Applying to Physician Assistant School With A Low Grade

Posted By: Paul   |   Getting Into PA School   |   422 Comments

Applying to Physician Assistant school with a low grade might seem like a recipe for rejection, but this isn’t necessarily true.

Of course, the best way to maximize your chances of acceptance is to have only outstanding grades, but things happen, and it isn’t always possible.  There is nothing about having a low grade (or two) that means you won’t be a great physician assistant.  So what do you do?

We consider a “low” grade to be:

  • Any grade less than a “B” in any science or medicine course, particularly those that are required for admission,  OR
  • Any grade less than a “C” in any other kind of course.

When applying to physician assistant school with a low grade, address it directly

Low grades attract unwanted, critical attention to your application.  Failing to speak to the circumstances surrounding them is a grave error.  Addressing it is usually accomplished by speaking about it in your CASPA narrative/essay/personal statement.  This is yet another example of why writing a strong essay is so important.

What to say about a low grade

First, be honest.  You don’t have to say “I hated organic chemistry so I had usually with friends instead of cracking the book.”  You can present it in a positive (or at least neutral) light.  Second, tell them how you know it won’t happen again.

Why did you get that low grade?  Here’s a sample list of explanations that (as long as they’re true) can be overcome, along with how you might explain them.

  1. You went through a divorce, personal medical crisis, or a family loss – you have dealt with it emotionally with therapy, self-reflection, time, etc.
  2. You had an addiction that took you away from your studies – you are now solidly in recovery and the experience has helped you to grow as a person and as a candidate
  3. You were younger and less focused/motivated/organized when you got the bad grade – in the years since it happened, you have matured.
  4. You missed/bombed a particularly important assignment /exam due to an oversight – explain it briefly and what you learned from it

Notice that all of these are chances not only to reduce the impact of that low grade in the minds of your application’s readers, they are chances to explain how that problem has helped you to grow/persist/improve.

Don’t for applying to physician assistant school with a low grade

  • Don’t blame anyone else for your low grade – take the responsibility.
  • Don’t write more than two or three sentences on it.  More than that can make things worse
  • Don’t leave out how you have fixed the problem.  The committee will have an easier time overlooking it if they know it won’t be repeated in the future.
  • Don’t chalk it up to being “bad” at a particular subject.  Why would you would be any better at it in PA school?

Harder Cases

If you are applying to physician assistant school with bad grade you received for a reason that isn’t flattering, just explain it in the most positive and accurate light that you can.  Ask some friends to read your explanation and tell you which one looks/sounds the best.  If you can’t explain it convincingly, consider retaking the class. 




  1. Arjun August 18, 2011 at 1:11 pm - Reply

    I find this very encouraging. Thank you.

    • Paul August 18, 2011 at 6:02 pm - Reply

      Glad to hear it. Nobody’s perfect, and I think that even the best PA schools try to look beyond grades, which are pretty one-dimensional to find the “diamonds in the rough.” If you watched Sundance’s video on the PA student interviews page, you saw that she dropped out of highschool, then remediated at community college before going to UC Davis Medical School as a medical student, and then as a PA student. It can be done!

      • Stacy B. March 12, 2015 at 8:16 pm - Reply

        Hey Paul. After meeting with my advisor today, I’ve been feeling discourage and feel like I will never graduate. A year ago, I finally decided that I want to take the PA path. I’ve been working incredibly hard in my classes but I have been coming up short. Of course I get upset at myself about it. In my meeting, today I was basically told that “it is great to have dreams but think of something else.” For the first 2 years of my college career, my grades weren’t the best because I was all over the place. But as soon as I realized what I wanted to do I got focused. My current GPA is a 2.6. I’m doing my best to push it up but I feel defeated. Being a physician assistant is my ideal job. Please help advise me where I can go on from here. The person that I could help direct me didn’t do anything to help me see another light. He just discouraged me.

        • Paul April 5, 2015 at 4:59 pm - Reply

          Stacy – I’m sorry that you had such a bummer sesh with your advisor. They sometimes focus more on what is realistic and neglect dreams altogether. If you aren’t doing well now, you might consider stopping school. People freak out when I tell them that, but often people just aren’t ready. Why force it just to keep up with your peers. I say take a year off and see where it gets you. Then if and when you decide to follow that path, you’ll be more focused, ready, and hungry to excel. If that’s not an option, consider slowing down so that you can take the pre-requisite courses with fewer other courses at the same time. This takes longer, but it improves your grades and therefore your chances.

          Here’s what a college advisor will rarely tell you: if you REALLY want this, there is a way, but you may need to consider doing things a little differently to pull it off.

      • Dave October 11, 2015 at 11:20 pm - Reply

        Hi Paul,
        I am freshly out of the military, Corpsman, and started back in school after so many years of taking classes online while serving active duty. Well I am going to a physical college now and it is certain that I will fail general chemistry. I am a senior in college, but I still have over 2 more years of school before I receive my bachelor’s. On top of that, the reason why I am failing is partially due to the DUI I was charged with over the summer. I was not in school during this time but it has been a very difficult year. I am very passionate about becoming PA, and would be very grateful to any advice you may have. I can still withdraw from he course, but it will be expensive.

        • Paul November 8, 2015 at 12:02 pm - Reply

          Sorry you’re struggling, Dave. If it’s not too late to withdraw without it being a withdraw failing (WF), then that’s definitely what you should do. If not, then you should do everything you can to bring your grade up to a D. Sorry to hear about the DUI. That and an F will make it hard to get into PA school anytime soon. But if you think of PA as a goal that is worth working toward, then a year or two (or more) off from school to reset, get clear on what you want, and ready yourself to get A’s will be time well spent. It will also allow you to show them what you’ve learned from your DUI. New DUI = you are not ready and have personal things to work on. Old DUI with a genuine, thoughtful explanation of what happened and what you learned from it = a strength.

    • Iapplied September 15, 2014 at 11:48 am - Reply

      Do not be fooled. I like Paul’s Blog, but it is not reality. Yes you may get by with a bad grade (C, if you can call it that), may be another, but there are so many applicants to PA School that the initial Supplemental application is tossed if it is below 3.00. Your best bet is to avoid those colleges requiring them. I have found it odd that the CASPA asks for “all” college records and then gives an overall score. This does not reflect recent performance, or experience unless the college of your choice looks at the full application. The college looks at just the GPA. Below 3.00 you can kiss your money goodby. I went from a 1.2 GPA (I was younger) and brought it up to a 2.57 (This is very difficult) and received my BA in Biology (I was at a 2.99 standing at my University). The only thing I can do is go back and take classes over and receive straight A’s. It may, or may not bring me back over the threshold, but I cannot afford to do this. I’m not trying to be negative. I want you to truly think about what your are doing academically and are you really prepared to pay the price.

      • Paul September 17, 2014 at 8:27 pm - Reply

        I can’t really agree, though I understand your frustration. Schools don’t usually toss applications without reviewing them. They are actually given a very detailed breakdown of applicant GPAs by semester, year, degree, postbacc, etc. Context is everything. I think it’s still very possible for you to get in – particularly since you have made such progress on your grades. Really.

        • Terry September 18, 2014 at 5:00 pm - Reply

          Hi Paul, I agree to disagree..LOL. I can show you an email from a recent college I applied to. It is their policy to screen applicants just based on their GPA and I am sure this happens quite frequently. I enjoy your blog and visit it quite often. It is refreshing to view and gives a lot of insight. I’m just saying that not all colleges look at the history of the applicant.

          • Paul October 7, 2014 at 11:16 pm

            We are in agreement that not all colleges look at the history of the applicant. But many colleges make admissions decisions on emotion more than stats — it plays a bigger role than most people think.

        • Matthew July 18, 2015 at 9:29 am - Reply

          So Paul so do think it is still possible to get into a PA school that requires a 3.0 GPA even if your overall GPA is lower but you have made substantial progress to improving it in the past few years by taking prerequisites and redoing classes?

          • Paul July 20, 2015 at 4:46 pm

            It’s a long shot. But I’ve heard many stories of people being told that they are not candidates for a school or a job, applying anyway, and getting in. My sister got rejected from UCLA and was told that there were no appeals. She wrote a letter of appeal, and was accepted! Who knows, really. But if there’s something you really want, you only assure you won’t get it by not trying. You think they don’t have the power to make an exception if they want to? No way. They can accept whomever they want.

      • S. Lauren roberts March 27, 2015 at 5:28 pm - Reply

        I agree. My initial grades were horrible before I transfered and knuckeled down. I began as a bio major as a teenager, switched to psychology, got more engulfed in corporate America and only decided to get back on track after being laid off. When I made the decision to be a bio major again I had to start from scratch. In a span of 2yrs I took all of my required biology course. Many at the same time which is extremely difficult. I went it with a 1.7 and left with a 3.0. Again remember this was in all science classes. I have 3 c’s (all from chemistry) and lots of B’s and A’s. However when Caspa bundled everything I only received a 2.0. I know my application was no looked at because of it was they would have seen my extreme hard work in sciences. I feel quite discouraged. I feel my essay was quite strong as I mentioned hardship (seperation from fiancé with a small child, moving on my own and caring for us both on little to no income). I just received my last rejection letter from a school I know looked things over and it still wasn’t enough.

  2. Lee August 21, 2011 at 2:06 pm - Reply

    First of all, thank you for your web site, it is very informative and insightful. I am working towards completing some prerequisites.
    I’ve a question regarding poor academic history:
    Early on in my academic career, I had multiple dropped courses and earned 2.0 over a (gasp) ten year period. I do have a very good reason: caring for an chronically-ill parent, working full-time, and taking on 6-9 units a semester.
    My GPA is far better now, although it is barely a 3.2.
    My question is, how do ackowledge these previous mistakes without sounding as if I am blaming the circumstances surounding my poor academic performance?
    Thank you for your answer.

    • Paul August 21, 2011 at 7:02 pm - Reply

      Thanks for the compliment! I think your situation is easier to deal with than you might think. You are lucky that your lower grades are in your past, and you should make this clear to the admissions committees by briefly explaining the circumstances of your weak period, and then follow by sharing your more recent GPA. For example, you could say something to the effect of (make it prettier):

      Although my academic performance suffered somewhat during the period/year/semester when I was caring for a chronically ill parent and working full time, in the last X years/X units I have a GPA of (or) I have not received a grade below X.

      My own undergrad grades weren’t the greatest, but I was able to state honestly that in the 18 years since, I had taken many prerequisite and medicine-related courses, and never received a grade below an A. It painted a picture of a student who had matured and gotten serious about his academics – which is pretty much what I was.

      So, as with the article on the low grade, make it clear that the problem is solved, and will not be repeated. Then move on.

      • Layne August 4, 2012 at 8:13 am - Reply

        This response was the most reassuring thing I have read/heard in a long time. In college, I had high anxiety because of familial issues that have been a part of my life since I was very young. It has since lessened, but I am hard on myself for not putting myself in a great position, academically speaking, to apply for Master’s, PhD, MD, or PA programs. Reading your response, I realize that I don’t have to apply right now (I just graduated in May); I can give myself a chance to improve my standing.

        • Paul August 6, 2012 at 10:11 pm - Reply

          It sounds like you took home the take-home message. For many, PA is a path that comes with long-term work – think of the tortoise and the hare story. The older I get, the more I realize that there are no true shortcuts, as much as we want them when we are young. 99.9% of the time, what’s required for success is putting in the time and effort over a period of years. If you accept this, you can virtually guarantee that you will one day become a PA. If you’re looking to get in next year or else, you are much more likely to be disappointed with the outcome.

    • Asha June 24, 2013 at 12:04 pm - Reply

      How do you spin CURRENT low grades because it IS a subject you are “bad” at? Personally, I struggled with chemistry courses, for one reason or another; it didn’t come easy for me. Though, I worked hard at it my grades don’t reflect that.

      • Paul June 24, 2013 at 5:45 pm - Reply

        That is really tough. If you struggle in chemistry recently (they will wonder), how will you handle PA classes that call on chemistry, such as acid base disturbances and reaction kinetics. You need to find some way to prove to them that you have overcome this “Achille’s heel.” If they don’t think you have made peace with chemistry, they would be unwise to select you for an expensive, two-year-long program that will require knowledge of chemistry. Retake it if you must, but you need to put their concerns at ease, and just explaining that you’ve never been good at chemistry in an essay is not enough to do that.

  3. Dustin J September 1, 2011 at 12:03 am - Reply

    Great article Paul. I can attest to describing a poor grade I received for a chem class early in my prerequisite courses as something that was received while I was younger and less mature and since that time certain events (which I enumerated as getting married, having children and going through many years of Army Leadership schools) have helped me become much more focused and disciplined as well as attentive to detail. This was used during my interview for PA school and the interviewing panel seemed to like my answer indicated by the lead interviewer replying, “that’s a good lesson to learn” and we moved on with other subjects. Luck for me I happened to have previously conceived and practiced answering this exact question as I suspected it would arise during the interview.

    • Paul September 1, 2011 at 6:46 am - Reply

      Hey, Dustin!

      For those of you who don’t know, Dustin isn’t just a member of my class at UC Davis School of Medicine, he’s also our class president.
      Dustin’s comment brings up an important point. If you were on a PA school admissions committee, and you were interviewing a student with a questionable grade, what would you want to hear them say? if you use it as an opportunity to show them that you might have a degree of maturity that others lack, or that they haven’t yet witnessed, you’ve turned a potential weakness in to a true strength.

  4. sheenadesiree October 26, 2011 at 8:06 pm - Reply

    this semester (15 credits ) has me extremely stressed out. My school is a pretty small yet very competitive . I feel a lot of pressure to get straight “A”‘s and although i am doing very well i feel like I should be doing better.The stress is disheartening and draining.This article puts things in perspective. Thank you so much for this blog . You have no idea how inspiring it is to return here and build with like minded individuals .You and your efforts are MUCH appreciated.

    • Paul October 26, 2011 at 10:40 pm - Reply

      Thank you so much for the compliment, Sheena. The pressure to perform can be truly intense. Don’t forget to take a break every now and then, and reflect on all that you’ve accomplished! May I suggest you visit our medical humor page if you haven’t already?

  5. Joy November 2, 2011 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    i was also a high school drop out in 1998! i did get my GED the summer i should of graduated and went to community college. I did not have a clear plan on what i was going to do as a career or on how even to get there. With no plan, i was just wandering through general classes and not getting great grades. When i learned of the PA profession, i started to take classes that would get me there, but i was not attending a college that would get me there and i was in a horrible relationship with a developing alcoholic. Through the years, i had a lot to deal with and school was put on the back burner. I took a couple of classes here and there for many years and did not put everything into it. After changing my life around in 2006, i started to get serious about school. Still only took 2-3 classes per semester since i was working full-time to support myself. The grades came up and i ended up graduating finally with a 3.5 in Biology. Now, i have applied to 6 PA schools and am waiting anxiously to hear back from them. My GRE did not go well over the summer, but with it changing, i could not take it again and get my scores in on time. I also do not have any HCE because i have been working as a server/ bartender to pay my bills. I have taken a phlebotomy course and have a certificate, but a job has been hard to find since i have no experience. I have my fingers crossed and am just hoping they will see what i have to offer to the program. I know i can do it! If i do have to reapply, i will retake the GRE. Not sure what i can do with the HCE though….going to shadow more and start volunteering as soon as the paperwork goes through. I just don’t know what else to do! I’m 31 and i want to start PA school as soon as i can. i eventually want to have a family. Thanks!

    • Paul November 2, 2011 at 1:07 pm - Reply

      Hi, Joy –

      I sounds like you’ve developed a lot as a person in recent years, and I wouldn’t discount the power that can have when you apply to schools. But if you don’t get in, don’t feel bad – many PA students applied 2 and 3 times before getting in. As for HCE, I think shadowing and volunteering are great ways to start. I also think that quality of HCE can mitigate some of the lack of quantity. Do what you can, and concentrate on getting closer to your goal, even if only in steps that seem too small/slow. My opinion: if you’re looking for a job as a phlebotomist, you should use those connections as much as you can – most people today get jobs with the help of a personal connection of some sort. Maybe shadowing and volunteering will get you started in that area. So make friends and have a strong work ethic and people will take notice. Then again, maybe you’ll get into PA school, and you can start a whole different kind of networking! Let us know how it goes, ok? -P

    • Lucia Mesa January 10, 2012 at 3:57 pm - Reply

      Hello! I love this blog! it is very inspiring,
      I have a question, I am graduating this spring and I have 2 Cs (Ecology and Organic Chem II). Do you think I should take Biochemistry this last semester or do you think I should take 2 easy classes and focus more one getting a great GRE? My GPA is 3.4… But I don’t know if I should take Biochem or if it better to focus on the GRE. Thanks!

  6. Kara November 5, 2011 at 4:50 am - Reply

    This article was so inspiring. I felt like giving up until I read this. I have a few C’s as well as I had retaken classes that were less than C’s and have gotten higher scores. Do you believe that it is still possible to recover from this? Also, I wanted to ask your opinion. I would like to take classes after my bachelors to increase my GPA as well as make my transcript look better. Is this a good idea? Also, how do most schools factor GPAs when you have transcripts from different schools?
    Thank you for giving me new hope! 🙂

    • Paul November 5, 2011 at 8:43 am - Reply

      I think it’s possible, but it’s going to take time and work to prove to PA schools that you’re out of your slump. Have you thought about taking some time off from school to regroup? You could get an EMT or do some other health care work. If you’ve struggled in school, I highly recommend that you sit down with a good guidance counselor to figure out what kind of support you’ll need to get on track.

      It won’t be quick or easy, but it can be done. Be patient and work hard. That’s where the best things in life come from.

  7. Jay December 3, 2011 at 12:05 am - Reply

    How bad does a D or F look on a transcript? If PA schools see a D or F is it guaranteed rejection? Currently, my overall GPA is 3.68. I have had 1 c in general bio 1 but retoook the course received an A. Currently, I am taking organic chemistry and I am receiving a D. It is possible to still salvage a c but it will be extremely hard (I practically have to ace the final). I was thinking about just giving up on the course but after reading this post I’m hitting up the library right now to stud. so i thank you greatly for that and who knows maybe i will salvage a decent great but if i don’t I was just wondering how badly PA schools view a D or F and do i still have any chance to getting?

    Thank you in advance.

    • Paul December 3, 2011 at 12:22 pm - Reply

      I won’t sugar coat it: a D or an F is a bad signal to send to a PA program. PA courses are tough, and there’s no dropping them if they go poorly – they just drop you. But in the end, it depends on a lot of factors. Probably the worst D or F is a recent one that is in a key subject. Some programs don’t require organic, but many do. The problem with repeating classes is that although you show that you can do much better at a subject, when it comes to the calculation of your GPA with CASPA and most PA schools, the new grade does not replace the old one. Instead it serves as an additional grade. This raises your GPA, but not like it would if it replaced the low grade.

      My suggestion is to bust your ass and see if you can pull it out. If you end up with a D or an F in the class, your essay should explain if briefly and convincingly, and they move swiftly to other areas that make you amazing, dynamic, and worth interviewing, despite the grade glitch.

      Maybe others will have suggestions for you as well…

  8. Phuong January 4, 2012 at 10:40 pm - Reply

    Your site is so informative and helpful! I’m so glad I came across it. I’ve pretty recently decided concretely to apply to PA school, unfortunately I am a senior and in my last semester for my BS in Biology degree and have not completed a couple of pre-requisites for PA school. Should I graduate this semester to get my bachelors degree, then go back to take the rest of the pre-reqs or should I extend my undergrad and take the pre-requisites in the fall? Would it matter if I took some courses after I graduate with my bachelors degree?

    • Paul January 4, 2012 at 10:53 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Phuong! It really doesn’t matter either way, as long as you get them done. Do it however you’re most likely to get A’s. If that means graduating and taking a little more time, then take it.

  9. David January 6, 2012 at 6:14 pm - Reply

    I like what you’re doing here Paul. Keep it up! I am a third year nursing student and will graduate with a BSN RN degree. I know that I don’t want to stay in nursing and PA is definitely something I would love to do after an experience in the OR with a PA student. I have gotten Cs in A&P and been receiving B- in my major nursing courses from a very competitive program. Would this hinder my chances of getting into a PA program with a 3.1 GPA?

    • Paul January 8, 2012 at 11:40 am - Reply

      Thanks, David! I think it could. Grades are very important to PA school, because they demonstrate that you have what it takes to succeed in accelerated classes. Do whatever you can to show that you are capable academically. If that means taking some time to regroup and improve yourself as a student, do that.

  10. Bryan April 12, 2012 at 2:11 pm - Reply

    I’m currently a 3rd year junior majoring in medical science and microbiology. I have Crohn’s disease and until last summer was undiagnosed with ADHD. During periods of great amounts of stress my Crohn’s is at it’s worst. Fortunately my university offers accommodations for test taking, however during my first two years I was not aware of them and had several cases during my final exams where I would have to turn in my test so I could leave the room to use the bathroom. In one instance I had to leave a 3 hour exam after 20 minutes. Because of this my grades have suffered and my cumulative GPA for my first two years was a 2.5. However since starting new therapy for my Crohn’s, getting treated for ADHD and using the special accommodations provided through the university I have had a 3.3 GPA (While taking classes such as virology, immunology, hematology, infectious disease related microbio courses, body fluid analysis, epidemiology etc.)

    I have independent research experience and I spent a summer completing a clinic rotation at a top 5 US hospital. I have not taken the GRE yet, however during a “real” sit down practice test sponsered by my school and ETS I scored in the equivalent of the 74th percentile. I also served as a Resident Advisor for 2 years in a dorm and volunteer with a disability organization

    I think I can barely bring my GPA above a 3.0 before I graduate. If I continue to improve, perform well on my GRE and have documentation of my Crohn’s disease do you think it would be possible for me to be a competitive applicant into a PA program ?

    • Paul April 12, 2012 at 2:48 pm - Reply

      Yes. You have a compelling story that makes sense when youre explaining your grades.
      IMHO, your essay will be the most important factor in your application. Take your time and do an awesome job on it. Your letters will be important too; if you can, let your letter writers know about your chron’s.
      Keep us updated on your progress. -P

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