Taking the MCAT is a requirement for medical school applicants in the United States, and selecting whether to repeat the exam after a poor first attempt should entail various factors, according to experts.
Why is MCAT Important?
When determining admissions selections, medical schools assess a variety of variables, including undergraduate GPA, grades in specific science courses, personal statements, and letters of reference.
The MCAT, or Medical College Admission Test, on the other hand, “is arguably the most objective evaluation of what a student understands or is able to perform,” according to Javarro Russell, senior director of admissions testing service at the Association of American Medical Colleges, which administers the MCAT.
“It’s quite evident to admissions staff what varied MCAT scores may entail.”
Schools use MCAT scores to “narrow down candidates and see who they’ll move forward with,” according to Dr. Renee Marinelli, director of advising at MedSchoolCoach, an admissions consulting service for aspiring med students.
“Schools want to make sure that students who are going to matriculate into their program have some ability to navigate the rigors of medical school,” she says. “The MCAT requirements for the most competitive medical schools are the highest. There is also some evidence that the MCAT score is related to a student’s ability to pass licensing exams in medical school and later.”
Critical thinking is an essential skill as a med school student and later as a practicing doctor, and the MCAT assesses that ability, says Dr. Theodora Pinnock, associate dean of student affairs and admissions at Meharry College of Medicine in Tennessee.
“Also, the MCAT will measure the candidate’s science background and foundation and their depth of knowledge,” she says. “We want that to be in place before medical school. The MCAT does measure that information. It’s not a perfect measure, but it gives us a good idea of where that person stands.”
MCAT Retake Considerations
The MCAT is a four-section exam that takes seven and a half hours to complete, with total scores ranging from 472 to 528. When considering a retake, test takers who are unhappy with their results should consider the following essential questions, according to experts:
- Is it absolutely necessary that I retest?
- How likely am I to improve my score?
- Can I afford the cost and time of testing again?
It’s best to resist a “knee-jerk reaction to immediately retake the test” to try to meet med school application deadlines that the test-taker originally targeted, says Marinelli, who contributes to the U.S. News Medical School Admissions Doctor blog.
“That often does not work that well,” she says, adding that some test-takers score worse on a retake because “they often aren’t ready for it.”
It’s vital to understand yearly and overall limits on the number of times someone may take the MCAT, Russell says. Those are a maximum of three times a year, four times in two consecutive years and seven times overall.
“Also, consider whether the timing of the next attempt fits within the time that the schools require applications to be submitted,” he says.
It may be wise to wait another year or until summer in order to have ample preparation time for a retest, which should begin with “diving deep” into why prior results were poor, Marinelli says. Consider if there was test-day anxiety, insufficient practice testing, inadequate preparation in general, difficulty on every section, one particularly tough section or some combination of factors, she says.
“That often takes more time than they typically want to give, but that’s often the right choice – take their time and really assess and try to figure out where they went wrong, and work toward improvement.”
How to Prep for an MCAT Retest
Med school hopefuls who decide to retake the test should devise a strategy that will increase their chances of scoring higher, experts recommend.
“They should consider going back and trying to figure out how they approached the test and maybe changing that, because doing the same thing will usually get people the same result,” Pinnock says. Applicants should make sure they have the time to prepare, she adds, and also consider their finances, since MCAT testing and preparation can be costly – $330 for the test and as high as $10,000 for some prep courses or tutoring.
It’s important to understand how you learn best, the most effective ways to take in information needed to succeed on the MCAT, and how to set and stick to a study schedule, Russell says.
Another good idea is to talk with someone who recently scored well, Pinnock says. “If you have a friend that did well on the test, ask them what their approach was. What did they do to prepare? If you didn’t get the score you wanted, don’t prep the same way all over again.”
Once you identify where you went wrong, formulate a new and “personalized” test prep approach and “prioritize where your yield is going to be the greatest, where you’re going to make the best difference in terms of improving your score,” Marinelli recommends. “There are parallels between getting into medical school and what you’re going to do as a physician. Part of being a doctor is sitting down and seeing what really went wrong and how can I do it differently.”
For example, if you performed poorly on the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section of the MCAT, or CARS, target that part rather than taking a course that covers the entire exam, she advises. If you realize you didn’t devote enough time to self-study, perhaps invest more time in content review and practice questions rather than taking a prep course.
“There’s no perfect answer on what to do to improve,” Marinelli says. “A bad score doesn’t necessarily mean your initial preparation was poor, it just means you didn’t do something quite right.”
The AAMC provides a free, full-length practice test that’s scored, Russell says. This is in addition to other free study assistance the AAMC and others offer and is “a good way to gauge your preparedness for the MCAT,” he says.
Working through more practice questions and practice tests will help, experts agree.
“Do practice tests the full length of the real test,” Pinnock suggests. “Your endurance, your stamina, your basic approach to the test – you might not be successful because you might be very tired and cannot think through it.”
She also advises practicing reading passages and reading medical journal articles. “It’s not a matter of intelligence or necessarily critical thinking, it’s getting your mindset used to being able to go through passage after passage and get the information you need. That’s one of the measures of endurance that you can really build on.”
If you tend to feel significant test anxiety, Pinnock suggests seeing a counselor. “You can spend all this time preparing, and if you can’t sleep the night before and you’re so anxious you can’t think through the passages and items during the test, you have not helped yourself.”
Should You Void an MCAT Attempt?
The AAMC allows test-takers to void their MCAT test at the end of the exam, in which case it won’t be scored and medical schools chosen to receive the results will not see the test-taker’s participation.
Experts discourage this action – an irreversible escape hatch – except in extreme, unforeseen cases such as acute illness, death of a loved one or significant technical problems during testing.
Voiding a score is “such a terrible thing to have to do” and should be approached with great caution, Marinelli says. “Students should know ahead of time that … they’re not going to feel great about any test that they just spent six or seven hours on. They will not feel great, maybe like they failed it. But often they are wrong, they did fine. They just have that feeling because it’s so grueling and exhausting.”
When deciding whether to void, consider that future test dates within your desired time frame may be booked up with no available seats, Russell says.
“The void should only be used if it’s clear to you that for some extreme reason you were unable to put forth your best effort,” he says.
Similar to not showing up for the MCAT, voiding an attempt still counts toward the limits on MCAT tests.
“The best advice in this tough situation is that even with feelings of defeat, to not make a bad or rash decision to void,” Marinelli says. “And if you void the test, you don’t know how you really did, so you can’t learn from it. Now, if you missed a whole section or had a panic attack and had to step out for 30 minutes, that may be a good reason to void the test.”
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