Let’s set the scene: A first-generation premed student is sitting in her family’s trailer home in Texas with two younger siblings, trying to study for an organic chemistry final. Her parents have temporarily been laid off from their jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic and are struggling to make ends meet. Meanwhile, one of her best friends from school is relaxing with her older sister in her family’s vacation home on the coast of Maine, studying for the same exam. Her parents have been working remotely from their corporate jobs.
As the pandemic compelled universities to close their doors and transition to online courses for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester, college students faced vastly different learning environments. Universities, in turn, responded to this unprecedented disruption by upending traditional structures and adopting a variety of alternative grading policies. Some schools, like Harvard University and Dartmouth College, dropped letter grades entirely in favor of a universal pass-fail system, while Georgetown University allowed students to choose between a traditional letter grade and an alternate system of satisfactory, credit or no-credit.
For undergraduate students pursuing a career in medicine, however, flexible grading policies did little or nothing to reduce the stress of college classes during the pandemic. As many medical schools agreed to accept pass-fail grades for the coming application cycle but remained unclear as to how they might affect an application, prospective doctors were left wondering whether or not a pass on their transcript would ruin their chances of admission.
After Georgetown announced the initial optional pass-fail grading system, emails from premed advisers cautioned that a passing or satisfactory grade would never look as good to medical schools as an A. Two weeks later, after the University of California, San Francisco, became the first medical school to announce publicly it would accept passing grades without prejudice for courses taken during the pandemic, advisers’ advice changed. Students were told pass-fail would not necessarily be detrimental to applications. Programs like the Georgetown University Medical Center, however, maintain that, although they will accept passing grades for spring 2020 coursework, letter grades are highly preferable.
In the absence of clear, unified policy from medical schools, the prevailing attitude among undergraduates is that students who toughed it out and got As despite disruptions will be deemed better applicants. And although some medical schools like UCSF have stated they will take current circumstances into consideration when reviewing transcripts, students are still left wondering exactly what their promise implies; it’s unclear if this flexibility only applies to students from universities with universal pass-fail policies or includes Georgetown’s opt-in approach.
The path to a career in medicine is long and grueling, and low-income, first-generation students already must overcome more obstacles than their wealthy, well-connected peers. Despite many universities implementing programs to support students who may have lost on-campus jobs during the pandemic or who come from low-income families, this financial assistance does not account for difficult home environments, unemployed parents or sick family members students are now facing.
Though imperfect, many alternative grading policies strike a reasonable compromise and seek to rectify some of the inequities exposed by the coronavirus. The real issue in the grading policy debate lies in the silence of medical and other graduate schools. For a generation already graduating into a global recession and suffocated job market, the least medical schools could do is relieve some stress by universally clarifying what the pandemic means for applications and assuring students that pass-fail classes won’t be used to compare the resiliency of students.
Though this semester has come to a close, we don’t know what the future will hold or even if we will be back on campus in the fall. What we do know, however, is that enough inequity is already built into the process of becoming a doctor.
Elizabeth Marcinkowski is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Millennial Musings appears online every other Thursday.