3.5 is competitive somewhere!

Obviously, this post refers to your GPA only!! And speaking of GPA in isolation (apart from your MCAT score, extracurriculars, personal interview and other experience) can be an exercise in futility. However, go ahead and humor me!

What's a good GPA for medical school?

Right now I’m humming that old Jimmy Buffet song—you know the one…”It’s 5:00 somewhere.” So my first, best answer is, “3.5 is competitive somewhere!” In fact, if you’ve read my post, “What’s considered a good MCAT score?” it underscores the fact that depending on your MCAT score, a rather mediocre GPA may be  good enough to get you into some (lower-tier) schools. If you hit the 50th percentile on the new MCAT GPA of 3.5 or higher, it’s probably going to get you into a lot of middle-tier schools. Then, when you land a 518 on the MCAT, you may not have to sing that Jimmy Buffet song anymore, because you’ll be competitive everywhere!

My answer isn’t based on empirical data, because you can find that on a lot of medical school websites. For starters, you can check out the 10th and 90th percentile MCAT scores in The Official Guide to Medical School Admissions 2015: How to Prepare for and Apply to Medical School or look at the individual stats of students matriculating into U.S. Medical Schools at services.aamc.org/msar/home. I’m just offering parameters and pointers for where your GPA/MCAT numbers should be, from my own personal perspective. But in my opinion it’s a mistake giving two little numbers too much power over your psyche! Obviously you need good-looking numbers to seduce adcom committees into inviting you to “the dance,” but I’ve seen some pretty well-endowed students (numbers-wise) smacked down with rejection, while others with badly pocked scores somehow squeaked through. Since this game of predictions is not an exact science, I’ll throw out every bit of wisdom I can….and then recommend that you take it with a grain of salt.

And with a lot of my recent posts, let me qualify my opinions with the fact that so much is in flux with the new MCAT, that adequately scoring it is going to elude adcoms for a few cycles! There’s no way to say what the ideal score is, since even AAMC is saying that scores in the middle of the curve may be superior to a perfect 528!

MD vs. DO

Let’s start with the MD/DO difference. Actual data from 2011 and 2012 shows that for a DO program, the average numbers for GPA/MCAT matriculants are 3.48/26.5, while MD candidates have to ramp it up a bit: 3.68/31.2. So if those are averages, then they likely correspond to middle- or lower-tier schools. If you’re targeting top-tier programs, your numbers will have to be higher. That would tend to bear out the number at the top of this post—3.7/32—as a pretty solid combination.

What about 3.6 GPA?

Let’s just say in most cases, a 3.6 won’t keep you out of any school. And yes, I mean Ivy League contenders. But that 3.6 GPA needs to be paired with a good MCAT number, great extracurriculars (EC) and a stellar personal statement. In my opinion, great ECs will give you more of an advantage than another couple of GPA points. If you’re at 3.6 or 3.7, be happy and build on your ECs. If you’re at 3.5, it could be a negative factor, depending on where you apply.

A balanced MCAT

Adcom committees will consider your overall MCAT score, and also your score on the four test sections. They’re looking for a balanced score that shows preparation in all areas. Even a solid GPA score might not cut it if it’s unbalanced. A 122/123/129/130 may yield the same final number as a 126/127/125/126, but the latter is more likely to get you noticed.


Extracurriculars can be extraterrestrial! If you have a 3.6 and great ECs, it could bring you more adcom love than a 3.7 with mediocre ECs. Depending on your school, there’s a bottom line GPA that’s acceptable, and once you reach that, your time and attention is best invested in improving your ECs, rather than worrying about an extra tenth of a point in your GPA.

Mistakes to avoid

Here are some don’ts, with some links to my posts on the subject: Don’t apply late. Don’t let your science GPA lag behind your cumulative GPA more than .2; don’t submit a mediocre personal statement; don’t apply to too few schools or to only top-tier programs; don’t mess around when choosing who writes your letters of recommendation; don’t walk into an interview unprepared; and don’t send in sloppy secondary applications. All of this advice—if followed—can be the key to unlocking the door to your chosen school, as long as you have the minimal numbers.

“Ding” factors

Here are a few other things that can “ding” you….undergrad grades that trend lower during your upper level classes, taking easy classes for science electives, or major classes taken at a community college. Avoid at all costs!

So finally, I’m going to stick with the 3.7 recommendation, with probably a 75% chance of at least one acceptance (with a good MCAT score). But there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that with lower numbers (a 3.6, even 3.5) you could still get through with great ECs, LORs, and an excellent personal interview!

Trending up…

If you want my opinion, this post has an expiration date on it. All the trends show that grades and MCAT scores are going up. I don’t know if that’s a reflection of a better class of students, or a more competitive playing field, but if the magic number in 2015 is 3.7, it will be a half a point or so higher in 2016.


Here are some related posts:

What’s the best MCAT prep course—Princeton Review, Kaplan, Altius, Examkrackers, Berkeley Review…???

What exactly is in the AMCAS primary and secondary applications?

Where can I find a list of the best MCAT prep books in 2015?

When should I take the MCAT, what’s the cost?

Can I still get into a residency program if I don’t go to a top-tier medical school?

Bryce Johnson co-founded premedFAQ.com in 2011 and is the author of Must Reads for the Well-Rounded Pre-Med on Amazon. If you'd like to write for the site or contribute in another way, feel free to reach out to him on LinkedIn or via email.