If you’re applying to PA school, protect your GPA.

We frequently receive emails from PA school applicants who are wondering what to do about low grades when they apply.  It’s understandable – sh*t sometimes happens.  Maybe you had a bad breakup or a medical crisis while you were taking chemistry or anatomy or some other important course.  Or maybe you took too much on, and your grades suffered.

Whatever the case, protecting your GPA is a little different from the advice to “Get A’s.”  Your GPA is hugely important, and protecting it is about preventing catastropheI draw this distinction because even if you’re grade point average isn’t stellar (say low B’s), you may still be able to get into PA school if you play your hand properly.  But things get much harder with multiple C’s or any D, F, or Withdraw-Failing grade.  This kind of performance is a stroboscopic signal to physician assistant school admissions committees that you don’t have the what it takes to make it in their program.

How to Protect Your Grade Point Average

  1. Avoid taking more than two demanding courses at a time.  For most students, this is about the sciences, but it could be about any subject that presents a challenge for you.  With sciences, it’s usually about courses that require a lab section, such as General or Organic Chemistry, Physiology, Anatomy, Microbiology and Physics.  Even if you’re in a hurry to get your prerequisites completed so you can apply to PA school, avoid the temptation to rush.  The risk is just too great.  If you earn a bad grade, you may blow your shot at PA school now and in the future.   By spreading things out, it may take longer, but you’ll have a better chance of acceptance because you’ll have better grades.  If you struggle with a particular subject, adjust this rule to not taking more than one such class at a time.
  2. Take prerequisite courses from the best instructors you can.  Have you heard negative reviews of a particular instructor or even all the instructors in a particular department?  Pick another, even if it means you need to take that course at a different school.  You should only take these important courses from instructors with great reputations because bad or unfriendly instructors can truly affect your learning, and therefore your grade.
  3. Use all of the resources that are available to you.  Most colleges have a learning or resource center where you can get extra help, such as tutoring, when you need it.  These are almost always free to enrolled students.  Go to every review or tutoring session you can.  Don’t be embarrassed or deny there is a problem – just get the help.
  4. Mix “soft” sciences with “hard” ones.  Instead of taking your toughest prerequisites simultaneously, spread them out by mixing them with other “soft” science courses like nutrition, evolutionary biology, medical terminology, or a general health class.
  5. pa student studying

    School needs to be your top priority - everything else comes second.

    If you struggle with English, have someone read your work before submitting.   Find a native speaker who is confident with the language and ask them to scan your papers for errors and unclear language.  This is good practice even if you feel strong in English; the more you work on a paper, the more difficult it becomes to see the errors in it.  If you’re an international student, make sure to study for the TOEFL.

  6. If you have a learning disability, use your school’s disability resource center (DRC).  By law, services for those with disabilities must be provided to students who genuinely need them.  They can’t change your grades, but they can often test you and allow you “accommodations” to level the playing field.  Accommodations can include more time on exams, audio exams, someone to take notes for you, etc.
  7. Take courses in their intended order.  This is important because many science courses build on material learned in their prerequisite courses.  For instance, don’t try to take physiology or biochemistry until you have taken and feel comfortable with general chemistry.  If you do, you’ll be more more likely to get lost, behind, frustrated, etc.  Not sure the proper order to take them?  No problem: make an appointment with your academic adviser or a faculty member in the related department (e.g. Department of Biology).  That’s what they’re there for.
  8. Avoid full-time work during full-time school.  Ambitious and impatient students often try this.  They need money, so they work full-time, then go to class at night.  This is a recipe for exhaustion and mediocre grades.  If you need money, consider a student loan, cutting costs, moving in with family, getting a roommate (or three), etc.  School must be your first priority.
  9. Take a study skills class, particularly if you are bad at standardized (multiple choice) tests, or tend to be a procrastinator.  Doing well on multiple choice tests is an ability that can be learned.  Poor study skills will prevent you from becoming a PA – period.  Classes are usually offered for free at college learning/resource centers.
  10. Get help early.  If you’re struggling with a concept, or an entire course, take action immediately.  See your instructor for a little extra assistance during office hours.  If you get in over your head, it’s not a big deal – take something off your plate fast, before your performance suffers.  If possible, drop before the “Last day to withdraw without a grade,” so that no one will even know you took the course.  If you can’t do it that early, do it before your grade dips too low.  A “Withdrawn Failing” (WDF) is much worse than a straight “Withdrawn” (WD).

Remember: Protect Your GPA