The Medical College Admission 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 medical school 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, aspiring doctors can improve their odds of getting accepted to a choice med school.
“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,” Dr. McGreggor Crowley, a medical school and college admissions counselor with the IvyWise education consulting firm, wrote in an email.
What MCAT Score Do You Need for Med School?
Anyone who successfully completes the MCAT receives a score that ranges from 472 to 528. Test-takers 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.
Medical school applicants can search the Association of American Medical Colleges’ Medical School Admissions Requirements database, commonly known as MSAR, to see what the score distributions are at their desired medical programs.
A score of 510 or more is generally sufficient for admission to at least one U.S. medical school, if candidates have a solid application in other respects, including a good GPA and quality application essays, experts say. Such a score sits at the 77th percentile among test-takers who took the exam between 2019 and 2021, according to data from the AAMC, the organization that administers the MCAT.
The mean MCAT score among U.S. students who enrolled at M.D. programs during the 2021-2022 school year was about 512, per the AAMC. A score of 512 hits the 83rd percentile for 2019-2021 test-takers. Meanwhile, the average MCAT score among U.S. medical students who began D.O. programs in 2021 was about 505, according to a report by the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, commonly known as AACOM. A 505 was a 61st percentile MCAT score for 2019-2021 test-takers.
Applicants to allopathic medical schools (M.D. programs) should typically aim for a minimum MCAT score of 510, says Dr. David Grier, an interim assistant dean of admissions and special programs with the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, where he is also an associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine.
“When you start getting below 510, you might start running into some issues,” he says. “Anything above 510 is only going to help.”
MCAT scores are assessed in context with the rest of an application, experts say, so applicants can mitigate a low score if they have another compelling selling point.
For instance, med 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, says Dr. K. Clark Kent, chief executive officer of UVA Health and executive vice president for health affairs at the University of Virginia.
What’s a Great MCAT Score?
Scores of 520 or higher are rare. An overall MCAT score of 520 equaled or surpassed the performance of 97% of test-takers who took the exam between 2019 and 2021, according to AAMC data.
Applicants to the most selective U.S. medical schools should aim for scores above 515 or even around 520, says Petros Minasi Jr., senior director of prehealth programs at Kaplan, a company that provides test prep and other educational services. A score of 515 corresponds to the 90th percentile among MCAT test-takers between 2019 and 2021, according to the AAMC.
At all but one of the top 10 schools in the U.S. News rankings of the Best Medical Schools for Research, the median MCAT score was 515 or higher. And 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 2021 was 522, according to data provided to U.S. News.
Occasionally people with MCAT scores around a 515 contemplate retaking the MCAT in order to achieve a 520 or better, says Grier. “I kind of discourage that because the data show that they will probably not improve, or they will do worse,” he says. “It is unusual to see somebody have a huge jump in MCAT scores.”
The MCAT is not a test that anyone should take cold without studying, since a candidate’s first official score will be displayed to application reviewers even if the test-taker is dissatisfied with the score and would prefer that it be undisclosed, Kent says.
Voiding an MCAT exam before receiving a score is permitted, but in that case, the test fee is forfeited, and the test administration counts toward the limited number of test attempts that candidates are allowed in a given year. An individual can take the MCAT up to three times per testing year, up to four times within two consecutive years and a maximum of seven times total.
The Importance of MCAT Section Scores
Medical school admissions officers 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, Minasi says. “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.
Medical schools vary in how much emphasis they place on individual sections of the MCAT and base their decisions about which sections to prioritize based on their curriculum, experts say. 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.
Kent says he pays close attention to skills on the “Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills” section because he believes that performance there reflects the skills involved in assessing a patient’s symptoms and coming up with a medical diagnosis. A solid score on the “Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior” section is also a plus, because it demonstrates knowledge of the factors that may influence a medical patient’s behavior, he adds.
Many medical schools are especially interested in the results of the “Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems” section, since its questions are similar to those on 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.”
Advice on MCAT Retakes
Premeds who sign up for an MCAT retake should prepare for the MCAT differently this time, because test prep strategies that didn’t work the last time are probably flawed, Minasi says.
If test-takers 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.”
How to Worry Less About the MCAT
One way to minimize the stress of MCAT prep is to keep the MCAT in mind early in one’s college career while taking MCAT-related classes in subjects like organic chemistry and biochemistry, and to master those topics thoroughly, Minasi says.
Another strategy for putting the MCAT in perspective is to remember that the MCAT doesn’t measure certain personal qualities that are desirable in aspiring physicians, such as resilience, Minasi says. The AAMC’s professional readiness exam — which was originally called a situational judgment test when it was introduced in 2020 and is now accepted by more than 15 medical schools — is designed to assess these forms of emotional intelligence.
Med school hopefuls should be wary of investing so much time and effort in MCAT prep that they are too burnt out to fill out applications and write admissions essays, Minasi warns. “Put the right emphasis on this part of the application, but also recognize that there’s going to be other work to be done,” he says.
Searching for a medical school? Get our complete rankingsof Best Medical Schools.
More from U.S. News
Correction 09/24/18: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Update 07/15/22: This story has been updated with new information.