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Overcoming low undergrad GPA for admissions


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Hi Everyone!


I decided to share my story in hopes that others can relate and maybe we can pass around tips and advice for improving chances in admission.


I went to UCLA for undergrad.  Long story short, I did poorly and ended up graduating with a 2.5 cumulative GPA (major GPA was worse at 2.1).  I've felt (and still, to a certain degree) a great deal of shame, embarrassment, and regret.  It's been 5 years since I graduated and I think I'm at the point where I am trying to move past it and pursue an MSW in a field I'm passionate about.


I've heard a lot of different opinions over the years about what to do to off-set my GPA such as matriculating graduate level courses as a non student, take some community college classes, get a lot of relevant volunteer/professional experience, get a high GRE score, and write a killer personal statement.


I've attended a few grad fairs and this is what I've done to prepare myself for applying:

  • 5+ years of professional work experience (I have worked in the non-profit field, social work related)
  • A good amount of volunteering post-college (but I haven't committed super long-term to anything)
  • Attended a great deal of leadership trainings
  • Re-took a stats course (A) and have taken 3 upper division psych classes (all As) at community college while working full-time.

I'm fairly confident I can bust out a good personal statement and have some people in mind for rec letters.


I know grad school admissions are competitive.  Many schools have told me that they have a holistic admissions process but I wonder how true that is and wonder if anyone had any insight on that.  I know some programs might just automatically reject applications that have less than 3.0 (I'm thinking Cal States here like LA, LB, Northridge)


I don't think it would be worth my time to apply to super competitive top tier MSW programs since my GPA is not competitive.  However, I am aiming to apply to USC in the fall.  Some of the reasons why is because they have a larger program (compared to UCLA), they don't require the GRE, and also because I think private universities have a higher acceptance rates and are more forgiving than super competitive public schools?  I met a rep from Syracuse that actually told me that since they are so small, if they reject your application, they would personally reach out to you on how to improve and re-apply.


If anyone has any additional insights or information on admissions, I'd love to hear it.  I'm so nervous BUT also optimistic that this will work out.  :)

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Good morning cord123,


Though most MSW graduate programs do indeed look at the applicant as a "whole" (e.g., taking experience into account, background, etc.), GPAs are often considered to be a litmus test (especially for those programs that don't require the GRE) of how an applicant will do in graduate school.  Though the GRE is typically seen as a good evaluation of how well someone will do in graduate school (similar to the SAT/ACT for undergraduate programs), I believe GPA paints a clearer, better picture because graduate programs (whether private or public) are investing their time and energy in their students.  They ultimately want the students to succeed.  Furthermore, many graduate programs require a minimum 3.0 GPA as a graduate student to maintain good standing in their program and anything lower can result in academic suspension/probation or removal from the program altogether.  Those programs that don't require the GRE for all applicants do recommend the GRE for those students whose GPA is below a 3.0.  Regardless of whether you decide to go to a public or private university, MSW programs as a whole are generally very competitive.  USC, for example, has one of the best MSW programs in the nation which means they receive applications from all around the country and all around the world as well.   


I say all of this not to discourage you from applying, as I can clearly see you have the motivation and drive that's necessary to succeed in graduate school (plus your 5+ years of related work experience); however, having a good GPA (e.g., at least a 3.0) is essential to the application process.  Obviously this may be difficult for you to do based on your overall undergraduate GPA.  Though the courses you've taken at the community college may help, nothing will truly offset your past GPA because you will be required to submit the transcripts from all the colleges you've attended and/or taken classes at.

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Have you calculated your new gpa including those classes you took post graduation?

I had a low gpa and the advisor at cal state LA advised me to take the chemical dependency courses for a certificate at elac.. I started taking the courses even though I had already applied and got admitted, so I didn't have to take those courses lol :/

Csula said they will not even look at your application if your gpa is below 2.8 so I didn't apply there

Long beach has a minimum gpa as well but does not count post graduation courses towards gpa, so for them you won't qualify

Csudh and csun both consider courses after graduation and experience and letters.. The difference with these two is that they take a look at your application in contrast to lb and la who told me don't bother applying they will put my application aside w a gpa of 2.7

My background experience is good, 2 years in skid row working as a case manager

Anyway.. Don't lose hope, I got into both schools :) just shoot for it and while in the process try taking psychology classes, I took the courses to get the certificate as a recovery specialist (4) com college classes in psychology.. I took them just in case I didn't get in I had something to add to my next application...

Hope this helps! And gives you hope :)

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Paradoxically, you might find that some of the higher ranked school are less difficult to get into than the lower ranked ones. Look closely at each program's website. Sometimes, social work programs are bound by requirements of other divisions of the university (UNC Chapel Hill's graduate school requires the school of social work to require GRE scores, even if they don't want to). One program that comes to mind is Case Western. Even though they're highly ranked, their acceptance rate is really high and their website says, "A minimum undergraduate grade point average of 2.7. A Miller Analogies Test Score or Graduate Record Exam (GRE) score is required for a grade point average below 2.7."

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I agree with TheCrow. I've applied to CSULB, CSULA, CSUDH & USC with a cumulative GPA of 2.9 and surprise, surprise I was waitlisted at all schools except for USC. I believe because CSU's receive a much higher number of applicants. I sent in the same letters of rec, the same resume and virtually the same PS. Though I have to admit I definitely underestimated the competitiveness of CSU programs. I would highly recommend taking the GRE if post-graduate courses aren't accounted into your GPA (though I would take it even if this wasn't the case). Unfortunately, you'll have to work that much harder to prove you will be successful in the program. If you've worked closely with program directors, clinical directors, senior case managers etc. and they can write awesome LOR's for you, dooo it! 

FYI I decided not to attend USC because, come on! 90,000+ in debt? Pssh not for a social work degree. So now i'm gearing up to take the GRE and reapply. Good luck! 

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Here's my back story.


Undergrad was rough for me. I was sick like 50% of the time because I needed to have major surgery that would require me to leave school. I muscled through it and had surgery almost immediately following. Also, my boyfriend was deployed, which caused me a lot of stress and anxiety. I transferred schools twice, and I just wasn't in a good place and I was completely disinterested in my education at the time. Thus, my grades suffered. A lot. I came out of undergrad with a whopping 2.3 GPA. I can defend it til I'm blue in the face, but nobody really cares about my excuses.


Here's what I did.


I worked a really awesome job for eight years. While my friends were mixing drinks at a bar or folding shirts in a store, I was saving lives as an EMT. I have a pretty cool resume since I took every possible class offered to me, pertaining to my job. I also got great references from people that I worked with/for. I also did three years of volunteer work, played a college sport, speak a foreign language, and some other odds and ends that come up on my resume. Sounds like you've got all that covered.


I knew I'd eventually have to go back to school to raise my GPA when I started applying for jobs and they wouldn't even give me the time of day due to my GPA. At the time, I was very passionate about law enforcement and being employed by a three letter agency, so I decided to go back to get my masters in criminal justice (no MSW program in the area). Even if I didn't get a job in the field, I would at least enjoy the subject matter. The only school in my local area that offered a CJ minor was a very small private university (virtually unheard of outside of SC), nothing like my huge undergrad public university. I had to stay local due to my medical issues, so I only had that one option. I went in and spoke to an admissions rep who told me that my GPA was too low (3.0 requirement), but if I scored high enough on the GRE/MAT, they'd admit me provisionally on academic probation. So, I took the MAT (I'm awful at math, GRE was out) and scored really well. They admitted me immediately, no questions asked. I spent my first semester on academic probation, but was removed and admitted to regular standing after I pulled off a 3.9 GPA that first semester. A few semesters later, I graduated with my masters and a lovely 3.83 GPA!


When applying to MSW programs, I found that the majority of schools I was applying to asked their applicants to explain briefly any academic mishaps in their SOP. So, at the end of mine, I touched on my medical issues and stated that I could provide physician documentation, etc, blah blah blah. Use that SOP wisely! If you've got a good reason, tell 'em!


As you can see in my signature, I made out pretty well when I applied for my MSW, regardless of my craptastic undergrad GPA. Only one school (NYU) decided to start me off on academic probation. I even got scholarships from two schools! One was a significant amount of money.


And that's my story. Took a while for me to get here, but I'm here, and couldn't be happier with my options. I'm also very happy that I got my MSCJ first. I LOVED graduate school and everything about it. It was night and day from undergrad. Doing a first masters has also prepared me for my MSW. I did a lot of research, wrote a thesis, and made great contacts, all while beefing up my resume and GPA. What could be better?


All in all, my advice is to find a school that will admit you via test scores. I know that there are a few out there that require applicants to take the GRE/MAT if their GPA is below a 3.0 - I'd lean towards applying to those schools, since many don't require and don't want test scores at all. Don't give up! Someone will give you a shot. It may not be your dream school, and it may not be immediately, but you'll get there. Good luck!

Edited by Lifesaver
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