For better or worse, your “stats” (i.e., your GPA and MCAT score) are integral to getting into medical school. If you are reading this post, you probably took the MCAT, got a score you aren’t exactly thrilled by and are now contemplating whether you should retake the MCAT. Studying and sitting for a difficult exam like the MCAT must be approached methodically, especially if you are aiming for a significant score improvement. You do not want to invest all that time and energy and end up getting a similar, or even worse, score. Here we break down this complex decision into three logical considerations.
1 | Do You Need a Higher MCAT Score?
The answer to this question depends on what medical school(s) you are aiming for. Many programs, especially the most selective ones, have GPA and MCAT cutoffs. As you make your list of medical schools, look up each school’s average GPA and MCAT scores (for both applicants and matriculants) on the Medical Schools Admission Requirements (MSAR). If your stats are around the average of matriculants, you do not need to retake the MCAT as it would be an exercise in diminishing returns. However, you should retake the MCAT if your score is below the average of matriculants. Furthermore, if your GPA is below average and you do not have a chance to improve it (e.g., you already graduated from college), getting an above average MCAT score will help offset your low GPA and improve your chances of admission.
Your target stats should also be scaled to your race and/or ethnicity. Below are the average MCAT scores (rounded to the nearest whole number) of successful matriculants in 2018-2019. This data is part of a trove that is published on the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) website. The ideal position is to possess above average stats in both your ethnic group and amongst all matriculants. However, it is arguably acceptable for your score to be at or above the average for your ethnic group despite being below the average of all matriculants. Bottom line: if you are below your racially-adjusted average or the average of your target medical schools, retaking the MCAT will assuredly improve your chances of admission.
|MCAT score of all matriculants||511|
|American Indian or Alaska Native||506|
|Black or African American||505|
|Hispanic, Latino, or of Spanish Origin||506|
|Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander||510|
|Non-U.S. Citizen and Non-Permanent Resident||513|
2 | Can You Improve Your MCAT Score?
The answer to this question can be broken down into three elements organized into a pyramid: time, energy, and strategy. Before committing to a MCAT retake, you must secure adequate amounts of all three elements to ensure that you get a higher score. Scoring lower when you retake the MCAT is a noticeable stain on your application and must be avoided at all costs.
A | Do You Have Enough Time to Study?
Time is at the base of the proverbial pyramid because no amount of energy or strategy will improve your MCAT score if you do not have enough time to adequately prepare for the exam. If you are too busy with other pursuits (school or extracurricular activities or jobs), it might behoove you to either reduce your commitments or wait until you have more free time to attempt a MCAT retake. It is highly recommended and increasingly common for aspiring physicians to take a gap year or two before applying to medical school. This decision affords numerous benefits, including dedicated time to improve your MCAT score.
So how much time is needed to retake the MCAT? In general, you must be prepared to commit a month of full-time studying (>40 hours/week) or 2-3 months of part-time studying (~20 hours/week).
B | Do You Have Enough Energy to Study?
Energy is the second most important element to improving your MCAT score. You must evaluate whether you have the adequate motivation to commit hundreds of hours studying for a grueling 7.5-hour marathon of an exam. Keep in mind that most people who initially scored between 472-517 only improved their score by 2-3 points upon a retake. Devoting your energy (and time) to retaking the MCAT represents an opportunity cost in that you could be pursuing other interesting and/or fulfilling activities (e.g., shadowing, research, and volunteering) that add depth to your medical school application. If you honestly do not feel up to retaking the MCAT, it is perfectly reasonable to distinguish yourself in other ways.
C | Do You Have an Improved Study Strategy?
An improved study strategy, along with the requisite time and energy to study, will ensure that you see a significant score improvement. The questions here are figuring out what prevented you from achieving your desired score and what you should do differently this time around. Start by analyzing your performance on past practice exams and MCAT attempt(s). If you underperformed on a particular section(s) but did well on others, then focus the bulk of your resources on improving those section(s) while maintaining your knowledge in your strong sections. I would recommend allocating about 70/30 on weak and strong topics, respectively.
If you underperformed on test day despite possessing a good grasp of the material and scoring well on practice exams, I would recommend retaking the exam as soon as possible while the material is fresh in your mind. It might have been that you just had a bad test day. Take some time (about a month) to mentally recharge while maintaining your knowledge, then retake the MCAT.
If you feel that you have plateaued, it is time to seek outside help. Plateauing is where you studied as hard as you could and understood the material, but underperformed on both practice exams and/or the real exam. Outside help might include taking a prep course or seeking private MCAT tutoring. While both options are expensive, they enable you to work with professionals who can arm you with optimized test-taking strategies. Working in a vacuum is the last thing you want to do if you find yourself stuck on a score plateau. Rather, you should seek to study smarter.
3) How Many Times Have You Taken the MCAT?
The AAMC technically allows you to take the MCAT up to three times in a year, four times over two years, and seven times in a lifetime. This rule does not include the old MCAT (i.e., pre-2015 MCAT). If you took the old MCAT and want to know what your score translates to in the new MCAT, check out the Med School Insiders MCAT Score Converter.
It is important to note that every scored attempt appears on your record and is therefore seen by admissions committees. In my opinion, the maximum number of MCAT retakes you should attempt is two. Failing to achieve an adequate MCAT score after three attempts call into question a potential applicant’s test-taking abilities. For better or worse, the life and career of a medical student (and even physicians) regularly involves taking challenging exams. Bottom line: the more times you retake the MCAT, the worse it will look to admissions committees.
Making the decision to retake the MCAT is a common dilemma that many aspiring physicians face. In fact, over a quarter of medical school applicants have taken the MCAT more than once. Setting a MCAT score goal based on your target medical schools and ethnicity, as well as securing the requisite elements of success (i.e., time, energy, and strategy), will help you achieve your desired score after a single retake. Good luck to you all!
If your MCAT practice test scores aren’t where you want them to be, don’t leave it up to chance. Med School Insiders offers premium tutoring for the MCAT, in addition to other medical school courses and exams. Our tutors excelled on the test themselves and utilize the tried and true Med School Insiders methodology. Ultimately, that means a significantly better score for you. Learn more here.