The Medical College Admissions Test, commonly known as the MCAT, is notoriously difficult. It lasts seven and a half hours, includes questions on multiple scientific disciplines and requires prospective students to solve complex word problems.…
The Medical College Admissions Test, commonly known as the MCAT, is notoriously difficult. It lasts seven and a half hours, includes questions on multiple scientific disciplines and requires prospective students to solve complex word problems.
But while the MCAT requires many hours of preparation, students who perform well on this standardized test may benefit from the challenge. With an impressive score on the MCAT, aspiring doctors can improve their odds of getting accepted to a choice med school. According to medical school admissions experts, the definition of a strong MCAT score will depend partly on the applicant’s target medical schools.
“In general, if your MCAT score or practice score is close to or higher than the average MCAT score of accepted students to a medical school, that’s a good thing,” said Dr. McGreggor Crowley, an admissions counselor with the IvyWise education consulting firm, via email. “It may mean that admissions officers at that school will be able to look beyond your score at the other, important contextual parts of your application.”
Anyone who successfully completes the MCAT receives a score that ranges from 472 to 528. Test-takers will also receive section scores based on performance on four multiple-choice portions of the exam, each of which receives a number grade ranging from 118 to 132. Those section scores are combined and add up to a student’s overall MCAT score.
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the organization that administers the MCAT, the mean MCAT score among U.S. medical school students who enrolled during the 2017-2018 school year was about 510.
Abbigail Tissot, assistant dean of admissions and recruitment programs with the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, says that applicants to allopathic medical schools (or M.D. programs) should typically aim for a minimum MCAT score of 507. Students with disadvantaged backgrounds, such as those who grew up in poverty, may be competitive for medical school with an MCAT score below 507, but they should still aim for MCAT scores that meet or exceed 500, Tissot says.
Experts say that medical schools look at applicant’s MCAT scores in context along with the rest of their application and that applicants can mitigate a low score if they have another compelling attribute.
For instance, Kent says that medical school hopefuls who demonstrate interest in entering medical specialties with doctor shortages may be able to get into medical school with lower MCAT scores than their peers without that interest.
Tissot advises medical school applicants to search the AAMC’s Medical School Admissions Requirements database, commonly known as MSAR, to see what the minimum and maximum MCAT scores and score distributions are at their desired medical programs.
It’s crucial for premeds to set a target MCAT score based on the med schools they are interested in, as opposed to deciding which schools to apply for based on their score, Tissot says. “As you’re prepping for your MCAT, you’re looking at the schools you know you fit well with and you know you want to attend, you’re looking at what you think the score is that’s competitive to get there and you’re taking practice tests until you get a score that is close to that score,” she says.
It’s best to wait to take the MCAT until you have prepared thoroughly, because medical schools don’t necessarily focus exclusively on the highest MCAT score if applicants submit more than one score, Tissot says. And at some schools, the scores are averaged, Tissot cautions.
Dr. K. Craig Kent, dean of the Ohio State University College of Medicine, echoes similar sentiments. The MCAT is not a test that anyone should take cold, without studying for it, he says. “The idea of walking into the test unprepared the first time just to get a feel for it or with the assumption that was true with undergrad that you could discard the first score and use your second score if it’s higher is not true in medical school. So, being well prepared before you take it the first time, I think, is critically important,” Kent says.
Petros Minasi Jr., the senior director of pre-health programs at Kaplan Test Prep, says that applicants to the most selective U.S. medical schools may want to aim for scores above 515 or even around 520. A score of 515 corresponds to the 92nd percentile among MCAT test-takers between 2015 and 2017, according to a percentile chart published by the AAMC.
At all but two of the top 20 schools in the U.S. News rankings of the Best Medical Schools for Research, the median MCAT score was 515 or higher; at several of these schools, the median score was 520 or above. For instance, at the New York University School of Medicine, the median MCAT score for entering students in fall 2017 was 521, according to U.S. News statistics.
A high MCAT score does not necessarily guarantee medical school acceptance, but as a general rule, someone has better odds of receiving a medical school acceptance letter if he or she has an above-average score, Kent says. “If you’re scoring above the 50th percentile, that’s a whole lot better than scoring below the 50th percentile,” Kent says. “If you’re above the 70th percentile, I mean, that increases your chances dramatically more of getting into medical school than if you’re below the 70th percentile.”
Minasi also emphasizes that medical school admissions officers will analyze a student’s performance on every portion of the MCAT, so it isn’t wise for a student to neglect preparing for any section. “You don’t want to be overly lopsided,” he warns.
A significantly lower score in one MCAT section versus all the others is not ideal, even if the overall MCAT score is good, Crowley says. “Certainly it’s grounds for an applicant to consider retesting if this is the case, and the discrepancy is large enough,” he says.
Experts say that medical schools vary in how much emphasis they place on individual sections of the MCAT. Tissot says that medical schools base their decisions about which sections to prioritize based on their curriculum. Schools with an extremely technical curriculum may look closely at one of the science-based portions of the MCAT such as the “Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems” section, she says. Meanwhile, schools that emphasize case studies may focus on the “Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills” section, she explains.
Kent says he pays close attention to scores on the “Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills” section, because he believes that strong performance on this section is indicative of strong fact-spotting skills. These skills are essential for aspiring doctors who must assess a patient’s symptoms and come up with a medical diagnosis, Kent says. Strong performance on the “Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior” section is also a plus, because it demonstrates knowledge of the various factors that may influence a medical patient’s behavior, Kent says.
Many medical schools are especially interested in the results of the “Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems” section of the MCAT, since the questions on this section are similar to those asked in the United States Medical Licensing Examination, commonly known as the USMLE, Crowley says. “I’d venture to say that since most of the questions on these USMLE exams are rooted in biology, genetics, and pharmacology, the Biological and Biochemical Foundations section is going to be looked at most closely by admissions officers.”
Minasi suggests that premeds who have signed up for a retake make sure that they prepare for the MCAT differently this time, because test prep strategies that didn’t work the last time are probably flawed.
If medical school applicants are concerned that their MCAT score might keep them out of medical school, they should try to improve it, despite the fact that admissions officers may consider their prior low MCAT score, Kent says. “I would still encourage people that didn’t score so well on the first test to take it again, because if you score better the second test, then that information is available, and it’s obviously positive if you brought your score up the second time around.”