Getting Started Series (Part 4): Choosing Your Courses

Choosing university courses requires a similar line of thought to choosing a university program. Should you take notoriously “easier courses” or more interesting but possibly more challenging ones? Again, this is a personal decision with no right or wrong answer, and again ideally, the courses you like the most would also be the ones you perform the best in.

Realistically, this isn’t always the case and again you will need to weigh your priorities. If you finished 4 years of undergrad and need to do another year to boost your marks for medical school, maybe doing more courses just for interest sake is not the best idea – if you need to boost your marks, then boost them. Perhaps if you are in your 4th year of undergrad, have a great GPA, and can risk taking a more challenging but interesting course – go for it. It really does depend on your situation.

One important thing to keep in mind is to make sure you take all prerequisite courses you need for the medical schools you are interested in. Depending on your program, your elective course time may be spread out – so plan when to take your prerequisite courses accordingly, and ensure you are able to complete them in time.

On that note, one strategy is to do any particularly difficult prerequisites during the year of your application – that way, if you get a low mark on it, those marks won’t be seen on your transcript to medical school. If you do get into medical school that year, then you don’t have to sweat the low mark. As long as you pass that that year, medical schools generally do not care what marks you achieved during the year you are accepted. For example, for the medical schools that require an English course (which is more challenging for many premeds who are doing science programs), it may be smart to take English during the year you apply.

GPA

Introduction

Grade Point Average (GPA) is a measurement used by universities when calculating your average grade across the credit courses you have taken over a set period of time. When you complete a university course, you are assigned grade, usually either a letter (A, B, C, D, or F) or percentage score (0-100).

Your university will usually convert these grades into a score (usually out of 4.0, but this depends on your university), and then do a weighted average of these scores to calculate your GPA. Your university will calculate your GPA for each year, as well as an overall GPA for your entire undergraduate career. However, your university GPA is not used for medical school admissions – rather, your university GPA is used for things like scholarships and awards at your home university.

How medical schools calculate your GPA

When you apply to medical schools, you must submit your university transcript to them. The admissions committee will look at your courses and grades, and use their own personal formula to calculate your application GPA. Therefore, your medical school application GPA is often different from the GPA assigned by your home university.

Furthermore, your your application GPA can vary at each of the medical schools. For example, while McMaster’s medical school weighs marks from each undergraduate year equally, Ottawa’s medical school gives more weight to later years when calculating your application GPA (i.e. your 2nd year marks are worth twice as much than your 1st year marks).

How medical schools use your GPA

Medical schools usually use your GPA as part of the pre-interview process, often along with MCAT scores, admission essays and letters of reference. In general, your GPA score is specifically used in one of two ways:

1.) GPA Cutoff

Some medical schools have direct cutoffs for GPA. That is, once you achieve a certain minimum GPA (along with other non-GPA requirements, such as a certain MCAT score) you will automatically receive an interview.

2.) GPA contributing to pre-interview score

Other medical schools, such as the University of Toronto, generally use the GPA as one component in calculating a pre-interview score, with the applicants with the highest pre-interview scores receiving an interview offer. Therefore, with such medical schools, the higher your GPA the better your chances.

Why medical schools use GPA

Medicine is a very academic field. Available knowledge on diseases and treatment increases at a rapid rate. Physicians are required to accumulate significant amounts of knowledge before they are licensed, and are also expected to continue acquiring knowledge throughout their careers. In short, you will need to be able to study hard and study well during medical school, and for the rest of your career.

Therefore, first and foremost, good doctors are good students. GPAs are used by medical schools to assess the ability of an applicant to do well in the academic aspects of medicine.

How to achieve a strong GPA

Getting a good GPA comes to a combination of X things: 1.) picking the right university program, 2.) picking the right courses, and 3.) studying smart and studying hard.

We have already previously covered how to do #1 and #2 . But what does it mean to study smart and study hard?

Studying smart means maximizing your marks for the time you put in. This means figuring out what you should focus on the most for your tests and distribute your study time proportionally. For example, if you’re great at chemistry but weaker at biology, then spend more time studying biology. Another example would be going to your student unions and getting past tests for your specific professors and look for patterns in what topics they test and how they ask questions – you’d be surprised at how many professors not only repeat test formats, but also topics, and sometimes even outright questions. This is the same case with medical school exams.

Studying hard simply means putting in the time. It doesn’t matter how smart you are if you haven’t studied and don’t have the basic knowledge required to complete that biology exam. Be honest with yourself – if you are struggling academically, cut down on your ECs and volunteer work until you bring your grades back up. For many medical schools, if you don’t have a strong enough GPA, they won’t even look at your non-academic experiences.

What GPA do I need?

The honest answer is that it depends on the medical school. Some medical schools require a certain GPA over your best 2 years. Other schools require a minimum GPA 3.60 but the average successful applicant typically had a higher GPA. Basically, that means you should try to get the best GPA possible, so that you are competitive for as many medical schools as possible. You can only gain by having a higher GPA. If your GPA isn’t great, you need to think about possibly doing a second undergraduate degree to boost your grades or make sure you have other career options in mind.