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Interview Advice: Grades?! Part 1

Created July 28, 2010 by Jeremiah Fleenor, MD, MBA
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Originally published 11 January 2007

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition…” Voltaire (1694 – 1778)

If you are concerned about your grades (GPA, MCAT, etc.), you are not alone. As an advisor and interviewer, it’s one of the most common issues I encounter. Nobody thinks they have perfect scores. It’s the equivalent of looking in the mirror and being a little displeased with that sag or roll. We all wish something was different. Applicants view their grades the same way. The good news is that changing your scores doesn’t involve a nip or tuck.

The topic of grades is a big one. There are several key concepts that need to be addressed and are paramount to your success. It’s too large and important to adequately cover in one column. That is why the next two articles will be dedicated to this subject.

Making the cut on paper

When I was an EMT applying to medical school, I had an ER doctor tell me that, “You have to make the cut on paper.” He was absolutely correct. He went on to say that you need to demonstrate your mental ability by means of a good GPA or MCAT score. Some might argue that due to increasing competition, you need to have high marks in both areas.

The concept to grasp is that there is a minimum cognitive ability that you must possess to be a physician. In other words, a doctor’s brain literally needs to be able to crunch data at some baseline level. When you think about it, this concept is in line with the general societal view we hold of physicians. Namely, we see physicians as intelligent people.

The way in which most admissions committees determine an applicant’s “brain power” is via their GPA and MCAT scores. There are a couple of reasons for this:

  • Research indicates a student’s GPA and MCAT scores correlate highly with academic success in the first two years of medical school.
  • Together these scores provide a reasonably objective and fair way to compare applicants.

Is this a perfect system? No way! But it is the present reality. The key to success is in demonstrating to the admissions committee that you are smart enough to be a good doctor. I can’t stress this enough. At the end of the session, your interviewer needs to be sure that you have the cognitive ability to get through the academic rigors of medical school and a demanding career as a physician.

The rub in all of this comes when there is a mismatch between an applicant’s abilities and their scores. Many applicants truly are smart enough to be good physicians but are unable to demonstrate their mental ability via these narrow measures. Conversely, there are plenty of people who can perform well on standardized tests and have great GPA’s but would make horrible physicians. In either case the applicant loses. And when you think about it, in the end, so does the patient. I think of grades as a balance between two extremes: the applicant’s true mental capabilities and the ability to prove or demonstrate such abilities.

Here’s a story that might help explain one end of the spectrum. There were two women in my organic chemistry class who were very bright. Both were interested in going to graduate level healthcare programs. Accordingly, they needed high marks in the class. Unfortunately, they weren’t as happy with their grades as they wanted to be. So on the last day of class they walked into the final wearing shirts that said, “I’m not my organic chemistry grade.” No truer words were ever written.

The other end of the spectrum is this: to be a safe and competent physician, you need to have a certain level of cognitive ability. For good or bad, this is primarily measured via your GPA and MCAT scores.

In between these two extremes is where you want to be. You’ll be most competitive there and likely most happy.

Although a sobering message, it is not meant to be discouraging. There is hope! Now you know that you need to demonstrate your cognitive ability to the admissions committee. You know what they’re looking for and can focus your attention on these key areas.

Please look for part 2 in the next column. We will cover how to maximize the scores you do have and how best to demonstrate your cognitive ability to the admissions committee.

Please email your questions about the medical school interview to [email protected].

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