Published from MCAT Coach | Tools, Tips & Habits for making a 521+
How to get the most out of your MCAT score
Obviously, when it comes to the MCAT, a higher score is always better.
But what score do you individually need on the MCAT, and when is it time for a retake?
Determining Your Individual MCAT Score
By the time you start studying for the MCAT, you already have a good idea of the quality of your application for medical school. At the end of your junior year of college, barring catastrophe, your GPA is relatively set in stone. You may be able to raise it a few hundredths of a decimal, even a tenth if you have a strong semester, but as you enter your final year of undergraduate work it becomes increasingly difficult to make a significant move in your GPA. If you are a student with an average or below average GPA, the MCAT becomes a more important factor in improving your chances for acceptance.
While most premeds dread the MCAT, the test is overwhelmingly your greatest opportunity for overcoming a lackluster GPA, academic hiccups, or solidifying an otherwise stellar application. Most of your application takes four years or more to construct. You spend years obtaining a bachelor’s degree and devote hundreds of hours to research and volunteer opportunities. The MCAT is one test, one eight-hour day, that affects a disproportionate evaluation of your application by admissions committees. This can work to your detriment. If you slack off and score poorly, you reduce your chance of admission even with a high GPA and outstanding extracurriculars. But the MCAT is similar to any other examination. If you are willing to devote the diligence, the time commitment, and effort in preparation, you will make the score you deserve. The MCAT is the only true meritocracy in the entire medical school application. Course grades are difficult to compare across undergraduate institutions. Interviews are impacted by the inherent biases we all possess. But the MCAT is one test, drawn from the same pool of questions that every applicant is required to take.
So think of the MCAT as your chance to prove to admissions committees you are the type of student they want to accept.
Let’s look at some averages. For the 2016 – 2017 admissions cycle:
Average Applicant Cumulative GPA: 3.55
Average Matriculant GPA: 3.70
Average Applicant MCAT Score: 501.8
Average Matriculant MCAT Score: 508.7
Keep in mind these numbers fluctuate by applicant race and gender. The AAMC also offers grids for percentage of acceptance by GPA and MCAT score. An applicant with a higher GPA has a greater chance of acceptance even with a lower MCAT score. If your GPA is above the average matriculant GPA of 3.70, you can get away with an average MCAT score (~508).
However, there are other factors to consider in your GPA. Medical schools traditionally place weight upon “trends” in GPA. Most pre meds are going to do worse in their early years, particularly as freshmen, as they grow adjusted to the demands of college and time management. Despite the fact that your typical student is taking much more difficult courses by the time they are an undergraduate senior, medical schools are expecting an “upward” trend in GPA. Which means, you should be making better grades at the end of your college career than the beginning (or sustaining a high GPA from the start).
Let’s imagine a student who displays the opposite. This is a regular go-getter pre med, who started undergraduate off to a great start. They made a 4.0 in their freshmen and sophomore year, but then began to slack off in the final years of college. They finish with a cumulative GPA of 3.75, but their final semesters are far closer to a 3.00. This same premed then takes the MCAT and, given their downward spiral in study habits, squeaks by with a score of 508, just around the average of all matriculants. On paper, assuming strong extracurricular and recommendations, this pre med has a great chance of acceptance to medical school. Their cumulative GPA, with academic slippage, is still above the average of matriculants (3.75 vs 3.70), and their MCAT is right around the average of accepted students. But that’s not what the admissions committee is going to see.
Medical school represents a significant step-up in both academic rigor and personal challenge. Schools are going to shy away from a student they think is simply coasting on past success. You may have wondered, at some point, after showing so much academic and personal discipline to get into medical school, how is it that there are students who still manage to fail or be dropped from their MD programs? This is a worst-case scenario for medical schools. The United States is already in a deficit for trained physicians to meet the demands of an aging population. Each seat a medical school misses on, whether through a student who washes out of the program or decides medicine is not for them, represents nearly 400,000 patients in a lifetime going untreated. That’s a big responsibility, and one that most admissions committee members take more seriously than your average applicant would care to believe.
There is a caveat to this scenario. When it comes to speculating medical school admissions scenarios, I take the Occam’s Razor approach: the simplest solution (or the one requiring the least effort) is often the right answer. Pre meds who think a school like George Washington University, with 13,000+ applicants each year, is going to take the time to check social media accounts for inappropriate pictures are simply out of their mind. Therefore, in the above scenario, it may seem that we are reading too much into the downward trend of our 3.75/508 applicant. But here’s the thing: AMCAS makes trends in GPA, and really any academic slip-up, apparent and easy for an admissions committee to locate. Many of your interviewers are going to be holding a copy of your AMCAS application, and will likely be able to spot the flaws in your academic career even if you have good cumulative GPA.
Remember this rule of thumb when it comes to applying to medical school: It’s easy to get into medical school if you don’t give admissions committees a reason to reject you.
Think about that statement for a while. Most students don’t seem to comprehend it until they’re filling out their information again as a re-applicant. The earlier you embody those words in your undergraduate career, the more likely your chance of acceptance.
What MCAT Score Should You Aim For
Higher is always better. A 528 is not going to make-up for a sub-3.00 GPA, but it might be your only shot at gaining an acceptance.
Look at the averages for matriculants again: 3.70 cumulative GPA and 508.7 MCAT score. If your GPA is below that of the average matriculant, you are going to have to aim for a much higher MCAT score. Particularly if your GPA is much lower, in the bottom quartile of matriculants/applicants (3.3 – 3.5 range at most schools), your MCAT will need to be significantly higher. Again, you can’t write over one shortcoming in your application, such as a low GPA, with another strength, such as MCAT score or extracurriculars. But you need to be able to make a case for yourself to admissions committees. If your GPA is on the lower end of applicants, what adcoms see is a potential risk for handling the academic rigor of medical school, or a person who lacks the focus to dedicate their time to studying. An outstanding MCAT score (515+) will go a long way in showing these committees that you are a high-caliber student committed to pursuing medicine.
Likewise, a high GPA with a low MCAT score shows admissions committees a student unable to prepare correctly and handle the stress of the moment. It can also demonstrate a student who did not take risks in their academic course load, or who benefitted from attending an easier undergraduate institution.
I will say it again: don’t give admissions committees a reason to reject you.
A 4.00 GPA pre med with a sub 508 MCAT score is going to throw up all kinds of red flags to the people reviewing applications. It takes real grit to maintain an elite GPA through four years of the tumultuous time that is undergraduate; don’t blow it on the MCAT.
For all applicants, a 508 is the bare minimum you should aim for on the MCAT. If you can’t score the average of all matriculants to medical school, you are significantly hurting your chances of acceptance even with a great GPA.
Here’s the breakdown:
4.00 GPA –> 508+
3.70 – 4.00 –> 508 – 510+
3.5 – 3.7 –> 510 – 515+
3.3 – 3.5 –> 515 – 520+
Less than 3.3 –> 520+ (Consider putting off applying even with a top-percentile MCAT score)
When is it time to Retake the MCAT?
There are a couple of ways to make this scenario simple.
If your retake will occur mid-application cycle (i.e. you got your first score in June and will retake in August), don’t even bother until next year. Apply to a few safe schools and see what happens (there are always students accepted with low GPA/MCAT scores, but not often both). There is not enough time mid-cycle to significantly improve upon the shortcomings that led you to score low in the first place. If you need a 515 but only score a 507, take your chance on this application cycle. If you don’t get accepted, then start preparing for a retake. Nobody wants to think about having to reapply to medical school, but nonetheless it happens to the majority of applicants each year.
If you completely bomb the MCAT (under 505 or well below your target score by GPA) and are mid-application cycle, either think about doing something else with your gap year, like a master’s program or post-bacc, or just apply to a few in-state schools and again see what happens. Your chance of acceptance is so low it would be a waste of money and effort to apply to a typical broad range of schools until you can increase your MCAT score. Taking time to focus on a retake will also show schools that you recognized a flaw in your application and were willing to delay gratification to improve it (something worthwhile to mention in essays).
Consider the alternative scenario. You bomb your first MCAT in April or May, scoring a 501. You then scramble to study for a late June retake, all the while filling out your applications. You have only given yourself an additional month of poor quality studying (or poor application writing if you devote all your time to studying), and manage to raise your score to a 507. Now you may be thinking, well a 507 is a lot better than a 501. You are correct. But remember: medical schools receive a copy of each of your test scores. To most admissions committees, what they see is a student who had two chances to take the big test and could not even crack the average of matriculants. That’s enough to reject your application alone. A retake will always harm your application unless you can show significant improvement and a commitment to a process, rather than being reactionary. Taking the time to legitimately study and improve your score between cycles shows maturity and delayed gratification. Signing up for an immediate retake shows a lack of proper planning, a failure to work hard initially, and overall desperation.
If your retake falls outside of the admissions cycle, the situation becomes murkier. If you are an applicant with a lower GPA, you take a significant risk by applying to schools with an average or below average MCAT score. But there is almost more pressure on applicants with high GPAs. If your GPA is above the average (3.70+), and you are scoring below 508, it would be wise to retake. You are creating an inconsistency in your application if you don’t, despite having an outstanding grade point average. Admissions committees are going to see a student who can study for college courses, but is unable to function under greater pressure or to prepare adequately for a test that transcends the academic difficulty of undergraduate education. Again, you are at risk of suffering from the downfall of a retake. Two mediocre MCAT scores are worse than one.
The bottom line: if you are going to retake, you better be willing to do everything possible to achieve your target score.
Looking for more MCAT help? Visit mcatcoach.me for tools, tips & habits for making a 521+