Fretting over a GPA is a popular extracurricular activity among pre-PA students. This concern is reasonable because, once established, a GPA is difficult to significantly improve.
However, spending time focusing on your GPA is only worthwhile if you have a reasonable chance of improving it to level that will make you more competitive.
Understanding how CASPA calculates your GPA and how this may be impacted by taking additional credits is the first step. From there, you can determine if retaking courses or taking additional non-prerequisites courses is worth your effort.
So how does CASPA calculate GPA?
CASPA calculates several types of GPAs based on every college-level course you have taken, whether before, during, or after your undergraduate years. This includes any courses that you have retaken for grade replacement or grade averaging as allowed by your university. (Both the good and the bad rounds of the same course contribute to the overall calculation.)
CASPA does this because transcripts vary widely in what type of hours credits are worth, the numeric values of grades, and course subjects.
The GPA calculation is standardized so that these factors are consistent among all CASPA applicants. This may mean that your CASPA GPA is different than what you see on your college transcripts, usually in the more disappointing direction.
Each GPA category is calculated by adding your credits multiplied by the numeric value of your grade (quality points) and dividing that number by the total credits you attempted to earn in this same category. There are several GPA categories, but the main ones are cumulative GPA (cGPA) and science GPA (sGPA).
cGPA = every course you have taken for college-level credit.
sGPA = Biology/Zoology, Inorganic Chemistry, Biochemistry, Organic Chemistry, Physics, and Other Science courses. (Does not include English, Math, Social/Behavioral Science, and Other Non-Science.)
The CASPA designation of what counts as a science vs. non-science course relies on your university’s designated course number, e.g. CHEM 300. If you have a science-y course that is not categorized as a science by its course number, arguing with CASPA that it should count towards the sGPA is a fruitless endeavor.
Is retaking a course worth it?
Most programs have a cGPA requirement of at least 3.0, and others have a minimum requirement of 2.75.
According to the PAEA Matriculating Student Survey for the incoming PA class of 2015, the average cGPA was 3.58. (You can check out other average PA student stats from the 2015 matriculating class in this prior post.)
Let’s take another look at the example from before. We will expand the transcript in this example to assume a 120 total credits and a cGPA of 3.0 for this student. If this student retakes the chemistry course and gets an A instead of a D, the total credits become 123. Calculate the (prior) 3.0 GPA x 120 credits + (new course) 4.0 GPA x 3 credits / (120 + 3) = 3.02.
Now, let's assume that of the total 120 credits, 80 are science course credits that count towards the sGPA. Let's say the starting sGPA is 3.2, and you retake the chemistry course and improve from a D to an A. Calculate the 3.2 sGPA x 80 credits + (retaken course) 4.0 sGPA x 3 credits / (80+3) = 3.23 sGPA.
Do not take the same genetics course three times thinking that a PA program will be impressed with your improving from a B to an A (me, circa 2004). The time, energy, and money required to retake one course is hardly worth your effort and, as you can see, has little to no impact on your cGPA or sGPA.
(Keep in mind, a program typically requires the equivalent of a B or C in required prerequisite courses; and it's a good idea to shoot for at least Bs in your prereqs. But, that's different issue than choosing to retake a course in an effort to improve your GPA.)
However, taking a more significant course load to bring up your GPA may have a greater impact. Let’s assume a total of 120 course credits with a 3.0 GPA, and you take an additional 28 credits and get all As. Calculate the new GPA by (GPA 3.0 x 120) + (GPA 4.0 x 28) / (120 + 28) = 3.19 cGPA.
The sGPA may be more greatly impacted than the cGPA if your extra courses are concentrated in sciences and also if your prior course credits (the original 120 in this example) are not primarily from science courses.
It is important for you to evaluate the big picture to see whether taking additional courses as part of your pre-PA prep is likely to have a measurable impact on your GPA.
Do not let emotions alone compel you to retake a non-essential course only to get a better grade. Only after analyzing the numbers will you know if going after additional credits is your best approach.
What else should you consider?
PA programs may calculate cGPA and sGPA differently than CASPA, and may indeed allow for grade replacement or grade averaging. This is more difficult for programs to do than just accepting the CASPA-calculated GPAs, so it is the exception. Be sure to investigate your individual target programs for details on how they calculate GPA.There are PA programs that will calculate a separate GPA
There are a few PA programs that will calculate a separate GPA for your most recent 50-60 credits hours, which allows for those with an overall lower GPA to be more competitive if they have significantly improved academically with recent courses. You can find this information on the individual program websites.
Some programs will post the average accepted student GPA along with the minimum requirement. Knowing this can help you with your strategic planing. If willing to share this information, programs will have it posted on their website.
The majority of PA programs participate in CASPA, but some not do. These non-CASPA programs may have different ways of standardizing GPA calculations. Again, check with the programs for details.
You do not need to wait to apply to CASPA to be surprised by your calculated GPA, you can calculate total and subtypes of GPAs using your transcript and the CASPA guidelines.
Take the time to understand how additional courses impact your overall and science GPAs. Your time, effort, and money may be better spent in other areas if additional courses will not significantly impact your competitiveness.
Central Application Service for Physician Assistants. Verification: Grade Point Average (GPA) Calculations. https://portal.caspaonline.org/caspaHelpPages/frequently-asked-questions/processing-your-application/grade-point-average-gpa-calculations/index.html
PAEA Program Directory. http://directory.paeaonline.org/
Physician Assistant Education Association, By the Numbers: Matriculating Students 2015, Washington, D.C.: PAEA, 2016. doi:10.17538/MSS2015.003