How to Navigate Pass-Fail Grading for Medical School Admissions Success

Along with nearly every other sector in education, the spread of the novel coronavirus has altered many aspects of the medical school admissions process. Canceled MCAT test dates, virtual interviews, lost opportunities for volunteer work and research, and changes to undergraduate grading policies present challenges for the evaluation of prospective med students.

In particular, the shift from letter grading to pass-fail grading by many undergraduate institutions could significantly affect one of the most important metrics of applicants’ medical school readiness — their GPA.

[Read: Coronavirus Prompts Colleges to Offer Pass-Fail Classes: What to Know.]

Understanding how the American Medical College Application Service, or AMCAS, treats pass-fail grades and the potential impact that such grades may have on your admissions chances can help you identify your next steps in creating the strongest medical school application possible, even while the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. Whether you opted into pass-fail grading or your school mandated it, consider these three questions:

— How does AMCAS treat pass-fail grades?

— How will pass-fail grades affect your medical school admissions chances?

— How can you address the possible impact of pass-fail grading on your admissions chances?

How Does AMCAS Treat Pass-Fail Grades?

Earlier this year, AMCAS issued a formal statement detailing how pass-fail grades will be reflected on medical school applications. In short, pass-fail grades will not contribute to an applicant’s overall GPA or biology, chemistry, physics and math (BCPM) GPA. Instead, these courses that denote simply a pass or fail will be listed as supplemental hours — unless the applicant’s undergraduate institution provides an “alpha letter grade conversion.”

How Will Pass-Fail Grades Affect Your Medical School Admissions Chances?

Because premed students usually complete their prerequisite coursework over several years, medical schools will still receive a near-complete picture of an applicant’s demonstrated academic capabilities. For applicants who took only one or two core prerequisite classes during a pass-fail semester, the remaining wealth of letter-graded coursework will likely overshadow that single semester.

[READ: What the Coronavirus Pandemic Means for Premed Students.]

However, applicants with suboptimal letter grades who wanted to show academic improvement in subsequent classes may be adversely affected by pass-fail grading. For example, if you received a C in General Chemistry I and took General Chemistry II last semester in the hopes of showing a stronger academic performance, the loss of a letter grade could be detrimental.

It should also be acknowledged that with the trend of applicants taking gap years between completing undergraduate study and beginning medical school, many applications this cycle will not be affected by pass-fail grading. Applicants who completed their undergraduate coursework prior to the pandemic have the potential advantage of providing more academic information for admissions committees to evaluate.

How Can You Address the Possible Impact of Pass-Fail Grading on Your Admissions Chances?

Before you panic, take a breath and remember that you are not alone in this conundrum. Plenty of other med school applicants will have transcripts that resemble yours, and medical school admissions committees are adapting their policies to accommodate the challenges imposed by COVID-19.

[Read: How to Make Sure You Fulfill Medical School Requirements for Admission.]

To give yourself the best chances of admission, focus on the aspects of your application that you can control. If you completed key premed coursework during a pass-fail semester, one way to demonstrate your knowledge is to obtain a high MCAT section subscore in an area covered by a pass-fail grade.

Further, if you feel you did particularly well in a pass-fail course, you can ask that professor for a letter of recommendation, giving him or her the opportunity to attest to your knowledge.

Finally, for premed students who have not yet completed their undergraduate careers and for those planning to take a gap year, letter grades in future coursework can fill the gaps created by coronavirus in academic narratives.

More from U.S. News

Why It’s Hard to Get Into Medical School Despite Doctor Shortages

What Are Your Chances of Getting Into Medical School?

Weigh the Pros, Cons of Taking a Gap Year Before Medical School

How to Navigate Pass-Fail Grading for Medical School Admissions Success originally appeared on

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