what is best for you and your mental illness. Listen to them, but don’t be afraid to communicate with your doctor. If you’re confused or not feeling heard, say so. If they want to put you on a medication you don’t want to be on, say so. When we don’t communicate, we prevent ourselves from getting what we want without even giving others the chance to help. So, make sure you are open and honest with your doctor about what you want. This is YOUR health — be an active participant in it!

Four Ways to Celebrate Mental Health This Valentine’s Day

Happy almost Valentine’s Day! This is one of my favorite holidays — but it’s not a happy day for everyone. In fact, 1 in 3 people aren’t satisfied with their love life, making a holiday that celebrates love pretty painful.

I may be part of the lucky few, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get what it means to be single and bummed out on V-Day (or in a relationship and bummed out!). Whether you’re in a long-distance relationship that makes it impossible to celebrate or if you’re disappointed to be spending yet another Valentine’s Day alone, this day presents mental health challenges for many of us.

So, if you aren’t in the mood to celebrate love, why not celebrate mental health this Valentine’s Day? Here are four little things you can do to get into the festive V-Day spirit while honoring the mental health challenges so many of us face this time of year!

1. Buy yourself a gift.

If you don’t feel like celebrating romantic love, try celebrating self-love this Valentine’s Day! Buying yourself jewelry or flowers can be far more satisfying than receiving them from a partner, anyways. Might I suggest this necklace by Jen Gotch x Iconery? Not only does it raise awareness for depression, anxiety and bipolar, but all proceeds from this jewelry line will also be donated to a mental health charity.

'Depression' pendant hanging from chain.

2. Take a mental health day.

Or, why not take an entire day off to celebrate yourself? Take a mental health day from work or school this Valentine’s Day to spend the day doing something you love. Whether it’s going off the grid to hike or booking a massage at your favorite day spa, a mental health day can be just the thing you need to rest and rejuvenate yourself so you can get back to taking on the world.

Related image

3. Send compassionate cards.

Don’t want to celebrate Valentine’s Day for yourself? Try celebrating it for others in need! Write cards to people you know who may be struggling with their mental health, or even get in touch with a local mental health charity to see if you can write cards for members of a support group or a treatment center. Print out these free mental health-themed Valentine’s Day cards to send a message of compassion to those you care about.

Free Mental Health Valentine's Day Cards

4. Donate to those in need.

If you’re struggling with mental health on Valentine’s Day, you’re not alone — and not everyone is lucky enough to receive treatment for their mental health needs. This Valentine’s Day, show a little love to those people who might not be able to afford mental healthcare by donating your time or money to one of the following organizations:

  • Cleveland, OH:
    • FrontLine Service provides mental health services to the homeless and helps youth victims of trauma and violence in their recovery.
  • United States:
    • NAMI chapters nationwide support people in mental health recovery and their loved ones with support groups, events and more.
    • NEDA supports eating disorder recovery with education and advocacy nationwide.
    • Samaritans works toward suicide prevention, and is also active in the U.K.
    • Active Minds supports college students in their mental health journeys.
    • The Buddy Project pairs people in need with mental health “buddies” to prevent suicide and self-harm.
  • United Kingdom:
    • Mind strives to reach young people before they reach a crisis point.
    • Heads Together is changing the conversation around mental health by reducing stigma.
    • Beat is the U.K.’s eating disorder treatment and prevention charity.

Orthorexia is a Real Eating Disorder: I Know, Because I Had It

I was never thin enough to be anorexic. Exercised obsessively, but never became underweight. Had thought about purging, but never done it. Occasionally went on binges, but not often enough to be considered a binge eater. And hadn’t seen a therapist, who would’ve diagnosed me with EDNOS: “eating disorder not otherwise specified,” the catchall term given to those of us with disordered eating that doesn’t quite fit the laundry list of DSM-V criteria.

It wasn’t until I read about Jordan Younger, formerly The Blonde Vegan (and now The Balanced Blonde), that I first discovered the term “orthorexia.” As I was reading her story, I kept thinking “this is me.” Jordan became so obsessed with “eating clean” and going on “cleanses” that she lost her period, suffered sallow skin and experienced thinning hair — classic symptoms of anorexia nervosa.

Though someone who looked at her might not have told her she had anorexia based on her weight, Jordan knew her eating patterns were disordered, and even discovered a name for them: orthorexia. Yet orthorexia nervosa is not yet formally recognized as an eating disorder diagnosis in the DSM-V, and won’t earn you a bed in the nearest treatment center.

As John Oliver would say, “And now, this.” The Internet is swimming with questions like, “Is orthorexia a real eating disorder?” Well, let me let you in on a little secret I learned in psychology class: the DSM-V manual, while helpful (especially for insurance purposes), is not the be-all, end-all of mental health diagnoses. The DSM-V is flawed, and one such flaw — IMHO — is excluding orthorexia nervosa from the list of official eating disorder diagnoses.

Here’s why.

What is Orthorexia?

First thing’s first: what is orthorexia? The term, according to NEDA, was coined in 1998, and refers to an unhealthy obsession with “healthy” or “clean” eating. This can take the form of obsessive exercising, eliminating processed foods, avoiding certain ingredients (or entire food groups) and a progressively stricter and stricter diet with an emphasis on promoting health and getting an athletic figure.

Orthorexia has garnered much media attention in the past few years, thanks to famous cases like Jordan Younger and YouTube fitness star Cassey Ho. Sadly, this attention has also attracted haters, who deny that orthorexia is a “real” eating disorder — or worse, dismiss those with orthorexia as attention-seekers and drama queens. But as someone who had the eating disorder myself, I can attest that orthorexia nervosa is very, very real.

The Consequences of Orthorexia

Thanks to my eating disorder story, I know that orthorexia is real. Some might wonder why I care so much if others acknowledge it — after all, if I know orthorexia is real, why does it matter what anybody else thinks? Yet the fact of the matter is that orthorexia, like any eating disorder, is downright dangerous, and may have detrimental health consequences if it goes unaddressed.

At the height of my orthorexia, it became clear that excessive exercise and a restrictive diet were taking their toll on my body. My hormones fell out of whack, leading to plunging estrogen levels and irregular periods. For the first time in my life, I began to miss my monthly flow. I also experienced constant fatigue and chronic pain all over — pain that continues to flare in my knees, shoulders, neck and back even today. The minute I allowed my body to rest, I began experiencing horrible anxiety attacks that took my breath away, accompanied by stabbing back and chest pains.

Most importantly, however, I was avoiding people and things I previously loved, including foods and social occasions. I even began to snap at the people who cared about me, especially if they questioned my obsessive diet or exercise routine. The way my disordered brain saw it, you were either on my team, or you weren’t — and if you didn’t unconditionally support my weight loss journey, then you weren’t with me; you were against me.

Why It Matters

Thankfully, I found recovery from orthorexia — yet I still care that orthorexia is not classified as a “real” eating disorder in the DSM-V. Orthorexia has caused myself and so many others so much pain, and this pain has yet to become formally acknowledged by the medical community.

Not only do I want the validation of having my eating disorder become a clinical diagnosis, but I also believe it’s dangerous not to diagnose orthorexia nervosa as a DSM-V disorder. Fatphobia already runs rampant in the medical community, especially in eating disorder treatment — and those of us with orthorexia often don’t fit the stick-thin, underweight description of a stereotypical eating disorder patient.

As a result, someone’s dangerously disordered eating patterns may fly under the radar (or, in overweight patients, even be encouraged by doctors), worsening their disorder and preventing them from receiving the help they need to get better.

Conclusion

“Other specified feeding or eating disorder” is not enough for patients who suffer from orthorexia nervosa. Because of weight discrimination and the lack of clinical support for the orthorexia diagnosis, patients like me face major obstacles to eating disorder treatment in the United States.

We may not be able to change the DSM-V, but there are things you can do to support the changing landscape of eating disorder advocacy and recovery. Namely….

  • Pledge to support Health at Every Size (HAES), which states that weight does NOT measure health. In other words, overweight individuals are not automatically deemed unhealthy — and individuals must not be underweight to suffer from the psychological consequences of disordered eating patterns. Click here to sign the pledge.
  • Skip the scale. Eating disorder advocacy begins at home, so if you haven’t already…. THROW AWAY YOUR SCALE! Go ahead. I’ll wait. *waits* Now that you’ve done that, you should also know that you have the right to refuse to be weighed (or ask to be “blind-weighed,” so you don’t see the number on the scale) at the doctor’s office. Note that there may be times when your weight matters — when determining anesthesia dosage before a procedure, for example — so ask to be blind-weighed when these occasions arise. Print these free HAES cards to start the conversation with your doctor, without feeling awkward or ashamed.
  • Become a Legislative Advocate for NEDA. Sign up for NEDA’s free legislative alerts to help advocate for legislation to support eating disorder recovery. Who knows? Someday, a law could mandate education about orthorexia in addition to other eating disorders, or that eating disorder patients be protected from size discrimination — and by signing up for NEDA’s alerts, you could be a part of it! Click here to become a NEDA Legislative Advocate.

Want more ED recovery content? Get 30 free journal prompts for eating disorder recovery!

Processing…
Thanks! Check your email for your free journal prompts.