Nneka is a 1st-year med student who didn’t think she had a chance. After a low GPA of 2.7 in undergrad, poor MCAT scores, and a failed application, Nneka is now studying at an allopathic medical school in New York. Today, we talk about what she did to succeed.
Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.
Applying to Medical School with a Low GPA
Before we get into the interview with Nneka, let’s give some quick answers to just a few common questions people have about applying to medical school with a low GPA.
What is considered a low GPA for medical school? Many medical schools have a cut-off for GPAs below 3.0. The average GPA at most MD medical schools ranges from about 3.7 to 3.9. The average GPA at most DO medical schools ranges from about 3.4 to 3.6.
What medical schools accept low GPAs? Don’t rule out any medical school based on GPA. Every school is looking for something specific in their applicants, so even if you’re below their median GPA, it doesn’t mean you can’t get in. Something else in your application may pique their interest.
How to get into medical school with a low GPA:
- Do a postbac to show an upward trend in grades.
- Get a high MCAT score to show academic competency.
- Have consistent, meaningful clinical experience.
- Tell a compelling story in your personal statement.
- Contact adcom members so they know you.
[03:35] The Fire Hydrant Analogy Is Real
Back to our interview with Nneka. Nneka had a 2.7 undergrad GPA. She took the MCAT multiple times. But she was finally able to put it all together and tell her story to ultimately get accepted to medical school.
As a first-year medical student, she describes everything to be moving so quickly now. The fire hydrant analogy is very real according to her. They have tests every month. Their first unit was split into two. The first half was about three weeks and the second half was about four weeks. They have separate exams. And now they’re on their third unit, which is about five weeks.
Nneka has always wanted to become a doctor. When she reached out to work with me on her application, she had already applied to medical school once, getting rejected. I told her there were a lot of things in her way. But she got all of her transcripts and got ready to apply again.
This time, she wanted to do it right. She didn’t want to leave any holes in her application, especially because of her low GPA. Although better than her first two attempts, her third MCAT score was still in the average range, too. So she wanted help to make it an airtight application.
[06:31] Nneka’s Struggles with Low GPA as a Premed
Nneka graduated from high school with really good grades. In fact, she was a good student. Science came easy to her. But when she got to Cornell University for her undergrad, she realized her study skills from high school were not going to cut it. She was also told during her freshman year that she was going to have trouble getting into medical school with a low GPA.She realized her study skills from high school were not going to cut it in college.Click To Tweet
So she found herself working very hard for a long time with sub-par results. She tried and tried to get her grades up, but she just found it very hard. Not to mention, there was a lack of premed advising during undergrad, and the methods she was using weren’t up to par.She needed to just sit down and assess what was wrong with how she was studying.Click To Tweet
Cornell University offers students great opportunities to get involved both on and off campus. Nneka was engaged in the student community and volunteering outside of school a lot. She felt she needed to have that balance between academics and extracurriculars because it made her feel good. But it also took time away from studying.
[09:55] The Advice She Got from Her Premed Advising Office
Nneka admits being bounced around with academic advising. There was a premedical advising dean. And to her, it seems like she had a very clear cut formula as to what students are supposed to take in specific semesters and how the grades are supposed to look. Unfortunately, Nneka didn’t find her advice to be encouraging.
So early on, she decided not to listen to her. Nneka understands that some advisors have a tough-love approach. But it just didn’t sit well with her. Her advisor told her that she’s probably not going to graduate premed. The advisor said she’s probably not going to get into medical school unless she did things the way she thought were appropriate. But Nneka didn’t see it helpful for the way she wanted to take classes or where she wanted to be by the time she graduated.
Being Stubborn About Getting into Medical School with a Low GPA
Nneka admits being stubborn, but it was that spirit of stubbornness that got her into Cornell in the first place. She remembers applying to Cornell and a bunch of other schools. Her high school counselors told her not to apply to those schools. She actually threw away her Cornell application, but her mom found it in the garbage. She picked it up and yelled at Nneka for it.To be honest, I was being stubborn. But it was the same spirit of stubbornness that had gotten me to Cornell in the first place.Click To Tweet
And so Nneka carried this sense into Cornell: People can judge her based on what they see on paper, but they don’t necessarily know what she’s capable of. She was stubborn to disagree with the premed advisor, but she knew how hard she was willing to work. So she decided to see a different advisor.
Having Advisors Who Don’t Know the Premed Path
On the college side, there was another faculty advisor assigned. In fact, she had changed advisors three times. It got to the point where they didn’t have anything helpful to offer. They were helpful in the sense of just checking in to see how she was doing. But they didn’t know anything about premed conferences or how to start studying for the MCAT. She felt lost because she didn’t have access to better resources.People can judge her based on what they see on paper, but they don't necessarily know what she's capable of.Click To Tweet
Looking back on it now, she found navigating her undergrad experience to be very tough. She was actually surprised that more information and better advising wasn’t readily available for premed students.
[Related episode: Is the Role of Your Premed Advisor to Tell You No?]
[15:00] Picking a College with Good Premed Advising
Looking back on her undergrad experience, Nneka would not have applied to the College of Arts and Sciences. Whenever she talks to somebody in the application process for undergrad, she says the best thing any premed student can do is apply to a college that has great premed advising for students.She says the best thing any premed student can do is apply to a college that has great premed advising for students.Click To Tweet
When she went to college, premedical advising was not available to the College of Arts and Sciences. She feels other colleges at Cornell had better advising. She actually spent a bit of time trying to transfer because of this. The requirements to graduate were a lot, and to add to that, the premed requirements were a lot, too. So it can be difficult to be in a college and major that doesn’t cater to premeds, especially if you don’t know how to navigate the premed track on your own.
If you’re a high school student listening to this or at a community college, this is good advice. If you’re interested in doing an arts and science major along with being premed, go ask these questions about advising at the colleges you’re considering.
[17:11] Failing the MCAT Two Times
The first time she took the MCAT, she remembers going on a trip to Upstate Medical University where she won a free MCAT course. She tried taking the MCAT while she was an undergrad. But she didn’t feel prepared as far as her content review, so she ended up not using the materials she had won until after she had graduated.
When she finally graduated from Cornell, she studied for the MCAT. And she did sit with the content and tried to fill in gaps. This was great for somebody like her with a low GPA and without a strong foundation in the sciences. Working on that content foundation was a definitely an important step for her.The general consensus out there is that the MCAT is not a content-based test. But you need to know the content to do well on it.Click To Tweet
Looking back now, Nneka knows she didn’t spend enough time doing timed practice tests and reviewing the tests closely. She didn’t pay enough attention to why she got questions right and wrong on her practice tests. When she got her score back, she wasn’t really shocked considering she was doing it the first time and on her own. But at the same time, she knew it was a place she could improve.
[Related episode: What Is the Best Way to Use the Official Practice MCAT Exam?]
Taking the MCAT for the Second Time
The second time she took the MCAT was during her master’s program. Her first score got her into her master’s program, a master’s in forensic science at Truxton University. It was an eighteen-month program. And in the second year, there was a bit more time to dedicate to what you wanted to do. Nneka says that about half of the class was premed, so a lot of people were studying to take the MCAT. But the program was not explicitly postbac premedical, so they didn’t have resources for students to use.
So she went back to the materials she had, and she ended up seeing a tutor offered by the school once or twice for some of the content review. In her heart, she thought she was prepared. But looking back now, she knows she wasn’t prepared. Again, she didn’t spend enough time with practice questions and practice tests. She actually got a lower score on her second test than on her first try.
While we’re on the subject of low MCAT scores and applying to med school, let’s answer a common question students have…
What Is the Lowest MCAT Score Accepted into Medical School?
In the last three years, 21 students with MCAT scores below 486 have been accepted to MD medical schools in the U.S. But this represents only 0.5% of students applying with scores in that range. This is according to AAMC data from 2017-2018 through 2019-2020.
My typical advice is to at least get above a 500 on the MCAT to make sure your score doesn’t get your application filtered out by the medical schools. Each medical school will have different “minimum” MCAT scores they filter by—but trying to be above 500 seems like a common-sense guideline.
Meanwhile, a competitive MCAT score may be more like a 511+. That’s based on the fact that the average matriculant is now scoring around a 511 on the MCAT. (This is, again, according to AAMC data. So this refers to MD schools. DO schools often have a bit lower statistics when it comes to average MCAT scores.)
For a great low-MCAT success story, listen to my interview with Austin, a student who was able to get into medical school with a 496 on the MCAT.
[21:35] Getting Support from a Mentor
Back to Nneka’s story. After failing the second time at the MCAT, Nneka got bombarded with questions from family and friends as to why she’s still doing this. She considered other options, but she still felt in her heart that she wanted to be a physician.She considered other options, but she still felt in her heart that she wanted to be a physician.Click To Tweet
As to why she got a lower score the second time around, she thinks it had a lot to do with not sitting with the practice questions enough, as well as test anxiety. Before she got her score back, she had already applied to a medical school. She thought she was doing very well in her master’s, and that helped with her confidence on that second MCAT attempt. But she didn’t get any interview with that application cycle.
But by the time she got her MCAT score back, she had already spent time on the secondaries. She had spent a great deal of money applying. Seeing that her score was even worse than the first time, she felt so bad that she stayed in bed for two days. She was working in a lab at the time, and her PI checked on her. Coming back, she told her what happened. From then on, her PI became her mentor because she believed in her.I knew that this was for me and that I'm supposed to go to medical school.Click To Tweet
Nneka also relied on close friends who were in medical school or graduating from medical school about to enter residency. They were very anchoring and encouraging. So Nneka felt she had a better time with them as a circle of advisors than she did in undergrad trying to figure it out on her own. So she didn’t get in during that cycle, but she now had a good support network for this low moment. And they worked together to see how she was going to improve her MCAT score.
[26:15] Getting Kicked Out of Drexel’s Premed Postbac
After her second MCAT failure, Nneka stepped back. Because she had the proper support network to stay positive, she reached out to a faculty administrator at Drexel. She tried to find out if there was another postbac program she could do. This was considering that she did so well in her master’s program that wasn’t geared toward premed students.
So she got into Drexel’s premed postbac program. It was supposed to be two years to do basic science and studying for the MCAT. She talked to several people in the faculty, and her friends reassured her that it would look good to reinforce some of the undergrad classes by retaking them. It would be good to show that she had mastery of the basic sciences.
Unfortunately, there was an issue with Drexel’s financial aid. So Nneka got kicked out of school due to a financial aid mistake. In the meantime, she had to figure out what to do. She couldn’t afford to work in the lab and not be a student. So she had to get a real job.
[Related episode: Almost Everything You Need to Know About Postbac Programs.]
Working at a Pharmaceutical Company as a Premed
Nneka wanted a job where she could use her master’s degree and her undergraduate degree in biology. A close friend of hers worked at Merck Pharmaceuticals, and so Nneka applied for a job there for contract scientist positions. She got the job.
She worked on clinically relevant research in vaccines. This kept her encouraged to still want to pursue medicine. Seeing everybody at Merck working to advance medicine inspired her. Additionally, working in corporate America and the pharmaceutical industry made it very clear to her that she wanted to be a practicing clinician instead.
[30:55] Preparing for the MCAT the Third Time
Nneka’s boyfriend was an excellent test taker, and he advised her to do more practice questions this time. She needed to sit with the questions and figure out why she was getting them wrong and right. And he helped show her how to do that.She needed to sit with the practice questions and figure out why she was getting them wrong and right.Click To Tweet
Every morning before work, Nneka would spend three hours doing practice questions. And on lunch break and after work, she would spend time reviewing why she got the questions wrong. She would assess whether it was because of a gap in content knowledge or because she wasn’t thinking of the question properly. Additionally, she bought all of the full-length practice tests to not run out of material.
[32:55] Medical School Interviews and the MMI Experience
Finally, she got one medical school interview. That’s all it takes! Nneka recalls spending the first half of her interview day being taught about the school, the faculty, and the curriculum. They went on tours. And then the second part of the day was the interviews, conducted in the MMI format.
She practically wasn’t able to discuss her struggles during the interview since it was an MMI format. But she was able to speak about having the desire to be a physician and not giving up. After the interview, she felt great. The interviewer understood where she was coming from, which was the point of the interview in the first place.
Nneka felt she was able to pull from her experiences to answer some of the MMI questions. In the MMI, you’re thrown into these sort of make-believe situations. And she felt she was able to use some things that she did during her work as a contract scientist and as an analytical chemist. She also got to pull in some of her life experiences and travel experiences. So the interviewers got to see that she’s a multi-faceted person, more than just academics.If you get invited for an interview, that means your low GPA or your low MCAT has not ruled you out from that school.Click To Tweet
If you’re being interviewed, they obviously know your GPA, MCAT scores, and past struggles already. And they are okay with it enough to bring you in and talk to you to see if you’re a fit for their class. So have some confidence that your low GPA or low MCAT has not ruled you out. They decided to bring you in and see what you’re really like as a person.
[37:00] How She Wrote Her Personal Statement and Extracurriculars
Nneka recalls that in working on her personal statement, she showcased her dedication and her passion for her dream. She shared how long she has been serious about it and working for it.I used my personal statement to share how it clicked for me that there was no other path for me than to go to medical school.Click To Tweet
In writing her personal statement, Nneka made six drafts. She describes it as one of the hardest things to write since you can’t cite anything but your own life. But she’s glad that one school gave her a chance. Nneka also followed my advice of reaching out to schools before and after submitting.
For the extracurriculars, she spent a lot of time trying to showcase what she specifically added to any experience she was involved in. She showcased the impact she had on the position.
[Check out my book all about the personal statement: The Premed Playbook: Guide to the Medical School Personal Statement.]
[40:15] Dealing with the Struggles in Medical School
Nneka mentions having impostor syndrome, which is actually pretty common in medical school. A lot of the studying techniques she used to improve in her master’s program are things she’s relying on now. But she also finds that medical school is a different beast and if she wants to get better, she needs to find ways to be efficient.
Although she’s still stubborn to pursue what she wants, she’s now reaching out for help a lot more proactively and sooner. Nneka stresses the importance of learning when to ask for help and how to reach out to faculty if you’re not understanding something.I'm learning to reach out early, sit down with people during office hours, and ask for help.Click To Tweet
In the future, she’s still uncertain as to what specialty to go into. But she knows that it’s good to approach the clinical years and third-year rotations with an open mind. That way, you get to experience everything with a full, open heart. So she’s looking forward to whatever specialty might catch her interest in the future.It's good to approach the clinical years and third-year rotations with an open mind about your specialty choice.Click To Tweet
[44:00] Final Words of Wisdom
Nneka leaves us with encouragement to find a good support system. Find mentors who echo what’s inside of you—their advice feels right in your heart.
If you know in your heart that this is what you want to do, stick to it. Stay positive. Find the people who are going to sponsor or mentor you to keep you positive and encouraged. If there’s anything you need to fix or change, change it. There’s always room for improvement for everyone.If you know in your heart that this is what you want to do, stick to it.Click To Tweet
Just like I helped Nneka in shaping her application, I can help you with your application, too. Check out our services to see how I can help you with your personal statement, your interview prep, or your application in general.
Links and Other Resources
- Check out my Premed Playbook series of books (available on Amazon), with installments on the personal statement, the medical school interview, and the MCAT.
- Related episode: What MCAT Score Do I Need If I Have a Low GPA?
- Related episode: Can I Get into Med School with a Low GPA?
- Need MCAT Prep? Save on tutoring, classes, and full-length practice tests by using promo code “MSHQ” at Next Step Test Prep!
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