October 10, 2016

4 Lessons Professional Basketball Can Teach You About Getting Better Grades

Ryan Kelly

By: Ryan Kelly & Rob Humbracht

I never expect much from announcers. Occasionally I turn on ESPN before a basketball game to find a talking head unleashing such golden nuggets of wisdom as, “This team is really going to have to score a lot of points in order to win.” I think to myself, “I wonder if the players know that they’re supposed to score more points than the other team. I bet they would win if they knew that!” If only basketball were so simple.

The same can be said about your grades in college. On the surface, it seems like all you need to do is earn more A’s than the competition, and you “win.”

But again, it’s not that simple. Do medical schools want lots of A’s? Yes, just like coaches want lots of points. But if we’re trying to evaluate how a particular individual player performs, we’ve got to look past the total points to examine more complicated metrics like offensive efficiency, real plus minus, and other ways of measuring the player’s performance above and beyond the number of times the ball went through the hoop.  

Since applying to medical school is like a game (albeit one with high stakes), hopeful pre-meds should take a few lessons from basketball when it comes to their grades and GPA.      


Medical schools are risk-averse. The last thing they want is a student who will flunk out, because replacing that student (and the time and money they have spent educating that student) is hard.

Think of your GPA like shooting free throws: just because you’ve hit 90% of your free throws doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful on your next attempt. But if you’re a basketball coach (also notoriously risk-averse) who’s deciding which of your players to choose to take that technical free throw, you’re probably picking Chris Paul (an 86% shooter during his NBA career) over Deandre Jordan (a 42% career free throw shooter).  

A medical school will look at past performance to predict future success. The lower your grades, the bigger risk you are to drop out of medical school. The higher your grades, the less risk.

Trend matters.  

If Chris Paul has missed five free throws this game, his coach may be reluctant to choose him to shoot that critical free throw. And as with grades, it’s not just the career average that matters; how you’ve performed recently matters, too.

Student A:

Freshman - 3.9

Sophomore - 4.0

Junior - 3.7

Senior - 3.2

Overall GPA - 3.7

Student B:

Freshman - 3.0

Sophomore - 3.4

Junior - 4.0

Senior - 4.0

Overall GPA - 3.6

Medical schools will overwhelmingly choose Student B because of the upward trend in GPA, even though the overall GPA is lower than Student A. This doesn’t mean you can blow off freshman year. Medical schools often have cut-offs for the overall GPA, and allopathic medical schools do not allow grade-replacement, so bad grades stay with you no matter how old they are.  But the focus on trend should at least offer a glimmer of hope for those of you with egregious GPA sins - a rough semester will not sink your chances of getting in.


Imagine the San Antonio Spurs are approaching the end of the season. With only a few games remaining and a small lead in the Southwest Division, coach Gregg Popovich decides to rest the aging Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili in a prime time game verses the rival Houston Rockets.

Fans and TV networks are clearly disappointed, but the analysts celebrate Popovich’s long-term strategy. Sure, the Spurs might lose this game badly on national television, but the team will enter the playoffs as rested and healthy as possible.      

In a certain sense, you should view grades and college courses with the same attitude. Taking a “W” (withdrawal) is better than sticking it out when you know that you won’t give your top performance. Pre-meds, like professional athletes, have a lot of pride. It makes sense that they would hesitate to give up on something and back down from a challenge. But just like the Spurs, students should know when to sit the game out and rest. A W trumps a C grade any day.


In the NBA, the top players are known for improving during the offseason. LeBron James might spend several months honing his midrange jump shot, or bolstering his stamina with a new diet and workout regimen. A young center might work on his ability to run the floor.

The point is: these players recognize deficiencies in their game and think long-term about how to elevate their performance. The beauty of the offseason is that they’re removed from the spotlight and can focus exclusively on isolated aspects of the game.

The same thing applies to your college grades. Like the NBA, your “offseason” consists primarily of the summer. This is an excellent opportunity to take difficult classes, either at a community college or your university, and focus all of your energy toward them without a full course load and extracurricular responsibilities. It could also be the perfect time for MCAT test preparation, since you’ll have several months at your disposal.

You might think of Organic Chemistry as that 15-foot jump shot that’s currently out of your range. Or you might compare your MCAT score to that one attribute (slow feet, bad hands, too skinny, foul trouble, ball hog, etc.) that’s keeping you from breaking into the big leagues (medical school).


Lay-ups and dunks are the easiest points in basketball. That’s why big men like Shaquille O'Neal and Wilt Chamberlain have some of the highest field goal percentages in NBA history.

But the game is changing now. Teams like the Golden State Warriors have shown that the three ball might be the wave of the future. Three-pointers are typically considered low-percentage shots, but if your team can execute them at a high level (around 40%), then you’ll be able to quickly separate yourself from opponents, even when you’re merely trading baskets. This is why the Warriors averaged over 100 points a game and often beat teams by double-digit differentials.    

When choosing your courses in college, you want one of these two options as a student - either the sure-thing slam dunk or the flashy, impressive three-pointer. What you don’t want is what’s in between - the 16-foot two-pointer from the corner. The long two-point shot is worth the same as the dunk, so your best best is to either work your way deeper into the paint for a slam, or take a few steps back and shoot the three.

A long two-pointer is equivalent to taking an especially challenging professor or taking multiple challenging courses at once. It’s harder for you, but no one will appreciate the context. If you’re going to make things difficult for yourself, you might as well shoot the three, since there’s a bigger reward for your risk.  

What qualifies as a long two? All of the following are things pre-meds do to try to impress medical schools. They usually fail (since it takes quite a bit to impress medical schools), and you could spend the time on much more productive activities for your application:

  • Taking a harder version of a math class (say, Calculus for Engineers)
  • Double majoring (which takes tons of time and isn’t that impressive)
  • Taking 20 credit hours each semester

Avoid these unnecessary long two’s so that you can spend your time on the parts of your game that will matter more to your long-term success as a player of the medical school admissions game.

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