This is a common question for premeds: If I do poorly in my first year of undergrad—even getting disastrous freshman grades—should I throw in the towel on medical school, or is there still hope?
Don’t throw in the towel
This is one of those situations where you might find a smidgeon of understanding and mercy from the adcoms if and only if:
—Your grades post-disaster are stellar (3.7 and up);
—You re-take prerequisites if you got a D or lower;
—You add in some extra science classes to improve your sGPA;
—Your extracurriculars (especially clinical experience) are strong; and
—You give 100%-plus effort to killing the MCAT.
Al Gore and John Kerry got disastrous freshman grades too!
You can’t make those disastrous freshman grades disappear, but it’s not all that unusual to have a disappointing freshman year. (Al Gore got a D in Natural Sciences 6 and a C-plus in Natural Sciences 118. After his sophomore year at Harvard he was in the bottom 1/5 of his class. John Kerry also got several D’s in his freshman year. Granted, neither were hoping to get into medical school, but they are perfect examples of typical students who fiddled away their college years.)
You won’t get much sympathy if you throw away two full years of potential, but disastrous freshman grades can probably be rehabilitated. Here are some suggestions for how to go about it…
Make sure your grades post-disaster are stellar
No matter how you began your college career, an upward trend in grades is always preferred to the alternative. With disastrous freshman grades, you’ll have to begin proving yourself as soon as you shake off the dust. It wouldn’t hurt if you got a 4.0 over the next three years, but since that’s not likely, you should devote whatever time is necessary to succeed in all your pre-requisites, especially upper level classes.
In calculating your GPA, AMCAS doesn’t remove D’s or F’s, even if you re-take a class. So all the messy details will be there for everyone to see. But if you can show sharply upward trending grades, that’s a good sign that you took serious action to change your academic direction.
Depending on where your freshman grades put you (1.9, 2.1, 2.5…), it’s possible with consistently good grades from here on out that you could end up with a 3.5 or 3.6 GPA overall. By getting in a couple extra science classes you can bump your science GPA slightly higher. This won’t be easy, but this is how you carve out a second chance. Adcoms will see that you made the effort to rehabilitate your study habits and work your way to success!
Re-take prerequisites where you got a D or lower
Re-taking a course where you got a D or an F won’t wipe away the lower grade, but as long as you boost your grade substantially you’ll be proving you can handle the difficult material. Leaving a class like Chemistry or Biochem or Physics on your transcripts with a failed grade isn’t a good idea. Having the class show up a second time with an A will be a plus, and will definitely help with the GPA problem.
Add in some extra science classes to boost your sGPA
Typically, you will need 6 or more credits of upper level bio classes along with your required pre-med courses. You can check out our comprehensive list of med school requirements here. While you are at it, it wouldn’t hurt to add an extra class or two in the sciences, which will have the effect of boosting your sGPA. This is something you can do in the summer in order to give yourself ample time to study. But if you take this route, you can’t mess around. Do whatever it takes to get an A, or very close to it!
Work on strengthening your extracurriculars
Your med school application is more than just a GPA. You’ll be defined by every aspect of your application—from MCAT score to personal statement and letters of recommendation. But a critical element that can give you props is great EC’s. This includes shadowing, volunteering, working in a clinical setting, getting involved in research, and other extracurricular activities that show wide interests like joining campus clubs, mentoring kids, grassroots politics, even sports.
With disastrous freshman grades and a low overall GPA, the best EC’s to focus on are those done in a clinical setting (paid or volunteer), plus shadowing and research. You’ll need to plan ahead so you can slot these activities into each semester, and especially into the summer months.
Give 100% effort to slaying the MCAT
Doing well on the MCAT takes sustained effort, time and focus. Your sophomore year is not too early to start buying MCAT books and absorbing what’s in them. Check out our recommendations on some popular MCAT prep book sets, and buy books especially in your areas of weakness. By end of sophomore year, you should have a plan for when to take the MCAT, and when to take a prep course (if you plan to). You can also take a “self-paced” MCAT prep course, allowing yourself to study when you can over a year or longer.
Keep in mind that applications open in June of your junior year, so having an MCAT score by then is a plus. If you want to ensure your MCAT score is high enough, you may want to take it early so you can re-take it if needed. It’s best to avoid that, though, by being prepared the first time around.
How important is your MCAT score? Here’s a quick answer…
Getting a 513-528 can get you into lots of schools, especially on top-tier schools. With a 510-513 you may be relegated to only state schools where you have an advantage, or to DO schools. If your score drops to 509 or lower, you’re probably headed to a DO school where lower scores are acceptable. This doesn’t take into factors like diversity (being a woman or minority), or being the first college graduate in your family, which can give you slightly better chances of getting picked.
The bottom line is…a really good MCAT score can help you with that rehabilitation process after disastrous freshman grades. You may feel like you’re buried in a hole, but you can dig yourself out with a lot of determination and hard work over your entire four year college career.
What about a post-bacc program?
If your GPA is lower than 3.5 at the end of your senior year, you may want to get into a post-bacc program. Some classes to take during a post-bacc: cellular bio, histology, anatomy, biochem, neuroscience, immunology, pathology, bio stats and genetics. You can either join a formal post-bacc program or create your own program to simulate a med school courseload.
There are also one-year SMP (special masters programs) designed to help get lower GPA students into med school. The classes for SMP’s are those you might take in med school, like neuroscience, physiology and biochemistry. Some SMP programs are linked to med schools, funneling those who do extremely well into a linked medical school.
With your disastrous freshman year behind you, you’ll need to get moving, and fast to ensure a successful path to med school.
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