“How do you get into PA school with a low GPA?”
This is THE most common question I get. On some days, it seems, more than all of the other ones combined.
This question is often followed by an explanation of all of the reasons that improving a GPA is impossible, and then a heavy sigh.
If you're in this boat, it can even start to feel like it's unfair that PA schools hold a low GPA against you. But, there are good reasons to have minimums in place.
It takes some level of intelligence to study and comprehend medicine.
In a recent PAEA survey, nearly 65% of PA programs felt that overall GPA predicted an applicant's ability to complete the program and 45% of programs felt similarly about science GPA.
You don't have to be a genius to be a PA, but PA schools need to believe that you have the academic chops to make it through an intense program. It's not in their best interest to take on students who haven't proven their academic ability. (GPA isn't the sole measure of ability, but we'll get to that in a moment.)
When you have a low GPA, the same academic recovery plan doesn't work for everyone.
To know what's likely to have the biggest impact on increasing your odds of PA school acceptance, you must first examine the factors contributing to your low GPA and develop a personalized plan going forward.
Here's how to plan your comeback.
Your "minimum" GPA
If you have an overall GPA on the low side, you've probably found that getting it to budge can be tough. This is especially true if you already have a degree's worth of credits.
Adding a few more credits to the 120+ you have does little to move the needle, but this doesn't mean you should make the assumption that it's impossible.
It might be really hard and take more course credits than you are willing to complete, but it is possible. And, if you're serious about getting into PA school, it might be necessary.
Most PA schools have overall GPA and science GPA minimums of 3.0. Some are higher and some are lower, but the AVERAGE student accepted to these programs definitely has GPA scores over 3.0.
I'm certain there have been people who have successfully gotten into PA school with an overall or science GPA under 3.0, but they are very few and far between.
Even if you have a heart of gold, rarely are PA schools going to consider applicants with GPAs of less than 3.0. In fact, about 43% of programs use the minimum GPA as a means to narrow down the pool of candidates. With the abundance of qualified applicants, programs are using GPA simply to cut down on the number of applications they review.
So, even if your GPA might be hard to move, getting it above 3.0 will greatly improve the odds that a program moves past your GPA and on to the rest of your application.
Take (& retake) courses wisely
Most people who have a low GPA made some mistakes in their academic past. How far in the past you made these mistakes matters to PA programs.
If you had some hiccups your freshman or sophomore year and are now a few years out of college, you are in a good starting place. The more distance you can create from your prior mistakes, either with time or with course credits, the more likely PA schools are to consider your application.
There are two keys to this distance:
1. First, you have to have a track record of improvement.
2. Secondly, you must exhibit competency to handle complex science topics.
Your most recent academic work must reflect an improvement from any prior mistakes. Doing poorly in your most recent classes will be concerning to those reviewing your application.
So, if you're in that boat, you'll need to take on some additional upper-level science courses to build distance from those mistakes in your application.
Additionally, you have to have great grades in the higher level prereq courses (think biochemistry, anatomy & physiology, microbiology, organic chemistry) for programs to see that you are academically ready for the demands of PA school.
If you received a C or lower in any upper-level courses, you should retake them. Even if it doesn't affect your GPA much or if a C meets the program minimum for a prerequisite grade, you should retake it.
While someone with an average or above average GPA may get by with a C or two, it's harder for programs to overlook this for a candidate with a low GPA. Upper-level sciences are the courses that most closely align with studying medicine and doing poorly in them is a red flag for PA programs.
The same is not true for introductory courses. Along with not really impacting your GPA, retaking an entry-level biology class doesn't prove much, especially if you've done well in more advanced biology classes.
If you are looking to take on extra courses to increase your credit hours to try to move your GPA a bit, upper-level courses are the way to go.
With one exception.
Some PA programs consider a separate prerequisite GPA for candidates. If your target programs do this, retaking entry-level courses may make sense.
Because fewer total credits go into the prereq GPA calculation, you'll have a greater ability to increase this GPA measure compared to the much smaller impact the course would have on overall GPA.
Be excellent elsewhere
With a lower than average GPA (but one that is at least 3.0), being excellent in other areas can go a long way in balancing out your application.
Experience is important for all PA school applicants, but it's definitely more crucial if you have a low GPA. Research what the average health care, community service, and shadowing experience hours are for the average student accepted to your target PA programs.
These numbers are different than the "minimums" required by programs and may be posted on their website or available by contacting the admissions department.
To be competitive for your target programs, work to far exceed these experience averages. Other applicants will have the average experience hours along with higher GPAs, so going above and beyond will be necessary if you hope to be in contention.
Additional academic work
No formal program is needed for you to take on additional post-baccalaureate coursework (at any point after undergrad) to improve your GPA. Unless you are earning a certificate or an additional degree, you can design your own track.
If you don't have any (or any more) courses to retake based on the advice above and are looking to add a number of credits to bump your GPA, a short master's program can be a good option.
But, before you dive headfirst down this path, consider what will truly help to bolster your application.
The Master in Public Health (MPH) degree is often given as an example of a way to improve your application, but if your GPA is low because of a poor performance in natural science courses, an MPH won't do a lot to help you. Instead, a master's in biology or another natural science will go much further in proving your ability to study medicine.
Unless you're just wildly interested in the topic, don't go down a degree path only because someone said it might "look good" to a PA school. A master's degree shouldn't be just something to slap on an application, it should serve a bigger purpose.
If you struggled in science classes before, working towards an additional science degree will actually prepare YOU for the academic rigor of PA school. And, you'll have a genuine answer to share about why you pursued the degree and how it helped you if a program asks you about your master's degree in an interview.
Less than one in three applicants get into PA school each cycle. As a result, what you're ready to do now may be different than what you're willing to do later. What seems impossible or undoable now may, in fact, turn into a future plan.
So, if you are determined to get into PA school, there's no time limit to your pre-PA plan. You might not be able to get everything done in a set number of months, but you can choose to apply or re-apply in a future cycle.
Instead of determining that you're "running out of time" to improve your GPA for a particular cycle, approach your application with a phase I and phase II mindset. "This is what I am willing to do now," and, "This is what I'm willing to do for the next cycle if that doesn't work."
What you might be willing to do later maybe something like a short master's program or taking on even more upper-level science credits to try to prove your academic fitness.
There's no magic bullet to getting into PA school with a low GPA. Low GPAs are not the result of a single mistake; they are the effect of several (or many) missteps. Likewise, making up for them takes some work.
With enough effort and patience, you can improve your GPA, create a track record of success, develop a well-rounded application, and approach your pre-PA plan as a process. In doing so, you'll slowly but surely be moving towards a future as a PA.
Physician Assistant Education Association, By the Numbers: Curriculum Report 1: Data from the 2015 Prerequisite
Survey. Washington, DC: PAEA; 2017. doi: 10.17538/CR1.2017