Grades – Will They Make or Break You?

I was recently asked the following on my ask.fm account:

How important are grades for med school? Can other things make up for not achieving super high grades? I read that you got in with a 3.6 (I thought getting in required gpas near 4.0); what else made you a strong applicant? Not trying to sound rude or anything 🙂

While I could go on and on about GPAs and being a strong medical school applicant, I will limit my response that is nonetheless too long to fit in its original medium to this:

Of course getting good grades is definitely important. It shows that you can be successful over a long period of time in a variety of areas of study.

But there is a fault in looking at GPA alone – it’s variable.

A GPA from one major is not equivalent to a GPA from another major. A GPA from one college is drastically different from the next. If you took a lot of easy courses and got a 4.0 or you took a lot of hard classes and got a 3.7, the 3.7 is probably the better GPA. You can also replace the word “classes” in the previous sentence with the words “major” or “school” and it would be just as applicable. For example, I took a ridiculous amount of hard classes in my major and beyond at a large research institute, so my 3.64 is likely stronger than you think.

BUT if you look at numbers alone, a higher GPA is obviously better. It’s a deceiving measurement. In fact, I’ve heard that some schools only look at GPAs above a certain cut off, but where you fall above that range matters less.

Just to make sure, I checked with my PI today who has sat on many admissions committees for our MD/PhD program. He said that your GPA can break you, but it can’t really make you. So a really high GPA isn’t going to set you drastically above other applicants, but a low one can hurt your chance at admissions.

That being said, he also told me that much more weight is placed on the MCAT because it is the same test wherever you go and lacks the variability of the GPA. So while I had a 3.6ish GPA, I also had a 35 on my MCAT to make up for it.

It is also important to note that while you do need to show academic intelligence to be a strong medical school applicant, you also need to show things like passion, dedication, and a general understanding of what it’s like to be a doctor.

You can do this by being involved. While generally it seems that people have the idea that the more extracurriculars, the better, I’ve in fact heard and believe that being involved in things that you can be highly dedicated to and are passionate about is better than just trying to boost your resume with experiences that are superficial. No, these activities do not necessarily have to relate to science or medicine.

For example, I am particularly passionate about music, and so I was in marching band, pep band, and concert bands in college and even became a leader in these organizations. I could have spread myself out across a bunch of other things but I focused my effort on these because they mattered most to me.

I also am quite dedicated to research (hence why I’m getting a Ph.D. in addition to the M.D. and in fact plan on spending the most of my energy on research in my career). Therefore, I worked in research labs for three years. I had a project of my own in one lab and I was awarded an undergraduate grant and fellowship to do research, which strengthened the experience on my application.

I was also involved in health care as I volunteered at a hospital from age 15 onward so I had 6 years under my belt by the time I applied. Thanks to high school and college keeping me busy plus not wanting to actually become a doctor for most of that time (a long story of its own), I had only accumulated a few hundred hours, but it shows longevity and it shows that I have put in the time to actually experience the kind of work place that I would like to end up working in.

There’s a lot of things that you can do to become a strong medical applicant, but the most important thing is that there is no single definition of a strong medical school applicant. We all have our own strengths and it is those whose strengths most outweigh their weaknesses that are often the strongest candidates. 

~

Featured image source: “Report card 1944” by Phil Jern | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

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Hanna is a MD/PhD student at the University of Illinois and an aspiring physician scientist who aims to specialize in hepatobiliary cancers. She is also passionate about teaching, leadership, and advocacy. The energy she once used to pep up crowds as a college marching band member is now directed toward exciting and educating others about science and medicine, especially through her tweets at @MDPhDToBe and her blog at www.mdphdtobe.com.

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3 comments on “Grades – Will They Make or Break You?
  1. dr.marekova says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading a few of your posts. Keep up the good work. Life is rewarding.

  2. An avid reader says:

    Hi Hanna!

    Really enjoyed reading your blog. I was stopping by to see if you could perhaps answer (or try to answer, given the nebulous nature of the question, and the many variables at play) a question for me, regarding the chances of matriculating into an Allopathic Medical School in the continental United States.

    I have a fairly competitive profile (or so I thought) as far as the average M.D applicant goes, but of late, I’ve become unsure about whether I actually have a compelling or competitive application. Here’s the summary: 3.66 G.P.A, 526 (out of 528) on the new MCAT, 2 years of clinical experience as a Paramedic, 2 years of clinical and translational research experience at the NCI, 3 years of leadership experience as the President/Founder of a non-profit organization, and 1 year of experience TAing a class for freshmen. The reason I have a low-ish G.P.A is because I majored in two very hard subjects — Neuroscience and Physiology — and I also took more than 200 credits worth of very hard courses, including graduate-level courses in Biology and Biochemistry, and I often took more than 20 credits at a time, while simultaneously being involved in my extracurricular commitments.

    I feel like my G.P.A (with a C+ in two classes, and a withdrawal) might be the death knell for my application, in addition to the fact that I have been out of school for about 2.5 years now, and while I have worked as an E.R Scribe in that time period, in addition to doing some shadowing and other miscellaneous things, I feel like my L.O.Rs and personal statement might be dated by now, and hence might work against me as well.

    Do you think that applying in the upcoming application cycle (2017) to Allopathic programs is advisable? Is my application competitive enough to land me interviews/acceptances if I apply broadly this year? Or is my G.P.A and number of years out of school enough to be my undoing? I would greatly appreciate an answer, and I would like to extend my gratitude to you for the taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer my inquiry. Thanks a bunch!

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