It usually lands like a ton of bricks. You’re going along from class to class, week to week, one semester to the next. Then, you get back a midterm, a test, or a lab. Then it hits you — you realize that your grades have slipped below what you’d hoped for, and now your overall GPA is low … too low. Lower than you know it needs to be in order to be a competitive candidate for medical school admissions.
You’ll find a lot of conversation online about this topic. “Are my grades too low?” and “I just got a C in [classname]. Are my chances ruined?” Pretty common and very understandable worries.
Fortunately, there are options out there for you. In this article, I break down what you can do to just “fix it.” Take a look.
Stay In School, Take More Classes
Easiest way to raise your grades is to just continue taking classes at your university. For example, you might take another major, a minor or, depending upon your school’s policies, you might just take additional classes or even spend an extra year in order to boost your GPA.
There’s some benefit to doing this: First, you get to stick with a program that you are already a part of. It’s just a lot easier, because there are a lot of resources that you have available to you, your schedule will be pretty open to just pick some classes and start raising your grades. Your spare time can be used to enhance the rest of your application, including your experiences, research and leadership. There’s a lot of good benefit for using this approach to improve your grades for medical school admissions.
Of course, the downside of this is it’s expensive, and depending on your school policy, you may not be able to say for an extra academic year, if the school is heavily impacted with enrollment and the University wants you to leave so they have room for new students coming in.
I really like the “stay an extra year” approach to raise your grades, because by the time you are thinking about taking a fifth year you already have dialed in a your social life, your housing, all of the necessary resources you need. You know where everything is — the buildings, the library the lab — and you have an advisor available to you. There are a lot of people willing to help you; you just have to access these resources.
Post Baccalaureate Programs
The next approach would be a post bacc program. The term “post baccalaureate” just means taking college classes after you graduate from college. No, you won’t be taking classes at the same university from where you graduated, so you don’t have to worry about, “But my school won’t let me retake classes.” And, yes, you can combine your GPA from more than one college in the application. No, you won’t transfer your grades, you just send all the transcripts to AMCAS, and enter all your courses from all your colleges into your application, and then AMCAS creates this “super transcript” that combines everything. Pretty nifty.
There are two styles of post bacc program — the formal post bacc program and the informal or do it yourself program. Let’s look at each of these approaches.
Formal Post Bacc
The formal post bacc program has a number of variations, but you are only interested in a post bacc program that offers something called “academic enrichment.” An academic enrichment post bacc program is specifically designed to help you raise your grades to make you more competitive as an applicant. If you have the time and you want to improve your grades before you apply to medical school, a formal post bacc program with the academic enrichment focus could be a great solution. There are many such programs around the United States. (link to list)
The other approach is one that I call the “do-it-yourself” post bacc program. Essentially, a DIY post bacc program consists of you enrolling in additional courses in either the same college that you have graduated from or a different college through their “open enrollment program” or extension office.
Each of these approaches has strengths and weaknesses. The benefit of a formal post bacc program is that is highly structured, you’ll get some support — possibly a great deal of support — from the post bacc program office. However, according to students who have attended these programs previously, the support that formal postbacc programs offer varies widely, so you want to be careful and inquire first about the kind of advisement and support you might receive within one of these programs before you decide to choose this route. I recommend that you call the post bacc program and ask to speak with previous students. Ask them to share their feedback to help you determine if this program is right for you.
What are the disadvantages of a formal post bacc program? It can be expensive, and can cost you a lot of extra time. Many postbacc programs require applications months before the start of the program, and many programs start only in the fall. So if you’ve decided that you want to attend a program like this, you may have to wait up to an entire academic year for the program to start before you can begin to participate. A formal public program can be costly in both time and money and you want to take that into consideration, especially if you’re feeling a lot of urgency about moving forward and getting on with your academic repair, complete your application to medical school, get in, and start to feel like you’re moving forward with your career.
The Pros and Cons of An Informal Postbacc Program
The “do-it-yourself” postbacc program can also be very expensive the cost per unit is typically much higher then you would pay if you are a full-time student. But the advantage of a do-it-yourself postbacc program is that you can start basically at any time you want just by stepping into the extension office and registering. Unfortunately, the disadvantage of the do-it-yourself program is that many classes that you would be interested in taking — bio, chem, ochem, physics, math — are impacted. A lot of students are interested in attending these classes for their major and most schools give priority to full-time students to enroll in those programs for any available slots. What that means for you and a do-it-yourself approach is that very often you’ll be selected last to enroll in a class. You’ll have to scramble to get the classes that you need to take in order to be to move forward with your academic repair.
Special Masters Programs
Another option to improve your grades would be to enroll in a special Masters program. There are many one year and two year special masters programs that will give you a Masters degree in medicine or in related fields and will also give you the academic enrichment that you seek in order to become a more qualified candidate. The problem with a masters program like this is that if your undergraduate GPA is below par then taking a masters degree is not necessarily going to give medical schools the apples-to-apples comparison that they ideally would want to compare your academic ability with the academic ability of other applicants, so your application will be looked at differently, and you may not get as much benefit from a special masters program as you would hope to get for all that work.
Some students really prefer to take an SMP instead of doing postbacc work because the SMP confers a degree while in a postbacc program you’re just building up units in order to raise your overall grades in your undergraduate transcript. You want to take that into consideration.
Although an SMP may be a very attractive option, I encourage you to think very carefully about how medical schools will compare your undergraduate GPA to another students’ undergraduate GPA. Remember, they will very often see your undergraduate GPA as below their cut off and you’ll be at a big disadvantage when it comes time to compete for an enrollment in medical school. Even though you have a masters, other students do not, and this makes it very difficult for medical schools to use your masters degree in an apples-to-apples comparison to other students who do not have one.
One added benefit of a special master’s program is that some programs have “linkage” to the medical school on campus. What this means is that, depending on your performance in the SMP, you might be guaranteed an interview with their medical school. But be careful about being overly-attracted to this option. It’s only one interview and you are much more interested in obtaining three to five interviews rather than only one. Consider your options very carefully.
Get a High MCAT
The next option when your grades are too low to get in to medical school is to raise your MCAT score. This is a very attractive option for a lot of students who can see themselves buckling down and studying extra hard for their MCAT at some future date. They believe that this is going to solve all of their problems and will help them get into medical school. But this approach can only give you a marginal benefit at best. In other words, if your GPA is 2.9 or 3.0, then improving your MCAT score from a 30 to a 33 is not going to be sufficient to overcome the GPA deficit. On the other hand, if you have a 3.4 and if you study very hard and you get a 34 or 36 on the MCAT, then this absolutely will help you. Be mindful of transferring a problem in the present — your GPA is too low and you need to fix it — into a hoped-for solution in the future (“It’s OK that my GPA is too low, I’ll just get a 42 on the MCAT and be a baller.”) It usually doesn’t work out, because when it comes time to study for the MCAT, there will be a lot of other things competing for your time, and you may not — most likely you will not — be as prepared for the MCAT as you need to be. Heed this moral: Tomorrow is never a good time to fix today’s problem.
Change the List of Medical Schools
The next option for what to do in order to solve the problem of bad grades is to look carefully at the medical schools you are applying to. This may be one of the easiest options to consider, but it’s also the one that is the most distasteful for the majority of students. If you have a substandard GPA and you don’t want to take the one to two years to improve, then choosing MD, DO Caribbean or international medical schools to apply to can give you a very quick fix without a lot of wasted time that would otherwise have to spend just working on improving your grades.
Be very careful about applying to international medical schools, because many (none I think? correct me if I’m wrong, leave a comment below) of them do not have a direct path back into the US medical system and you will be struggling to compete with med students from the US for residency spots in order for you to continue your medical career. That is not the problem with Caribbean programs that have well established track records for United States residency programs, and of course the DO option may be the most attractive of all because you will be graduated from a US medical school and you have access to both MD and DO residency options.
Be careful about discarding the DO option too early, for the majority of students who struggle with their GPA, applying to either Caribbean or DO can be by far the most attractive, fastest and easiest solution to overcoming a bad GPA.
What about volunteer experiences? Can your volunteers experiences help overcome a bad GPA?
The simple short answer is “no, they cannot.” Medical schools will not give you extra points for an additional hundred hours of volunteer work or that amazing research project that took several hundred hours in the lab, resulted in a fantastic publication, but the time invested caused your grades to drop. Instead, when medical schools compare your GPA to the amount of patient contact hours or research experience that you have, they’ll shake their collective head and judge that you misused your time and that you should have been spending your time studying to raise your grades and spent less time volunteering or in the lab.
So what else can you do to overcome a bad GPA?
This last group of suggestions are some adjustments that can make a small difference in your chances and sometimes a small difference is all that you need.
The last best approach is to apply early, which will put you ahead of many many other students — some of whom have stronger GPA than you and could even have stronger MCAT than you.
A competitor who feels confident that they’re going to get in the medical school isn’t as motivated as you are to submit your application as early as possible. So you’ll have a small advantage by taking this step very seriously and get your application in first before theirs and, hopefully, get an interview and then an acceptance.
Remember that medical school is very much a first-come first-serve game. It’s a race, so being very early has a number of subtle advantages.
Use these tactics to maximize your odds of getting into medical school despite a lower-than-perfect GPA, then let me know how it goes in the comments below!
What are your chances acceptance? Find out your odds of getting in
I created a self-assessment that will tell you your odds of acceptance, and how medical schools weigh 8 variables to determine whether you get in. You can take the self-assessment to find out if you can get into medical school with a low GPA. I strongly recommend that you take it now — you’ll be able to see how your current GPA is affecting your chances.