How to Discuss Poor Academics on Medical School Applications

Strong academic performance is key to successfully getting into medical school. All schools want to know that an applicant to their program has the capability to handle the rigors of the medical school curriculum. Undergraduate and graduate academic performance prior to medical school can provide clues to an applicant’s ability.

That being said, many applicants to medical school have less than stellar academic performance. Some start off not doing very well and others may struggle in one course or a semester, while others have difficulty with a certain subject area.

The good news is none of these scenarios has to be a deal breaker for getting into medical school. Admissions committees are more forgiving than most applicants assume, especially when the applicant has made up for poor academic performance in one area by doing well in other areas.

Equally importantly, schools want to see that where there was poor academic performance, the applicant is able to reflect on it and explain it in a way that is effective and compelling. Applicants should consider the following pointers when explaining poor academics in their medical school application:

— Only address major weaknesses.

— Don’t blame others.

— End on a positive note.

— Highlight strengths that could make up for the weakness.

Only address major weaknesses. We recently worked with an applicant who had devoted an entire paragraph of his medical school personal statement to explaining a C+ in a freshman-level chemistry course. While the grade is less than ideal, it does not constitute a major flaw. Applicants are better off leaving minor shortcomings out of the application.

[Read: Address Mistakes, Weaknesses in Medical School Applications.]

Chances are, a C in a freshman-level course may go unnoticed if the overall GPA is strong. By bringing it up in the application, you may be drawing unnecessary attention to it. In addition, you will waste precious space that could be used toward reflecting on more important topics.

It is difficult to clearly define what an admissions committee will consider a major weakness and where to draw the line between addressing something or not. This requires judgment on the part of the applicant and potentially some help from a counselor.

However, in our experience, one or two grades of C or withdrawals on a transcript are not worth an explanation, unless asked at an interview. A grade of D or F may warrant an explanation, especially if it occurred later in the premedical years. More extensive weaknesses in academic performance, like a semester of bad grades, should be explained.

[Read: What Medical School Applicants Should Avoid on College Transcripts.]

Don’t blame others. Too often, we come across essays where the applicant looks to explain bad grades by saying the professor was exceptionally hard, the exams were graded unfairly or other reasons that suggest the negative outcome was beyond the applicant’s control. This approach should be avoided in the medical school application. You want to show the admissions committee that you take full responsibility for poor academic performance.

To achieve this, it helps to be honest and give the reader the real reason for why you did not do well. It shows sincerity and openness when an applicant says, for example, that poor performance in a class was because he or she did not have proper study skills, or he or she underestimated the demands of the course.

End on a positive note. Any time you explain a setback or negative experience in a medical school personal statement or secondary essay, it is wise to turn it into a positive and reflect on it in-depth. This applies to explanations of poor academic performance as well.

One of our recent students was an art major and only became interested in medicine after a semester of poor academic performance following extenuating family circumstances. He described in his essay how these circumstances required him to get a job in order to pay the bills.

As it turns out, the first job he found was at a medical front office, where he learned more about the medical profession and decided he wants to be a medical doctor. He talked about how he struggled balancing the job with his coursework and performed poorly in his courses as a result.

After acknowledging the difficulties, he gave his essay a positive spin by explaining that despite the negative impact of these events on his academics, he was grateful that the events exposed him to the medical profession and ignited his interest in medicine.

Highlight strengths that could make up for the weakness. If there are weaknesses in a particular area of your application, but you have performed well in related areas, you should highlight the achievement in the related area.

[Read: Use Medical School Interviews to Address Weaknesses.]

For example, if a student performed poorly on organic chemistry classes but did well in biochemistry and had a strong score on the chemistry sections of the MCAT, these strengths in biochemistry and the MCAT should be mentioned. It is wise to use these achievements to argue that the poor performance in organic chemistry does not reflect one’s overall abilities in the discipline of chemistry.

When all is said and done, remember that most medical school applicants have some areas of relative deficiency in their application. Keeping this in mind, do not be ashamed of sharing your shortcomings and reflecting on them in mature and sincere way. In doing so, you will help the admissions committee understand the reasons for any blemishes on your academic record and you will display openness and honesty, both of which are highly valued qualities in an aspiring physician.

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