The fastest way to not get accepted to med school is to think that your GPA doesn’t matter. It does, in fact, matter quite a lot, as it’s the way medical schools can see how you perform academically. It also serves as an easy way for adcom to compare applicants; it is imperfect, given different grading scales and study paths, but it is something that all students have in common.Not thrilled with your GPA? Worried it might get in the way of your med school acceptance? Here are 4 things you can do NOW to increase your chances of acceptance:
1. Address your GPA
A low GPA can be defined as one that is 0.3 or more lower than your target school’s average GPA for accepted students (on the US 4.0 scale). You can find this information in the posted class profile and occasionally in the U.S. News rankings. Another definition is a GPA that is less than the school’s 75th or 80th percentile.
The good news is that these definitions are relative to the schools you’re applying to. In other words, if your GPA is 3.4, and the average GPA of the entering class is 3.5, you DON’T have a low GPA! Conversely, if you have the same 3.4 GPA, but the average for the entering class is 3.7+, as in some medical schools, then you have a low GPA.
Here are some things to consider with these definitions:
- Admissions are about much more than GPA. You can’t focus exclusively on one number. So while a GPA is certainly very important, it’s not the end-all and be-all of admissions.
- Focusing on the average doesn’t expose the influence of trends in GPA or special circumstances.
- GPAs don’t show the influence of diversity and non-academic experience on how schools look at these numbers.
- My guideline doesn’t show how far you are from the average. A little below is less of an issue than a full point below.
2. Examine the cause(s) of your low GPA
The reasons behind your low GPA, as well as how low it is, will determine how you deal with it and how much energy you’ll have to exert to alleviate it.
Ask yourself the following questions to better understand why your GPA isn’t where it should be:
- Did you have difficulty adjusting to college so your GPA suffered your freshman year, but improved during the subsequent years, leading to a 4.0 in your last year? A GPA that’s on the upswing looks better than the reverse.
- Did sickness or other circumstances that you couldn’t control trigger a drop in your grades for a particular time period?
- Did you choose the wrong major and have inferior grades in that major until you were able to find your place, after which your grades improved?
- Were you working in order to support yourself or have an important (and time consuming) sports commitment to keep an athletic scholarship?
- Did you start out strong, earning high grades during your freshman year, only to lose your incentive? Did you have a steady drop in grades so that your GPA during your senior year had dropped significantly? This tendency is a red flag even if your overall GPA is a 3.4 or 3.5.
3. Deal with your low GPA
Your aim is to show that your GPA isn’t a true indication of your ability, and to prove that you’re able to do much better. There are two main actions that you should take:
STEP ONE: Ace the MCAT. You need a high MCAT score. This score shows that you have the talent and ability to conquer medical school.
STEP TWO: Take classes in the sciences/medicine and earn A’s in them. This could mean anything from a few classes to a full postbac program for academic enhancers. Retaking classes can show that you’ve mastered the material, but a better route is to take new, advanced classes and DO WELL. If you’re not sure that you can ace a class, don’t take it – you want to demonstrate that you have the self-discipline, study skills, and motivation to apply yourself and excel in an educational situation related to medicine.
How many classes do you need to take? That should be related to how low your GPA is in relation to your target school’s average, as well as how much time has passed since your college graduation. If the difference between your GPA and your target school’s average is great, you may want to consider a formal postbac program. If you’ve spent a number of years working or volunteering in the medical field since graduating, you may need fewer classes, particularly if your MCAT score is high.
With a high MCAT and proof that you can do well academically, you have a good chance of dealing with your low GPA.
4. Provide a framework for your low GPA
Schools may be concerned about what happened: Why was your undergrad GPA low, and how can they be sure that it won’t happen again? You need to be proactive in your response, especially if your GPA declined during your college career.
How can you alleviate these concerns? Be factual as you discuss what caused your low GPA. Your objective should be to demonstrate that whatever caused your poor performance is either no longer relevant to your life now or is something that you’re now able to deal with so that it no longer influences your ability to function in an academic setting.
The reasons for your less than stellar performance can be:
- Circumstances beyond your control. If sickness, family problems, or accidents are the issues that contributed to a drop in your grades, they are hopefully a thing of the past and totally not your fault. What you should do: Be candid and explain what happened. Provide proof that the circumstances are in your past or that you know how to deal with the problem.
- Circumstances at least partly in your control. These can include poor decisions made early in your academic career, a poor choice of major, poor time management or study skills, or the need to work more than part-time. What you should do: Take responsibility for the choices you’ve made. Show how you’ve matured and grown and become a more responsible adult. If you had to work to support yourself or your family, tell how many hours per week you worked and try to show what your grades were when you weren’t working and had the time to study.
- A low or declining GPA with no extenuating circumstances. This is a major red flag. What you should do: You must take responsibility to guarantee that it won’t happen again. You need to show that you’ve taken extra classes and gotten A’s, which proves your motivation. You need to talk about the causes of your past low motivation, but you need to prove that those “causes” are behind you and you are, and continue to be, highly motivated to excel in medical school.
While providing context is important, don’t make the mistake of saying that you were too busy to study and take your classes seriously.
Similar flubs include:
- Taking too many credits in order to finish faster or complete an additional degree.
- Enrolling in advanced classes without taking prerequisites.
- Being so involved in extracurricular activities that there was no time for classes and classwork.
The reason these excuses fall flat is that you are not taking responsibility for a mistake, lack of time management, or poor decisions. You are happy with the choices you made, and would probably do the same thing again. You are telling the medical school that they can expect the same behavior as you exhibited in college. This is NOT something med schools want to hear.
You’re Not Doomed!
Having a low GPA is not a medical school death sentence! Using the above advice will help you turn this negative around, to show the adcom that your GPA isn’t that bad. However, a successful med school application is not just about showing how you are repairing your flaws; you must give schools a POSITIVE reason to accept you. Find reasons for the admissions committee to get excited about having you as part of their incoming class. Be sure to accentuate your positives to get the results you want.