Why You Keep Scoring Low on the MCAT

5 Reasons Why You Are Scoring Low on the MCAT

…and What to do About It

It’s been a month. You’ve waited thirty, grueling days to receive your score back from the MCAT. And now, after all that time, you are met with let-down and turmoil. There is no worse feeling than spending months in preparation for an exam only to receive a bad score. Maybe you didn’t get the score you needed to get into your top medical school. Or maybe you just blew the exam and now you are reeling from the results.

Take a deep breath. Get ready for round two.

For those who have yet to take the exam, or find themselves scoring low on practice tests, take this advice to heart as well and avoid the common mistakes that lead to students scoring poorly.

Here are five of the most common reasons students score lower than expected on the MCAT.

One. You don’t have a strong grasp of the material

I have said it before and I will say it again: the greatest difficulty from the MCAT comes from the breadth of material. You have to know physics. You have to know psychology and sociology. Cell biology, genetics, organic chemistry. It goes on and on. While there is a lot of material to be covered, you can’t overlook the fact that you also have to master that material. It’s not enough to have a functional understanding of the subjects. You need to know the material inside and out.

Studying for the MCAT begins with the prerequisite courses for medical school. If you have already taken the test and bombed, it’s probably too late to do much about the pre-req classes. But to those of you still working through undergraduate or a post-bacc: the more thorough you are in the pre-reqs, the better you will do on the MCAT. By the time it comes to studying for the MCAT, you should no longer be learning material, but reviewing it.

If you made a low score on the test or you are consistently scoring low on full-lengths, look first at your handling of the material. It’s too late to go back and retake the courses, but you can invest the time to master the material on the exam:

  1. Utilize a good review set. I used Kaplan’s 7-subject box set for my studying and that’s what I recommend you start with.  But any of the major testing services will work. What is covered in the review guides is your bread and butter: if you know that material inside and out, you should do fine on the actual exam.
  2. Be thorough. Mastery. Remember that word while you are studying. It’s not enough to be familiar with the material. Think about your most recent full-length experience. Were you frequently running into questions where you remembered the material and it felt familiar to you, but you couldn’t narrow down the right answer? That means you are not being thorough enough. You have to be perfect with the material. You have to know it inside and out. The AAMC may tell you the exact topics covered on the MCAT, but they can ask anything related to that topic. Go deep. Look up what you don’t know as you work through your review book. Leave no stone unturned.
  3. Consider a postbac. This is a drastic scenario for most test-takers. But if you’ve already taken the MCAT once or twice and aren’t scoring high enough to get into medical school, consider a postbac. The classes will help boost your GPA, increasing your chances of getting into a school, and spending an entire semester covering a subject like cell biology or biochemistry ahead of the MCAT will go a long way in raising your score. Again, this is a last ditch effort. You can learn everything you need for the MCAT by studying on your own with a good review set, but a structured college course may be what you need if you are consistently scoring low on the actual test. Conversely, if you are currently working through a postbac or still in undergrad taking pre-reqs, don’t squander the opportunity. The more thorough you are in your coursework, the easier it will be to study for the MCAT.

Two. You are Focusing Too Much on a Few Subjects

The MCAT is made up of four components: Physical & Chemical Foundation, Biological & Biochemical Foundation, Critical Analysis, and Behavioral Science. Each section is equally important and all four contribute to your overall score. Within each section are multiple subjects. Consider the Physical Science Foundation section. You can receive questions ranging from General Physics I & II to Organic Chemistry.

Everyone has a favorite subject. Or at the very least, a subject they enjoy studying. I like physics. You may enjoy studying anatomy. Or psychology. Whatever it may be, resist the urge to focus on reviewing the subjects you enjoy the most. It goes back to mastery. To score in the top percentile, or at the very least to make a score above 508+, you have to excel in all four subjects. Students who score poorly on the MCAT tend to lean into their favorite subjects, for several reasons. It’s fun to study our strengths. It’s fun answering questions when you know most of the answers. When you are truly interested in a subject, it’s easy to go the extra mile and learn the material thoroughly. But that’s an unrealistic mindset for the MCAT. You’re not going to like all the material you have study for. You may even hate some of the subjects. Most students hate the critical reading. That’s okay. But you still have to learn it. Don’t sacrifice points in subjects you don’t like in the attempt to bolster the subjects of your strength. For every point you score in an individual section on the MCAT, it becomes exponentially harder to go up another point. Meaning, it is far easier to make 127s in all four sections than it is to make a 130 on a single subject. You may think by studying longer on the subjects you are stronger in, you are increasing your chance of a higher score. In reality, the opposite is true.

Three. You are Neglecting Your Weak Material

The complement to focusing on your strong subjects is ignoring the material you are weak in. This is different from having a preference for the material. You may dislike critical reading but find yourself scoring higher in CARS than other sections. Remember, your goal on the MCAT is to score above the average in each section. The AAMC established the new scoring system so that a 500 would equate to the 50th percentile of all test-takers. That breaks down to a 125 on each section. That’s the bare minimum you should score in any given section (and in reality, you should be aiming much, much higher). Every point you score above 125 is another couple of percentage points on your total MCAT score. The cutoff for most medical schools to be competitive is a 508 (~80th percentile of test-takers), meaning you need at least a 127 in each section.

The easiest way to achieve this is to become a jack-of-all-trades in the material. Everyone goes into studying for the MCAT with the mindset of becoming proficient in each section. But what happens, due to a lack of discipline and standard human behavior, is that you gravitate towards the subjects you find the most rewarding. Typically, these are the sections of the exam that you are most familiar with, score the highest in initially, or find more interesting.

Think about your study efforts. If you recently took the test and scored poorly, look back over your study schedule. Where was your time invested? Was it lopsided to a handful of subjects? Was it even across the board? Both scenarios are not necessarily the most effective approach. We have already established the reason to avoiding a lopsided study schedule that favors your strong subject. But equal study time can also be a detriment. If you’re making a 131 in the Behavioral Foundation on every practice test, it’s time to cut back on psychology. That doesn’t mean neglect it to the point where your scores start slipping. But start putting that time and effort into your weaker sections. Remember: Your goal is to boost your score in every section. A 131 in any given section, while commendable, is worthless if you make a 123 or lower in another section.

The surest fix for improving your overall score is to simply focus on your weak material. It’s not fun. It can be frustrating. But having fewer gaps in your mastery of the MCAT content means more correct answer choices, which means a higher individual and overall score.

Four. You Don’t Simulate the Real Exam

If you have read any of my MCAT advice before, you know how I feel about practice exams: there is no more effective use of your time in preparation for the MCAT than taking practice exams. And not just sitting down to work through the problems. You need to simulate the real thing. That means timed sections. That means no outside notes. That means bathroom breaks and lunch only during the allotted times. By the time you reach your test date, you want taking the MCAT to feel as routine as any other day.

Taking more practice exams accomplishes three indispensable factors for your studying:

  1. You begin to recognize question patterns. What exactly does this mean? While you’re not going to be able to predict the content of questions on your individual exam, you will start to predict the types of questions being asked. You will have a better understanding of the structure of MCAT questions, how to think about them logically, and where to look for answers when given a passage to pull from. Many students find this hard to believe, but the MCAT is as much a logical test as it is content based. A large portion of the passage-based questions can be answered with little outside knowledge. But it requires a firm understanding of what is being asked in each question. That’s a skill you can only develop through repetition and practice taking full-lengths.
  2. You learn time-management. Time should not be an issue on the MCAT. That’s right. If you are adequately prepared for the test, you should finish each section with at least five minutes to spare. Don’t buy into the hype that the AAMC is purposefully making the test longer than the allotted time to evaluate your crisis management. “They want doctors who can think under pressure! You’re not supposed to be able to answer every question, some of them you have to triage and move on.” That’s not true. I’ve spoken with other top-performing test-takers, and on the issue of timing it becomes clear: you shouldn’t even be thinking about that timer. Part of this comes from knowing the content so thoroughly you don’t waste precious minutes deliberating an answer. But it mostly comes from having such a strong familiarity with taking the test that you can intuit how much time each question should take you. If you are consistently running out of time for each section, you are either drastically underprepared for the content, or you are wasting too much time on more difficult questions. Either way, taking more practice tests will help you develop better time-management.
  3. You become comfortable taking the test. There’s no way around it: the MCAT is stressful. You put in years of undergraduate work, research and volunteer to have your future as a physician effectively decided by one test. While a high MCAT score alone won’t open the door to medical school, an abysmal score will certainly close it. If you have taken the MCAT before and done poorly, just keep in mind it’s not all intellect. There is a psychological component of test-taking that you may be lacking. You need to be comfortable with the MCAT. Keep your nerves in check and just focus on performing well, not on what the test results could mean for your future. It’s about mindset and confidence. The only way to establish that confidence is to feel comfortable taking the MCAT. So take as many practice exams as you can possibly get your hands on. Practice, practice, practice. Of course it will never fully be like the real thing until you actually take the exam, but you want to feel so comfortable on test day that you can just slip into your routine. At the end of the day, it’s just answering questions. Whether you do it in the solitude of your dorm room, or a testing center, it should all feel the same.

Five. You are Not Reviewing Your Practice Tests Correctly

I saved this for the final bullet point because it often gets overlooked when talking about taking practice tests. In preparation for the MCAT, the work you do after a practice exam is as important as the work you do during. If you spend eight hours simulating a full-length exam, you should be spending at least that much reviewing the test afterwards. If, for some reason, you managed to get every question correct, you should still spend eight hours reviewing the test. Review is not just about what you don’t know. It’s about what you think you know. What you had to guess to know. Review is the time where you can clearly break down each question into its component form, without the crunch of time or the pressure of being correct. You can work through each question and pull apart what exactly is being asked and why it’s being asked. You can ponder the answer choices, see how the test-makers may be trying to mislead you in the incorrect responses and the cues they are giving to point you towards the right answer.

I cannot iterate how critical reviewing your practice test is to your study effort. You need to devote an entire day to review, preferably the day following your full-length. If you’re curious how to determine your weak material, as mentioned above, reviewing your practice exam is when it happens.

I try and steer students away from retaking the MCAT as much as possible. Too often, people neglect to change their habits and efforts between tests that led them to underperforming in the first place. If you have to retake the MCAT, look back on your study plan. Find your weaknesses and correct it. If you have yet to take the test, plan accordingly for the pitfalls. Few students are honest with themselves about committing the common mistakes above, and yet they are just that: common. Don’t fall into the same pattern.


Like this post? Find more tips, tools & habits on my site devoted exclusively to the MCAT: mcatcoach.me

About Mike LaVere

Student, author and aspiring surgeon. Former bar bouncer and meat butcher. Mike LaVere graduated from a top university with a degree in English and Creative Writing. After spending several years working in healthcare as a surgical technician and EMT, Mike returned to college to obtain a post-baccalaureate degree in Biochemistry before applying to medical school. In addition to providing help for new writers and pre-medical students, Mike writes about the current state of healthcare and how it can be improved. His mission in life is to improve the quality of patient care around the world by inspiring providers to be more passionate about their work and to take pride in caring for their patients.