In our last post, we talked about how to assess your application weaknesses. If you’re feeling a bit fragile now, that’s to be expected – you’ve just undergone a pretty brutal review of your application! 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.
Today we’ll move forward and discuss ways to improve a critical factor in your med school application profile: a poor GPA.
Why is it so hard to “fix” a low GPA?
A low GPA is probably the hardest area to improve – it can take about a year in advanced level science courses to bump a high 2.x GPA over 3.0. And 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 a DO program
If you only applied to MD programs previously, you should consider an osteopathic medical program. Although still extremely competitive, DO programs have slightly lower GPAs and MCAT requirements and a more holistic criteria for evaluating applications.
Before you apply, be sure to shadow some osteopathic physicians and learn about the osteopathic approach – these schools don’t want to be a fall-back plan for allopathic applicants. Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine focus on integrating the whole person into the healthcare process. This makes them especially strong in primary care specialties – family practice, general internal medicine, and pediatrics – and popular in many other specialties. For instance, in 2021, a higher percentage of DOs matched with emergency medicine programs than did MDs (12.5% vs. 9.6%). And, with the recent merger of allopathic and osteopathic residencies, the distinction between MDs and DOs will likely be blurred even more.
Getting into a DO program is still going to require a strong GPA. So what can you do if your grades are lower?
- Boost your GPA with post-baccalaureate coursework
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 also important – community college won’t cut it. An attractive 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.
- Improve your GPA with a science-based master’s program
This is another good 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 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 post-baccalaureate or special master’s program (SMP)
Success in these programs, which are usually one or two years long, 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.
Programs like GeorgeSquared, JHU’s Health Science Intensive and Georgetown’s Special Master’s in Physiology immerse students in a rigorous science-based curriculum similar to what they will experience in medical school; often, they are even taking classes or being graded alongside first-year med students. Some programs even cater to the lower end of the GPA/MCAT spectrum, such as East Virginia Medical School M.S. in Biomedical Sciences, Drexel’s Interdisciplinary Health Sciences (IHS) and Pathway to Medical School programs.
Use the AAMC post-baccalaureate and master’s database to find programs that will help you boost your academic qualifications for medical school.
But what if you don’t have the GPA to get into a post-baccalaureate program? Some programs, like Drexel’s IHS program, accept applicants with GPAs below 3.0, but many are more competitive. If you are still determined to be a physician, there’s one more route:
- GPA bump followed by a post-baccalaureate
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 a post-baccalaureate program with strong links to a medical school. This will take you a minimum of two years, which might not seem appealing at this point. However, look at 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.
If you still don’t have the GPA or MCAT score for acceptance at a North American medical school, there is a final option – one generally thought of as a last resort.
- Apply to an international medical school
Carefully consider whether this is the right decision. As an international medical student, you will have to contend with many different challenges – from language barriers to culture shock – that could affect your studies. Classes are large and may feel impersonal, and attrition rates are high. You might not have as many choices for clinical rotations, and you might even need to arrange your own elective rotations.
The biggest concern for international medical graduates (IMGs) is matching with a residency program after completing medical school. Some international schools have very poor records of residency placement. Attending the wrong medical school could mean you incur thousands of dollars in debt and struggle to practice medicine once you’re finished.
Despite these obstacles, an international program can be a viable option for some people. The required GPA is often lower than the U.S. average and in some programs, the MCAT is not required. You will interact with peers, professors and patients from around the world and with a wealth of different perspectives. And while securing a residency is a challenge, it’s certainly not an insurmountable one. In the 2021 Main Residency Match, US IMGs accounted for about nearly 15% of the applicant pool; 59.5% of these matched to their preferred specialty. These vary by specialty, and applicants in the primary care fields fare the best.
I’ve worked with many successful IMGs over the years and what consistently 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, international case competitions, etc. They are the ones who go above and beyond in their clinical rotations, demonstrating their cultural competence by adapting seamlessly in varied environments and contributing on different teams. And significantly, they’re the ones who can express the advantages of their non-U.S. medical education, including resourcefulness and the deep grounding in diagnoses that comes from doing without modern diagnostic equipment.
If studying medicine in another country appeals to you, do your research. Among the Caribbean programs, Ross University, St. George’s University, San Saba, and the American University of the Caribbean have consistently high placement rates. Courses are often taught by U.S. academic physicians with well-established clinical rotations in the United States. Israeli programs like Sackler and Ben-Gurion also 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 with regard to the GPAs of otherwise qualified American and Canadian students and offers a diverse, world-class medical education.
Being an IMG is not for the faint of heart, but if you’ve tried everything else and still have your heart set on medicine, it is something to consider.
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.
“Boost Your GPA for Med School Admissions” is the second post in our series: Medical School Reapplicant Advice: 6 Tips for Success.
Next, we’ll look at some of the other concrete steps you can take to improve your MCAT score – and your chances of succeeding in medical school.
If you want to improve your chances even more, take advantage of Accepted’s application review service to get a tailored assessment of your strengths and weaknesses.
Feedback from a reapplicant client
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A former fellowship admissions committee member and administrator at the University of Washington School of Medicine, Cydney Foote has successfully advised healthcare applicants, including those applying to medical school, dental school, nursing and PA programs, veterinary school, public health and hospital administration programs, post-baccalaureate medical programs, residencies and fellowships. Since 2001, she has brought her marketing and writing expertise to help science-focused students communicate their strengths. Want Cyd to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!