MCAT Score Breakdown: What You Need to Know

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MCAT Overview

Along with your undergraduate transcript, your MCAT score is the major component of the “raw data” that medical school admissions committees evaluate when reviewing your application. While many components (your performance in college, volunteer/research experience, and personal statement/secondaries) contribute to a strong and well-rounded application, your MCAT score is undoubtedly atop the list. You essentially cannot succeed in the medical school application process without an adequate MCAT score. It is therefore crucial that you approach the exam the right way. Before you start, it is important to have a solid understanding of the nuts and bolts of the exam and what the score represents.  

Anatomy of the MCAT: The Sections

The Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, is a standardized, multiple-choice exam administered by the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC). It is meant to gauge an applicant’s ability to apply knowledge from their pre-medical studies to questions in four different subject areas, with an emphasis on critical thinking. The format of the exam has gone through multiple iterations, but in 2015 it was revised to contain the following four sections:

Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (59 questions)

Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (59 questions)

Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (59 questions)

Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (53 questions)

 

Old vs. New MCAT

Previously the exam had only sections on the biological sciences, physical sciences, reading comprehension, and a writing section. The AAMC performed the 2015 revision to tailor the test to many changes in both medicine and medical education since the last revision in 1991. For more about this shift in content, take a look at what the AAMC has published on the subject here. The following is an overview of the key differences between the old and new MCAT:   Chart Comparing Old Versus New MCAT

 

A New Score for a New Test

Along with reorganizing the content and format of the MCAT in 2015, the AAMC also adjusted the scoring system. When I took the MCAT in 2011 under the previous version, test-takers received a numerical score of 1-15 for each of the three multiple choice sections with the overall score being a sum of these. The perfect score was 45 (attained, I might add, by an exclusive crowd of 0.0% of examinees that year). The mean score was around 25-26 for all comers. Today each of the four sections is now scored on a scale ranging 118 to 132, making that new perfect number 528. The exam is scaled to a mean of about 500, with the mean of each section near a score of 125. For example, a completely average score would break down like this:

Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems: 125

Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems: 125

Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior: 125

Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills: 125

Total: 500

Most examinees scores within a few points of these averages, with a standard deviation of about 3 for each section. For illustration of these score distributions, check out the published summary data for the May 2017-April 2018 exams. These results are updated annually and made available by the AAMC. To get an understanding of the range of MCAT scores, here is a sample of scores on the old and new exam which correspond to a range of percentiles:  
NEW MCAT SCORE OLD MCAT SCORE PERCENTILE
521+ 38+ 99
517 35 95
513-514 33 90
511-512 31-32 85
509-510 30-31 80
506 28-29 70
503 27 60
500 25-26 50
492-493 20-21 25
≤476 ≤9 ≤1

What Does My MCAT Score Mean?

Now, armed with more background on the MCAT and its scoring, a major burning question still remains: What exactly is a good score? The answer will of course vary for each applicant, but in general it is helpful to contextualize this question in terms of percentiles. You’ll notice in the table above that each numerical score has an associated percentile rank denoting the percentage of test-takers scoring below this value. Last year the mean score was 500.2 with a standard deviation of 10.5 points. Scoring 511, or roughly one standard deviation above that year’s, mean would put you in the 85th percentile, ahead of a large majority of test takers. For context, this score is very close to the average MCAT score (510.4) for all students matriculating to US Medical schools that year. Thus the average matriculating student score was around 85th percentile. The average score for all applicants was 504.7. The AAMC also makes this score data available (see table A-19). Now this example is not to say that it takes a score of 510 to get into medical school.  Keep in mind there is a very broad range of scores for students who were accepted to medical school. The matriculating student average itself had a standard deviation of about 6. This means that slightly more than 2/3 of accepted students had scores between 504 and 516, but many also scored higher or lower. The statistics do illustrate the weight of the exam, in that scores of accepted students are on average higher than scores for the pool of all applicants, which are in turn higher than the average score for everyone taking the test. Regardless of the school you’re aiming for, it helps to maximize your score.  

Can I Compare the “New” and “Old” MCAT Scores?

There is no direct conversion when comparing pre- and post-2015 MCAT scores. The best way to estimate this is to compare percentiles associated with each score. The chart above provides a good framework, showing corresponding scores for a similar percentile between the old and new exam. Here is an example:

In 2013 a score of 33 was good for 90th percentile. In 2017-2018 a score of 514 represented just above 90th percentile. Thus, a 514 and a 33 might be considered relatively equivalent.

It is important to note that the AAMC states that because the two exams are different, the scores should not be considered exactly equivalent based on old and new MCAT conversions. With that said, it is still useful to have a general concept of how these scores compare. The AAMC has stated they will continue to report pre-2015 MCAT scores through the 2019 AMCAS application cycle. However, it is up to the individual schools whether they will consider these scores. At present, about 50-60% of schools accept scores from both the old and new MCAT. Details on each school’s policies can be found here.  

What if I am Aiming for Very Competitive Medical Schools?

The most competitive schools tend to have high average MCAT scores as one might expect. Some schools publish these marks themselves:

For example, the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania had an entering class of 2017 which boasted an average MCAT score for each section which amounts to 519, or the 97th percentile.

Similarly, for its class entering in 2018, Johns Hopkins posted an average score of 36 on the old MCAT scale, also the 97th percentile.

It’s important to remember that the MCAT score is just one data point. All medical schools accept students with a range of scores. A stellar score alone will not make an entire application, nor will a lower than average score completely preclude acceptance.  

More MCAT Resources

It is crucial to understand the MCAT exam and how the score factors into your application. Further details are provided by the AAMC regarding the exam itself and resources for exam preparation. If you have any further questions regarding the MCAT or would like assistance creating a study strategy, our team of advisers is eager to help you! We have talented individuals that have achieved outstanding scores on the MCAT and know what it takes to knock the exam out of the park. Med School Insiders also offers dedicated tutoring services for anything from college courses to the MCAT! Armed with this knowledge, you are ready for success on the MCAT! Good luck!
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