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Adcom Advice #4 – Grades Come First

There are so many factors to consider when reviewing medical school applicants.  You may have heard that volunteering overseas will get you big points, that you must do research, or that a good MCAT score will go a long way. All of these things do play a significant role in the admissions process, but if you had to pick one area to focus on, good grades come first.

Just today, while reviewing applications, I noticed a lot of applicants would try to explain their poor grades. Not only does this go against my advice of not making excuses, there is absolutely nothing I can do to fix your grades.

All successful medical school applicants have good grades.Despite how impersonal viewing a person as a GPA can be, it is one of the few objective criteria admissions can use to evaluate applicants (another being the MCAT). It shows you are intelligent. You are hardworking. You have been dedicated and disciplined enough to achieve a respectable GPA. There are the qualities we want in our future doctors. It’s the bare minimum. 

A GPA is NOT the only thing that matters. When we mark your applications, your essays, reference letters, personal statement, extracurricular activities also receive scores. Theoretically, good diverse life experiences can make up for poor grades, but here’s why it’s unlikely to happen in real life.

Your grades are the entry point of your application. They are the first item we see. They get your feet in the door. Without them, the rest of your application might not be seen and just thrown out. Almost all schools do a first round screening, with computers, to eliminate applicants with low grades and shorten the applicant pool.

Your GPA is permanent. So by the time adcoms mark your application, we have no power to change your grades. Your explanation about how you were sick on your exam date or how personal circumstances lead to a poor semester become irrelevant. Your grades are set in stone. We can’t omit courses you have taken and readjust your GPA. Adcoms can’t give you more points for it if they like you and less if they don’t. It’s objective.

So if you had to pick one thing to focus on first, let it be grades. Grades alone won’t get you into medical school, but without them, there is no chance.

That is why I am saying grades must come first. You first must have good marks before you begin the MCAT, volunteering, reference letters and research. If other committments cause your grades to suffer, drop those activities and refocus on your grades. After you have your GPA covered, then you can begin to build the rest of your application.

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  1. leafless
    leafless December 13, 2008

    It takes years to achieve a good GPA. It takes one or two exams to get a good MCAT score. The two shouldn’t even be compared.

  2. medaholic
    medaholic December 14, 2008

    That’s very true. A solid GPA shows consistency and dedication. Most schools weigh the GPA considerably more than the MCAT

  3. Aspiring
    Aspiring December 16, 2008

    While I agree with leafless that good GPA’s take years to achieve, they are easy to destroy. Like that old saying about your reputation: “It takes year to build, a moment to destroy, and a lifetime to get back.”

    Dedication to maintaining a high GPA in an of itself does not make a good physician. As someone who is deciding several years after college to pursue medicine I can say with certainity that I know several persons with high GPA’s that make the worst professionals. These are people that if given a choice I would never want to be on my team and definitely are not personable enough to make a really good physician.

  4. medaholic
    medaholic December 16, 2008

    You’re very correct. Just because you have the grades, it doesn’t mean you will be a good physician.

    The point I was making is that it’s the FIRST step towards becoming a doctor, showing dedication and hard work. By no means is it the only factor. Even if you have good bedside manners and personable skills, without the persistent diligence and effort, you will never have a chance.

  5. Paris
    Paris May 7, 2009

    This comment is extremely true! At the end of the day no matter how many excellent EC’s you have or the amount of research that you have done or the amount of turmoils in life you have overcome to reach the point you are today it wont count as anything unless you have the grades …

    I know this from personal experience and I found out about it a little too late. However, I do try my best to let other inspiring prospective med students know where to place their priorities.

    As a club leader when recruiting other people I tell them that there is one rule: Your Courses Come First … Let me know when you have an exam and we will figure it out 🙂

  6. George
    George June 3, 2009

    What would you say a competitive GPA is? After cut-off requirements, I hear any values from ‘>3.80 is competitive’ to ‘3.70 is the average of those who get accepted’. I do realize that there are people who get in that are above AND below the average, but when there’s conflict about what the average is, it gets confusing.

  7. raquelle
    raquelle January 9, 2010

    Hello guys,
    First of all, very informative posts. Also, I had a question. I got like a 58% in a first year course but all my other marks after that have been A’s (i got a 4.0 in my 2nd and 3rd year). I could have dropped the course but I didn’t because: the course I admit was challenging but i really enjoyed it so I was prepared for the consequences. Although my overall gpa is still high, now I am wondering if that one mark will hurt my chances of getting into medschool? Any thoughts??

    • medaholic
      medaholic January 12, 2010

      Hi raquelle,

      Are you at a Canadian University of an American? In Canada, many schools will drop your lowest year of grades, so your 58% wouldn’t be factored in. Especially since you have had such a big improvement in 2nd and 3rd year, you stand a good chance at many places.

  8. raquelle
    raquelle January 12, 2010

    Thanks for that information. Yep I am at a Canadian University (UofT).

  9. Gagan
    Gagan March 17, 2011

    The simplest way to put it: grades are necessary, but not sufficient, to get you into medical school.

    When I really think about it, your grades say alot about your dedication. Imagine, as a resident, you work long hours and push yourself to dedicate every last bit of your energy to your patients. Why should an admissions committee think you are capable of doing that if you are not even willing to work hard enough to get decent grades???

    • medaholic
      medaholic March 19, 2011

      well said, grades are good correlators of effort

  10. Sally
    Sally December 24, 2011

    I recently just finished my first semester of my first year at a Canadian university with a 68%. After feeling solely dejected, I came across your “What Are My Chances?” post on the premed forum and felt even more dejected.

    However, I don’t want to give up because this is the path I chose and it’s the path I want to pursue. So please tell me realistically -no sugar coating- , how much of a chance do you think I have getting into med school if I were to improve with +90% avg starting upcoming semester?

    (I know this type of question was asked previously up there by raquelle, but I’m not sure if she meant a 58% in a course or her whole semester avg)

    • medaholic
      medaholic December 27, 2011

      @ Sally – The important thing is that you realize your current grades are not adequate and that you make the necessary changes to improve your grades. A 68% average is not something you want on your transcript, it will be something you will have to work hard at to compensate for. It will probably take 3+ years of A grades to dilute out the marks. Having said that, there is still a chance of getting into medical school 3-4 years down the road. Do well throughout the rest of your undergrad. There are many schools that when you apply during your 4th year, will drop your lowest year in their GPA calculations. Email me if you want more details.

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