Last Updated on January 18, 2023 by Laura Turner
Happy new year, and for many of you, happy new semester! This article is for community college or university students starting a new set of classes this month, especially nontraditional postbac students that need GPA repair and management to prepare an application to health professional school.
The foundation of every application is the academic transcript. While everyone knows how important undergraduate GPA is, application screeners also look at the transcript as evidence of proper course management and planning, with the help of a university’s faculty and advising team. Students frequently ask how “blemishes” on the transcript – such as withdrawals – are considered in admissions. This article details how you can repair – or avoid – these types of transcript issues.
Dropping or Withdrawing: What’s the Difference?
Students don’t always understand the difference between dropping and withdrawing. Simply put, any “dropped ” class will not appear on a student’s transcript, while a “withdrawn” class stays. Students usually have no more than two weeks from starting a semester or quarter to drop a class since that is the deadline for the registrars to report final course enrollments for billing purposes. Consequently, pre-health applicants must pay attention to the drop/add deadlines.
You might feel that it’s better to be resilient and complete a course despite how much you may struggle. If you feel uncomfortable with the pace of a class, inadequate when it comes to being ready for the class, have second thoughts about taking the class, or have concerns about the professor’s teaching style, it is always best to find a way to leave the class and try again when you are better prepared.
At every freshman orientation, advisors emphasize that dropping a class before the deadline is the easiest way to remove yourself from a class. It is important to drop the class early, or you could be charged for taking the course – financially and on your GPA. Because dropped classes do not appear on a transcript, admissions committees will never know that you started the class. The final grade is our chief concern.
Many applicants need to withdraw from the class after the deadline. In this case, you must work with your academic advisors to go through the process. Admissions reviewers become very concerned about applicants frequently withdrawing from classes. While withdrawals are not calculated in GPAs, many admissions committee members consider a withdrawal equivalent to a failing grade. Faculty are concerned that frequent withdrawals signify that the applicant will not be ready to tackle a full course load in professional school.
An old prehealth advising rule-of-thumb says that a candidate is at a disadvantage if three or more non-simultaneous withdrawals appear within four years, especially if these withdrawals occur in the last year before applying. While the COVID-19 pandemic forced programs to be more flexible with this unwritten rule, it is still being determined whether this “rule” will be reinstituted once universities have adjusted.
Auditing or Passing Grades
Students in the midst of taking courses sometimes struggle early and are afraid of getting a bad grade (C or worse) as it adversely affects their application to graduate programs. Many students often consider the option of withdrawing from the classes versus taking a “pass/fail” grade or auditing the class. In general, prerequisite courses should be taken for a grade for science GPA calculations. Passing or auditing class grades are not included in the GPA, so multiple passes/audits challenge reviewers to determine whether students were genuinely invested in learning as much as possible. Students should ask their academic advisors about passing or auditing classes if they have unique circumstances.
The COVID-19 pandemic affected many students by only giving pass/fail grades to recognize that the quality of online education may not be as good as in-person delivery. As more schools transition to having online sections or assignments, fewer students may be allowed to go with pass/fail grading on these courses.
Some applicants will opt to audit or pass/fail upper-level courses in their final undergraduate years, usually to complete a research thesis project. Admissions reviewers usually will only disqualify students for passing or auditing courses if critical courses are graded traditionally.
Personal or family circumstances often challenge a student’s ability to complete a semester. For health or personal reasons, a student may have to take a leave of absence and withdraw from a semester’s worth of classes or suspend taking classes until later. This appears on the transcript as a term’s worth of withdrawals covering four or more classes. Students should get help from their academic affairs office to understand the process and what is required to re-enroll.
For an application, students should describe the situation that caused the academic withdrawal. Applicants should seek as much help and support as possible to write this statement to show adaptability, resiliency, and how they used their situation as an opportunity to grow and improve. Applicants should also understand that questions may arise during interviews asking them to explain the circumstances further and itemize what support may be needed.
Many schools have developed policies regarding “retroactive withdrawal” of the previous semester’s courses, especially if the circumstances are linked to sickness related to COVID-19 or a disability diagnosed while classes were ongoing. Most requests for retroactive withdrawal require careful documentation of any illness or injury while still enrolled as a student. There is no guarantee that a semester withdrawal will be granted.
If a previous semester was adversely affected by COVID-19 hospitalization (your own or a close family member’s), look at your university student handbook or contact your academic advisor to request a retroactive semester withdrawal. Take some time before deciding to apply this spring.
“Fresh Start” policies
Texas residents benefit from the Academic Fresh Start policy. Briefly, if you first began college but had not taken a college course for at least ten years, your prior coursework could be forgiven for admissions to undergraduate programs (but not TMDSAS). This grade forgiveness policy allows one to re-enroll in undergraduate classes and re-take prerequisites for a future health professional application. TMDSAS will only recognize the Academic Fresh Start designation on the transcript where you invoked the provision granted by your school, and eligible coursework will be removed accordingly. Each Texas school may administer these policies differently, so always check with the academic affairs administrators before you commit to re-enroll.
Other Universities outside of Texas may have Fresh Start policies to encourage previously dismissed students to complete a university degree. Check the university’s Academic Affairs website for Fresh Start policies before contacting an administrator to learn about re-enrollment.
Usually, the institutional transcript will identify the courses taken under a Fresh Start policy. While the application GPA may include a record of all attempted courses, the previous attempts could be listed with a “withdrawal” grade and not count towards the application GPA.
Prerequisite courses that were withdrawn will need to be completed. Because a withdrawal does not impact an application GPA, the grade earned on the retake usually will count. This differs from retaking a class in which one has failed; application GPAs usually average the failed and the subsequent grade for a GPA calculation. Remember that application GPAs are not calculated the same way as your institutional GPA, which may have different policies on “forgiving” grades during one’s first year or replacing grades when courses are retaken.
Avoid Overloading Your Course Schedule
Applicants feel they can demonstrate academic rigor by registering for an overloaded term, where one takes five classes (roughly 20 semester hours) or more. Many students find such a schedule extremely difficult and put themselves in danger of getting a “bad grade” in any of those courses. As I tell advisees, there are no bonus points for taking an overloaded schedule, and the risk of falling short of maintaining a high GPA is much greater. Whether students want to graduate early or show they are prepared for a science-heavy graduate-level schedule, an overload does not benefit aspiring health professional students during application review.
Ideal Course Load
What constitutes a reasonable course load for undergraduate prehealth students? An institution’s academic advising office should lay out sample schedules recommended by faculty as reasonable paths to complete the degree. Starting with conversations with academic and prehealth advisors, students should identify personally-interesting electives that can be taken when a spot is available. Often these elective courses attract an interviewer’s attention, and you may have a conversation that shows your investment in the topic of that elective.
Prerequisite coursework for the college major or a prehealth track should be properly sequenced within the first three years of a traditional undergraduate schedule which may include summer courses whenever conflicts occur. The fall term of a first-year student usually consists of required freshman composition or seminar courses as well as prerequisite biology and general chemistry courses; the second term usually completes both biology and general chemistry sequences.
Depending on the declared major, academic advisors will advise undergraduate students to schedule up to three science-heavy courses with labs per semester. Students should be able to complete degree audits after each semester to know if they are on track to graduate. Such conversations should be undertaken during freshman and sophomore years to help plan for other opportunities, such as off-campus study or service semesters. For postbac students taking courses independently, the three-course limit for science-heavy courses with labs also should apply (a maximum of 12-course hours).
Undergraduate GPA Goals
A desirable applicant for health professional programs should aspire to finish an undergraduate GPA of 3.50 or greater. However, one can finish with a lower cumulative GPA but a rising grade trend over the last two years (60 credit hours). Many prehealth students successfully get into various professional programs even with a 3.25 or higher undergraduate GPA. Students who aspire to attend medical or dental school with a cumulative GPA near 3.0 – including those with a high-grade trend only during their final undergraduate year (30 credits) – may consider special master’s programs (SMPs), which are “boot camps” that help applicants truly prepare for a more rigorous curriculum with student support.
If you need help crafting a desirable application for the next cycle, we want you to join our Becoming a Student Doctor cohort! Contact the Health Professional Student Association about enrolling to receive peer and on-demand advising to help you stand out in the applicant pool.