Should I Retake my MCAT? If so, When?

Should I Retake my MCAT and When by Leah4sciYou’ve done everything in your power to prepare for the MCAT.

You’ve sat for the exam,
You hit “Score,”
And now you wait.
A 30 day wait for your scores can be restlessly nerve wracking.

Ideally, you went into the exam 100% ready,
And hit your target score.
But things happen,

And sometimes the exam does not turn out as desired.

Perhaps you had a bad day, negative test center experience, or perhaps you were not as ready as you hoped you would be by test day.

Your next move may be super obvious:
Hit target score -> Submit medical school application.
Scored too low -> plan to retake the MCAT.

Sometimes the next step is not that obvious.

I’ve had students get accepted to medical school with a 505 score, others rejected with 510s! Ultimately, it’s up to the school to evaluate your potential.

While this includes a competitive MCAT score, it doesn’t stop there!

Keep in mind, the best application in the world cannot make up for an abysmal MCAT score.
This means that no matter how strong your application, you MUST also have a decent MCAT score.

Many schools will have numerical cutoffs. They will automatically reject applications that don’t meet specific MCAT and/or GPA criteria.

For example, if you have a stellar application and high MCAT some schools will still automatically reject an application with a 2.5 GPA,
A GPA + strong application may be rejected due to an MCAT score under 490.
Many students have been rejected from medical school with scores under 500 despite a strong application.

It’s up to YOU to ensure you have the best possible application.

This is why you must evaluate your MCAT score so carefully.

The simple evaluation: Is my MCAT score good enough for my dream school/s?

Yes? Excellent! Proceed with the application!

No? How bad is it?

In other words: should you still apply with these scores? Or should you retake the exam?

If you need to retake it, how soon should you re-test?
Sign up to take it again right away or give yourself more time?
How much more time?

And while you may be looking for a clear yes or no, the answer is not that simple.

There are so many things to take into consideration:

Your personal history, background, situation, timeline, numerical results, the rest of your application and so much more.

Remember, you are unique,
Your situation is unique,
You cannot expect a simple generic answer to decide your entire future, can you?

It’s not a guess and NOT a decision to take lightly.

Instead, let’s walk through what to look for to help you evaluate your own situation; 

This will help you better understand what to look for, and give you the confidence to make a more informed decision.

First, a note about retaking the MCAT.

While you are allowed to take the MCAT many times, it’s not advisable.

The AAMC allows you to sit for the MCAT up to 3 times in one year, 4 times in a 2-year period, and up to 7 attempts in your lifetime.

(This does NOT include the old MCAT, meaning if you tested prior to 2015 those attempts do not count towards this new limit.)

However, just because you CAN take it so many times does not mean that you should.
Every scored attempt will show up on your record and may count against you.

A student told me that she was advised to sit for the MCAT before studying just to see how she did. That’s TERRIBLE advice because now she has a 483 on her record for no reason.
Use practice exams to see where you rank, and only test when you’re ready.

If you are in a situation where you have to retest, medical schools WILL see every score, and multiple low scores can hurt your application.

While they may dent your application, you can STILL reach your dreams. I’ve worked with many students who got into medical school after taking the exam multiple times. 

If that’s you right now, read Should I Postpone My MCAT?

If you void the MCAT, it counts as an attempt but does not show up on your record.

This means that while you have wasted an attempt, medical schools will not know about it. They only know about your MCAT if you get an official score.

Should you retake your MCAT?

When students see a less than desired MCAT score, even if just a few points lower, they immediately ask:  “Should I…

  1. Retest and score higher?
  2. Apply to less competitive schools?
  3. Apply to DO instead of MD?”

But, is your score really that bad?

Too often students will aim for a VERY high score, and when it comes back ‘average’ they feel like a failure.

A student emailed me about her 513 score, 7 points shy of her 520 goal.
Sure, she’s a full 7 points under her target, but unless applying to a top medical school, 513 is a really decent score.

What is the Average Accepted Score?

It’s less about ‘what number looks good’ and more about what number meets your chosen medical school’s criteria. Evaluate your MCAT scores the same way you set your target score.Retaking the MCAT evaluate what to do Leah4sci advice

Say your chosen school has an average accepted score of 510.
Does this mean all accepted students earned a 510?

Not quite!

Some students overshot and were accepted with a 512, 514, maybe even 517.
But other students were accepted with a 509, 507, maybe even a 504
The total AVERAGE of all accepted students came to a 510.

If you Just Missed Your Target

If you’re within a few points (<5) of the target score,
and retaking the MCAT could delay your application, AND you’re ok with the slight chance of rejection, go ahead and apply anyway!

Last year I had a student earn a 505 on the June MCAT (July scores). Her target was 508-510. This would allow her allow her to remain home and close to family.

If she earned a 505 in January or even March, while leaning more towards the 510 school, we would have considered retesting.

But given the July scores she submitted her applications understanding that there was a chance for rejection.
A handful of secondaries and interviews, and 2 acceptances later, she’s now one step closer to her dream of becoming a doctor.

Why risk the chance of rejection?

  1. A 505 in her situation was a murky decision at best. Not an automatic no.
  2. She understood the risk and would have been, not happy, but ok with resting and applying again the following cycle.

If you’re in a similar situation and wind up with rejection, it’s NOT the end of the world.

Make a new plan, study harder, score higher, improve your application, and apply again next cycle.

If You Missed a HIGH Target Score

Many students tell me ‘I don’t care where I go to medical school. I’ll go to any school that accepts me in the US or Canada’.

I still encourage them to pick a school for the sake of having goals.
Say you were eyeing a top school with an accepted average of 516,
But you missed your target by a full EIGHT points earning a 508.

While 508 may be very low for THIS school,  508 is still pretty decent for most US and Canadian schools!

Ask yourself this: “Can I consider a more average alternative school?”

If you desperately want to attend your top/dream school, and you think the rest of your application is strong enough, go ahead and test again.

However, if you feel ok applying to other schools where 508 is competitive,
Go for it.
Don’t worry about retaking your MCAT.
BUT, when submitting your application to the other schools: go ahead and ALSO submit your application to your dream school!

What’s the absolute worst that can happen?
Sure, chances of rejection are high, but you’re expecting that anyway, and i
f you don’t apply there’s a 100% chance that you won’t get in. 

Remember: the ONLY ones with authority to say your score isn’t good enough, is the school itself when they reject you. I’m simply advising you on realistic goals.

If you’re already going through the process of submitting an application, it doesn’t hurt to try.

Unbalanced Score

Multiple students reported that they were rejected due to their scores being unbalanced: one particular section being low, despite an overall high score.

Medical schools want strong and well rounded candidates. Ideally, this includes a well rounded MCAT score across the 4 sections. 

Some schools will straight up tell you that they don’t care about every section equally — some Canadian schools disregard the Psych/Soc section — while others ONLY look at your CARS score.

A student signed up to work with me after earning a 505: 128 / 122 / 126 / 129
Overall 505 is not an amazing score, but not terrible either.
He was rejected from a few schools who suggested he earn a higher score in CARS and reapply.

On the other hand, I’ve had ESL students get accepted with slightly lower CARS score.

If your score is strong enough you may get away with that one really low section.
If your overall score is ‘nearly’ ok, but one section is really dragging you down, consider focusing all of your efforts on this one section and testing again.

I’m not worried about my low scores. I’ll just apply to DO instead of MD schools.”

There’s a misconception floating around that if your application is not strong enough for MD schools… you should settle and apply to DO schools instead.

DO schools are not the feckless stepchildren of the MDs.

While the DO concept is newer than MD (1874), the DO stigma is on the decline.
MDs and DOs are both doctors working side by side in the same hospitals and clinics.

Before starting Leah4sci I was a premed student wanting to apply DO only.
(If you’re curious why, here’s what set my heart on it: On Call in Hell: A Doctor’s Iraq War Story)

Yes, the application process is slightly different, and yes, the accepted MCAT scores are slightly lower on average. But DO acceptance is potentially more competitive than MD schools.

There are currently over 140 MD schools but only 34 DO schools in the United States.

With fewer seats overall, and more students applying as a ‘fallback’ you suddenly have MORE applications per DO seat making it even more difficult to get accepted.

Only apply to DO if that is what you truly want to be.

Research their philosophy, understand the differences, and apply because it speaks to you, not because you’re out of options.

Also look into their requirements including MCAT scores. (Many DO schools do have high average MCAT scores, therefore, a 493 is likely nowhere close to acceptable for MD or DO.)

You’ve evaluated your scores, you looked for loopholes and alternatives,

But everything points to you having to retake your MCAT.

This is not an easy decision.
I realize it goes beyond just creating a new plan and setting a test date.

For many students this feels like an admission of failure on defeat: from the within and without.

For many students it’s not just you on this journey:
You have family and friends who have been following your every step.
To tell them that you, the smart ambitious one, the future doctor, failed your ‘premed exam’ is even more unnerving than the MCAT itself.

What now?

In addition to letting others down, you may feel like you’ve let yourself down.

“Should I bother going through this again? Am I even cut out to be a doctor?”

Forget everything else for a moment and ask yourself: “Is it my dream to become a doctor?”
Yes or no?

And if the thought of doing ANYTHING else makes you cringe inside, if you dream of nothing else than to become a doctor,

Then your next step is obvious.

Figure out what it will take, then do everything in your power to make that dream a reality.

Retaking the MCAT is not the end of the world.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve seen many students go to medical school after taking their MCAT 2 or 3 times.

The father of one of my students is a well known doctor; he teaches Cardiology at a top medical school. He took his MCAT no less than FOUR times before finally getting accepted!

And before you say you’re too old, I have a 58 year old student who was accepted to medical school for Fall 2018.

Yes, it may derail your plan, and may even push you back a cycle.
But if it takes you one step closer to your dream, isn’t it worth it?

Make the decision, then Make a SOLID Plan.

Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing twice but expecting different results.

The absolute worst thing you can do is approach this exam the same way over and over.
You must learn from your past exams.

So ask yourself: “What went wrong last time? What did I do wrong, what could/should I have done differently?”

And make sure that when you test again, you’ll be ready to score much much higher.

Many students considering a retake, come to me for a strategy session.

The first thing I want to know is, “Was your score a surprise?”
I don’t mean a surprise in that you hoped for a higher score.

Was it a surprise based on what you expected from your pre-MCAT data?

Here’s what I look at for re-testers:

  • Were you actually ready for the exam? Did you complete phases 1, 2 and 3?
  • How did you score on your last 3 full lengths prior to your MCAT?
  • Which exams did you take?
  • Did you take your practice full lengths under realistic conditions?

Were You Ready For Your MCAT?

Too often I am horrified to learn that students took their MCAT without completing their study requirements! Such as not making it through all required content, or NO/few full length practice exams!

Or worse, students taking the MCAT on the confidence that “I just completed my undergrad so I expected to remember everything…” WHAT!

The MCAT is NOT a content exam.

Content provides the foundation on which you build your testing strategy and endurance.
If you tested before completing content then you simply weren’t ready.

Don’t berate yourself for past mistakes,
Instead, give yourself enough time to complete all 3 phases of MCAT prep before testing again. 

How did you score on your 3 most recent full lengths?

While not a perfect measuring tool, your last 3 full lengths will provide an indication of your potential readiness for the exam: how you score in each section and overall, and identifying your specific weaknesses along the way.

This is why I have my students take full length practice tests at every phase in their prep, increasing the frequency the closer they get to test date.

Going back to my question of ‘was this score a surprise?’:

A student recently emailed me torn up about her 497.
Her last 3 scores were 496, 501 and 498

While her 497 is a low score, I was not as surprised as the student.

Her last 3 exams ranged from 496 – 501, take away a few points for ‘exam nerves’ and her real score is expected given her practice test numbers.

If your MCAT score is within the range of your last 3 full lengths then the score is no surprise.

Neither is your next step.

Rework your schedule including time for full lengths, and DO NOT take the MCAT if your full lengths are not within your target score range.

If you’re hoping for a 508, I want to see 508 – 510 on your final 3 full lengths.

If you top out at 507 on just ONE exam, that’s not enough.
A single high score may be an outlier.

Think of it as a scientific experiment. Aim for consistent repeatable data.

Scoring well on multiple practice tests is your proof that you CAN handle the exam at this level, identify weaknesses, and build your confidence.

Think about it,

If your target is 508 and your 3 prior full lengths are 508, 511, 509, do you think you’d trust yourself to hit that 508? The assurance of knowing you HAVE done it will give you the confidence to repeat these results on test day.

This reminds me of Harry Potter casting his strongest patronus against a swarm of dementors in book 3. Because he knew he HAD done it, he was fully confident that he COULD do it. And he did.

If your score IS a legitimate surprise:
I had a student hit 508 in practice, but did not break a 500 on the real thing.
This situation is less common but still happens.

The solution here is very different and more difficult.
It’s not so much a question of figuring out what steps you missed and taking those steps now.

Instead, it requires a more in-depth personal evaluation: Did you hit this high score on just ONE exam? Was it a fluke?

If you consistently scored higher in practice, and your exam dropped by more than 3 points from your average practice score, you need to start looking at other factors.

On test day, were you well rested and performing your best?
Did you have a bad food reaction?
Did something happen at the testing center?

If you can’t identify any outside factors, look within.

Were you in the right state of mind? Did you go in and focus on the exam in front of you OR on the fact that you weren’t ready, focusing on the fear/negativity, and thereby sabotage your results? 

If not,
Do you have severe testing anxiety?
Is it there something more serious going on with you?

This is out of my field of expertise so I recommend speaking to a licensed professional.
I’ve worked with many students who improved after seeing a therapist or starting on anxiety medication. There’s no shame in admitting you need help, and this shouldn’t hurt your medical school chances in any way. Don’t let something like this hold you back when it doesn’t have to.

In fact, I’d argue that this will make you a BETTER doctor because you’ll be able to relate to patients on deeper level.

How soon can I retake my MCAT?

Once you’ve figured out the issue and decided to retake,
How long should you study? Can you retake it right away?

Unfortunately, this is another one of those ‘it depends’ answers.

Many students rush to register soon as they commit to retesting, without giving themselves enough time to fix their identified issues. Don’t fall into that trap.

For US students rolling admissions is like a gun to the head rushing you along.
You can’t think like that, and you certainly can’t afford to retest before you’re ready.

The amount of time you need will depend on many factors that YOU have to evaluate along the way.

The ONLY situation in which I recommend retesting ASAP is if your score was influenced by a freak outside event ON test day.

Here are some examples from my own students:

  • Computer froze but exam timer kept going. By the time everything was sorted out she lost half a section.
  • Power went out in the testing center, took 2 hours to get back into the test by which time she was too nervous and frazzled to score the exam.
  • Bad sushi night before, spent half the exam in the bathroom.
  • Too much coffee (4 cups!) morning of, jitters so bad nearly blacked out and couldn’t focus on the exam.
  • Construction happening next door and the noise was too distracting.
  • Tornado alarms went off, had to evacuate testing center.
  • Student WAS ready, but panicked and voided the exam at the last minute.
  • Exam cancelled due to blizzard, others due to hurricane (AAMC offered a makeup date).

For each of these students the exam did not go well (or happen at all) due to something out of their hands. The students were ready to test but did not get to perform their best.

In this type of situation you do not have to wait for scores to come out. (If you canceled/voided there’s nothing TO wait for.)

Go ahead and sign up for the next available test date.

If you were not ready for your exam as discussed earlier, and your scores justify a retake,

Don’t blindly choose a date and hope for the best.

Instead, set CLEAR retake goals. What is your new target score?

Every additional required point will take more time,
And the higher your target the more difficult it will be.

5 points on a 510 is exponentially more difficult than 5 points up from 500.

My counterintuitive advice is not to choose a new test date right away.

Instead, I recommend mapping out your requirements. The idea is to have a solid but flexible plan.

Give yourself time to review/restudy content – Phase 1,
Give yourself enough time to practice – Phase 2,

And most importantly, Phase 3, give yourself enough time to take practice full lengths with time to study and review in between. What do these practice test scores reveal to you?

Also, did you continue studying after test day while awaiting your scores, or did you take time off and have to start over?

I recommend a minimum of 2 weeks to ‘get back into it’ then another 1-2 weeks per point you’re trying to improve.

Even this may not be enough time, but I’ve seen students attempt higher jumps in less time.

Don’t stop with a simple ‘counting weeks’ plan: make an initial plan.

For example: in the next month I will review content and take a full length in 2 and 4 weeks. This gives me time to review the full length, identify my weaknesses, work on them and then see how I improved on the next full length.

Then reevaluate: With 2 exams 2 weeks apart, how did you score?

Did you jump 1 point per exam? That’s 2 points per month, allow for at least one month for every additional 2 points.

Did you jump just 1 point total? Allow for one month per additional point required.

Still not done,

Repeat the process next month: Did your trend increase or decrease? Adjust your timeline accordingly.

Set goals,
Set milestones,
Constantly evaluate your goals based on when you reach your milestones.

And most importantly, DO NOT test again before you are ready.

This is something I work on with study hall members. Not just the initial plan, but constantly evaluating goals and milestones to readjust their plan every step of the way.

Masters Program or Post-Bacc?

If your exam didn’t turn out as desired and you’re worried that an MCAT retake + low GPA may hurt your chances, consider doing something in addition to just restudying for the MCAT.

This is different for every student, but I’ve seen great results when low-GPA students go for a post-bacc or special masters program.

For instance, my student Stacy was able to show improvement on her low GPA by doing really well in her Post-Bacc program. 

Every situation is different so make sure you do your research.

Should You Submit Your Application In The Meantime?

As hinted at earlier, most US schools review applications on a rolling admissions basis. I discus this in detail in Step 1 of my Ultimate MCAT Prep Guide.

This means that the earlier you apply the greater your chances are.
This ALSO means that the earlier you apply with a POOR application, the greater your chances of getting rejected…

When submitting your application you can let the schools know that you plan to retake your MCAT. However, I’d still caution against applying early with a really low score.
Is this something you want medical schools to see before they receive your new scores?

What if they review your application and decide ‘no, this is too low’ even before the new scores are in?
What if you don’t wind up testing that year or worse, testing when you’re not ready and earning another low score?

Do your research before making a decision, but I urge you to withhold your application until you’re closer to test date and proving to yourself that you are scoring much higher than before.

I Want to Hear From You:

Often when students postpone a cycle they then worry about what to do in gap year.
If you’ve taken a gap year or thinking about it, what did/are you planning to do?
Do you have questions on your gap year activities? Let me know in comments below.

Comments

  1. Hi Leah,
    Regarding post bacc programs and gap year activities, a lot of post bacc programs require recommendation letters from academic sources. But if there is a long gap between undergrad and post bacc how would you go about getting those recommendations?
    Thanks!

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