The age old question.

Which should a premed student focus on to be as competitive as possible? Is it better to have a stellar GPA, a killer MCAT, or extracurriculars so strong they make Mother Teresa look lazy?

Arguments for GPA

GPA isn’t a great indicator of aptitude. Everyone knows that some classes are easier than others, even the same course at the same institution but taught by different professors. We all know somebody (and it may even be you) who religiously searched for the guaranteed easy A each semester. That being said, college is a lot of work, and maintaining a high GPA is no easy task. Individual classes may be easy but overall, maintaining a 4.0 requires that you work very hard  and at least be pretty smart. This is why schools want to see a high GPA, it says that overall this person either 1) works hard 2) is responsible or 3) is intelligent. But if GPA was enough, we wouldn’t have to take the MCAT.

Arguments for MCAT

In the 1920s Medical Education attrition was climbing to nearly 50% and thus a entrance exam for medical school was created, the original was called the Moss Test. In the late 1940s the test was changed significantly and renamed the Medical College Admission Test. The test has then evolved several times but the purpose of the test has remained the same: to test a student’s ability to succeed in med school by probing their background pre-medical knowledge and critical thinking skills. This test is highly touted as a tough test to do well in, and most premeds would agree. A high MCAT will open doors and a low MCAT will just as easily close them. Contrary to what many Premeds think, even with a high GPA and solid MCAT, some students will still fail to get into medical school. The missing piece of this puzzle is in the so-called “extra-curricular activities”

Arguments for ECs

The vague bucket of “extracurricular activities” is something that ecompasses everything from shadowing to volunteering and from research to leadership. These can effectively show a student’s diligence and aptitude with advanced research, or their compassion and altruism with volunteering. A great shadowing experience can set a student apart, and an extensive work history can show responsibility and integrity. That organization founded by a premed can really speak to that student’s leadership skills, and even things like the student’s interest in ballet or sports can show how well-rounded they are. With all these exemplary qualities being demonstrated, surely they mean more than numbers on a paper? They’re certainly a big factor that goes into an admission committee’s decision on a borderline applicant, they might just be that deciding factor in whether they feel this student has what it takes. These activities might put into context how much this student can accomplish and still maintain competitive scores, but they’re unlikely to make much of an impact on a lackluster application.

These activities are often either completely ignored by the less informed premed with good scores, or heavily relied upon by his numerically challenged counterpart. Either student may find him/herself in quite the bind when applying to medical school. It is typically these students who are asking me the question, which is more important?

The answer is highly debated among internet forums but the real answer is clearly all three.

The key to a med school application is balance. Having high scores or amazing ECs is helpful but individually they won’t make your application. Med schools do look at numbers, but they do a far more thorough assessment of a student’s potential than just looking at one variable.

An ideal student is one that gets high scores in classes and on the MCAT, while maintaining fantastic extracurriculars. A deficiency of any of the three raises questions a premed student doesn’t want raised: Can he/she really handle this?

When it comes to applying to medical school, a good balance should be sought of all three in order to best demonstrate your ability to handle the rigorous program ahead of you.


When I advise my students, I take into account everything and make an assessment on each student’s package as a whole based on experience and published records of statistical data like Table 25. If you find yourself asking which one of these three you should focus on to best improve your chances, you probably would best be served by working on your weakest, and then talking to an advisor for a definitive answer.