Do I Retake a Course or Take an Upper Level One?


I hear this question all of the time scrolling through medical forums, facebook groups or even between my own friends. The “Retake failed classes or take an upper level one?” conundrum is common. The answer isn’t simple. The truth is, schools really do take a holistic approach when reviewing your application, so it truly depends! I know, not the answer you came here for, but hear me out.

C in a pre-requisite course

If you earned a C (not C-) in a pre-requisite course, and are considering retaking it to make yourself more competitive, it might not be the best idea to retake it. Considering you didn’t actually fail the course, taking classes that are at a Junior or Senior level and within the same subject will show the admissions committee that you have mastered the material and are ready to take on medical school! For example, if you took General Chemistry 1 freshman year and finished with a C. Don’t panic and sign up for the same class again. Take General Chemistry 2 and crush it! Most of the success in Chemistry 2 will come from a good foundation in Chemistry 1, so getting an A in the second half of the course, will prove that you mastered the material and are ready to move on.

Below a C- in a pre-requisite course

Now, if you completely failed pre-requisite course, you will absolutely have to retake the class. Unfortunately, most schools have a cut off for pre-requisite/cumulative GPA as well as individual pre-requisite grades. Many will require a minimum of a C (not a C-), so if we’re talking pre-requisites, you’re looking at sitting through another semester of that course.

Failed a course that is not a pre-requisite

If you failed a course that wasn’t a pre-requisite, you may be okay taking a course above that class level in the same subject and killing it! For example, let’s say you failed Human Biology freshman year. Human Biology is not a pre-requisite for medical school, but Biology 1 and 2 are. If you have the extra time and money, retake that Human Biology course, but if you are on a budget and ready to get on with your life (like most of us), make sure you excel in Biology 1, 2 and Microbiology. Take upper level biology courses as well such as Histology, Genetics, Cell Biology, Immunology, Embryology, and Pathophysiology. These classes require a well-rounded biology foundation in order for you to succeed in them. Doing well in them will help you learn material that will help you out in medical school and it will show admissions that your failed Human Biology days are far behind you.

Make sure you can get an A in your retake

The most important thing to consider is your ability to ace the retake. Do not sign up to retake a course if you feel that your schedule or other obligations will hinder your ability to get an A in the class. If you got a C- in a pre-requisite course and you earn a B- in the retake, you didn’t improve your stats very much. If you have to take a semester off or wait until your schedule calms down to retake the class, do so. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Balance is important and being realistic with your time, efforts and abilities is crucial. Making yourself more competitive goes beyond basic stats. You want to show that you not only were able to master the material in the course, but you also have developed better studying skills and have learned a valuable lesson.

Addressing your failed courses

If you don’t retake a course because you earned a C or because it wasn’t a pre-requisite, that’s okay as well. Depending on your stats and how well rounded you are, you can still get plenty of interviews and accepted into a program. You can explain circumstances that were outside of your control in your personal statement or interview. We are all human and well… s**t happens! It’s important you don’t focus all of your time on it though. Failed courses and any supporting information relating to why you failed should be addressed in a few sentences or less. You want your personal statement to make you shine. It’s your time to show off, so don’t spend a chunk of your characters on explaining why you failed. Instead, explain what you learned and how you have grown from your experiences, failures and challenges.

Embrace failure

The admissions committee understands that we are all human. Failure is nothing to be ashamed of. Most people only succeed after they first failed. There is a lot of opportunity for self development and growth in failure. The admissions committee wants to see that you failed at something and got right back up after. You learned from your mistakes and improved yourself. That is the most important thing to show. Your D in freshman English does not define if you will be a good health care provider or not. What you did after that D, does!

Will AMCAS only count my higher score?

No, unfortunately AMCAS will average out your failed course with your retake grade. Even though your home University may consider grade replacement, AMCAS will not. Keep this in mind when calculating your GPAs. There are so many students who don’t get interviews their first cycle because they didn’t calculate their GPA correctly.

What about outside factors?

We all go through difficult times in our lives. Sometimes, circumstances hinder our ability to succeed in a course. Whether it’s an illness or a loss in the family, we are human and the admissions committee will understand that. If you can ask for a leave from your University during a difficult time, do so. Especially if you feel like you will not pass your classes. Most Universities have policies that allow you to receive an incomplete grade for a course and retake it the following semester without affecting your GPA. If you have already failed and were not able to ask for a leave, you can explain some of these circumstances in your personal statement or interview.

“And when you can’t go back, you have to worry about the best way of moving forward”

– Paulo Coelho

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