Pre-health students: Don’t be scared of pass/fail

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Photo Credit: Abriella Corker | Daily Texan Staff

Ever since UT made changes to grading systems for this semester, academic advisors have been sending out emails explaining how students can switch their classes to a pass/fail grading system. 

In those same emails, advisors from the College of Natural Science urge pre-meds and students in other pre-health tracks to take their classes for letter grades because graduate schools don’t view it favorably when applicants pass/fail medical pre-requisite classes, like biology, physics and organic chemistry. 

These already-difficult classes have had to change drastically to shift online. As a result, they may be even more challenging than before, especially for students who depended on the structure of in-person lectures and on-campus learning resources to fully grasp the material and succeed in these courses. 

“The rigor hasn’t really changed much, which is difficult because we’re not receiving the same level of instruction and support we were previously,” neuroscience sophomore Briana Syed said about her science classes.  

Now, pre-health students are caught making a difficult decision: Should they struggle to get a letter grade that doesn’t reflect how they would have performed in the traditional lecture settings, or should they opt-in the pass/fail grading scheme that could risk their future graduate school admissions? 

Public health sophomore Nathan Subramaniam is holding off on making that choice for now, but he reflected on the pressure he and his peers feel to perform even though the quarantine has significantly altered their learning environment. 

“It’s like, ‘Did I work hard enough to manage myself in this really weird, turbulent time? And if (other pre-med students) could do it, then why couldn’t I?’” Subramaniam said 

Additionally, Syed is afraid that there will still be some implicit bias against pass/fail classes in the admissions process. 

“Even though (medical schools) are obligated to (consider pass/fail) for people experiencing difficult circumstances, I feel like even then they’re going to be biased towards people who showed the extra effort to take classes for letter grades,” she said. 

Joel Daboub, director of admissions and records at Dell Medical School, was quick to try and debunk this myth. 

“The way we look at GPA is we look at the overall academic trend, the rigor of courses taken and the types of courses taken,” he said.  “The most important thing to remember is why we ask you to take these classes. The point is that you’re going to need this foundation of knowledge to be successful in medical school.”

Thus, he feels that the top priority for pre-med undergraduates should be “knowledge acquisition,” or actively learning the material their classes are covering. 

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, member institutions of the Texas Medical and Dental Schools Application Service recently decided to weigh pass/fail and no credit/credit as equivalent to letter grades for classes taken this semester. UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School made similar announcements. 

So, it doesn’t really matter if you take your classes for pass/fail or a letter grade this semester, and you should make that decision based on what is best for you, not your GPA. Ask yourself: Will it be easier or harder to prioritize knowledge acquisition under the lower-stakes environment of pass/fail? Do you have minimum GPA requirements for student organizations, honors programs or even scholarships that could be jeopardized by potentially lower letter grades due to the shift to online learning? 

The majority of medical schools outside of Texas haven’t clarified how they’ll consider pass/fail credits for this semester, so if you’re concerned about a particular school’s policies, you should ask them directly. However, Daboub emphasized that admissions committees generally avoid looking at GPA in a vacuum. Students who are currently having to care for loved ones or take on other responsibilities at home should use optional and secondary essays as well as interviews to describe what impact COVID-19 had on their academic performance this semester. 

Regardless of what decision you come to, make sure you will be able to explain why you thought it was the best decision for you to the future admissions committees who will review your application. And recognize that even if you really bite the bullet, the powers-at-be won’t punish you for one bad semester, especially when the whole world is going through unprecedented times. 

Dasgupta is a neuroscience and biochemistry sophomore from Frisco.