Does GPA matter when applying to med school?

As a regular mentor for the University of Toronto’s Career Centre, I am often asked, “is GPA (Grade Point Average) the only thing that medical school admission committees look at?” The answer is quite simply, no. Although having a high GPA is important, it is not the only component that the committees are considering. It is however a large part of the admission process and therefore should not be overlooked.

When applying to medical school, the admissions committee treats your GPA as a direct representation of your academic abilities and as a reflection of your personal work ethic. Personally, I believe comparing your GPA to your academic abilities or work ethic isn’t practical. These comparisons can only truly be made if students are in the same program and attending the same university. For example, there is an infinite number of course combinations which may satisfy the application course requirements, but they are never truly the same unless they are taken at the same school and within the same program structure. Having looked over 700 university transcripts, I can confidently say that certain programs and certain universities are definitely and consistently more difficult to do well in than others. This remains true even amongst the same tier of schools. In order to be accepted into medical school, there is no doubt that you will need to have a high GPA. In order to achieve this, I suggest that you begin your academic career well aware that the GPA score you need is only achieved over a long period of time, and not in the last year of study. The earlier you start working on it, the easier it will be when applying to medical school.

Unfortunately, medical school admission committees do not consider the difficulty of one’s academic program. In the article, “Investigating the Utility of a GPA Institutional Adjustment Index”, researchers state that applicants going through more rigorous programs are actually disadvantaged. Despite investing more time and effort, these applicants may end up with a worse GPA. They tend to have less time for extracurricular activities, such as volunteering or performing research. Consequently, you should choose courses and programs not only based on your personal interests, but also to optimize your GPA while meeting your academic requirements.

Here are some lessons that had helped me and many other students over the years:

  1. Before picking a course, a program, or a university, talk to senior students, mentors, professors and career counselors. I was very lucky to have gotten into medical school after my undergrad, but I wish I talked to more people and consulted more resources before choosing academic programs. Do it early and it will make the application process much smoother.
  2. Drop a course if it is not going well. There are very few courses that are absolutely required for medical school admission. It is important to protect your GPA and remember that courses are dispensable.
  3. Change your program if it is not going well. Remember, the GPA is not a fair representation of your academic capabilities. We were all keeners in high school and always tried to overcome whatever challenges that came our way. However, certain challenges (eg. achieving an amazing GPA regardless of program of study) are not fair and can ruin your dream of getting into medical school. In the real world, you have to be flexible with your academic plans and be adaptive. I don’t think certain courses or programs are designed with bad intentions to hurt one’s GPA, but certainly they are built on different educational philosophies. It is up to you to figure out which courses are consistent with what you need.
  4. If you have a required course that is difficult, perhaps take it in the summer when the overall workload is less and you have more time to focus on that particular course.
  5. Remember to use a credit/no-credit option for a difficult course.
  6. You could take a required course at another university. In fact, you could even go on exchange for a year at another university! Just make sure that the courses are transferable (in most North American universities they are). Once again, talk to lots of people beforehand.
  7. Pursue a thesis project as a course. Not only does it give you research experience (and possibly transition to a summer research job), but also you have one less exam to study for. Talk to professors and graduate students beforehand so you know how the course will be graded (the evaluation criteria will vary between different professors, but generally speaking, hard work is well rewarded).
  8. Know the rules. At some universities, only a finite number of exams can be scheduled within a 24 hour block for a single student. If you have too many exams scheduled and you think the GPA will be negatively impacted, exercise your rights and re-schedule some of the exams.
  9. Study smart. For the purpose of GPA calculation, a high average between courses does not translate to a high GPA. You need to be well balanced in all your courses, and you must make study plans accordingly. Evaluate and adjust your study plan on a monthly basis.
  10. Work hard. This is probably the second most important advice after the first point. You may have picked the most ideal university, program, and courses, but you still need to put in the time and effort.