Questions About Grades
|Am I Cut Out to be a Doctor?|
|C in Genetics|
|First Semester Freshman Grades|
|How Do Medical Schools Evaluate Grades?|
|PDF-ing Upper Level Courses|
Am I Cut Out to be a Doctor?
Question: I’m a freshman and I didn’t do as well as I thought I would in my classes. Maybe I’m not cut out to be a doctor.
Answer: The level of rigor and the expectations at Princeton will be far beyond what many of you experienced in high school. It’s fairly normal to experience some “culture shock” as you make the adjustment. The most important thing is to “diagnose” any potential problems areas early and “treat” them via things like changing your study habits, visiting office hours, meeting with McGraw Center learning consultants, going to study groups, and adjusting your time management. These are a lot of things to think about! Talk with an adviser at HPA or in your residential college to assess what steps might be best for you to take as you adjust to Princeton. HPA advisers believe that everyone who got into Princeton has what it takes to become a physician – many of you will discover that there are other opportunities that better suit your talents and interests, but if you are sure that medicine is right for you, we will help you find a way to get there (even if it may not have been the way that you intended when you arrived). Please don’t hesitate to be in touch to make an appointment, or come in during drop-in hours.
C in Genetics
Question: I have a question about grades. I am a sophomore. I took Genetics this fall, but I got a C. How much will that jeopardize my chances to apply for medical school and what can I do to make up for that? Should I retake the class for a better grade?
Answer: One low grade isn’t the end of the world. Schools will look at your overall GPA and science GPA (all Bio, Chem, Math and Physics grades taken together); those overall GPAs, plus the strength of your letters of recommendation and MCAT scores, will all be taken into account when consid-ering your academic readiness for med school. Other factors will also be weighed in evaluating your overall readiness to become a physician.
Retaking a C would not be worth the time. better to take another course and do well in it than retake something you’ve already successfully passed. If you chose to repeat, both grades would count equally in your GPA. We address this in more detail in a past Question of the Week.
Feel free to make an appointment or come by during drop in hours to discuss your candidacy more holistically!
C on Midterm
Question: Hello - as a freshman it may be a little early for me to be worrying about this, but I had a question. I just got my midterm exam grade for my ART class. My grade wasn't great (it was a C). I’m wondering how big of a role this would play if I apply to med school. I guess it's better for this C to be in a ART class and not in my CHM class, right? I was pretty disappointed when I saw the grade; I’m not used to doing this poorly. Any advice you can give would be appreciated.
Answer: Yours is a very typical question this time of year, as many students experience post-midterm misery. Let us first point out that you're a freshman, and you have seven more semesters to shine academically, so you're right to say that it's early. An extremely common phenomenon (some might say disorder!) among freshman pre-meds is the shock one feels upon realizing that Princeton isn't high school, and the focus and discipline required to excel in high school, while a good foundation, needs to be built upon in college - not rested upon . . . As long as your academic performance continues to improve over the years prior to applying to medical school and your final grade point average is in line with the averages of accepted students at the medical schools to which you're applying, then some trouble in freshman year - or even sophomore year - is not an issue. True, a C in a science course might be more of a concern than one in a C in an Art class, since med school does involve more science than Art, thus schools look for demonstrated competence in science, but in either case such a scenario is survivable.
Calculating Your GPA(s)
Question: Dear HPA, I have been wondering about something and couldn’t make it to drop-in hours this week, so I thought I’d email this question. I’ve had a rough year with my independent work and now I’m worried now that my departmental GPA is going to hurt my chances for med school – is it going to?
Answer: Your question gives us the opportunity to clarify the way in which medical schools will (and will not) ultimately look at your grades. When you apply to medical school, your application will require that you calculate two numbers – 1) Your “Science GPA,” consisting of ALL courses you’ve taken at the undergraduate level in biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics (this is called your BCPM) and 2) your “All Other GPA,” which, as is suggested, consists of “everything else,” that is, NOT those sciences. There is, for better or worse, actually no place in the application to list your “departmental” GPA. Remember, medical schools want confirmation that you are able to handle the sciences that form the foundation for medical education, and they want to know that you’ve taken on a broadly challenging and interesting undergraduate course of study… but ALSO remember that these numbers are parts of a much bigger picture of the overall application that you will submit. Please come by to talk to an advisor about your preparation for the health professions – either academically or otherwise – at least once a semester.
First Semester Freshman Grades
Question: I’m a first semester freshman. Everyone tells me Princeton will be harder than high school, but how do I know if I’m doing what I need to do when I won’t get grades until midterms?
Answer: It’s great that you’re thinking proactively about doing well here! As a pre-health student, every semester’s grades count, and it’s nice to gain some momentum in this first semester rather than having to dig yourself out of a hole. Your faculty and preceptors will be able to give you suggestions on this – be sure to visit them in office hours! You could ask them for clarification on a topic from class, you could ask them to look over your notes and see if you’re capturing the important points, or you could even sit with them and explain how you understand topics from lecture, to see if you really understand them the way that they expect you to. The McGraw Center is another of your best resources to be sure that you’re studying efficiently and effectively. They have a number of workshops about study strategies and effective learning, they host study halls where you can go and work through problem sets with a trained upper-class tutor, or you can schedule a one on one consultation where you can talk about what you’re doing in your classes and get suggestions on adjustments that might make you even more successful. McGraw is for any student who wants to do better, not just for students who aren’t doing well. Plus, they hire student leaders to work as tutors and consultants, so if you start going now, you could be setting yourself up for a great job in a couple of years – many of our highly successful pre-med students have worked for McGraw.
Question: Hi. I’m in two science classes this semester both with labs, and I’m totally overwhelmed. I’m worried about how I’m going to do in the classes. I’m a sophomore who did fairly well last fall, but my grade from CHM 202 last spring wasn’t great. Now it looks like I may be in the same situation again. I need to know what I can do. I know there are study halls but I’ve never used them. Are they worth it? What else should I be doing to get help? Sorry to bother you.
Answer: In our opinion, yes, the McGraw Center study halls in Frist are indeed “worth” the trouble of walking over to Frist, but don’t take our word for it. Go judge for yourself. The McGraw Center organizes these study halls and also has a lot of other very useful information for someone in your position. They run occasional seminars and workshops on how to succeed in certain difficult courses, including science courses such as CHM 201-202, Organic Chemistry, and Physics; they have a wealth of “tips” and strategies on their website; they have peer mentors available; and they have full-time staff available for academic counseling. To find out more information, go to The McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning website. Also, don’t be shy about using your professors’ and preceptors’ office hours; sometimes students, especially those who were very successful in high school, find it difficult to admit their academic troubles to our faculty, but you will not improve unless you’ve sat down with someone more knowledgeable than yourself and identified your exact weaknesses and the ways in which you study most effectively (ways which may differ from those of your friends). Lastly, make an appointment with your Dean or Director of Studies in your residential college (if you haven’t already). Let us know how it goes.
How Do Medical Schools Evaluate Grades?
Question: I just had a quick question about how grades are considered by med schools for admission. I am currently taking a schedule with quite a few difficult advanced and graduate level classes (advanced physical chemistry, and I did integrated science). Would it be considered positively when I apply for medical school and can it compensate for low grades? If, for example, I get a B in the graduate level class, would that be considered an A normally since it's a more difficult class?
Answer: It’s impossible to generalize to every medical school admissions philosophy, but in general, we’d say that maintaining balance in everything that you do is key (and we know that this is easier said than done). An ambitious course schedule is something that we certainly highlight when we write your committee letter to medical school, to be sure that they’re aware that it distinguishes you among your peers. That said, if your class schedule is negatively affecting your physical or mental health, leaving you no time to develop important “ personal competencies ” (e.g., teamwork, social skills, communication skills) in co-curricular activities, and ultimately not allowing you to enjoy everything that Princeton has to offer, you might reconsider your choices. Don’t forget that medical schools aren’t just looking at your academic ability – they’re looking holistically at your potential as a classmate, colleague and care provider.
To address the second half of your inquiry, a B in a graduate class isn’t a “low” grade by any means, but we would encourage you not to try to make conversions between grades and difficulty of classes. We provide additional context regarding your GPA (in terms of your major, course choices, Princeton’s grading policy, and many other factors), but the GPA is ultimately the number that the medical schools will see. If you’re concerned about your academic progress, don’t hesitate to come in and talk with an adviser about it.
JP Grades and Calculating GPA's
Question: Hello. I am a Molecular Biology major and wanted to ask about the calculation of the science GPA for the AMCAS application. Does my junior independent work grade get factored into my science GPA on the AMCAS? Also, is it factored into my Princeton GPA? Thank you so much for your help.
Answer: Yes it does. Your grade is included in both your AMCAS and your Princeton GPA’s. When you complete your AMCAS application during the summer before the year you'd like to enter med school, you will list all of the courses you have taken above the high school level. All of the grades for these courses (as long as credit was awarded) will be factored into your AMCAS GPA's—your "BCPM" (science), your "All Other," and your “Cum” (overall) GPA's. If you'd like to know more about what is commonly called your "science GPA" or other grade-related issues, check out the archive of past Questions of the Week on our website.
I just had a question about Math and what med school admissions committees like. I got a 5 on the AP Calc BC exam. This semester I am taking MAT 214 (number theory) for my QR req., but I decided to change the course to be graded p/d/f. Was this an advisable decision through the eyes of an admissions officer? What if I should take more math in the future (like statistics, for example)? Will this grading decision make me seem like a “lightweight” at all?
Answer: It is fine to take an advanced math course p/d/f if you fulfilled your pre-medical calculus requirement with AP Calc. You will not look like a “lightweight.” That said, if you felt inclined some day to take a stats or computer science course for a grade, the medical schools would think that was very nice. It is not, however, a requirement.
Question: This week we presented two questions about p/d/f-ing courses.
#1 - I am a sophomore pre-med, and I was wondering how p/d/f-ing a course may or may not affect my application to med school. If it is a class that is not a pre-med requirement, and does not count towards my major, can a p/d/f have a negative effect on an application?
#2 - I have a question. I am a senior and have taken two English classes so far - one was an art history class with a writing component (which fulfilled my freshman writing requirement) and the other was Shakespeare, which I P/D/F-ed. I am enrolled in another English class this semester (ENG 231) and was hoping to P/D/F it as well. My question is this: how important is it to med schools that I have two semesters of English taken for a grade? I would really like to use the P/D/F this semester in order to not waste the P/D/F and because I don't want to risk lowering my GPA, and also I could use the extra time for thesis work. I am done with all my pre-med science requirements - this is the last thing I am trying to get taken care of.
Answer: It will not have a negative effect at all unless you employ it in a semester in which you're only taking two other classes (seniors excepted) for some reason. Go for it.
Answer: You MUST take the course for a grade, especially as you P/D/F’ed the second course. The medical schools require that the pre-medical requirements be taken for a grade. Sorry.
Question: For the English pre-med requirement, I have taken a writing seminar and have PDF-ed another English course. However, I was told that PDF-ing does not count toward my requirements. Is this true? Do I need to take another English course for a grade?
Answer: Yes. All requirements for health professional school need to be graded. In all likelihood, you will end up applying to some medical schools that require two semesters of English (about half of them do), and all classes that are required for admission or entrance, whether science or humanities, need to be graded. For answers to other questions regarding the English requirement, check out the archived Questions of the Week on our website.
Question: PDF-ing a Biology Course
Hello, I am a sophomore and signed up for an EEB class this semester in order to decide whether I should consider EEB as my concentration. I now know that I do not want to be an EEB major. I would like to take the class under the PDF grade option because I am enrolled in 5 classes, one of which is Organic Chemistry. I have not had enough time to do well in each of my classes. However, I am concerned that med schools may wonder why my biology class was not taken for a grade. Would it be worse for them to see a low grade in the class? Thank you!
Answer: Generally, the spirit behind the pdf option is “to encourage exploration and experimentation in curricular areas in which the student may have had little or no previous experience,” and that sounds aligned with how you’d be using your PDF, but we’d still like to chat with you a bit further. It depends on what you mean by low, and we’d be interested in talking with you about your entire course load, other responsibilities on campus, etc., before providing definitive advice here. You do need to do well in Orgo, so your logic does make some sense, and PDF’ing as a sophomore will cause less concern than if you did so in a science course later on in your Princeton career. It sounds like you may be leaning toward a non-science concentration, so if you do decide to PDF, be sure to continue taking science courses for grades and doing well to provide additional evidence of your ability in the sciences. Please come by during drop-ins or make an appointment with us before the PDF deadline, or consult with your adviser or Dean/Director of Studies to talk more holistically about the situation!
PDF-ing Upper Level Courses
Question: I have AP in chem and bio, and need to take one upper-level chemistry class and one upper-level biology class as part of my medical school prerequisites. Can these classes be taken PDF, or must they be taken for a grade?
Answer: Because you’re using them for pre-requisites, you must take them for a grade. As a general rule of thumb, we recommend taking all of your science courses for grades rather than pdf. As written in the Undergraduate Announcement, the spirit behind the pdf option is “to encourage exploration and experimentation in curricular areas in which the student may have had little or no previous experience.” By the time you’ve reached advanced level science electives, most of them will not fall into this exploration and experimentation philosophy. Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule of thumb, and we would encourage you to talk with us about potential implications if you’re considering pdfs in your science course work.
‘PDF’ vs. ‘Audit’
Question: Hi HPA! I am currently taking Economics 101 (Macro) P/D/F. However, this is a very, very a busy semester for me. I also heard from both the professor and other students that it is not uncommon for P/D/F students to be the ones that end up with the D's in the class because they are typically not the ones pouring their hearts and souls into it. I was wondering whether med schools see any significant difference in taking a class P/D/F or for audit. Econ does not fulfill any of my unmet distribution requirements, and I already have three classes beyond what I will need to graduate. Therefore, Econ is a class that I am taking purely out of personal interest. I was wondering, from the pre-med point of view, whether I may audit it, or whether I should stick with the P/D/F?
Answer: As long as you haven't audited other classes in the past, go ahead and switch to Audit if you really want to. Having more than one Audit on your transcript may appear overly cautious so limit yourself to one, if possible. Having one ‘audit’ on your transcript doesn't make much difference, however. Just make certain that you are sitting well with credits toward graduation and that, as a rule, you’re not always shying away from difficult coursework. Also, please do not believe everything you hear about a professor’s grading habits!
The Science GPA
Question: Hello, I have a quick question about whether some of the classes I'm taking this semester will count toward the science GPA for medical school. Will PSY 251: Quantitative Methods and EEB 311: Animal Behavior count towards BCPM/Science GPA?
Answer: EEB classes would definitely count toward the science GPA, formally called your “BCPM” GPA (BCPM=Biology, Chemistry, Physics & Math) by AMCAS. We would advise you to count the stats class as science, too, since AMCAS includes statistics among the math portion of the BCPM, even if it’s taught through our Psych Dept. AMCAS is the centralized application service that most U.S. med school applicants use; as you complete their application, you categorize your courses yourself, then AMCAS staff verify what you have entered. For the complete info on what AMCAS will count toward your BCPM, check out the AMCAS Course Classification Guide: https://students-residents.aamc.org/applying-medical-school/article/course-classification-guide/.
Question: Hello. I had a quick question for you: what do I count in my pre-med GPA? Is it all science courses or just the required pre-med courses? Do engineering and math classes count? What about astrophysics and geoscience? Thanks so much for your help.
Answer: Your "pre-med" GPA is more commonly known as your science GPA, and sometimes referred to as your "BCPM" GPA (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Math). When you apply to medical schools using the online AMCAS application, you may include any course under the "BCPM" heading if over 50% of the content of the class was one of those four basic science subjects, regardless of the course number, professor, or department. AMCAS leaves these decisions up to you; you are the person who categorizes your courses as science or "all other." So when we ask for your science GPA, that's what we mean. Engineering, Geosciences, Astrophysics, Statistics in many departments, some Psychology and Neuroscience…there are many fields that involve "science," but according to your med school applications a majority of the material taught in the courses must be Bio, Chem, Physics, or Math.
For guidelines on what AMCAS suggests may be the proper classifications for your courses, refer to the AMCAS Course Classification Guide online: https://www.aamc.org/students/applying/amcas/amcasresources/
After you submit your application, a verifier will compare your official transcript to the information that you entered in your application. You are responsible for selecting the correct course classification, but AMCAS reserves the right to change classifications if they believe that the classification that you have selected is inaccurate.
Trouble in One Course
Dear HPA, I’m not doing very well in one of my courses this semester. The grade I’m getting isn’t as strong as my other grades—it really sticks out. I don’t know what to do. I’m thinking I should drop the course. What do you think?
Answer: First of all, it is important to remember that one grade will not make or break things for you as a pre-med, and eventually a med school applicant. Medical schools will make every effort to put a weak grade in context, viewing it in light of your overall academic path. Furthermore, your attempt to work through the challenges associated with this academic “stumble” and use the resources available to you (such as the McGraw Center and your college peer advisers and tutors) may demonstrate a quality to schools that will ultimately be a positive. As a doctor, won’t you always want to learn from your mistakes and take advantage of all resources? If you’re pretty sure that things in this course aren’t likely to improve, or you feel they’re getting worse, remember to talk to your director of studies in your college. And of course, come see us at HPA so that we might have a more complete picture of your individual situation. The McGraw Center website is the place to start for knowing your academic resources.