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Image by Isado.  Article via IECA and Ben Feuer. 

PANELISTS: WPI, American University, Lafayette College, MSU, Swarthmore 

How do colleges look at transcripts, and what are they used for?  When they evaluate transcripts, admissions officers are looking for RIGOR and ACHIEVEMENT.  Achievement is usually evaluated by grades or verbal evaluations – how well did you do? Rigor, the more complicated of the two factors, is evaluated somewhat subjectively, and depends on what others at your school did – did you take the hardest classes available to you?   Did you challenge yourself with subject matter?   Did you take advantage of what your HS had to offer?

TRENDS are very important to admissions officers.  Did you improve or did your grades slip as time went on?  More and more colleges are demanding senior year grades before making a final decision for this exact reason.  Early decision is now conditional on maintaining GPA at many schools.  Schools with rolling admissions can (and do) rescind offers.  Seniors are being asked by schools routinely to self-report their senior year grades.  Swarthmore pointed out that students should take it as a very good sign if a school calls to ask for senior year grades – they don’t call for rejects.  Trends also matter with electives – do you demonstrate passion and commitment over the long haul to specific unified interests?

School Profiles, which most schools create and send to colleges and universities, are vitally important.  They give context to each transcript the admissions officer receives.   Without a profile or with a weak or incomplete profile, it is very challenging for admissions officers to properly evaluate a transcript, especially because grade inflation continues to be a massive problem.

The Transcripts



This is theoretically the easiest type of transcript to read, and the most common, but in fact, every single panelist handled this type of transcript differently, which is a testament to how complicated the transcript evaluation process is overall.  American University recalculates only transcripts over 5.0 on the scale – recalculates in this context meaning normalizing to a single unified standard for all transcripts.  If Phys Ed or Music was missing a grade, they would add it in.  Michigan State, on the other hand, recalculates every single application, bar none.  They count only core subjects when evaluating GPA – no gym, no electives.  Lafayette recalculates unweighted GPAs, trying to focus on rigor.  They use professional judgment when deciding whether to calculate the arts into GPA – a student with a long list of music focused classes will probably have them added in, a math whiz with one random painting class probably won’t.  Lafayette believes that the arts should reflect passion – so they’re going to look more favorably on trends.  Swarthmore did not recalculate, but did cut the transcript down to core courses only.  Finally, Worcester Poly, a technical school, looked at math and science GPA exclusively.


This is another very common type of transcript.  Classes are ranked by difficulty (AP, honors, regular, remedial, etc) and then weighted accordingly – the more difficult the class, the more heavily it is weighted into the overall GPA.  Sometimes it can be difficult for admissions officers to know which classes a school considers honors (it may be a good idea for students to mention this on their application if the school uses weird lingo such as accelerated, enriched or enhanced, especially if the school is a small one).  American University indicated that they would not recalculate this type of transcript, but added that numbers alone were not decisive, trends would matter a lot.  WPI indicated that they would again recalculate for math and science only, but that they might weight differently based on their own preferences.  Technical schools like WPI are less interested in required courses.  They want to see students seeking out more STEM.  They prefer to see Calculus BC, for instance, and a steady trend of taking as many Calculus courses as possible.  They also like courses like “Robotics”, although sometimes it’s not clear if a course like that is rigorous or not – again, the school or guidance counselor can help clarify this kind of thing sometimes.  Lafayette added that in a transcript of this kind, they would prefer to see a well balanced student.

There are also oddballs that fall into this category – one panelist described a school that did not give out A-, B- etc, only A and A+.  In such a case, GPA is weighted differently – A+ is 4, A is 3.5, B+ is 3, etc., instead of the usual A+ is 4, A is 3.7, A- is 3.4, B+ is 3 etc.

All the panelists agreed that when they couldn’t make sense of a transcript, they weighted test scores more heavily in their decision.  This can be a plus or a minus for a student, depending on how he did on his ACT/SAT.


Religious schools and Jewish Day Schools often have dual curricula – one for religious instruction and one for secular instruction.  The transcript is then split in half, with grades for each half.  Some universities, like Michigan State, simply ignore the religious half.  Unless it’s history, they say, religion is not an academic discipline, and won’t be included in a recalculated GPA.  That said, even though it doesn’t factor into ACHIEVEMENT, it does get considered in RIGOR, since it’s another responsibility the student had to take on.  Other schools, such as Lafayette, calculated separate religious and secular GPAs and considered both when evaluating a student.


Many international schools, as well as a growing number of US schools, use the International Baccalaureate system, in which students are graded on a 1-7 scale, 1 being poor, 7 being excellent. 

Official- The IB’s Descriptors for 1-7




Minimal achievement in terms of the objectives.


Very limited achievement against all the objectives.  The student has difficulty in understanding the required knowledge and skills and is unable to apply them fully in normal situations, even with support.


Limited achievement against most of the objectives, or clear difficulties in some areas.  The student demonstrates a limited understanding of the required knowledge and skills and is only able to apply them fully in normal situations with support.


A good general understanding of the required knowledge and skills, and the ability to apply them effectively in normal situations.  There is occasional evidence of the skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation.


A consistent and thorough understanding of the required knowledge and skills, and the ability to apply them in a variety of situations.  The student generally shows evidence of analysis, synthesis and evaluation where appropriate and occasionally demonstrates originality and insight.


A consistent and thorough understanding of the required knowledge and skills, and the ability to apply them in a wide variety of situations.  There is consistent evidence of analysis, synthesis and evaluation where appropriate.  The student generally demonstrates originality and insight.


A consistent and thorough understanding of the required knowledge and skills, and the ability to apply them almost faultlessly in a wide variety of situations.  There is consistent evidence of analysis, synthesis and evaluation where appropriate.  The student consistently demonstrates originality and insight and always produces work of high quality.

Unfortunately, some US schools do not use the IB system in the same way that international IB works – instead, they are using numerical GPAs AND 1-7 systems in a weird hybrid, kind of like this --

7 = 93

6 = 88

This creates massive confusion for adcoms.  The IB system is an alternative to 0-100 grading rubrics, and isn’t designed to be thought of as a numerical percentage in that way.  Cutoffs and the meaning of particular GPAs was totally unclear.  Therefore, for American IB schools that use this system, school profile becomes vitally important.


Some students transfer.  Others take community college courses to supplement HS courses.  Either way, those students are going to wind up with more than one transcript when they apply.

At American University, multiple transcripts triggered an automatic recalculation.  For some of the other schools, it was a judgment call, depending on how many classes were on the 2nd transcript and what they were.

More than one admissions officer commented that they don’t like to see students taking community college courses when the same courses are offered at the high school.  To them, it looks like a dodge, and they will weigh that into their admissions decision.

Online courses and transcripts were viewed in a similar light – were you taking it because it was easier, or because there was no similar course offered at your high school?  Name recognition matters with online courses a lot.


There are actually a lot of reasons a student may have no letter grades on his or her transcript.  Some elite private schools like St. Anne’s don’t provide letter grades – instead, they provide massive written evaluations.  This is understandably a bit exhausting for admissions officers – 200 pages of written evaluations PER STUDENT – so they skim and focus on the negatives – are there any trends of problems or recurring issues with the student?  At schools that offer narrative evaluations, profile becomes very important – what percentage of students go to 4-year college?  Adcoms care about that a lot, particularly with the more obscure schools.

Some other reasons a student might not have letter grades include studying abroad, home schooling, medical leave and attending an alternate school within the public high school.  As long as there is a good REASON for it, this doesn’t hurt a student at all.  But it DOES mean that standardized tests, recommendations and essays are going to carry a LOT more weight.


Schools are pretty understanding about issues with the transcript.  Their overall attitude is that problems come up, and as long as you explain them on your application, they’re not going to hold it against you.  Depending on how good your reason is, they might actually consider it a plus.  The exception to this is academic discipline, which always looks bad, although again, cheating is much worse than an accidental drinking violation.  Unexplained missing grades also look very bad.  As Swarthmore put it – all these things are flags, but not necessarily red flags.  They may be green flags – good things!


Overall, the panel came back time and again to a few key factors in admissions decisions: love, rigor, and story.

LOVE: Schools want to know why you chose them.  Those with good reasons to attend particular schools get into those schools.

RIGOR: Numerical GPA is important, but it’s also more or less cut and dried (except for recalculation).  Rigor is highly subjective and determining rigor is a big part of Adcom’s job.

STORY: Again and again, schools said that the REASON things happen matter as much or more as that they happened.  As one officer put it, “Don’t let us guess – explain it.”

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Photo by Amy, Article by Ben Feuer

The dreaded MCAT test; six hours of academic torture, followed by six weeks of equally torturous waiting. So just how concerned should you be about earning a top score on your MCAT? We would be happy to explain.

Every student applying to allopathic (MD) medical school must take the MCAT. Unlike with business school and certain other types of degrees, there is no substitute test that can be used in place of it. Generally speaking, it is wiser to only take the test once, since all scores must be submitted to the school. There are obviously exceptions.

Since medical school applications have risen in recent years, the MCAT has become more important because it is the most efficient way for schools to weed out large numbers of candidates. 

Here are some of the basic facts you need to know about the MCAT, and how important it really is.

All allopathic (MD) medical schools have MCAT cutoffs, but where that cutoff lies varies by school and by year.

For all intents and purposes an MCAT score below 25 will make it almost impossible for you to gain admission to allopathic (MD) medical schools. You will still be competitive for osteopathic medical schools, podiatry schools and Caribbean medical schools.

For some of the more prestigious medical schools in the country, the minimum MCAT score is around 30 to 32 - below which you will not make it past any screening for interviews, regardless of how strong the rest of your application is.

This is the conventional wisdom, although the medical school establishment is working to counteract it. In 2008, 2009, and 2010, the AAMC polled students to determine what their GPAs and MCAT scores were, then compared that to whether they were accepted to medical school.  One important caveat here; the study evaluated whether the students were accepted to ANY school, not to their first choice school. The data showed that approximately eight percent of applicants with UGPAs ranging from 3.80 to 4.00 and MCAT total scores ranging from 39 to 45 were rejected by all of the medical schools to which they applied. In contrast, about 18 percent of applicants with UGPAs ranging from 3.20 to 3.39 and MCAT scores ranging from 24 to 26 were accepted by at least one school.

The MCAT matters more for getting an interview than it does for getting admitted.

In 2007, Kaplan test prep reported that in a survey sent to all allopathic medical schools (about 125 at the time) and admissions officers from 83 schools responded. 77% of the responding schools reported that GPA was the first or second factor considered in applications.

75% of the responding schools reported that MCAT was the first or second factor considered in applications. This implies that about 75% of the MD schools consider GPA and MCAT to the first two factors considered in an application.  Letters of recommendation and community service round out the top five most important factors in determining admission.

Yet, the five most important pieces of data for making offers of acceptance are, in order:

1) Interview recommendation

2) Letters of recommendation

3) Science and math GPA (BCPM)

4) Medical community service

5) Cumulative GPA

Clearly, once you pass a certain threshold, the numbers become less important and other factors are weighed more highly.  In the words of one Dean of admissions at a top 10 school, "As much as we hate to turn away that 40/4.0 student in terms of our average numbers, if (s)he is an arrogant jerk they are gonna have to go somewhere else. We use the interview to screen out the arrogant jerks."

The advantages of a high MCAT score tail off after a certain point.

In 2012, a score of 25.2 puts you at the 50th Percentile. A score of 31.6, one standard deviation from the mean, corresponds with the 84th Percentile, and a score of 38, two standard deviations from the mean, corresponds with the 99th Percentile.

Obviously, even top schools cannot fill their ranks exclusively with 99th percentile MCAT students. Nor would they want to; diversity is an important factor in every school’s admissions policy. In fact, if you do have exceptionally high numbers, it is important to project humility and concern for others even more strongly than an average or above average student, to offset the impression of arrogance. Might not seem fair, but it is reality. Ultra smart students face a certain amount of prejudice, partly due to jealousy, and partly due to the fact that a lot of really smart people are arrogant.

A high MCAT score can compensate for a low GPA, or vice versa.

The GPA reflects how seriously an applicant has taken his or her undergraduate studies. A high GPA is a reflection of strong study habits.  Obviously, not all GPAs are created equal. Medical schools love to see high science GPA’s, in particular.

Generally, anything above a 3.5 GPA is considered very good and very competitive. Jumping from a 3.0 GPA to a 3.5 GPA will make a huge difference in someone's application, whereas jumping from a 3.5 GPA to a 4.0 will not be quite as dramatic (although it is obviously an advantage to have a 4.0 versus a 3.5 GPA) -- unless that candidate has a low MCAT score. Then, that extra boost to GPA can really matter a lot.


So, do you need a 35 or not?  That depends on what you are trying to achieve. If you want to get into a top school, you will need at least a 33 or 34 to clear their cutoffs.  From that point on, the other factors in your application will begin to matter more and more. If you just want to get into a medical school period, then you should make sure to study enough beat the 50% mark and focus more on other factors that are easier to control, such as recommendations and community service.  If you cannot clear a 24, then you should probably choose a different type of school; there are many types of medical schools that are not as concerned with MCAT scores.






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Medical school admissions is one of the most complicated admissions processes of all -- it is extremely nuanced.  That said, here are the most important factors in admissions decisions, in order.

By David Thomas

So, you want to go to medical school?  Why not?  Doctors are highly compensated and respected professionals, and most, if not all of them, have bright futures and great careers in store.  Of course, becoming a doctor isn't as simple as just waving a magic stethoscope -- first, you have to attend a little thing called medical school, which means that you have to get into medical school (and thrive there).

Aspiring doctors (and their parents) often ask us what the most important factors are in determining who makes it into top medical schools like Johns Hopkins, Harvard, U. Penn Perelman and Yale.  Unfortunately, the answers are far from simple -- medical school admissions is arguably the most complex of all admissions processes.  That said, this checklist will give you a solid grasp of the basics.

1.  A high GPA in your prerequisites


Median GPA for a top 10 school should be in the 3.7+ range, with exceptionally high grades in  prerequisite courses such as
biology behavioral science
organic chemistry demonstration of writing skills
inorganic (general) chemistry calculus
physics social sciences
biochemistry general chemistry

2.  A high MCAT score

a score of 25.2 puts you at the 50th Percentile. A score of 31.6, one standard deviation from the mean, corresponds with the 84th Percentile, and a score of 38, two standard deviations from the mean, corresponds with the 99th Percentile. - See more at: https://benchprep.com/mcat/prep/what-is-a-good-mcat-score#sthash.3UGAMk8M.dpuf

You can read a bit more about it here, but the basics are as follows -- A score of 25.2 puts you at the 50th Percentile. A score of 31.6, one standard deviation from the mean, corresponds with the 84th Percentile, and a score of 38, two standard deviations from the mean, corresponds with the 99th Percentile.  For a top school, you'll want to be in the 85+ percentile, ideally 90+.

a score of 25.2 puts you at the 50th Percentile. A score of 31.6, one standard deviation from the mean, corresponds with the 84th Percentile, and a score of 38, two standard deviations from the mean, corresponds with the 99th Percentile. - See more at: https://benchprep.com/mcat/prep/what-is-a-good-mcat-score#sthash.3UGAMk8M.dpuf

3.  Great volunteer and clinical work

Show distinction by focusing on a particular area of practice -- show initiative by scouring local hospitals and nursing homes for good opportunities.  Most of all, show that you have a human side -- that you are not just a brain on stilts.

4.  Shadowing experience

Shadowing is a great chance to build up your bedside manner, get to know how a real doctor operates, and have some experience dealing with patients -- all of which matters a lot to top medical schools.

5.  At least one research experience (much more if you plan on applying for an MD/PhD)

Top medical schools want to take students who already know they like medicine and want to pursue it as a career, and lab experience helps show that you have thought things through.  Having trouble finding a good opportunity?  Check out this link for some tips.

6. A demonstrated interest in liberal arts and broad coursework

Fun fact -- philosophy majors have a higher acceptance rate to medical school than biology majors!  Part of this is a simple numbers game, but mostly this has to do with relatability -- after all, bedside manner counts for something, and no teacher wants to spend four years training a school full of technocrats.

So there you have it!  The six most important factors in determining whether that coveted 'admit' will be yours.  Get to cracking those books and chasing down those volunteering opportunities -- and don't forget to take a break and have a sandwich every once in a while!

More questions? Get a free consultation or call 212-741-9090.