How Do I Address Poor Grades While in the Military?

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OPM 274: How Do I Address Poor Grades While in the Military?

Session 274

This student says he “fooled” around while in the military and didn’t take classes seriously. Now that he wants to go to med school, will his low GPA haunt him?

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Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

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[02:20] OldPreMeds Question of the Week

“I never wanted to be a doctor until about 2 years ago. I spent 2 decades in the military and ended up being medically retired due to illness. 

My experience the last few years of my career dealing with this illness and interacting with physicians inspired me to follow this path. 

Here is the thing, as an enlisted soldier, GPA doesn’t matter, so there were a few times when I dropped my education completely for the sake of my mission as a soldier, resulting in some Fs. Heck, half of my credits were earned while deployed overseas. 

At the time this didn’t matter, I never planned on doing ANYTHING but being a soldier. Aside from those specific instances I made pretty good grades, I’m also making pretty good grades now, all As and Bs at this point. 

If I stay on this road I will get my cGPA to just over a 3.1, and my sGPA will be around a 3.5 by the time I finish my undergrad. 

There is still doubt in me that they would ever accept me though. Is there any way to explain this issue without sounding like I am trying to make an excuse about it?”

[03:26] A Reflection on Your Youth

This is a common problem whether you’re in the military or not in the military. You’re just young and stupid and don’t care about your grades. You just went to college and was never really motivated. Then you end up with massive debt going out of college. This happens all the time.

It’s part of the reason I don’t really understand our education system. It takes 18 years before your frontal lobe is fully matured where you could already decide what you want to do for the rest of your life. So it makes sense that so many people start their post secondary education journey unsure of what to do.

Now, this is not a reflection on the academic ability or how smart they are. It’s a reflection on being young. And unfortunately, that punishment causes lots of problems in the future.

“The punishment of being young and silly in college is you're going to have to work a lot harder in the future to improve your grades.” Click To Tweet

Luckily, you are not accepted to medical school based on your GPA. You’re accepted to medical school based on your academic readiness to do well in medical school. And yes, some schools will filter based on GPA and sometimes you get filtered out before someone actually ever sees your application. They filter you out even before they get to see your academic readiness. So how do you know you’re academically ready?

[06:02] The Story Behind the Number

'The context of the number matters so much more than just the number itself.'Click To Tweet

A 4.0. student is great. But what happens when that 4.0 student who likely hasn’t had a lot of challenges academically gets punched in the face in medical school? Reviewers aren’t going to know how the student is going to react when they get punched in the face.

Now, a student who may have a lower overall GPA, like this student has, doesn’t look great on the face of things. But when you peel back like an onion, and you get the story, and you go back. It tells a story of someone who either just wasn’t ready to be a college student or someone who was in a profession where grades didn’t matter. 

But he went to school anyway, and just gave up on grades and some classes. And then at some point, a switch happened because the student has now shown they have the academic ability to do well in medical school because you’ve shown an upward trend.

Therefore, the context around that number is very important. Medical schools are not accepting you based on that final number. They’re accepting you based on the story behind those numbers. And so for this student, you’re going to have to tell the story. Now, the question is where do you tell that story?

[09:20] Where to Explain This Red Flag

In my book, The Premed Playbook: Guide to the Medical School Personal Statement, I talked about how you can have a red flag statement in your personal statement.

Although, you could talk about it in your personal statement, I think it could go in secondary essays, specifically under “Is there anything else you want to tell me?” A lot of schools will ask whether you have any grades less than a B minus. So your story could go there. If you’re applying to TMDSAS, there’s an optional essay where you can potentially write about it there. There are lots of options.

At the end of the day, the best thing you can do is tell your truth. Let the medical schools understand very briefly what that story looks like. 

Now, your transcripts will be the biggest storyteller for you and the biggest advocate for you. You don’t need to spell out in your personal statement or anywhere else, that you had this GPA and you did this and that because your transcripts will show that.

[10:47] Tell Your Story!

So if you are in a situation, whether you’re in the military or not in the military, and you started off poorly, or you did poorly in the middle of it all, then you could still overcome that. As long as that doesn’t happen in the end. If you did poorly at the end, then you’ll have to continue to show some stability and upward trend after you do poorly. 

“As Americans, we love comeback stories. And medical school admission is no different.”Click To Tweet

Having context around why you struggled, why your grades were poor to begin with, and then showing that you are doing well now will make all the difference in the world. 

Whether a top institution like Harvard or Wash U will give you the time of day really depends on their process, how they rank, and all of that stuff. But there will be many medical schools out there that will look at students with lower overall GPAs.


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The Premed Playbook: Guide to the Medical School Personal Statement