An essential component of your primary application for medical school is your Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) score. You must receive a good MCAT score to be considered a qualified candidate; therefore, understanding the MCAT, its importance, format, and usage by medical schools prepares you for the exam itself.
This guide will cover exactly what you need to know about MCAT scores giving you an advantage amongst others in the medical school applicant pool.
The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a standardized, multiple-choice examination designed to evaluate your problem solving, critical thinking, and knowledge of natural, behavioral, and social science concepts and principles. Most accredited U.S. medical schools require applicants to submit MCAT scores with their application.
The computer-based exam was developed by the Associate of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and has been used by medical school admissions committees for over 90 years. Nearly 85,000 students take the exam each year. It is administered multiple times a year at over a hundred different locations in the United States.
The MCAT is vital for a few reasons. Firstly, MCAT scores serve as an indication to medical schools regarding which applicants will do well if enrolled. Andrew Leibs of Western University of Health Sciences states that medical schools use the data to assess which students “are likely to drop out, finish on time, and pass their licensing exams on the first try.”
In short, the better the MCAT score, the more likely it is that the student will complete medical school.
MCAT scores are a crucial factor in medical school rankings, so having a good MCAT score not only reflects on you but the medical school as well. “MCAT scores,” Leib continues, “are also a key component — and one of the few admissions officers can control directly — of medical school ranking in consumer publications such as Barrons and U.S. News & World Report.”
Because consumer publications take the school average for MCAT scores, medical schools are more likely to consider applicants with higher MCAT scores than those with lower scores.
The MCAT also puts your education to the test as it indicates how well you understand the material that is tested. Let’s say a student’s academic record is good but not perfect. A student wishing to attend medical school will be taking prerequisite courses during their undergraduate.
The courses they complete in their first and second year make up the bulk of the information on the MCAT. So if you do poorly on the MCAT, in theory, you don't understand the courses you studied.
The MCAT is your chance to show the admissions committee that you can apply your knowledge to real problems and demonstrate the critical thinking and skills required to become a physician. Admission committees want to know that a student can handle the course difficulty in medical school. If they can't handle it in undergraduate, it shows that they likely can't handle it in medical school either.
Your MCAT scores can make or break your application, so you must take the exam and score as high as possible. Failure to complete the MCAT may result in the rejection of your application, so be sure to include it in your primary medical school application.
As mentioned earlier, the MCAT is a computer-based, multiple-choice exam. Each section is scored from a range of 118 to 132. Your total score is the combination of your section scores. The highest MCAT score possible is 528. There are four sections in the exam, and each is designed to assess specific skills:
The Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems section of the MCAT focuses on three concepts:
This section aims to combine your knowledge of biological and biochemical concepts with your problem-solving and reasoning skills. It is designed to test your understanding of basic principles of biology, organic chemistry, and introductory chemistry. The exam also requires you to demonstrate your research methods and statistical skills applied to the natural sciences.
There are 59 questions in the Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems section, and you are given 95 minutes to complete them. During the exam, you are given a periodic table that you may use as a reference.
You may wonder how much of each concept in the natural sciences are in the exam. How many organic chemistry-related questions will I see? Are there more biology questions than biochemistry?
You should expect to see the following percentages of these disciplines in the exam:
The Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Sciences section of the MCAT exam covers two foundational concepts:
This portion of the MCAT also asks you to solve problems, but you must combine your knowledge of scientific inquiry with biochemistry, molecular biology, and physics. It tests your knowledge of basic chemical and physical principles that operate the human body and requires that you demonstrate reasoning in your responses.
Like with the Biological and Biochemical section, the Chemical and Physical Foundations section has 59 questions, and you are given 95 minutes to complete them. You are given a periodic table during this portion of the exam too. This section can be broken down into the following disciplines and percentages:
The Psychological, Social, Biological Foundations of Behavior section has five concepts that are incorporated within it:
This portion of the MCAT examines your ability to reason and understand ways psychological, social, and biological factors influence people. The five concepts mentioned emphasize what future doctors need to know to serve the ever-growing, diverse healthcare population. While this section does focus on biological sciences, there is more focus on the psychological and sociological aspects involved.
You are given 59 questions that must be answered in 95 minutes. There is no periodic table required for this portion. Therefore, one is not provided. This section of the exam pulls content from the following disciplines:
While the first three sections test your critical thinking and reasoning skills, the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section of the exam delves deeper by asking passage-based questions. Unlike the other MCAT sections – which rely on previous knowledge – everything you need to answer each question is found within the passage.
Therefore, your answers result from reading and analyzing each passage provided. This section of the MCAT requires you to demonstrate the following skills:
Understand basic components of a text.
Infer meaning or intent based on the sentence context.
Integrate all parts of the text to understand the author’s message, intent, purpose, bias, assumptions.
Recognize and evaluate arguments and their structure, such as their claim, evidence, and support.
Apply ideas from the passage to new contexts.
Assess how incorporating new factors and information impacts the main idea of the passage.
The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section of the MCAT is similar to exams you may have taken throughout the years. You are given a passage to read and asked questions based on it; the main difference here is that these questions and passages are designed to measure analysis and reasoning skills needed to succeed in medical school.
While the passages are short, they are complex, thought-provoking, and are written in a more intricate style – designed to make you think.
This section of the exam has 53 questions total, and you are given 90 minutes to answer them. The passages center around the humanities (i.e., art, literature, philosophy) and social sciences (i.e., economics, history, political science).
The following is a breakdown of how the questions are likely to be distributed:
Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skill:
The MCAT is an important test, and many medical schools have specific criteria regarding minimum MCAT scores that must be obtained. Admissions committees use MCAT scores to determine which students will succeed in their medical school and assess the skills they feel are most important for students to be successful. Your MCAT scores are used in conjunction with the following information to determine whether or not you are a good fit for medical school:
So, if your GPA isn’t up to par, aim to score higher on the MCAT to compensate. If you have a higher GPA, you may be able to get away with a slightly lower if MCAT score. While high MCAT scores do not always guarantee admission into medical school, having a competitive score benefits your application as a whole. Shoot for getting as high of a score as possible.
So what exactly is considered a “good” MCAT score? A good MCAT score means you are above the average percentile of students at your desired medical school. The chart shows the most recent MCAT percentiles from the AAMC:
The highest MCAT score possible is 528. The average MCAT score for entering MD students in the United States is 511, so your score should not be lower than the average. This means that applicants were at least within the 86th percentile overall. While this is the average, medical schools often vary as to what they expect in MCAT scores.
Similarly, even if a school sets a minimum MCAT score, students absolutely should have a score above this. For example, Weill Cornell School of Medicine has no cutoffs for MCAT scores. At the same time, UCSF Medical School requires applicants to be within or above the 75th percentile (a score of 508 or more) to apply to their institution.
As you can see, these are two very different responses to the MCAT. Check with your target medical schools to see if they have other MCAT criteria you must meet. While a good MCAT score may mean fitting into the middle of the pack, it is recommended to be far above the pack.
For an excellent MCAT score that will be competitive at all schools, students should aim to be at least in the 90th percentile, which is around a score of 514.
Students should go into the MCAT with the intent of obtaining the highest score possible. Use your MCAT score to your advantage, and apply where you have the best chance of acceptance. If you’re disappointed with your score or find it’s not competitive at other schools, consider retaking the exam.
If you choose to take the MCAT exam first, you don’t have the pressure to meet a specific requirement. You can go in, hoping to score as high as possible. However, this may limit your pool of medical schools when it comes time to apply.
For example, you may take the MCAT and score a 512. While you are above the national average, your application would not be considered at UCSF Medical School because you weren’t within the 75th percentile.
If you choose to research medical schools before taking the MCAT, you have a better idea of how you should score to be considered at those schools. This is often the best route to take. However, some people go into the test feeling pressured to meet an exact MCAT score based on the medical school they wish to attend. That stress can affect you while taking the exam.
Your goal is to get the highest score possible, but getting a good score doesn’t necessarily take you out of the running for medical school. Apply to medical school with the idea that your MCAT score is only one of the important factors in your application–not the most important.
By keeping this in mind, you have a better chance of achieving a good MCAT score and getting accepted into medical school.
You have registered to take the MCAT score but aren’t sure what to do next. There is a lot of material the exam covers, and you want to make sure you do well and are prepared. Here are some helpful tips for getting a good MCAT score:
This sounds cliche, but people often don’t do well on the MCAT because they did not study enough or they studied the wrong material. Studying is the best way to get a good score on the MCAT. Create a study plan that works best for you.
Understand the basic principles of the disciplines we mentioned for each section of the MCAT and break your studies down, so they don't overwhelm you. Keep it rigorous but allow it to accommodate your daily life. This way, you will walk into the exam prepared and more at ease.
Start studying as early as possible. You don’t want to wait until the week before the MCAT to cram information into your brain. Chances are, the pressure of trying to retain the information will make you forget it more quickly. Starting early gives you time to cover more material before the exam.
You can start a year before your exam, or a few months – depending on your baseline level of knowledge. For example, you can give yourself a month to study for each section of the exam, or two months per section depending on how comfortable you feel about retaining the information. Be sure you are giving yourself ample time to study.
Do you prefer studying on weekends or weekdays? Do you retain more information when studying in the morning or at night? Some people do better in study groups, while others do better studying alone. Find out what works for you and begin as soon as possible, so there is less stress on you.
There are resources available to you everywhere. Study guides and booklets give you information about each section in the MCAT and provide you with practice tests to give you an idea of what to expect when taking the real thing.
The AAMC offers full-length practice MCATs for free. These are great because they show you the areas you are doing well and areas you need to study more. You can also time yourself to practice your time management for the real test.
You will have to register for the MCAT on the AAMC website. Schedule a date that you are comfortable with, and be sure to give yourself plenty of time to study.
Give yourself at least a few months to review before taking the MCAT. You want to make sure to learn as much material as possible without waiting until the last minute, so register for a date that gives you a decent amount of time to do so.
You should take the exam when you are 100 percent ready. This means you should have studied and prepared until you feel confident enough to take the MCAT. You should be scoring well consistently on practice MCATs.
Many students take the MCAT after their second year of college, mainly because the material they need to know is covered during their first and second years. This also keeps the material fresh in their minds; however, this is is different for every student.
Most medical schools accept MCAT scores from the last three years, so take the exam within that time frame. For example, if you plan to enroll in medical school this year, you should have taken the MCAT within the last three years. Any scores before the past three years are not considered.
If you didn’t do as well as you wanted, don’t worry! You are allowed to retake the MCAT. Many applicants take the exam more than once. Try to give yourself some time, so you have time to study areas where you did and didn’t do well.
If you feel that you want to have the option to retake the exam, register for a date earlier in the year; that way, if you don’t do well, you can register for a date later in the year, giving you time to study more. Note that some medical schools will require all MCAT scores, while others will only ask for your most recent score.
Yes, you can still apply. Your MCAT score is an essential component of your medical school application, but it's not the most important. If you have an excellent academic record and GPA, it's okay for your score to be on the lower side. However, if your score is below all minimum requirements, you should not apply.
If you do have a score on the lower end, you need to apply to schools where your scores are more competitive. For example, some school's matriculants have an average score of 519, while another school's average may be 510. If you have achieved a 509, it's best to apply to the latter school. As mentioned earlier, your application is reviewed as a whole, not just by one item.
You are considered eligible to take the MCAT if you intend to apply to medical school. When registering for the exam, you are required to sign a statement declaring your intent to enroll in medical school.
You can take the MCAT up to three times in a single testing year, four times in two consecutive years, or seven times in a lifetime. Voids and no-shows count against you, so be sure to schedule your exam for a day that works best for you.
No, there is no curved score option when taking the MCAT. Instead, the exam is scaled so that all scores have the same meaning.
MCAT scores are distributed 30 to 45 days after the day of the exam.
MCAT scores may not be the most important factor in your medical school application, but they are still crucial to your overall application. Give yourself plenty of time to prepare for the exam and register when you are ready and feel prepared.
Our guide has given you information, tips, and resources to help you on your journey to getting a good MCAT score. Using the information provided, you are well on your way to applying to medical school as a strong candidate.