8 Things to Know About Improving Your GPA to Get Into Medical School and Other Professional Healthcare Programs
When applying to medical school, dental school, physician assistant (PA) school, or other healthcare professional schools, your undergraduate GPA is a critical part of the admissions process. But what if that GPA isn’t strong? Below are eight things you should know about improving your GPA before applying.
You don’t need a perfect GPA to get into a healthcare program. The most important part of boosting your GPA is getting it to reflect progress.
“You want to get your GPA up to a level where a selection committee will consider you,” says Northwestern Health Sciences University’s Jason Thoen, Ph.D. “Then hopefully, factors like your admission test score, personal statement, interview performance, and other background information will convince them you’re a worthy candidate.”
Dr. Thoen is an associate professor and chair of the natural sciences department at Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU). He’s also coordinator of NWHSU’s Post-Baccalaureate Pre-Health program, which offers courses, guidance, and other opportunities to help students prepare for professional healthcare degree programs.
Thoen will help us cover valuable information that can help make your GPA improvement journey a successful one.
1. Understand that your past grades can’t be “replaced” but …
People are often surprised to learn that retaking a class does not technically replace the original grade. “It’s more accurate to say that the two grades will be averaged,” Thoen says.
In other words, your undergraduate grades are forever. Thoen says it’s not necessarily easy to move your GPA a great deal unless you do a considerable amount of coursework and get As. But it can be done.
He points to a recent student whose undergraduate GPA was under a 2.5. “He came here and did a bunch of rigorous coursework,” Thoen says. “He did well, and he eventually got into med school. He beat the odds. It just took a lot of hard work, great performance in classes, and a little luck.”
2. Make sure your prerequisite courses are current
One caveat to the point above is this: “You can’t take prerequisite courses and then expect that a program will accept them 10 years from now,” says Thoen.
Many programs require prerequisites to be taken within five years of applying. Note, however, that this can depend on the university and the kind of program you’re pursuing. “If there’s any doubt, I recommend you request a prerequisite review from the programs you plan to apply to,” says Thoen.
3. Keep in mind that the story behind your GPA can be important
Selection committees may weigh subjective factors surrounding your less-than-stellar GPA that work to your advantage.
First, regardless of how much you can move your actual GPA up, when you retake courses and do better the second time, Thoen says, “You’re sending a message that those old grades don’t really reflect your current potential as an applicant.”
Also, if your GPA is clearly an application weakness, you’ll want to bring that up in your personal statement. “Explain what the circumstances were surrounding those bad grades. And if you make it to the interview stage, be prepared for the topic to come up again—and have a compelling explanation.”
Note that factors like the following can, to a degree, offset a lower GPA:
- Your undergraduate GPA clearly shows an upward trend.
- You took an academically rigorous undergraduate course load.
- Your undergraduate college has a reputation for being particularly difficult.
4. Identify how much improvement your GPA really needs
Just how “bad” is your GPA? Find out what you’re up against by investigating your target programs, starting with their websites. Some universities will actually list admission statistics like the average GPA of successful applicants. (Here’s an example.)
“Programs and disciplines vary and so will each person’s situation. That’s why I hesitate to give specific numbers for the GPA you need. You can always check with the admissions department for the programs you’re considering. I will say, however, that it’s not always about ‘repairing’ a GPA.”
For example, a person looking into PA programs with a 3.3 may discover that GPA improvement isn’t the highest priority. It may be that they lack patient care hours, a common requirement for PA programs.
Or, says Thoen, “Let’s say you want to get into medical school and you’re sitting at a 3.5. Rather than retake a bunch of courses, you may want to focus on strengthening other aspects of your application. A strong MCAT score will be important and so will factors like demonstrating leadership, shadowing doctors, and writing a strong personal statement.”
5. The application process takes time, so plan accordingly
If you’re retaking courses and have your eye on getting into a program relatively soon, be prepared for the actual timeline. “I’ve seen students think they can do a couple semesters of coursework to improve their GPA, apply to programs, and then be in med school all within a year or so,” says Thoen.
But that’s just not realistic.
Depending on your situation, you could be looking at two or three years, says Thoen. “And that’s if everything goes well and you’re able to get into a program on your first try.”
6. Find like-minded classmates with similar goals
If you sign up to retake upper level science courses at a local university, you may largely be on your own. Try to find others who are working toward a professional healthcare program. Thoen says it can be extremely helpful to have classmates who are working toward similar goals.
7. Strengthen your application through community involvement
Making your application a competitive one can mean doing things beyond retaking courses. Job shadowing, volunteering, and demonstrating leadership, says Thoen, can be especially important as a selection committee considers your overall qualifications.
8. Consider a post-baccalaureate pre-health program
If you think you could benefit from retaking many of the basic sciences, or want additional guidance on improving your GPA, you may want to consider a post-baccalaureate pre-health (PBPH) program.
Think of your grade improvement efforts as a journey with several stages. Thoen says a major benefit of a PBPH program is that you can potentially have valuable guidance at every one of those stages.
Stage 1: Help with strategizing for your future. With a PBPH program, you can have the opportunity to sit down and speak with an advisor who specializes in helping people like you—before you even enroll in classes.
Stage 2: Support to be the best student you can be. Once you start, you’ll have your own advisor to rely on for guidance, as well as experienced professors who are familiar with the unique academic needs of post-baccalaureate students.
Stage 3: Applying to programs. Your PBPH advisor and course professors can continue to support your efforts by providing letters of recommendation, offering insights for your personal statement, and helping you prepare for entrance exams, to name just a few examples.
Stage 4: Receiving ongoing guidance. If you end up reaching your goal, that’s great! But what if you didn’t? Your PBPH program can still be available for guidance on what your next steps can be.
The bonus of a PBPH program: In a PBPH program, you not only have support to help with your GPA improvement. You also have advantages like the following:
- Enjoy a support network of fellow PBPH students.
- Gain access to a wide range of opportunities, like volunteering and job-shadowing, to make you a more competitive applicant.
- Participate in mock interviews to prepare for the real thing.
- Practice taking admission tests.
- Connect with current and retired healthcare professionals for advice and insights.
- Have the opportunity to do directed research.
Do you think a PBPH program could be right for you? Learn more about Northwestern Health Sciences University’s PBPH program here.
And for additional information, check out Choosing the Right Post-Baccalaureate/Pre-Med Program: 10 Key Questions to Ask.
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