What to Consider When Applying to Medical School With a Low GPA

A lower than average GPA doesn’t preclude attending medical school, but does raise challenges.

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Strong GPAs, MCAT scores, and admissions essays are crucial for getting into medical school. However, sometimes life can throw unexpected roadblocks in your way. Whether it's getting off to a slow start in college or having unexpected personal problems, there are a wide variety of reasons premeds end up with low GPAs.

How can you make up for a low GPA?

A low GPA can be defined in many ways. If you think your GPA may not be competitive, it is important to find out what the medical schools you want to apply to actually consider to be low.

For example, the premed advising office at Johns Hopkins University states that applicants with a 3.5 GPA and 30/31 composite MCAT score stand a good chance of securing an acceptance. But applicants with a GPA below 3.3 are advised that their chances for acceptance decrease significantly.

[Read four tips for selecting a medical school.]

So what do you do if your GPA falls below that mark and is considered "low"?

The top three key ways to improve your overall GPA for your AMCAS (American Medical College Application Service) and other applications are:

• Postbaccalaureate programs: A postbac program can be a good idea if you need to take required science classes or want to demonstrate that you can perform well in advanced science classes. Keep in mind, however, that all your previous courses need to be reported and included in your GPA—regardless of your undergraduate institution's policies (including how it calculates your GPA).

• Special master's degree programs: For students who took the required science courses for medical school and didn't do well enough to feel confident in their candidacy, this option can prove useful in multiple ways. These programs not only provide a chance to improve your GPA, but some schools have been known to also make sure their students secure interviews at their corresponding medical school.

[Learn about joint M.D. degrees.]

• Other options: Sometimes, certain options either don't make sense or are too expensive for aspiring medical students. If you are concerned and applying with a low GPA, it could be worth your while to consider the following two options:

1. Time off: The average age of entering medical students is now 24, with a considerable number of students applying later. Not only do medical schools appreciate mature applicants who learned from their mistakes, but if you take time off you will have more time to prepare a more competitive application.

2. Osteopathic schools: If you are interested, pursuing a D.O. rather than an M.D. could be an option. According to the osteopathic application service, AACOM (American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine), in 2010 the average entering osteopathic student had a 3.47 GPA.

While making an effort to improve your overall GPA can make you more competitive, be aware that as admissions committees evaluate applicants with lower GPAs, there are two important factors they often take into account:

1. Patterns: Admissions committees know that life transitions can be tough and take that into consideration. If you have a low GPA because of a rough freshman year, medical schools would want to see an upward trajectory in your grades in your other years, especially in science courses.

[Find out how to select undergraduate premed coursework.]

Admissions committees tend to become more concerned with situations in which applicants' grades fall in later years or have an irregular pattern. They also usually raise additional concerns if an applicant has an above average MCAT score but below average grades.

2. Personal Statements: The personal statement is the best way to forward your candidacy if you have a lower GPA. Whatever application service you use, the personal statement is the one item over which you have complete control during the admissions process. Composing a compelling personal statement that addresses any circumstances that may have led to you receiving below average grades is critical in that situation.

Applying to medical school requires a substantial commitment in terms of time and financial resources. Planning your application strategy in advance, particularly if you have a lower than average GPA or unusual circumstances, will help you maximize your chances of acceptance.

Ibrahim Busnaina, M.D. is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and coauthor of "Examkrackers' How to Get Into Medical School." He has been consulting with prospective medical school applicants, with a special focus on minority and other nontraditional candidates, since 2006.