By Jeremiah Fleenor, MD, MBA
Author of The Medical School Interview: Secrets and a System for Success
Originally published 26 February 2007.
“A wise man can see more from the bottom of a well than a fool can from a mountain top.” Unknown
So you’re not happy with your grades. Are they at the bottom of a well? Do you feel that the GPA and MCAT scores on your application don’t reflect the true brain power you possess? This firmly plants you in the majority of applicants. So what can be done to help this common situation? Here are some tips to help you be the “wise man” and make the most of your grades.
Overview of Problem Areas
During the course of the medical school interview, it is important to proactively bring up weak areas of your application. I liken this to telling your parents you’ve done something wrong before they find out about it. Although I rarely practiced this philosophy as I was growing up, the times I did usually resulted in less trouble. I think the same is true for admissions committees. Students who can assess their own weaknesses gain credibility. Those who come to the committee with an honest assessment and plan (not excuses) to address weaknesses look much stronger than those who ignore or try to hide their shortcomings. For example, many applicants have struggled with organic chemistry courses and have less than desirable grades. This is not uncommon. However, what is uncommon is an applicant who professionally broaches the topic, provides insight as to why the event occurred, shares what he or she has learned from the challenging experience and demonstrates how the deficiency was corrected. In my eyes, this is the formula for dealing with any area of your application that you feel is deficient:
- Address the issue.
- Explain the situation. (Be careful not to offer excuses.)
- Explain what you learned from the experience.
- Demonstrate correction of the problem (or progress in the area).
Areas of weakness can be springboards that launch you into the category of applicant that admissions committees would love to accept. Let’s explore these four areas by using an example of an applicant with a poor physics grade.
Address the Issue
There is a balance between airing your dirty laundry and talking about potential weaknesses in your application. You don’t have to say, “I’d like to talk about my C in Physics.” You may not even mention the phrase “bad grades.” It is quite possible to work this in to many common questions posed by the interviewer. For example, the question, “Tell me about a particularly challenging time in your life and what you did about it?” is a perfect question to discuss a bad grade. Your response can be,
“Actually, I found myself very challenged during my first semester Physics course.”
Explain the Situation
Remember, the key is to paint a picture so that the interviewer can understand what you were going through. This is not the time to go into a list of excuses as to why your Physics grade stinks. There are reasons why things happened but avoid applying external circumstances as the sole cause. For example, you may say,
“I had just started a new job and was working 40 hours a week while carrying a full course load. I really thought I could balance it all. Clearly, I couldn’t. This was compounded by a family member who became ill and required my help. The time commitment, not to mention the emotional involvement, was overwhelming.”
Explain What You Learned From the Situation
Of all the steps in this process, I believe this is the most important. Remember, experience isn’t what happens to you. Experience is what you do with what happens to you. Accordingly, the most useful information you can provide the admissions committee is what you have learned from this experience and how you are a better person for going through it. That’s why excuses are so damaging. An excuse is something outside your control. At first blush, this might seem like a good idea. However, the byproduct of tough times (and mistakes) is your most valuable asset. Lay claim to these learning experiences. You might say,
“What I discovered during this difficult semester was that I do have limitations but I also have great staying power. For example, I bit off a little more than I could chew but I didn’t drop the course or take an incomplete. I decreased my work hours, kept studying and steadily improved my grade in the course. I also discovered that I have a good support network of family and friends who helped me through this difficult time.”
Demonstrate Correction or Improvement
This is the really tough component. Part 1 of this series talked about making the “cut on paper” and how it is of paramount importance to demonstrate to the admissions committee that you have the cognitive ability to make it through medical school. A low grade in an important class like physics or organic chemistry isn’t the end of the world. However, you will still need to convince the committee that you have the mental capacity to succeed in the field of medicine. Accordingly, it may be prudent to repeat a course, to demonstrate mastery of the material. Alternatively, if the remainder of your scores is high, you may be able to reference these scholastic successes as evidence of your mental abilities. The low score can then be treated as an isolated event. Remember, you are only required to convince the committee that you have the brain power to succeed. It might be said like this,
“I knew my C in physics was not indicative of my understanding of the material so I retook the course, while maintaining my work hours, and got a B+. I would have liked to have earned an A but I am very satisfied with this mark and my understanding of the material.”
As an interviewer at a large state school, if an applicant came to me and presented this scenario, I would be comfortable with the initial low grade in physics. In fact, I would feel more comfortable with the applicant. Now I have a good idea that when (not if) times get rough, this individual is going to have the experience and staying power to make it through.
When you’re a physician, your practice of medicine won’t be perfect. You’ll work very hard to minimize any errors, but they will occur. Likewise, you will work very hard to avoid low grades, but they will also occur. That’s not the issue. More important is how you deal with the errors. Try the above system and watch those weaknesses become your biggest strengths.
Please email your medical school questions to Dr. Fleenor at [email protected]