For better or worse, your stats, including your GPA and MCAT score, are integral to getting into medical school. If you are reading this post, you probably took the MCAT and got a score you aren’t exactly thrilled by. So now you’re asking: “Should I 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 only to end up getting a similar, or even worse, score.
In this post, we’ll break down this complex decision into three critically important considerations.
- Do you need a higher MCAT score?
- Can you improve your MCAT score?
- How many times have you taken the MCAT?
1 | Do You Need a Higher MCAT Score?
Do your research to determine if you actually need a higher MCAT score. The answer to this question depends on what medical school(s) you are planning to apply to. 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 School Admission Requirements (MSAR) database. If your stats are around the average of matriculants, you do not need to retake the MCAT, as this would be an exercise in diminishing returns.
However, you should retake the MCAT if your score is below the average of matriculants. Additionally, 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.
This should be a consideration across your application. If you know you have another weak area, such as not having a variety of experiences or struggling to obtain strong letters of recommendation, your MCAT score becomes all the more important. While the goal is to have no weak areas on your application, you can still be successful if you fall short in one area. But that means the other aspects of your application must be much more impressive.
When determining if you actually need a higher MCAT score, also consider the schools you are applying to. Use the MSAR to find out if there are other schools with MCAT averages for matriculants within your range. Is it a deal breaker to apply to different schools? Have you thoroughly researched a variety of schools well beyond your initial dream list?
School prestige is far from everything, and it’s often school fit that matters more. Complete plenty of research on a variety of schools, and don’t evaluate them exclusively on reputation and rank. How do costs compare? How far will you need to move from your hometown? Do you like the city the school is located in? What research opportunities are available?
Taking the MCAT once is hard enough. Taking it twice will take away valuable time you could be spending on other areas of your application. Carefully consider whether you actually need a higher MCAT score before automatically jumping into the retake process.
2 | Can You Improve Your MCAT Score?
The next question to ask yourself is whether or not you will actually be able to improve your score. The answer to this question can be broken down into three elements: time, energy, and strategy.
Before committing to an MCAT retake, you must secure adequate amounts of all three elements to ensure you receive 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 Study Time?
Time is the most important consideration since 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, extracurricular activities, or work), you might need to either reduce your commitments or wait until you have more free time to attempt an MCAT retake.
It is 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.
There will always only be 24 hours in a day, but there are ways to get more done in less time. Productivity and focus are skills you can continue to hone in order to find more time. We have a number of time management and productivity articles on the Med School Insiders blog. Check out:
- Super Human Productivity: Getting More Done in Less Time
- 5 Foundational Principles to Productivity
- The Anatomy of a Perfect Night Routine
- The Anatomy of a Successful Morning Routine
So how much time is needed to retake the MCAT?
When studying for the MCAT the first time, we recommend approximately 3 months of full-time studying (40-50 hours per week) or 5-6 months of part time studying (20-25 hours per week.)
When retaking the MCAT, less time is required since you are catching yourself up on topics you once knew—but you still need a significant amount of time. Since you are aiming for a higher score this time, you need to get to where you once were and then some.
Let us first say that everyone’s situation is different. The amount of time you need to study for an MCAT retake depends on a number of factors, including when you took the test and why you didn’t do as well as you hoped the first time.
The more recent your last test was, the less time it will take you to refamiliarize yourself with MCAT content. For example, if you took the MCAT in September and decide to retake it in January, less preparation is needed. If, on the other hand, you took the MCAT in September and decide to retake it next September (next cycle), then you will need around the same amount of preparation time as you had the first time around.
The other major factor to consider is why you are retaking the test and how much you need to improve your score. Did you continually do well on practice tests, but then seized up on test day? This may mean you have a good grasp of the material, but need to focus on preparing yourself for the rigors of the test and easing test day nerves. In this case, you won’t need as much preparation time.
If you did poorly on two sections of the MCAT due to a lack of understanding/memorization, you will need to focus much more of your attention on reviewing content. If your struggles are content-related, it will take longer to prepare yourself again since you need to be in a much better place before you jump into retaking the test.
In either case, it’s critical that you use your time to focus on your deficiencies. What didn’t go well, and what changes do you need to make this time to ensure you do better?
With all that said, how much time should you dedicate toward studying for a retake? In general, if the test is within 1-6 months of your previous test, prepare to commit to a month of full-time studying (40-50 hours per week) or 2-3 months of part-time studying (20-25 hours per week). Add more time depending on how far away you are from your last MCAT test, and add even more time if understanding/memorization was the main issue you faced.
Learn more: When should you start studying for the MCAT?
B | Do You Have Enough Energy?
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 to studying for a grueling 7.5 hour marathon of an exam.
Keep in mind that most people who initially scored between 472-517 only improve 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 used to pursuing other fulfilling activities. Extracurriculars, such as shadowing, research, and volunteering, add depth to your medical school application, and they could mean more for your application than a one or two point increase to your MCAT score.
Carefully consider the energy you will be taking away from other activities, including completing your primary application, when deciding whether or not you want to retake the MCAT.
Reflect on your previous experience taking the MCAT. Are you in a better space mentally, emotionally, and physically? What activities will you be taking away from if you choose to begin studying again? Do you have the capacity to fit another MCAT test into your already busy schedule?
If you honestly do not feel up to retaking the MCAT, it may not be worth it. This is completely up to you to assess and decide, but remember—you must get a higher score if you take the MCAT again. If you do not have the energy to complete this journey again, it’s perfectly reasonable to distinguish yourself in other ways throughout your application.
C | Do You Have an Improved Study Strategy?
You can’t study in the exact same ways and expect different results on your next MCAT test. An improved study strategy, along with the requisite time and energy to study, will ensure that you see a significant score improvement. The key here is 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 but did well on others, focus the bulk of your resources on improving those section(s) while maintaining your knowledge in your strong sections. Allocate 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, retake the exam as soon as possible while the material is fresh in your mind. Take some time (about a month) to mentally recharge while maintaining your knowledge, then retake the MCAT. It might have been that you had a bad test day or were thrown off by the stress of the in-person test.
Analyze your previous scores and assess what went well and what didn’t go so well. Did you dedicate enough time to studying? Did you utilize your time wisely? Did you spend too much time on one section and not enough on others? Did you fail to adequately prepare for the CARS section of the MCAT?
If at any point you feel that you have plateaued, it is time to seek outside help. If you studied as hard as you could and understood the material but underperformed on both practice exams and/or the real exam, you might need guidance from a dedicated tutor who can assess your situation.
Outside help might include taking an MCAT class, an online course, or seeking private MCAT tutoring. While all options have their pros and cons, the main point is that you need to go about your studying in a different way than before. Working in a vacuum is the last thing you want to do if you find yourself stuck on a score plateau. Seek to study smarter—which can often mean knowing when to get help.
Is MCAT Tutoring Worth It? Learn more about MCAT tutoring, including whether it’s worth your investment and how other forms of study prep compare.
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 (pre-2015 MCAT). If you took the old MCAT and want to know what your score translates to for 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. Even though you can technically take the MCAT three times a year or more over a few years, this is not advisable.
We recommend not exceeding two MCAT retakes after your first attempt. The more attempts you have on your application, the worse it will look to admissions committees, especially if you are not making significant progress in increasing your score.
Failing to achieve an adequate MCAT score after three attempts calls 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.
If you have already taken the MCAT twice and are still not happy with your score, it is time to make a drastic change. An MCAT tutor can help you determine what went wrong on your previous tests and how you can improve your study strategy to achieve your absolute best.
Should You Retake the MCAT?
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.
Whether or not you choose to retake the MCAT is a personal decision you need to make based on your specific circumstances. Do not make this decision lightly. Retaking the MCAT is a draining process that will take place at a time when premeds don’t have much time to spare. There are also risks involved, as getting a lower score than you received previously will be seen and noted by admissions committees.
First, assess your situation to determine if you actually need a higher score. Next, consider the energy you have and whether or not you have sufficient time to dedicate to studying all over again. Lastly, consider how many times you’ve already taken the MCAT. We recommend not taking the test more than three times.
If you do decide a retake is right for you, make sure you make significant changes to how you approach the test. Focus on your areas of weakness, and don’t shy away from getting extra help if you are no longer making progress.
Don’t Leave Your Retake Score Up to Chance
If your MCAT test scores were not what you hoped for, don’t leave the next time up to chance. Med School Insiders offers premium tutoring for the MCAT, with study schedules and strategies customized by real doctors to suit your strengths, weaknesses, and habits.
We have a diagnostic process that evaluates how you can make the greatest improvements. You’ll be matched with a top-scoring tutor for one-on-one mentorship and relationship building. It’s a custom, one-of-a-kind approach that’s based on efficiency and effectiveness.
Our tutors are all doctors who have been through the process before and excelled on the MCAT themselves (averaging >98th percentile)—and they aced the test by utilizing the tried and true Med School Insiders methodology. Ultimately, that means a significantly better score for you.
Surpass even your own goals with the recently relaunched Med School Insiders MCAT Course, which covers everything you need to know for the MCAT in one place. We’ve helped countless premeds surpass their expectations to score in the top percentiles. In our all-new MCAT Course, we distill these strategies into a streamlined and repeatable process. We prioritize the information you need to know for a top score and cut out the fluff so you don’t have to. Try the course risk-free for 10 days.