Questions About Grades

Why is GPA So Important?
How Do Medical Schools Evaluate Grades?
Calculating Your GPA(s)
Science GPA for Non-MD Professions
MCAT Score to Balance GPA?
First-Year Grades
Creating a Positive Mindset for Exams
JP Grades and Calculating GPA's
'PDF' vs. 'Audit'
PDFing Sciences in Spring 2020
How Do I Know if I need Postbac Courses?


Why is GPA So Important?

Question: It feels like premeds spend a lot of time stressed out about grades. Why do med schools focus so much on GPA?

Answer: Med schools focus less on GPA than premeds think. They ultimately want to know that any applicant that they admit will be able to successfully navigate the curriculum and the board exam (which plays a large role in residency placement). Every school will have a target GPA range in mind, derived from past successes of students in their program. You can see these GPA ranges for individual schools in the MSAR (free access at HPA) and GPA ranges for Princeton applicants in our data binder in the HPA office.

Medical schools also look at your GPA, course choices, and especially GPA trends, to learn more about you. Recovering from a lower GPA in one term could be a sign of resilience and persistence (important qualities in future doctors); an upward trajectory can demonstrate capacity for improvement and adaptability. Continued struggle without making active changes to address them could be a red flag. They will look to your letters of recommendation for corroboration of your potential for academic success.

Beyond academic profile, your personal competencies and your potential as a classmate, colleague, care provider, are also critical. In addition to academic metrics, medical schools place a high value on community service, physician shadowing, clinical experience, leadership, and performance in the interview when selecting students (see the AAMC Using MCAT Data in Medical Student Selection report for more information). They’re also looking for individuals who fit their particular missions (this podcast provides a good example of this). And the more experience you have beyond your grades, the more they have to evaluate. Give yourself the time you need and seek the experiences necessary to develop yourself personally and professionally. HPA can help you figure out what experiences can help you achieve this.

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.

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. 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 keep in mind 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 adviser about your preparation for the health professions – either academically or otherwise – at least once a semester. 

The Science GPA for Med School

Question:  What do I count in my premed science GPA? Is it all science courses or just the required premed courses? Do engineering and math classes count? What about astrophysics and geoscience? Thanks so much for your help.

Answer: Your "premed" 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 application, you will classify your courses according to the course content. For example, if over 50% of the content of an engineering course is Biology, regardless of the course number, professor, or department, you can classify the course under Biology. AMCAS leaves these decisions up to you; you are the person who categorizes your courses. 

For guidelines on what AMCAS suggests may be the proper classifications for your courses, refer to the AMCAS Course Classification Guide online.

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. 

Science GPA for Non-MD Professions

Q: I’ve been thinking about applying to professions other than medicine recently. Is science GPA still something I need to worry about? Is it computed the same way for dental or vet school as it is for med school?
A: Allopathic (MD) medical programs look at your grades in all classes that are Biology (including Neuroscience), Chemistry, Physics, and Math (see AMCAS Course Classification guide) to compute a “BCPM” GPA. Osteopathic (DO) medical programs computes a  “Science GPA” that does not include Math but does include Biological Anthropology, Engineering, Epidemiology, and Public Health (see AACOMAS Course Subjects Guide); veterinary medical programs have a similar system (see VMCAS Course Subjects Guide). Dental schools include Math and most types of Engineering within the Science GPA (see AADSAS Course Subjects Guide). Other professions that use a standardized application system (e.g., Physician Assistant, Optometry, Pharmacy) will have a similar subject guide – if you have questions about others, let us know and we can help you find that information. 

MCAT Score to Balance GPA?

Question: Hi HPA – I’ve talked to older students who took the MCAT who are hoping for high scores that’ll make up for lower GPAs. How high do you need to score on the MCAT to make up for a low GPA?

Answer: Determining whether your academic metrics are competitive for medical schools is dependent on a lot of factors: what courses you took; what the trajectory looked like (did you have a hard first year and then improve over time?); what medical schools you’re aiming for; how strong your academic letters of recommendation will be, especially in the sciences; and the strengths of other aspects of your candidacy, among other factors. A junior with a lower GPA, for instance, would almost always be better off waiting to strengthen other aspects of their candidacy so that their academic metrics had time to improve, they’d have stronger letters (from thesis, for example), and they’d have more experiences as part of their portfolio before applying. A student who has taken two glide years who showed academic improvement and who has done amazing humanitarian, clinical, or research work (with strong letters to go along with them) has more of these other strengths that may help to offset GPA to a degree.

We talk with students all the time about the strength of their candidacies and we’re happy to do so with you, but if you just want some numbers to go from for now, the MCAT/GPA grid published by the AAMC will give you some data to use as a guide. For example, it shows that among students with a GPA of 3.0-3.1, about 15% were accepted, regardless of MCAT; about 84% of students with a 517 or greater MCAT were accepted regardless of GPA. There are other tables that will give you additional data, including the MCAT/GPA averages by race/ethnicity and MCAT/GPA averages by state of residence. Accepted Princeton students tend to have a lower GPA and higher MCAT relative to national averages. HPA has additional data that we share with students available in our office. And keep in mind that in addition to academic metrics, medical schools place a high value on community service, physician shadowing, clinical experience, leadership, and performance in the interview when selecting students (see this report for more information). In addition to studying for the MCAT and classes, give yourself time to engage in enriching co-curricular experiences.

First Semester GPA


Question:  I’m a first semester first-year. 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 prehealth 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 premed students have worked for McGraw. 


Question: What GPA should I aim to have at the end of freshman fall?
Answer: Try not to place any value judgments on yourself based on your first semester. Whatever grades you receive, you should focus more on the story and the effort behind those grades, and on lessons learned this semester that you can apply to subsequent semesters. If you struggled in one course, think about what you could have done differently—maybe you need to preview information before class, review notes right after class, work with study groups, go to office hours, rebalance your overall course and cocurricular schedule so that you have more time to devote to certain classes. Do the same analysis for courses where you did well—what helped you succeed in these cases? Are there lessons that you can apply to others? Your grades will be less important to medical schools (and to your future career more broadly)—your capacity for improvement, resilience, and growth mindset will be much more important. 

Creating a Positive Mindset for Exams

Question: I’m a first year and I’m really nervous about my first midterms. Do you have any advice?

Answer: We talked about this at our Aspiring Docs lunch this week! Here are some of the ideas that we brainstormed:

  • Read through the McGraw Center test prep tips, check  Principedia to see if there’s any specific advice on test prep for your classes or schedule a Learning Strategy Consultation to talk through your game plan. Feeling like you’re in control and have a plan can reduce stress.
  • If you’re nervous about a premed course exam, consult with an HPA Peer Adviser about how they and their prehealth friends studied for their exams.
  • If possible, do a practice exam sitting in the classroom where you’ll take the real exam, under the same time constraints. This can serve as a “dress rehearsal” for the real exam. As you sit in the room, think about what strategies you’ll use if you start to feel anxious during the exam. What will you focus on in the room to help you re-center? Are there certain seats that may be better for you (for example, there may be fewer distractions if you sit close to the front, or away from the door).
  • The night before the exam, get a good night’s sleep. Studies show that getting healthy sleep is critical to your mental health.
  • On the day of the exam, take five minutes to write down all of your worries about the exam. Putting the thoughts on paper can help you compartmentalize them and keep them from running through your head as much during the exam itself.
  • Remember that no single test or single grade will make or break your prehealth plans. Go in as confident as you can, try to establish a positive frame of mine, stop and take a deep breath from time to time, and know that every test you take will help you be better prepared for the next one. Good luck!

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 premeds 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.  In fact, capacity for improvement is one of the qualities that medical schools seeks in its applicants, so take heart and work on improvement! 

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 considering 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. 

Feel free to make an appointment or come by during drop in hours to discuss your candidacy more holistically! 

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 “Cumulative” (overall) GPAs.



I. How do PDFs look to med schools?

Question: How does PDFing a course affect my application to med school? If it is a class that is not a premed requirement, and does not count towards my major, can a PDF have a negative effect on an application?

Answer: The spirit behind a PDF is to encourage exploration and experimentation in curricular areas in which you may have had little or no previous experience. 

II. PDF'ing the English Requirement

Question:  For the English premed 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.  

III. PDF'ing a Biology Course

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 prerequisites, 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 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! 

PDFing Sciences in Spring 2020

Question: Hi HPA – what’s your opinion on PDFing premed prerequisites? What about advanced science courses?

Answer: As of March 19, 2020, there is no consensus among health professions schools regarding whether P/F grades will be accepted in place of letter grades. Keep in mind that many medical schools are using online learning within their curricula, so this will provide helpful practice. And in medicine, you will often be required to perform under stress and in unexpected circumstances, as you are this semester. 

Because you have been given the option of taking the courses for grades, we would strongly recommend maintaining the grade option for your sciences, especially prerequisite courses.

You may consider PDFing other courses, which would allow for more time to focus on those science courses, and be sure to use the McGraw Center’s resources to maximize your online learning. Your performance this semester will be a testament to your resilience and adaptability, which are among the core competencies that medical schools seek in future physicians.

That said, our hope is that health professions schools will understand the unprecedented circumstances that we are all facing this spring, so if you feel that you need to PDF a science course, reach out to us so we can talk with you and provide advice based on your specific situation. We will try to help convey your rationale and your specific situation in our committee letter of recommendation, but it is still unknown how schools may respond.

Keep in mind that there are a number of medical schools that have moved to competency-based entrance requirements rather than specific courses, so there will be some schools you can apply to, even if other schools ultimately will not accept the PDF grades for prerequisites. We hope to learn more from schools as the semester progresses. 

We continue to recommend that you demonstrate academic readiness for the rigor of medical school by engaging in robust graded science preparation (at least 10-12 biology, chemistry, science, and math courses, ideally taken during a full course load), securing strong academic letters of recommendation, and doing well on the MCAT.  

PDFing this Semester (revisited)

We’ve received many questions around PDFing—keep them coming! We’re happy to chat about your specific situation. Broadly, as the PDF deadline nears, keep these points in mind: 

  • Most medical schools have stated their policies regarding the pandemic, and most are willing to accept pass/fail grades.
  • PDF’ing a few non-science and non-prerequisite courses during college has never been a cause for concern in medical school admissions.
  • Double check the policies of your public state medical schools and any specific medical schools you’re interested in. We’ve collected links to prerequisites websites for many schools that are popular with our applicants.
  • Through the HPA committee letter, we help schools understand the context around your academic performance. We will include information about Princeton grading policies, but also customize our letter to describe your own personal situation to try to help allay any concerns that they might have.
  • Medical schools review applicants holistically, considering all educational and experiential aspects of each candidate. Admissions deans have said that there is rarely if ever a single factor (like a single PDF grade or even a single semester) that will make or break a candidate. Your grade trends, course choices, letters of recommendation, and MCAT scores will all be taken into account as medical schools consider your academic readiness for their programs.
  • Chat or email with your director of studies, dean, or us if you’d like to talk about your specific situation!


How Do I Know if I need Postbac Courses?

Hi HPA – I had a rough first year, but I’ve been doing better since then. I’m still worried that my GPA isn’t competitive for medical school and I’m thinking about doing a postbac program, but I’m not sure if I need one. Is there an approximate GPA where you’d definitely suggest doing a postbac program?

It’s impossible to put an exact number on this and we would want to learn more about you and gain a more holistic understanding of your candidacy before deciding whether or not we’d suggest postbac course work, and if so, what type of course work. Some factors that come into play: how many sciences you’ve taken, the level of rigor in your course choices, academic trajectory, BCPM and cumulative GPA, strength of letters of recommendation, MCAT score, state of residence, factors that may have affected your ‘distance traveled’ to medical school (such as coming from a first generation, lower income, or underrepresented in medicine background), and any external factors that affected your academic performance. Generally, it is very difficult to gain acceptance to medical school with a BCPM below 3.0, and we have seen students participate in postbac programs with GPAs up into the 3.4/3.5 range, but again, it is very case by case. Learn more about postbac programs in general on our website.