Updated August 12, 2021. The article was updated to correct minor grammatical errors.
As I peruse the SDN pre-professional forums, I routinely come across threads of a similar theme: “My GPA is shot; is my chance at a career in ________ lost?” While I don’t want to give anyone false hope, since GPA is certainly a major indicator of admissibility to pursue a career in medicine, I’m here to tell you that it can be done. In fact, I did it.
In the Fall of 1998 (yes, I’m that old!), I left my hometown and enrolled as a full-time student at a Big 10 university, ready to start pursuing my career as a physician. I’d always done well in school without having to put forth much effort. It seemed as though I retained enough material just sitting in class that I didn’t need to apply myself much at home in order to do well on exams. Assuming I could do the same in college, I didn’t go to class much, hardly ever did homework, and just showed up for exams. The funny (or, in retrospect, sad) thing was, I wasn’t out partying, being wanton and reckless with friends, or anything like that. I was riding on the university ambulance as much as I could, having fallen in love with what had recently become my new passion: Emergency Medical Services (EMS).
Although all things EMS seemed to come naturally to me, Chemistry, Biology, and Algebra did not. In short order, my magnanimity was overshadowed by the three F’s, two D’s, and a lone A (in my Emergency Medical Technician course) glaring on my report card. I was extremely disappointed in myself, and my parents were visibly upset, to say the least. Ashamed and humbled, I returned to school to take another swing. …and had similar results. I simply could not force myself to get up in the morning and go to class. The repercussions of my choices were painfully obvious, yet I still opted to hang out with friends or go into town for dinner rather than study.
After the second semester of dismal performance, I requested a leave of absence and returned home with a dismal outlook and a 1.68 cumulative GPA. Certainly, I thought, my dreams of being a doctor had been dashed. I’ll be honest with you: I gave up. And doing so may be exactly what got me into school. Although I wasn’t thinking this way, I needed to put some distance between myself and my first-year grades. As I contemplated alternate careers, I completed paramedic school and worked a handful of EMS jobs. After the novelty of “not having any real goals” wore off in 2001, I admitted needing an undergraduate degree. When I returned to academia at a different school, it was like another world. I was going to class, performing well, and enjoying myself! When I graduated three years later, I had a 3.79 GPA – and none of it in science.
Having definitely shrugged off medicine, I entered a graduate program in Criminology in 2004 and worked nights on the ambulance to pay the bills. It was then, in the summer of the subsequent year, that I admitted to myself that I truly loved medicine and had to give it a serious try. I knew from the beginning that my past was going to be a serious obstacle to admission. As soon as I graduated, I began a formal post-baccalaureate program at my undergrad alma mater. Here are some of the tips I received along the way, many of which I believe helped me land an acceptance:
- Apply early, for crying out loud!
I can’t even count the number of times people told me to apply early. This is probably one of the most important aspects to your application that is entirely within your control. I submitted AMCAS on June 5th (the first possible day) and turned every secondary around within 24-48 hours. Sure, it’s a pain, but completed files get looked at first.
- Don’t be cocky
As a paramedic, I had a lot of exposure to medicine that other applicants may not have. That said, I’m sure I’ve also picked up some bad habits along the way that medical school will have to “fix”. In my personal statement and interviews, I talked about my experiences in EMS and how they humbled me, really revealing just how much I don’t know.
- Think about why you did poorly in school to begin with
In my case, I just didn’t go to class. It was a maturity/responsibility issue. If you have a learning disability or would benefit from a tutor, get the help you need. Get your studies back on track and keep them there. Examine your motivation for medicine and make sure all the work you’re going to have to put in will be worth it to you.
- Apply more broadly than you think you need to
I applied to over 30 allopathic and 10 osteopathic medical schools. Was this inexpensive? No. Was it fun? No. It did, however, increase my odds of success ever so slightly and each rejection hurt a little less.
- “Rock the MCAT/DAT/OAT/PCAT/etc.”
A common phrase in our forums, and often easier said than done. I was fortunate enough to have a competitive score on the MCAT. This can help prove to a school that your past academic misdeeds are over, but it will not give you a tabula rasa. Make sure your recent grades (post-bac, Special Masters Program, etc.) reflect an upward trend and that you have retaken any prerequisite science courses in which you did poorly before.
- Don’t underestimate your state school
Many, if not most state schools give preference to state residents. Use this to your advantage. If you want to stay in the area, make mention of that during your interview or allude to it in your personal statement.
- Step up to the plate
That is, take responsibility any poor grades. Don’t blame them on a “bad professor” or anything else that shifts responsibility away from where it really lies – with you. Medical study is about self-directed learning, responsibility, and maturity. Show them you have all of those through your extracurricular activities (which should be meaningful, diverse, and long-term). Sell yourself as a total package.
I know, you’ve heard all this before. Why do you think that is? Perhaps because it works! My path to medicine has been arduous and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. That said, it is entirely possible to gain admission with a 3.22 cumulative and 2.86 science GPA. How likely it is, however, is really up to you.