Get Started: Part 3 – GPA, MCAT and ECs


Grade Point Average (GPA) is a measurement used by universities when calculating your average grade across the credit courses you have taken over a set period of time. When you complete a university course, you are assigned grade, usually either a letter (A, B, C, D, or F) or percentage score (0-100).

Your university will usually convert these grades into a score (usually out of 4.0, but this depends on your university), and then do a weighted average of these scores to calculate your GPA. Your university will calculate your GPA for each year, as well as an overall GPA for your entire undergraduate career. However, your university GPA is not used for medical school admissions – rather, your university GPA is used for things like scholarships and awards at your home university.

How medical schools calculate your GPA

When you apply to medical schools, you must submit your university transcript to them. The admissions committee will look at your courses and grades, and use their own personal formula to calculate your application GPA. Therefore, your medical school application GPA is often different from the GPA assigned by your home university.

Furthermore, your your application GPA can vary at each of the medical schools. For example, while McMaster’s medical school weighs marks from each undergraduate year equally, Ottawa’s medical school gives more weight to later years when calculating your application GPA (i.e. your 2nd year marks are worth twice as much than your 1st year marks).

If you’re from an Ontario university, you can learn how your marks will be converted to GPAs by Canadian medical schools by clicking here.

How medical schools use your GPA

Medical schools usually use your GPA as part of the pre-interview process, often along with MCAT scores, admission essays and letters of reference. In general, your GPA score is specifically used in one of two ways:

1.) GPA Cutoff

Some medical schools have direct cutoffs for GPA. That is, once you achieve a certain minimum GPA (along with other non-GPA requirements, such as a certain MCAT score) you will automatically receive an interview.

For example, in 2011, applicants to the University of Western Ontario’s medical school who had at least a 3.70 GPA in their 2 best undergraduate years (and also met the requirements of the MCAT cutoff and completion of an honours degree) were automatically granted an interview.

2.) GPA contributing to pre-interview score

Other medical schools, such as the University of Toronto, generally use the GPA as one component in calculating a pre-interview score, with the applicants with the highest pre-interview scores receiving an interview offer. Therefore, with such medical schools, the higher your GPA the better your chances.

Why medical schools use GPA
Medicine is a very academic field. Available knowledge on diseases and treatment increases at a rapid rate. Physicians are required to accumulate significant amounts of knowledge before they are licensed, and are also expected to continue acquiring knowledge throughout their careers. In short, you will need to be able to study hard and study well during medical school, and for the rest of your career.

Therefore, first and foremost, good doctors are good students. GPAs are used by medical schools to assess the ability of an applicant to do well in the academic aspects of medicine.

How to achieve a strong GPA

Getting a good GPA comes to a combination of 3 things: 1.) picking the right university program, 2.) picking the right courses, and 3.) studying smart and studying hard.

We have already previously covered how to do #1 and #2]. But what does it mean to study smart and study hard?

Studying smart means maximizing your marks for the time you put in. This means figuring out what you should focus on the most for your tests and distribute your study time proportionally. For example, if you’re great at chemistry but weaker at biology, then spend more time studying biology. Another example would be going to your student unions and getting past tests for your specific professors and look for patterns in what topics they test and how they ask questions – you’d be surprised at how many professors not only repeat test formats, but also topics, and sometimes even outright questions.

Studying hard simply means putting in the time. It doesn’t matter how smart you are if you haven’t studied and don’t have the basic knowledge required to complete that biology exam. Be honest with yourself – if you are struggling academically, cut down on your ECs and volunteer work until you bring your grades back up. For many medical schools, if you don’t have a strong enough GPA, they won’t even look at your non-academic experiences.

What GPA do I need?

The honest answer is that it depends on the medical school. Some medical schools like the University of Western Ontario require a 3.70 or higher over your best 2 years. Other schools, such as the University of Toronto, require a minimum GPA of 3.60 but the average successful applicant in 2011 had a GPA of 3.88.

Basically, that means you should try to get the best GPA possible, so that you are competitive for as many medical schools as possible. For example, a student with a 3.70 GPA is competitive for University of Western Ontario’s medical school, but a student with a 3.90 GPA is competitive for both UWO’s and UofT’s medical school. You can only gain by having a higher GPA.

Realistically, that means if you are unable to have a GPA of 3.70 or higher over your best 2 years, your chances at acceptance into medical school in Canada are slim. If you are in that boat, you need to think about possibly doing a second undergraduate degree to boost your grades or make sure you have other career options in mind.


What is the MCAT?

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a standardized, computerized, multiple-choice examination administrated by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). It is for students who wish to pursue a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. It may also be used for other health professional schools, such as podiatric and veterinary medicine. Furthermore, in recent years, it has been recognized by medical schools of other countries (for example, Australia) as an acceptable examination to fulfill their admission prerequisites.

Exam Structure and Scoring

The MCAT assesses the following skill sets: problem solving, critical thinking, written communication, and knowledge of science concepts and principles prerequisite to the study of medicine.

What is on the test?

There are four sections to the exam: Physical Sciences (physical chemistry and physics), Verbal Reasoning, Writing Sample, and Biological Sciences (organic chemistry and biology). Except for the Writing Sample, all the other three sections are administered in a multiple choice format.

NOTE: The format of the MCAT will start to change in 2013. The Writing Sample will be removed in 2013 and a few new sections will be added by 2015. Click here to learn more information.

How long is the test?

There are 4 sections on the MCAT:

  • Physical Sciences: 52 Questions, 70 Minutes
  • Verbal Reasoning: 40 Questions, 60 Minutes
  • Writing Sample: 2 essays, 60 Minutes
  • Biological Sciences: 52 Questions, 70 Minutes.

There is an optional 10 minute break between sections. If you wish to do so, you may finish early on any of the sections or breaks.

How is it scored?

Each section of the MCAT is scored individually. For Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, and Biological Sciences, you may score a minimum of 1 to a maximum of 15 for each section. For Writing Sample, the score may range from J to T, as judged by two independent examiners. Therefore, your overall score may range from 3J to 45T. Most medical schools require a score of 30 to be competitive.

Your score may be released 30-35 days after your test date. Many schools do not accept MCAT scores that are more than three years old. Please contact individual schools for more detailed information.

Registering for the MCAT

How do I sign up?

You must first register for an AAMC account and then login to the MCAT Scheduling and Registration System and reserve a seat. You can find more information about reserving your test seat here.

How much is the exam?

The registration fee is $235 USD paid through the MCAT Scheduling and Registration System (only VISA and MasterCard, including debit cards with the VISA or MasterCard logo, are accepted).

If you are writing at an international testing site (all countries, provinces, or territories except the United States, Canada, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands), there is an additional charge of $70 USD. There may be additional fees for the following circumstances: late registration ($60 USD), date reschedule ($60), and change of test centre ($60).

You may apply for the AAMC Fee Assistance Program (FAP) if there are extreme financial limitations that would prevent you from taking the exam. The program reduces the regular $235 USD to $85.

How many times can I write the MCAT each year?

The MCAT is usually offered all year around (from January to September). There were 26 test dates in 2011.

How can I find additional information?

Please visit the AAMC website for official information on the MCAT.

Preparing for the MCAT

What scores do I need?

For the purpose of applying to medical schools, it is generally more important to get a balanced and yet competitive score. Typically, an overall MCAT score 30 is considered competitive, with 9 or 10 points on each of the sections. A balanced score is much more crucial than a high overall score with unbalanced sections. Fore example, medical schools are more likely to accept an applicant who has 10/10/10 Q (30Q) than someone with 15/5/15 R (35R), provided both applicants have similar GPA and extra-curricular profiles. Medical schools are looking for well rounded applicants and the MCAT is a validated tool at predicting medical school success. In fact, the MCAT is a better predictor than GPA. Therefore, it is not hard to understand why certain medical schools, such as Queen’s University and University of Western Ontario, have very strict MCAT requirements which applicants must meet in order to be considered for admission. Once your MCAT score is up to a certain standard (typically 10/10/10 Q), it will not matter in further stages of the application.

Having said this, some schools consider MCAT differently. For example, McMaster University and University of Calgary only takes Verbal Reasoning score into consideration, without minimum requirement. Their philosophy is that Verbal Reasoning is better predictor of medical school success than the other sections.

Nonetheless, there are schools that do not require any MCAT scores, namely University of Ottawa, Northern Ontario School of Medicine, and medical schools in Quebec. These schools place a much stronger emphasis on academic achievement.

The rest of this article will focus on how to get the scores you need, rather than detailing what study options there are. Ultimately, the goal of is to let results speak.

How do I prepare for the Physical Sciences and Biological Sciences sections?

Generally speaking, first year university knowledge of physics and general/inorganic chemistry should be sufficient to cover Physical Sciences on the MCAT. Biological Sciences, however, may require knowledge of second/third year university level biology, physiology, genetics, and organic chemistry, depending on which university you attend for undergraduate. Certain medical schools will require these courses as prerequisites.

Can you do well enough on the MCAT without the above mentioned knowledge? Of course, and the is to practice. These courses will teach you the fundamental concepts of topics covered on the MCAT, but not the strategy to conquer the questions. The strategy indeed lies in your hands: purchase practice exams from AAMC websites, Princeton Review, and Kaplan (just to name a few), and practice. Start with a few questions each day at the beginning, open book, do not time yourself, but rather spend as much time as needed to fully grasp the concepts behind. Make your mistakes now so you can learn to aovid them on the test day. As you become more familiar with the question content and style, you will gradually realize that the MCAT indeed repeats its contents and the questions rely on the same set of strategies.

Do you need to purchase MCAT courses or join study groups? They are helpful for clarifying and consolidating concepts and strategies to answer questions. They are by no means necessities to do well on the MCAT, unless you need discipline (i.e. you cannot study by yourself).

How do I prepare for the Verbal Reasoning section?

The Verbal Reasoning section is considered the most challenging section by the majority of medical school applicants. This section usually consists of 6-7 passages, and each of them may have 6-7 questions. There is limited time to complete all the questions, and the passages can be anything. It is best to practice using real AAMC past exams, or exams made by prep companies. Some students may choose to read the passages before answering the questions, while others may read the questions first to better focus their attention when reading the passage. The key is to keep practicing and figure out the best strategy for yourself. Some people may even skip a passage in order to have sufficient time to perform well on other passages. Stay tuned for upcoming articles on how to do well on this challenging section.

How do I prepare for the Writing Sample section?

The Writing Section involves discussing 2 prompts in essay format (30 minutes each prompt), and they could be any prompts chosen at random. For each essay, it typically is structured to have 3 paragraphs. In the first paragraph, you should explain the topic in a couple of sentences and then come up with an example (could be real or hypothetical) to support the topic. The second paragraph should be arguing against the prompt, again with an example to support the argument. The final paragraph should not only be a synthesis of the first two paragraphs, but also provides principles that govern when or under what conditions the prompt would apply versus not.

Practicing for the Writing Section involves looking through past prompts used, in order to gain a basic understanding of the variety of contents that could potentially show up on the MCAT. During the initial stage of preparation, you should practice writing essay outlines and think of examples to mention. As you get familiar with the thinking process, writing it out is rather the easier part.

Extra Curriculars, Volunteer Work and Research

Why do medical schools care about non-academic experiences like ECs, volunteer work and research?
To answer that, just think about what it means to be a doctor.

Doctors must study many years and acquire a large volume of information in order to diagnose and treat patients. So it makes sense that doctors should be capable of studying hard and doing well academically – that’s why GPA and MCAT matter.

At the same time, don’t forget that doctors need a lot of soft skills in order to be successful. They must be able to work with other health care professionals and lead health care teams. They must be able to communicate clearly with patients and colleagues. They need to be kind and compassionate to patients and families. Doctors need to be able to problem solve and manage finite resources in our increasingly complex and costly health care system. Doctors need to be smart, but they also need to be well-rounded with excellent soft skills.

Resume, essays and interview – where all of this stuff matters

Medical schools are very explicit about what GPA and MCAT you need. What’s not so clear is what non-academic experiences are sufficient. So where do things like ECs or volunteer work come into play?

Medical schools assess your soft skills through your involvement in ECs, volunteer work and research. While none of these are mandatory, any involvement in these fields highlight the development of your soft skills, and provide a glimpse into how ready you are to be a medical student.

Medical school essays might ask you to describe a team work situation you participated in. Your interviewer might ask you how you dealt with a real life ethical dilemma. The ability to answer these types of questions, and have the experience to support those answers, comes from participating in your university and your community through activities like ECs, volunteer work and research.

So what type of ECs, volunteer work or research should you do? The short answer is there is no correct answer. However, there are some key ideas to think about, and in this section we give you some food for thought on how to pick and manage your non-academic experiences to help you in applying for medical school.

Do what you enjoy

For the most part, it does not matter what specific ECs or volunteer work you do. Whether you like sports or music, you will develop a lot of the same skills important for doctors: team work, work ethic, etc. and this is what’s important. In addition, the more you enjoy your activity, the better you will perform, and the more likely you will excel in it. Why be a beginner piano player and hate it when you could be the captain of your school soccer team? Participation is good, but excellence looks even better. Because of that, do activities that make you happy and you enjoy.

Explore health care

The only exception is that it probably does help to do something (but not everything) in health care. You don’t have to do a lot, but it does look good to show that you have tried to explore medicine. Often times in an interview you will be asked how you prepared for medicine. If you can only answer that you played basketball and chaired the debate club, it may be hard pressed to believe you have even the slightest idea what you are getting yourself into with medicine. In addition, are you even sure you want to be a doctor? How do you know unless you try and find out?

Leadership matters

When possible, take on leadership roles. Leaders learn a lot, do a lot and develop lots of skills. This helps with your personal development and impresses medical schools. Anyone can sign up to be a member of a school club, but it demonstrates commitment, work ethic and skill to lead one. Doctors need to be leaders in teams. Start developing your leadership skills through your non-academic activities

Variety helps

Go out and explore different things. There is no cookie-cutter application. Diversity in your application can show that you have different kinds of skills to offer. If you’re already on two sports teams and looking for a new activity, you will probably benefit more both personally (personal development) and professionally (applying to medical school) from say trying out a volunteer position than joining a third sports team.

Research – definitely not mandatory, but often useful

You don’t need research to get into medical school. Most doctors in the real world don’t even do research, so why would it ever be mandatory? That being said, the doctors who are involved with the admissions process at the university tend to be academic doctors affiliated with the university – increasing the chance that they do research and have an appreciation for it.

Furthermore, if you want a reference letter from an academic person, doing research and getting a letter from a supervisor is a popular and good way to do so. In fact, this letter is a powerful tool to boost your application. Your performance on research speaks for many of your qualities that are important for a future physician: scholar, perseverance, problem solving, collaboration with others, etc.,

For those reasons, doing research can boost your application, but it’s by no means necessary. Students in our medical school classes include those who both did and did not do any kind of research. Do it if you want to, and only if you want to.

Read the rest of the Get Started series:

  • Ayesha

    Why did you choose not to go tho BHSc. at Mcmaster?

    • medhopeful

      I wanted to be closer to Toronto to continue some of the volunteer work I was doing. I also wasn’t sure if the team-based courses were best for me. In retrospect, it probably would’ve been fine.

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  • cecetse

    Hi Josh,

    I’m still just planning my future right now before I actually step into uni this september but I was just wondering: you said you wanted to apply for med school in 3rd year uni but did you get all the credits already to finish the degree or did you go into med school without your bachelor’s degree then? I’m assuming you got in when you tried in 3rd year. Thanks!

    • medhopeful


      Sorry for the slow response. I was fortunate that I had enough credits to apply for a general science degree (BSc) from York after my 3 years. But this isn’t true for all universities.

  • Dying

    Hi Josh,
    I’m a third year student at u of t and I have a cgpa of 3.71, but an omsas gpa of 3.56. I’m starting to lose faith. Realistically, what are my chances of getting into medical school. My volunteer experience isn’t that impressive either, I work as a first aid responder at my campus and am participating in a psych research. I plan on volunteering at a clinic/hospital this summer, but that’s pretty much all I have.

    • bruhh

      Apply to U of M, GPA barely matters in their formula for applicants. MCAT makes up like 70+% of the formula they use to decide who they’ll give interviews to so kill the exam then apply.

  • Gianna

    Hi Josh,
    Since York has a weird GPA conversion, how did you go about getting a 3.9 GPA (since 80-89 is 3.8)? I’m at York and I’m wondering if I should aim for 90s in all of my courses at risk that many of them will end up as high 80s, or pick my 90s courses and then aim for low 80s in the rest to give me the time and focus to earn those 90s in some of my courses.


  • Amy

    if our GPA is not high enough what can we possibly do? Like what are our options to boost GPA and get into med school except for taking extra years if undergraduate? I just recently discovered my interest in med. I’m in 4th year already and have a cumulative GPA~3.4….(4.0 and 3.7+ in the first two years + final year but mark dropped in third year)

  • Ruzicka Felipe

    Hey comments . I learned a lot from the info – Does someone know where my company could possibly acquire a fillable IRS 1099-A version to use ?

  • Confused

    Hi Josh,

    I’m very nervous if I have a realistic chance of getting into medical school. I was a part time student in my first 2 years because I had a chronic health condition, and half way through my undergrad I took a year off of school because of it. Since coming back to school I have a cumulative GPA of a 3.82 but I’m worried that I won’t be eligible for the weighted GPA calculation. If I were to have a weighted GPA it would be a 3.88.

    In terms of extra co-curriculars I have one published abstract, 3 manuscripts in prep, 1 poster, and two social justice focused internships.

    I know my extra co curriculars are probably my strength but is my GPA to low to even consider applying?

  • ConfusedUndergrad

    Hi Josh,

    My undergrad life has been a little complicated to say the least. As a summary, in my first and second year I took courses on a part-time basis as a consequence of a chronic health condition. When I should have entered my third year, I actually took the year off of school due to the health condition. I returned the year after completing my third year and fourth year on a full time basis. This September I am completing my fifth year, and I have a cumulative GPA of a 3.82, however, my weighted GPA would be a 3.89. My dream is to pursue an MD/PhD at UofT.

    At present, I have attended about 6 conferences emphasizing memory/neuroscience, I have 1 poster presentation, 3 manuscripts in preparation, and one published abstract. Furthermore, I had two internships with an emphasis on social justice.

    Do I have a shot at UofT – or am I being unrealistic with my application?

    Thanks in advance for your help, and this website is awesome.

    Thank you,

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