Red flags seem to confuse a lot of students. They come up in applications and interviews, and you need to be prepared to talk about them. But what is really a red flag for medical school? And how do you overcome them?
Do you talk about red flags in your application? How do you explain bad grades in the medical school interview? These and more questions, answered today!
Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.
[03:35] What is a Red Flag for Medical School?
There’s this common misconception that as a premed student you have to be perfect. People think your dreams of becoming a physician are all over if you get a C+. But a C+ is not a red flag.
I see a lot of students applying to medical school and they have some horrible grades on their transcripts. Then they fix the problem and show that they can handle it. So when you see one C+, don’t worry about that. There are a lot of students who got a C+ (and worse) as a premed and did just fine.Most of the students I work with are nontraditional premeds, so they have horrendous grades. They have horrendous MCAT scores. Then they fix the problems and show that they can handle it.Click To Tweet
So what is a red flag? What should you be concerned about as you’re preparing your application? How can you start to think like an admissions committee member so you can start evaluating your application from their eyes? Once you start thinking like them, then things get a little bit clearer for you. Then hopefully, your anxiety levels come down.
The red flags I’m going to discuss here are just potential red flags. They could be red flags or not—it depends on your situation and whether you’re doing something about them to prove to the medical school admissions committees that you own them and that you can handle medical school.How to deal with a red flag on your application: Own it, learn from it, and move on.Click To Tweet
[07:05] Red Flag #1: Arrest
If you’ve been arrested, charged, or convicted of anything, all of those are potential red flags. Depending on how questions are asked of you in the primary and secondary applications, what questions are asked during interviews, and what forms you have to fill out, you may still have to say yes, even if you think it’s been erased from your record.
Check out Episode 197 where Larry Cohen, a lawyer, talks about how to answer these questions, and what you can, should, and shouldn’t say. Basically, if you’ve been arrested and you’ve been asked by the admissions committee whether if you’ve been arrested, you still have to say yes, even if you haven’t been convicted.If you have a huge red flag in your application, you need to own it.Click To Tweet
Owning Your Mistakes and Past Failures
You have to own whatever red flag you have in your application. If you don’t own it, you’re probably not going to get an interview. I had a discussion with the Director of Admissions at an osteopathic school a few weeks ago when I was in DC for an advisors’ conference. They cited one example of a student who got arrested but didn’t own it, so they didn’t accept him.
Again, you have to own it. Then talk about what you’ve learned from it. Don’t make excuses. How have you grown from it, and how have you grown more mature? How have you learned your lesson? Tell them what you’re doing to work on yourself as a person so it doesn’t happen again. Some of these red flags may be unavoidable, but at least they’re explainable if they come up.Being a physician is all about judgment, and being arrested for anything—especially repeat offenses—shows potentially poor judgment.Click To Tweet
Being a physician is all about judgment, and being arrested for anything shows potentially poor judgment. As kids, we’re expected to mess up. But if they see you’ve been arrested over and over, then that’s a red flag.
[Related episode: Can You Become a Doctor If You’ve Been Arrested?]
[15:22] Red Flag #2: Disciplinary Actions for Cheating
If you have any cheating or plagiarism on your record, that’s a huge red flag. Cheating your way to medical school is not going to look good. If it happened during freshman year and you’ve learned from it and you’ve grown, with no other issues since then, then great. Again, own it. Don’t make excuses. Say what you learned from it.
But if you got caught cheating in your junior or senior year, that’s going to be a lot harder to overcome because now you don’t have a track record of personal growth.Any red flags further back in your past are much easier to overcome than anything recent.Click To Tweet
[16:35] Red Flag #3: Downward Trends
If you have a downward trend in your GPA recently or by around the time you’re applying to medical school, then that’s a red flag. Are you burned out? Take some time off. Medical school is going to be a lot harder, and you’re just going to continue to do poorly.
But if you have a downward trend early on, for instance, like if you took on too many extracurricular activities during freshmen year, there is time to recover. Rebound back up and finish strong. As long as you have a good track record after your slump, and as long as that recovery is long enough, you can show the admissions committee that you’re okay and you can handle the coursework of medical school.As long as you have a good track record after your slump, you can still show medical schools that you can handle the coursework.Click To Tweet
If you have a downward trend going into the application, that’s going to be a much harder thing to overcome. And if you get an interview with that on your record, you’re going to have to talk about what’s going on.
[Related episode: From a 2.7 Undergrad GPA to First-Year Medical Student.]
[19:00] Red Flag #4: DUI
This is another judgment issue. But a lot of good people get behind the wheel and get a DUI. Should you disclose your DUI to medical schools? I would say yes. Own it. It’s better if you tell them about it than if they find out from a background check. Own it, and say you’re learning from it. As humans, we make mistakes, and schools understand that.It happens. We are humans. We make mistakes. Medical schools understand that.Click To Tweet
Of course, it depends how big of a mistake you’ve made. What the medical school is going to think about is your safety, your classmates’ safety, and your ability to pass medical school and do well on the boards.
They’re also thinking about patient safety as you’re rotating through hospitals and your ability to get a medical license after you graduate. As soon as you start thinking like an admissions committee member, you can anticipate the kinds of questions you might receive.
[22:20] Red Flag #5: Failing Semesters
If you have multiple failures, that’s a red flag. But again—if you’re able to explain it and show them that you’ve grown from it and you can handle the coursework, then it’s no problem. The goal is for you to remove their fears, so they don’t have to worry about it. That’s how you explain bad grades in the medical school interview.
So if you failed out of college or got kicked out, what are the issues? Own the reasons behind it. Don’t blame others. Own it. Again, if you failed earlier on in your path, it’s going to be easier to apply. But if you fail a semester right before you apply, it’s going to be a lot harder to overcome that. You may need to take some time off and do a postbac to get an upward trend going again.If you fail a semester right before you apply, it's going to be a lot harder to overcome than something that happened years ago.Click To Tweet
[Related episode: Academically Dismissed to Med School Acceptance.]
[23:50] Red Flag #6: Too Many Withdrawals
Again, this depends on the situation. If you withdrew one semester or one year, then it’s possible something just went on in your life at this time and you had to withdraw. This shows a level of maturity. If a student has 16 Fs, it shows a lack of maturity. But that’s still okay if you’re able to explain it and prove an upward trend since then.
It will come up in your medical school interviews, of course, but it won’t stop you from getting into medical school. Own it. What did you learn from it? As long as you can explain what happened and the rest of your application looks great, then no problem.
The details really make a difference with withdrawals. For example, if you’ve withdrawn from the same class a couple of times, and then you took that same class at a community college and got an A, that is a red flag. Why did you withdraw from the class at a four-year university and end up taking it at a community college?If you have a great GPA but you're withdrawing every semester from classes, are you just protecting your GPA?Click To Tweet
If you have a great GPA but you’re withdrawing every semester from classes, are you just protecting your GPA? That’s a red flag.
[Related episode: Will Withdrawing from a Class Hurt My Med School Application?]
[26:06] Red Flag #7: Not Enough Shadowing or Clinical Experience
Not having enough clinical experience, shadowing, or volunteering—these can all be red flags. How can they know that you want to be a physician if you don’t have much clinical experience? You have to show them that this is what you want.
Moreover, your application has to be able to show to the reader why you want to be a physician. So you did all these extracurriculars, but why do you want to be a doctor? You need to have reasons driving you toward medicine. Typically, you clarify these reasons and have experiences that back them up by putting yourself in clinical settings.When you're writing your personal statement or secondary essays, everything needs to point toward why you want to become a doctor.Click To Tweet
What is enough clinical experience for medical school? There is no set number of hours. Just get enough that you can genuinely know for yourself that this is the right career for you, and be able to explain that with passion and real-life examples to your interviewers.
[Related episode: How Much Shadowing Do I Need for Medical School?]
[28:22] Red Flag #8: Big Gaps in Your Application
This could mean big gaps in your volunteering, clinical experience, or shadowing. Maybe you shadowed for 300 hours in your first two years of college, but then nothing since then. That’s a red flag.
Long gaps in shadowing can suggest to the admissions committee that you aren’t really dedicated to being a physician. If you were, you would have spent more time being around physicians.Consistency is key in all of your extracurriculars. And a lack of consistency with big gaps is going to stand out as a potential red flag.Click To Tweet
Another example is if you’ve taken a prolonged length of time off from school. You may have a reason, but it’s a potential red flag, and that’s going to get asked about. So be prepared to explain why you took time off.
[29:39] Issues International Students May Face
The key with all of these issues is to put yourself in the shoes of an admissions committee member. Think about safety. Think about being able to pass the boards. Think about matching and whether you are going to be able to get a medical license?
As for international students applying to US medical schools, one issue that could prevent you from getting a medical school license is getting a visa. Is getting a visa going to be an issue for you?
You could graduate from medical school and match into residency, but then there’s an issue with your visa for some reason. This is a huge problem. Medical schools see this as a very big risk, so they accept very few, if any, international students.
[Related episode: Why Is It Hard to Get into Medical School as an International Student?]
[31:45] What is Not a Red Flag for Medical School?
Getting a C+ is not a red flag for medical school. An F could be a potential red flag. Again, it depends on what happened. Own it, learn from it, and move on.Your poor first MCAT score is not a red flag by itself. If you did well the second time, then it's not a red flag.Click To Tweet
Your poor first MCAT score is not a red flag by itself. If you’ve done well the second time, then it’s not a red flag. If you take the MCAT back to back or even with some period in between and you get the same score, or worse, that is a potential red flag. What happened that it didn’t work the second time? Are you taking this seriously and putting in the effort?
Below-average MCAT score and GPA are not red flags. Be less anxious when going into your interview. If you are there for the interview, that means they’ve looked at your application, GPA, and MCAT score. So they’ve determined based on your application that you are qualified enough to be a student. Not amazing, but not a red flag. They may bring this up, but again, tell them about what you’ve learned and how you’ve improved.If you are there for the interview, that means they've looked at your application, GPA, and MCAT score. So they've determined based on your application that you are qualified enough to be a student.Click To Tweet
[34:33] Is Going to Community College a Red Flag for Medical School?
Community college classes are not a red flag for medical school. I personally hope community colleges are going to be the norm in the future. Not every student knows they want to go to college right after high school. Community college is a good way to figure that out. It’s inexpensive, and in some states, it’s free. So taking those classes are not a red flag.When medical schools frown on community colleges, it's disproportionately hurting minority students. Click To Tweet
There’s a lot of discussion in the admissions world about how diversity is lacking in medical school classes because historically, lower socioeconomic students or minority students are going to community colleges. So when medical schools frown upon community colleges, it’s disproportionately hurting minority students who are applying. But the tide is changing.Community college classes are not a red flag. The tide is changing in that world.Click To Tweet
[Related post: Can I Take Community College Courses for a Postbac?]
[36:40] How to Overcome Red Flags on Your Medical School Application
Just be prepared to speak about anything on your application. Know your application inside and out. Have reasons for everything. Own your red flags. Talk about what you’ve learned from them, and how you’ve moved forward. If you do that, you can recover from a lot.
Consider mentioning your red flags in your personal statement, but save the longer explanation for your interview. You can give the full story and explain bad grades during your medical school interview. You can explain the trouble you got into when you were younger. You don’t have to be the mythical perfect premed you’ve heard so much about.You don't have to be the mythical perfect premed you've heard so much about.Click To Tweet
Links and Other Resources
- Check out my book about the medical school interview: The Premed Playbook: Guide to the Medical School Interview.
- Related episode: Will My Medical History Affect My Chances at Medical School?
- Related episode: Please, Don’t Lie on Your Medical School Applications.
- Need MCAT Prep? Save on tutoring, classes, and full-length practice tests by using promo code “MSHQ” at Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step Test Prep)!
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