Liability Insurance Designed Specifically for Social Workers

7 Job Search Mistakes Social Workers Make and How To Avoid Them

7 Job Search Mistakes Social Workers Make and How To Avoid Them


We all know searching for a new job is an arduous process, and even a savvy job seeker is bound to make a mistake. But in a highly competitive social work job market, a small mistake could cost you the job of your dreams. I’ve rounded up a list of job search mistakes social workers make. You have most likely heard these before, but we can all use a reminder. Why do I say this? Because I keep seeing these easily avoidable errors and hearing about them from hiring managers.

1. Searching for Jobs Online Only

According to Simmons College Career Center, “70-80% of job seekers find their jobs through contacts. As few as 20% land their jobs through the traditional ‘reactive’ job search method, namely, applying for posted positions on job boards or want ads.”Most jobs are not posted online, and it really is about who you know that can help you get your foot in the door at your dream job. Networking, staying connected, and being a member of your professional association will help you throughout your entire social work career.

Avoid the mistake:

  • Take advantage of every networking opportunity you can. Be visible and present. Engage with other social workers. Check out my article for networking tips: The Social Social Worker: 10 Tools for Successful Networking. (See for this and other articles mentioned in this column.)
  • Search beyond “social worker.” When you search online for jobs, use a diverse set of search terms instead of just “social worker.” If you are a BSW or are interested in macro social work, you will quickly learn that most “social worker” postings are looking for a licensed MSW. Look around at organizations or other jobs that interest you and see what position titles they use to get an idea of what type of jobs to search for. 

2. Not Keeping Up With Your References

It is critical to have 3-5 solid references who can speak well of your skills, knowledge, and experience. It reflects poorly on you if you asked someone a year or two ago to be a reference and then didn’t keep in touch with that person. Employers can tell when a person’s references aren’t expecting the call, and your reference may not be willing to provide a good recommendation if you don’t ask or inform them beforehand.

Avoid the mistake:

  • Ask first! It is a professional courtesy to always formally ask someone first before listing them as a reference.
  • Keep in touch. Check in with your references every few months—monthly if you are actively job searching. Let them know what you have been up to and make sure they have a current copy of your résumé. 
  • Give them a heads up. As soon as you have given your list of references to a hiring manager, contact your references and give them the job description and name of the organization that might be contacting them. As someone who frequently provides references, nothing is worse than being contacted by an employer to provide a reference when you don’t even know what job the person is applying for and what skills to speak about.
  • Know when you should remove someone from your references. Employers like to speak to someone with knowledge of your current skills and work ethic. If you haven’t worked with someone for a few years, don’t know the person very well, or can’t get in touch with them, don’t list them.
  • Don’t use a classmate as a reference. If you recently graduated, it can be tempting to use a classmate who has landed a job as a reference. They may be able to speak about your ability to do group work, but they are probably not suited to speak about your work as an employee. 

3. Neglecting to Follow Up

Whether it is networking or interviewing for a job, you should always follow up with people who have taken the time to speak with you. Forgetting to do this is an error that will lose the respect of potential connections and could prevent you from landing a job.

Avoid the Mistake:

  • Say thank you. Make sure you follow up with every person who has offered to help you, even if their help isn’t the right fit for you. Follow up with an email or call and let them know you appreciate their valuable time. 
  • Don’t wait to follow up. For informational interviews, you should always follow up within one business day. Waiting a week or two sends a message that the person’s time was not important to you. For job interviews, you should follow up with a thank-you note immediately. 
  • Write a hand-written note. Email thank-yous are nice, but a hand-written thank-you note goes a long way to show someone you appreciate the time they took to meet with you or their choosing to interview you for their open position. Don’t send a generic note. Tailor it and mention specific details about the conversation, job position, or something you had in common.

4. Burning Bridges

Not recognizing that social work is a small world, regardless of the size of the city you live in, can put you at a disadvantage during your job search. Word travels fast, and people will remember if you acted unprofessionally. Here are a few things that can ruin your professional reputation or label you as unhireable.

Avoid the Mistake:

    • Never bad-mouth your old employer. No matter how bad a job was, you never want to criticize a former employer in an interview or while networking. The interviewer will assume you’ll do it again. Keep a neutral tone about your previous employer, and focus on what you’ve learned from each experience and what you can do in the future. 
    • Leave a job professionally. Leaving your social work job can be a difficult decision and takes planning and diplomacy. For some tips on quitting your job with poise and without burning those essential professional bridges, see I Quit! How a Social Worker Can Leave a Job Professionally and Ethically.
    • Take rejection appropriately. So, you weren’t hired for the job you thought you were perfect for. Rejection stings and happens to everyone at some point. Don’t go off the deep end and tell employers what you think about them or air your grievances on social media. You never know if you will have an opportunity to work with them in the future. Thank the employer for considering you, and move on.
    • Turn down a job tactfully. You may be faced with the decision to turn down a job offer for a variety of reasons—the job or organization is not a right fit for you, the commute will be too long, the pay is too low. Always be respectful when turning down an offer. You never know when a better opportunity will come along with the same organization.

5. Using the Same Résumé and Cover Letter

You want your résumé and cover letter to scream, “I’m perfect for THIS job!” This means you can’t submit the same résumé and cover letter for every job. Employers can tell 100% of the time when you haven’t customized your résumé for their open position. Each position you apply to will list different requirements, so it is critical that you tailor your résumé and cover letter to highlight your past accomplishments that match the job.

Avoid the Mistake:

  • Your résumé should be tailored to every position you apply for. Period. Check out my article for more tips on how to present your résumé: 10 Essential Tips for Your Amazing Social Work Résumé
  • .Include a cover letter! Even if it’s not required as part of the application, many hiring managers do read your cover letter. Writing a cover letter is also a great exercise to help you prepare for the interview by matching your skills and experience with the job description. Learn more about cover letter tips here: Cover Letters for Social Workers: Get Yourself the Interview.
  • Don’t regurgitate your résumé in your cover letter. Your résumé is likely the first thing a hiring manager looks at, so you’re wasting your time if your cover letter is a concentrated version of your résumé. A cover letter is the opportunity for you to concisely expand on experience and skills that relate to the job description not included in your résumé.

6. Being Unprepared for Interviews

Congratulations! Your amazing résumé and cover letter worked. You got the interview! Now the pressure is on for you to stand out from your fellow candidates and show the employer you are the right fit for the job. It will be immediately apparent to the interviewers if you did not prepare to interview for their open position.    

Avoid the Mistake:

  • First impressions are critical. I am usually nervous in an interview (who isn’t?!), but I found when I did my research, prepared, and practiced my responses, I felt more at ease and could concentrate more on connecting with the interviewer, which is essential. Here are some tips that will help you best prepare for your social work interview: 5 Ways To Ace Your Social Work Job Interview.
  • Don’t show up late or too early for the interview. There is no excuse for showing up late to an interview, and you should already know this, but it does happen. Showing up too early also throws the interviewers off if they are not ready for you or if they are still interviewing another candidate. Get there early, but hang out in your car or a coffee shop to prep for the interview, and arrive five minutes before your scheduled interview time.
  • Act excited to be there. You may be a little nervous, but there is no reason you shouldn’t act excited to be interviewing for a great job. Employers spend hours and days interviewing candidate after candidate, and they are looking for someone who can do the job AND is motivated. Showing some enthusiasm can only help you stand out.

7. Being Shy About Your Accomplishments

    “Without promotion something terrible happens—nothing.” – P.T. Barnum

You are a social worker. You are amazing. Everyone needs to know this, especially when you are job searching. You are competing with social workers with the same or similar degrees, credentials, licensure, and experience as you. The key to standing out is to promote yourself without bragging.

Avoid the Mistake:

  • Market yourself. Many social workers don’t know how to market themselves during their job search, or during their career, for that matter. Marketing yourself as a professional social worker is about knowing your value and understanding that there is no one out there exactly like you. Being able to articulate your value is key. Check out my tips on how to market your social work skills: Show Them You’re a Rock Star! Marketing 101 for Your Social Work Job Search.
  • Be confident. If you’re not feeling good about yourself, you will likely have more difficulty presenting yourself to an employer as a strong candidate. Job searching can be confidence-depleting when you aren’t landing a job. Here are a few tips to keep up the momentum during the tedious job search: 5 Tips To Help You Stay Strong During Your Social Work Job Search.
  • Take credit for your own accomplishments. Team work is incredibly important and a valuable skill in the social work profession. There are times when it’s appropriate to acknowledge your team, and other times when it’s appropriate to take credit. Too often, social workers—especially women—don’t take credit and too quickly attribute success to others. Acknowledging your role will help you throughout your social work career.

This article originally appeared at The New Social Worker.

Valerie Arendt, MSW, MPP, is the Associate Executive Director for the National Association of Social Workers, North Carolina Chapter (NASW-NC). She received her dual degree in social work and public policy from the University of Minnesota and currently provides membership support, including résumé review, to the members of NASW-NC. 

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published