In our last Medical School Reapplicant Advice: 6 Tips for Success segment, we talked about how to best present yourself in your secondaries and interviews. Today we’ll move forward and discuss ways to boost your GPA, another important feature of your med school application profile.
Feeling a bit fragile after these first two sections? That’s to be expected – you’ve just gone undergone a pretty brutal review of your life. But the admissions committee is scrutinizing submissions with the same critical eye. Anticipating the problems so you can correct them is critical for success in your next attempt. And to start out, let’s look at how you can “fix” a poor GPA.
A low GPA is probably the hardest area to improve. This makes sense – it was years in the making, and can’t be undone without time. It can take about a year in advanced level science courses to bump a high 2.x GPA over 3.0. The lower your GPA, and the more classes you’ve taken, the longer it will take to reflect improvements in your academic record.
Fortunately, whether your GPA is just a bit off the mark or well below the competitive level, there are steps you can take.
Apply to an international medical school. Pursuing a medical degree abroad might be a viable option for you. The required GPA is often lower than the U.S. average and in some programs, the MCAT is not required. Courses are often taught by U.S. academic physicians with clinical rotations in the U.S. But if you do decide to attend an international medical school, realize that you will have to contend with many different challenges – from language barriers to culture shock – that could affect your studies.
Probably the biggest challenge for international medical graduates is securing a residency program after completing medical school. Only 54% of IMGs match to PGY1 programs, although the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates reports a consistent increase in this number over the past decade. I’ve worked with many successful IMGs over this same time period. What sets them apart is that they make up for any lack in their initial qualifications by working harder than the average medical student. They’re heavily involved in university activities, community healthcare initiatives, and international competitions. And significantly, they’re the ones who can express the advantages of their non-US medical education, including resourcefulness and the deep grounding in diagnoses that comes from doing without modern diagnostic equipment.
If you’re interested in an international program, do your research. Some Caribbean programs such as Ross University, St. George’s University, and the American University of the Caribbean have consistently high placement rates. Israeli programs like Sackler and Ben-Gurion have partnerships with American programs; likewise, the University of Queensland has an attractive option for U.S. students. And Ireland’s Atlantic Bridge program, although quite competitive, is flexible in its approach to the GPAs of qualified American and Canadian students.
Apply to a DO program. If your application is competitive but you just didn’t make the cut, you might consider an osteopathic medical program. Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DOs) focus on integrating the whole person into the healthcare process, which makes them especially strong in family practice, general internal medicine, and pediatrics. They are fully licensed physicians; they train in the same residency programs, take the same national board exams, and sit for the identical USMLE exams that the MD students do. Your chance of securing a residency might be less – in the most recent residency match, 75% of DOs matched compared to 94% of MDs – but the steady rise in DO matches suggests that any stigma against osteopathic physicians is changing.
The good news for borderline candidates is that DO schools have lower GPAs and MCAT requirements: The mean GPA in 2012 was 3.42 while the mean MCAT score was 26 (American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine). There are a number of programs worth exploring: West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, Lincoln Memorial (Harrogate, TN), Nova Southeastern (Ft. Lauderdale), Touro (Vallejo, CA, Lake Erie (Erie, PA) and Western University (Pomona) all have strong programs that are less competitive. West Virginia, for instance, had the lowest reported average GPA (3.4) of all medical schools and an average MCAT score of 25. However, 55% of their graduates matched at their top residency program.
If you care more about being a doctor than the letters after your name, the DO route is definitely something to think about. However, getting into one of these programs is still going to require a strong GPA. So what can you do if your grades are lower?
Boost your GPA with post-baccalaureate classes. This is a popular route, especially for applicants who did well on the MCAT but need some help with their GPA. Retaking science classes can show you’ve mastered the material, but a better strategy is to take advanced classes and do well. If you have any doubt about your ability to get an A, then this is probably not the best path for you.
The quality of the institution offering the courses is important – community college won’t cut it. The best option is to see if your own alma mater will allow you to take additional courses; often this can be done at a reduced cost. If this doesn’t work out, Syracuse University has a very useful list of programs that offer post-bac courses in the sciences.
Improve your GPA with a science-based master’s program. This is another preferred route for would-be reapplicants, because it provides opportunities for more independent, self-directed research and demonstrates scientific acumen. It can be especially useful if you don’t have a research background already. Keep in mind though that you need to excel in your coursework and that you will have to finish the entire program; making below-average grades or dropping out before the program ends will do you more harm than good when you reapply to med school.
Master’s programs aren’t right for everybody – you might not want to commit to a multi-year program, or you might not be confident about your academic performance. Or you might not have the minimum GPA required for admittance in the first place. In that case:
Prove your potential in a special master’s program (SMPs). These programs, usually a year long, are often associated with a medical school. Students are immersed in a rigorous science-based curriculum almost identical to what they will face in medical school; often, they are even taking classes or being graded alongside first year med students. Success in these courses can show the admissions committee that you’re ready for medical training, which means that once you’re accepted into a SMP, the odds are very good you’ll eventually get into medical school.
Several programs cater to the lower end of the GPA/MCAT spectrum:
• East Virginia Medical School M.S. in Biomedical Sciences: In the past five years, 90% of students have been accepted to med school after completion of EVMS’ program. The program runs for two semesters; the majority of courses are taught by faculty in the medical school. They require at least a 2.75 GPA and a 27 on your MCAT. They recommend applying by April, but applications are accepted through May.
• The Virginia Commonwealth University: Pre-Medical Basic Health Certificate Program: Graduates completing the program with a 3.5 GPA/28 MCAT are guaranteed an interview at VCU School of Medicine. They require a 3.0 GPA and 25 MCAT for admission, and applications are accepted until July 1st.
• Drexel’s Medical Science Program (MSP): The year-long MSP offers graduate-level biological science coursework, formal MCAT preparation, community outreach, and undergraduate review courses in chemistry, physics, and organic chemistry. A 3.0 GPA and either a 17 on the MCAT or 70th percentile on the GRE is required for entry to the program. Success in the program guarantees admission to Drexel’s Masters of Biological Science or the IMS course.
• Drexel’s Interdepartmental Medical Science (IMS) Program: Students spend 18 months in first-year medical school classes. Successful completion of their coursework enables them to continue on for another year to earn the MS of Medical Science. They are also guaranteed an interview at the Drexel School of Medicine. Applications are accepted year-round; a 3.0 GPA and an MCAT score of 27 or better is required.
Because SMPs have a reputation as a more certain path to medical school, they can be quite competitive. If you are still determined to be a physician but don’t have the GPA to get into a program, there’s one more route available.
GPA bump followed by an SMP. This method is a bit circuitous, but it does work. First, you need to get your GPA up – a year of good grades in upper-level science courses might be enough to get you up to a 3.0. At that point, you can apply to an SMP with strong links to a medical school. This will take you a minimum two years, which might not seem appealing at this point. However, look upon it as a way to build your confidence and shore up the science and study skills that will enable you to excel in medical school.
Boosting your GPA is likely to test your resolve to be a doctor. The next year(s) won’t be quick or easy, and you may question whether the effort is even worth it. You might find it’s not, and that is fine – there are many other worthwhile careers you can pursue. But if you keep your eyes on the prize, then in all likelihood you’ll be wearing a white coat someday.
Next, we’ll look at some of the other concrete steps you can take to improve your profile – and your chances of succeeding in medical school. Still have questions? Contact Accepted.com to see how our admissions consultants can help you.
By Cydney Foote, Accepted consultant and author of Write Your Way to Medical School, who has helped future physicians craft winning applications since 2001.