How important is the MCAT to medical school admissions?

While the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, is a critically important component of your application package, medical school admissions decisions are based on a variety of factors. Most medical schools, including those at the very top of the national rankings, look for well-rounded students with much more to offer than a high MCAT score. Alongside your MCAT score, important evaluation areas include: undergraduate coursework and GPA; research, work, and general healthcare experience; personal statement and letters of recommendation; and admissions interview assessments. Although schools weigh each of these areas according to their own admissions policies and educational philosophies, they all play an important role in providing schools with an overall sense of your ability to succeed as a medical student.

The MCAT does have unique importance in the evaluation process, however. It is the only major evaluation tool that enables schools to make an accurate comparison of applicant abilities. Undergraduate GPA, for example, is a problematic comparison tool since grading standards can vary across schools, courses, and professors. In contrast, the MCAT is designed specifically to measure a student's science knowledge and problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities on a standardized scale. A higher MCAT score indicates that a student has superior ability in the knowledge and skill areas covered by the test, which have proven to correlate strongly with medical school success.

All that said, the MCAT does not provide a complete student assessment. This is why you need a strong application supported by much more than a high MCAT score. Without a well-rounded application, even a very high score is probably not going to get you into a top medical school. On the other hand, if your MCAT score is on the mediocre side, admission into a great medical school is still very possible if you stand out in other evaluation areas. Ultimately, each school has its own standards for admissions decisions. In order to learn more about the importance of MCAT scores to different schools, there are a couple things to look out for in your research.

MCAT Minimums and Averages

It's not always easy to identify how medical schools differ in their admissions standards and student selection methods. That said, when it comes to MCAT scores, there are two important sets of numbers to look for as you research each school: the minimum score requirements and the MCAT score averages from past academic years. These two figures help you identify medical schools that match up well with your qualifications.

Minimum Score Requirements

Some medical schools require applicants to meet minimum MCAT score requirements in order to become eligible for admission. For example, the Indiana University School of Medicine requires students to submit an MCAT score of no less than 28, with no individual section score below seven. In another example, the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine has a minimum overall MCAT score requirement of 24 with no specific sectional minimums. While MCAT minimums are not used by every medical school, it's important to determine whether they are in place at any of the schools you're interested in attending.

Average Scores From Past Years

Many medical schools publish information on MCAT scores for accepted students from past academic years. These figures are an important tool for gauging the kind of score you need to achieve in order to be competitive at a given school. For example, the Florida State University College of Medicine does not have a minimum MCAT score requirement, but they do report an average overall MCAT score of 28 out of 45 for students admitted in the 2013 academic year. In comparison, Harvard Medical School, one of the top schools in the nation, reports average section scores of 11.2, 12.55, and 12.61 for the verbal reasoning, physical science, and biological science sections of the MCAT, respectively. These section scores correspond to a total average MCAT score of more than 36 out of 45 for students entering school in 2013. Harvard has no minimum score requirement for the MCAT.

It's clear from these figures that you're going to need a much higher MCAT score to be competitive at Harvard than you need to be competitive at Florida State University. While MCAT score averages don't reveal precisely how each part of the application is weighed to make the final admissions decision, they do provide a general idea of how admissions standards compare across different medical schools. This helps you to identify those schools that are a good match for you and your MCAT score.

How is the MCAT scored?

The Medical College Admission Test, known as the MCAT, is a critical component of the medical school application process. The MCAT is designed to evaluate your knowledge of basic scientific concepts, as well as your general problem-solving abilities and critical-thinking and reasoning skills. The test is delivered by computer in testing locations across the country.

MCAT Section Scores

The MCAT has three required test sections covering the biological sciences, the physical sciences, and verbal reasoning skills, respectively. Each required section is scored on a scale of one to 15, with 45 total points possible on the full test. The MCAT also includes an optional trial section that does not produce a score. Note that tests taken prior to January 2013 included a fourth scored section designed to test writing skills. This section is no longer included in the MCAT, as it was replaced by the trial section in 2013.

Biological Sciences

The biological sciences section has 52 multiple-choice questions, 39 of which are tied to reading passages and 13 of which stand on their own. The questions are designed to evaluate your knowledge of introductory-level organic chemistry and biology concepts, as well as general reasoning skills. You are given 70 minutes to complete the biological sciences section of the test.

Physical Sciences

The physical sciences section has the very same format as the biological sciences section, with 52 multiple-choice questions and 70 minutes to complete them. This section tests your knowledge of introductory-level physics and general chemistry concepts, and evaluates your ability to apply these concepts to scientific problems.

Verbal Reasoning

The verbal reasoning section of the MCAT includes 40 multiple-choice questions, all of which are tied to reading passages. The reading passages are taken from the social sciences and humanities, as well as the natural sciences. The questions evaluate your ability to comprehend, assess, and apply arguments and other information found in the reading passages. You are given 60 minutes to complete this section of the test.

Trial Section

The trial section is a completely voluntary part of the exam designed to evaluate new test questions for use on subsequent tests. It's delivered at the end of the test day after you've already completed the scored sections of the test. The MCAT trial section includes 32 multiple-choice questions. Questions are drawn from physics, chemistry, biochemistry, and biology, or from psychology, sociology, and biology. You are given 45 minutes to complete the trial section if you choose to do so. Although no score will be reported to any medical school, you do receive feedback on your performance for your own purposes. If you participate in the trial section, you receive a $30 Amazon.com gift card as compensation about three or four weeks after the test.

Score Reporting

MCAT scores are generally available to you online about 30 to 35 days after your test date. Scores are released into the MCAT Testing History (THx) Score Reporting System. All three individual section scores are reported, as well as an overall MCAT score. To release your scores to medical schools, simply log in to the THx system and identify the schools to which you want your scores released. Note that you don't have the option of withholding a single section score or a full test score from a prior MCAT test date. If you choose to release your MCAT score to a medical school, you must agree to release your full testing history.

If you retake the MCAT, keep in mind that each school has their own policy for evaluating your scores. While some schools only consider your latest test score, others average all of your test scores together. Still, other schools evaluate you on the basis of your highest score among all your test attempts. Contact an admissions officer at each of your favored schools to learn more about how they evaluate MCAT scores.

Score Cancellation

Immediately after completing all the sections of the MCAT exam, you're given the opportunity to cancel your MCAT score by voiding your exam in its entirety. You don't get to see your score before making this decision since scores are only released about a month later. This opportunity is a valuable one if you're certain you made a serious mistake on the test or if you were simply unprepared. Note that this is the only opportunity you have to cancel your MCAT scores. If you don't choose to void your exam at this juncture, your scores become a permanent part of your testing history in the MCAT system.

Rescoring

If, after considering your reported scores in the MCAT system, you believe an error has been made in the electronic score calculation, you are entitled to request your test be rescored by hand. To request a rescoring, you must contact MCAT directly by written letter and pay a fee of $60. Results of the rescoring are sent to you by letter within three weeks of your request. There is no other mechanism available by which you are able to alter or remove a score from your testing history.

How much time should I spend studying for the MCAT?

The amount of study time you need to reach an adequate level of preparation for the MCAT depends on a variety of factors, including the amount of coursework you've completed in the sciences and the general level of your analytical and critical-thinking abilities, among other points. You might need less study time than another student if you have a special aptitude or more personal experience related to MCAT content areas. Whatever your initial skill level, it's very important to begin preparing for your test as soon in the process as you are able. To devise a strong study plan for yourself, follow these steps.

Evaluate Your Readiness

Most students need a minimum of three to four months of regular, sustained test preparation, including content review and practice time. That said, some students need even more time than that. So, in order to ensure that you have as much time as you need to get adequately prepared for the test, it's absolutely vital that you evaluate your initial skill level and general readiness for the MCAT as early as possible. Ideally, you should evaluate yourself immediately upon making your initial decision to apply to medical schools.

There are a couple ways to evaluate your initial readiness for the MCAT. First, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the administrator of the MCAT, publishes the Official MCAT Self-Assessment Package, a set of online evaluation materials designed just for this purpose. After purchasing and completing the self-assessment, you get a detailed analysis of your performance that identifies your strengths and weaknesses and helps you organize an effective study plan. Alternatively, AAMC also provides access to a free full-length MCAT practice test online. While you get a detailed score report upon completing this practice test, the reports and evaluation tools are not as comprehensive as those provided in the Official MCAT Self-Assessment Package.

Many MCAT prep companies also offer free or paid evaluation services designed to help you get a grasp on your study needs. The Princeton Review, for example, offers free on-site and online practice tests, both of which deliver a score report detailing your test performance. If you live near a Princeton Review location, take your score report to a free practice test review session to get personal help building a study plan based on your test performance.

Evaluate Your MCAT Scheduling Options

As you look to evaluate your readiness for the MCAT, you also need to start thinking about scheduling your MCAT test date. The test is administered more than 20 times throughout the year so you have plenty of choices. Once you solidify your test date, you're then ready to lock in a study schedule and get down to the hard work of preparing for the test. To identify a good MCAT test date, consider these important factors.

Medical School Deadlines

In most cases, you should schedule your MCAT test date sometime during the calendar year before you intend to enter medical school. For example, if you plan to apply in 2014 for medical school entry in the fall of 2015, you should take your MCAT in 2014. While this advice is widely applicable across most medical schools, it's still important to research your favored schools in order to identify any differences in general policy or in MCAT submission deadlines. For example, some schools review MCAT results from earlier test dates first, which may influence admissions decisions for students who test later and are consequently evaluated later in the admissions process.

Allowing for Retakes

You should also consider the possibility of retaking the MCAT. If you want to give yourself enough time to retake the test should you need to, it's important to schedule your initial test date as early as possible while still giving yourself enough time to prepare adequately. While no one wants to take the MCAT multiple times, many different life events and test-day circumstances are capable of influencing your test performance. If something goes wrong on test day, it's nice to have the leeway to schedule another attempt.

You're allowed to take the MCAT up to three times per year at a cost of $270 per attempt. In most cases, your scores are made available to you about 30 to 35 days after your test date, so you need to consider the month-long wait time if you want to allow yourself the chance to fit in a new test date before medical school deadlines arrive. Also consider the fact that many test dates fill up in advance. If you live in an area with limited testing locations, you need to factor in the possibility of a delay while you wait for an open test date.

Study Considerations

Many students take an MCAT prep course to help them get ready for test day. Popular options include on-site, live online, and self-guided courses lasting from a week or two to several months or more. The Princeton Review, for example, offers a variety of courses to meet virtually any student need, from comprehensive three-month courses to 15-hour courses focusing on just the verbal reasoning section of the test. Kaplan is another top provider in the MCAT prep industry, offering a full complement of course options both online and on-site. If you're interested in professional MCAT preparation, chances are there's a great course out there offering just what you need. However, since the options are so varied in length, it's important to identify the course you want to take before you schedule your MCAT.

Schedule Your Test and Start Studying

Once you've identified the ideal test date, it's time to lock it in and get started with studying. Note that the AAMC opens test dates for registration in two large blocks each year. Test dates for the months of January to May open in the fall of the prior calendar year. Test dates for the months of June to September are released in the spring of the same year. No MCAT test dates are available during the months of October, November, and December.

What changes are coming to the MCAT in 2015?

The MCAT and its predecessors have been used for medical school admissions purposes since 1928. Starting in 1946, the test has undergone a comprehensive review and revision every 15 years or so. The purpose of the review is to identify ways to improve the test in its main function as an evaluation tool and to update it in light of new medical knowledge and new testing methods and technologies. The fifth revision of the MCAT is slated to be introduced in spring of 2015, at which point the current version will be retired.

The first students to take the new version of the MCAT are those who intend to start medical school in the fall of 2016. If your expected medical school start date is prior to the fall of 2016, you must schedule and take the current MCAT, which is available through January 2015. If you intend to start medical school in the fall of 2016 or later and you're ready to take the current version of the test before or during January 2015, you are allowed to do so. However, it's important to understand that medical schools only accept test scores as valid for a limited time. About 40% of U.S. medical schools accept scores for up to two years after the test date, while another 40% accept scores for three years. Some medical schools accept scores that are four or more years old. If you take the current version of the test for a medical school start date in 2016, 2017, or 2018, make sure your favored medical schools are willing to accept it. Otherwise, you'll be forced to prepare for and take the new test version.

Important 2015 Changes

Several changes are coming to the 2015 version of the MCAT that will have an important impact on your test preparation. In terms of subject matter, the new MCAT includes concepts presented in first-semester courses in sociology, psychology, and biochemistry. These new content areas add to the subject matter already found in the current version of the test, which includes concepts from first-year introductory courses in biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics. The 2015 MCAT revision also introduces new types of questions designed to test your ability to solve problems by combining concepts from different academic areas. These questions also evaluate your knowledge of statistics and basic research methods.

The new version of the MCAT is designed to be about two hours longer than the current version's 4.5-hour length. Just as it's important to prepare for the new content areas, it's also important to prepare adequately for the challenges presented by the increased test length.

As the transition from the current MCAT test to the new test takes place, be sure to select your learning and practice materials carefully. Using materials designed for the current version of the test won't fully prepare you for the new version of the test released in spring of 2015. Inadvertently using updated preparation materials to prepare for the current version of the test is also something to be wary of.

Will I be penalized if I take the MCAT multiple times?

Nobody wants to take a half-day test more than once. The preparation process in the lead-up to test day is grueling and taking the test under proctored conditions is physically and mentally taxing. So, it's pretty important that you do all you can do in terms of preparation to perform to your true potential on your first test attempt. However, if you sit for the test and things don't go quite your way, you are entitled to take the MCAT exam up to three times per year.

A variety of different life events and unforeseen test-day circumstances are capable of influencing your performance on the MCAT test. If you're certain that you can do better on a second attempt because your first performance was negatively affected by a chance event, a strong case of test anxiety, or simply failing to prepare adequately, many experts consider it a good idea to retake the exam.

Each medical school has their own policy for evaluating multiple MCAT scores. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the MCAT administrator, a survey of medical schools in 2008 revealed that most schools use one of three methods to evaluate multiple scores. Some schools use the most recent MCAT score, while others use the highest score from multiple test dates. Other schools calculate the average MCAT score across the different test dates. In all three of these cases, it's a good idea to retake the MCAT if you're certain that you can improve your score in comparison to your previous attempt. That said, this kind of certainty is a difficult proposition in itself.

According to the AAMC, among all students who scored 29 or fewer points on the MCAT in 2010, 2011, and 2012, and then retook the test in the same year, the median improvement was two points. However, 25% of those students received a worse score on their second attempt as compared to their first attempt. Among students who scored 36 or more points on their first attempt during those same years, half of the students improved their scores and half received a worse score. These statistics just go to show you that you need to be quite confident in your ability to improve before you commit to a second test date.

Most experts agree that it's generally not a good idea to take the MCAT several times unless you're adamant that your early attempts don't represent your true abilities. However you feel about your ability to improve your score, before making a final decision to retake the MCAT you should always seek advice from an admissions officer at each of your favored medical schools. Different schools have different policies. Your most-favored school may just take a poor view of multiple MCAT attempts, which would be a very important thing to know about when considering a second attempt.