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Getting Into Medical School: Grades, Knowledge, and Experience

In this lesson, I’m going to discuss three measures of students in regards to their readiness for medical school—performance, breadth of knowledge, and breadth of experience.

Try this. Ask anyone who knows anything about medical school the following question—“What do you have to have to get into medical school?” Almost everyone will say “Good grades.” Grades in the minds of most pre-medical students are overinflated relative to their importance. That isn’t to say grades don’t matter. They do. Instead, it means that there is much more to getting into medical school than good grades and good grades are no guarantee of acceptance.

I hope to illustrate these points in this lesson and that your thoughts about grades in college change as a result.

Your plan for medical school needs to consider three things—performance, breadth of experience, and breadth of knowledge. Grades are part of the performance component.

The performance component measures how well you’ve mastered the subjects you’ve been working on for the 16 or more years of schooling you’ve had prior to applying to medical school. Grades are one measure of mastery and are thus a component of performance. Notice I said “a component.”

Everyone who has ever attended college knows that some classes are easier than others, as are some professors, some majors, and some schools. A grade of ‘A’ in any class is worth 4 points on the GPA scale, no matter how difficult that class, who taught it, or where it was taught.

Pre-meds know that the more classes you make an ‘A’ in, the higher your GPA will be, so if GPA is your focus, then maximizing it means making lots of ‘A’s. And efficiency for these students is a consideration too. Remember the different time components in the last lecture? If you spend less time making an ‘A’ in one class than another class, then you will have more time for other things like socializing and free time if you opt for the “easy A” class compared to a more difficult one. To the GPA-chasing students, that expands further into taking the easiest path through college, which means the easiest classes in the easiest major with the easiest professors. And it doesn’t work.

If GPA was all that mattered for medical school admission, then the easiest major should provide the best preparation. In the college of science at Oregon State University, for many years we had a major called General Science and it was widely acknowledged as the easiest major. Pre-meds flocked to it and got the high grades they were chasing. That major also had the lowest percentage acceptances of students for medical school. Why?

Clearly, the answer is that there is more to getting into medical school than just grades. As I said earlier, of the three considerations for medical school, grades are on a part of one of them—the performance component. The rest of one’s performance is measured using something that doesn’t care how high your GPA was. It is known as the Medical College Admissions Test or MCAT, and it is designed to measure how much you’ve learned along the way. There’s the clincher. Those that took the “easy” path along the way are going to pay for it on the MCAT.

It varies how much any medical school committee weighs MCAT versus GPA, but if I were to make recommendations to a pre-med committee, I’d say about 70% of the performance evaluation should come from the MCAT with about 30% on GPA.

A lower GPA can, to some extent, be overcome by a respectable MCAT, but it is much more difficult and more unlikely that a high GPA will overcome a lower MCAT. That’s because there is no good way to compare GPAs, from different schools with different classes and majors. It’s very easy, however, to compare MCAT scores. Ideally, of course, you will have high scores on both GPA and MCAT.

While I’m on the subject, let’s briefly consider the other two important categories of evaluation I mentioned earlier—the breadth of knowledge and breadth of experience.

First, breadth of knowledge comes from 1) your major and 2) the elective classes you take within your major. Students who are broad in their knowledge take classes spanning all major areas of academia that a college or university offers. At a simple level, science students should focus on the arts and humanities for electives, whereas students in the liberal arts will benefit from expanding their scientific knowledge. As I noted in the first lecture, everyone will benefit from philosophy and writing. On the science side, everyone will benefit from extra math and molecular biology/biochemistry.

The breadth of experience is the only component of the three that one can start working on early. It refers to the experiences one has in life, from jobs to volunteering to leadership to medical experience. Remember in the first lecture how I recommended that motivated pre-college students start getting medical experience? That’s so they can begin expanding their breadth of experience. And remember—I emphasized the importance of shadowing a physician one on one for as long as you can.

Six weeks, in my experience, is not nearly enough, but that is the amount that many students shoot for. The breadth of experience is more than just medical experience, though. It includes the clubs/groups you participate in, the leadership you’ve demonstrated by being elected to club officials, and the projects/programs you’ve gotten off the ground. And, I haven’t said a word about research.

Though scientific research is not absolutely essential for acceptance to medical school, the emphasis on the importance of undergraduate research in today’s programs means it is an increasingly important consideration and one that all pre-meds should consider.

The breadth of experience also includes the jobs you’ve had. Have you ever worked in a restaurant? If you have, you’ve got instant credibility when you say you know how to work with people. And yes, if you had an interest in another field of medicine and shadowed a dentist, pharmacist, nurse, veterinarians, etc., that’s good, so long as it doesn’t look like a current option for you. Scribing is also great, as we’ll discuss in the next lesson.

So, in summary, there are three important components to consider for evaluation for medical school—performance, as measured by grades and MCAT, breadth of knowledge, and breadth of experience.

In the next lesson, I’ll discuss getting medical experience.

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Written by

Kevin Ahern

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