Interview Advice: Grades?! Part 2

Last Updated on June 27, 2022 by Laura Turner

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,

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“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]

18 thoughts on “Interview Advice: Grades?! Part 2”

  1. Valuable, appreciated advice, only posted too late into the interview season!
    At my interviews, I instinctively wanted to talk about my weak first two years of school and point out the improvement, and I did at some of them… just not as confidently and consistently because I thought it was a topic I was “supposed” to avoid.

  2. I wouldn’t consider his approach to be abasement. Based on the criteria in the study you cited I imagine his approach addresses endurance. Rothstein and colleagues define abasement in their study to be,”meek, self-critical, humble, apologizing, deferential”. Fleenor wasn’t suggesting this behavior.

  3. I interviewed medical school applicants for my medical school. If an applicant responded to “tell me about a challenging time in your life” with – well, physics class was tough, I would want to slap them. A tough class is NOT a challenging time in the life of anyone interviewing for medical school. Dealing with a siblings addition, or the death of a close family member, or the isolation of being poor at making friends, or a million other things the average person has to deal with during the course of growing up, that REALLY define who we are and how we got that way are much more insightful and self reflective than a hard class.

  4. I was very impressed with what I read. I thought the responses you gave were excellent and will help me a lot. Thank you for the good advice.

  5. Great insight! I took alot of great advice from this. I will be sure to make use of the information that was provided! Thank you so much Dr.Fleenor

  6. I’m sorry, but in readying the example I just couldn’t stop thinking of selling out… telling them what they want to hear. Plus, to me, the “working 40+ hours and family member becoming ill” seems like a pretty good excuse, exactly what Dr. Fleenor advises against!

  7. David McMurray a few posts above is correct about the Explain the Situation example. “Oh, I was working 40 hours a week and a family member became ill”. That is the epitome of an excuse.
    The rest of the article was fine, but that example is terrible.

  8. The point of the article is to give advice to those applicants who do not have the “ideal” application, and how to turn a potential weakness in the application into a strength. If the author’s opinion is true, and the stats portion of the application is “paramount”, the “C” in physics cannot be erased from the interviewee’s past, and can be addressed in a way that demonstrates persistence (an ideal characteristic of physicians from Jelley, et al).

  9. I think what the author of the article is trying to say about excuses is that you shouldn’t blame your lack of success on the professor or difficulty of the course. He’s basically saying “don’t come up with a stupid reason.” I think he’s trying to say that the mature thing to do is acknowledge your own shortcomings in the process of getting the bad grade and tell the interviewer what you did to improve upon your shortcomings. I think that working 40 hours a week is not a stupid reason. Plus I’ve been to several admissions panels with representatives from medical schools and they have said the same thing the author did. So I think he makes a valid point.

  10. Cane2011, you have (and the author) have it backwards. “I had to deal with bla bla bla outside of school” is the epitome of an excuse.
    The epitome of actually dealing with the problem, is to acknowledge that the course material was difficult for you.

  11. @FutureDr:
    In that specific example, it’s only an excuse if it’s not true. The example assumes that the applicant has done well scholastically in most other areas. If all of those things really did occur and didn’t allow for ample study time, why couldn’t those things have affected the final grade?
    The example is a poor one only because it depends heavily on the applicant’s natural scholastic ability. If someone spends many hours studying and excels – only to have those hours and hours of studying cut short by having to care for a sick family member and then, perhaps because of the sickness, having to work more hours a week to pay for their tuition – there would be an understandable dip in scholastic performance, no? Also, in the particular case I just described, the “stick-to-it-iveness” of the applicant (for not simply dropping school and dealing with personal issues) could be seen as a valuable quality.
    Bottom line, one poor grade by itself doesn’t support the example. If the entire semester in question was sub-par it would be more realistic and not attributable to “the material was difficult for me.”

  12. A good friend of mine once said, “excuses are like @$$holes; everyone has one and they all stink.” Be real and honest. That’s all you can do. I can pick up on b.s. from a mile away, so I’m sure most of these adcoms will be able to as well (I would hope so at least).

  13. I wonder who will be the next person to use the word, ‘epitome’.
    Working 40+ hours a week and an illness in the family is a typical ‘excuse’, I agree, but we probably hear it a lot because many undergraduates work whilst attending college/university, and of course – people develop illnesses all the time and it is not highly unlikely that one of those people could be in the applicant’s family.
    The whole point is not to critique the reason for bad performance, but to acknowledge how the applicant dealt with such issues to determine how he/she would deal with such issues in med school and as a doctor.

  14. @ FutureDr,
    You clearly have never experienced anything difficult in your life. Sometimes stuff happens and you would of course like to turn the clock back in time and change it but you can’t. I, however, don’t think that if you’ve proven in later courses and learned from your mistakes that saying something like the author above states is an excuse but an explanation and what you learned from it and the fact that you show that you learned from the situation and corrected it is far more important then that you were not perfect and didn’t get As in that particular situation. There are a lot of people who’ve had lower ugrad GPAs but proven themselves through postbac or grad school. Some were career changers and yet others were just people needing to boost their application. But they made it into med school and succeeded despite their past performance. That is because they learned from their past and gained skills and perspective and focus later on. There are others who had great numbers that I have known in my life and who had great ECs and letters and were the epitome of strong applicant but came to medical school and failed miserably. So it goes both ways. And this is why there’s a lot of subjectiveness that goes into the app process. Do not assume you understand a person’s situation before you’ve assessed the whole situation. You are not on an adcom or even experienced to make such baseless comments without putting things into perspective harsh as that may sound. And I know there will be some that take this the wrong way.

  15. I believe that excuses are very common mainly because they are real. If I developed a serious ailment, and my GPA suffers, why should I not mention that I was sick? In my mind, people say the word “excuse” when they really mean complaint. If I were to complain about my ailment, and expect the standards to be lowered, that would be the “epitome” of an excuse. An excuse isnt necessarily bad without the underlying message of “I need the standards to be lowered”. I believe that FutureDr has suredly overcome obstacles, which is the reason for the “Excuses” statement, and I am sure he/she has a very disciplined mindset. However, Adcoms do not necessarily want a warrior, nor do they want a poet. They are most certainly searching for a warrior-poet. My two cents

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