Why Aiming for a Lower MCAT Score Will Increase Your Med School Chances

Given the competitive nature of the med school application process, it stands to reason that the stronger every aspect of your application is, the greater your chances of acceptance. 

If having a higher MCAT score increases your chances of acceptance, it only makes sense to aim for the highest possible MCAT score.

Right?
Not quite!

I consider myself a very motivated and driven person.
I am an overachieving competitor, often to my detriment.

I tend to set moonshot goals where I bite off more than I can chew and have to reign myself back in. 

I’m a firm believer that when you have a dream,
the only person that can ever prevent you from reaching your goals, is YOU!

You can’t listen to the naysayers,
you can’t let their doubts creep into your mind,
because if you don’t try you’ll never hit your goals.

Then why, when it comes to medical school, the absolutely biggest dream of your career,

Am I telling you NOT to aim for a top score? 

When I speak to premeds during live workshops, office hours, and one-on-one sessions,
I’m often telling students to reign in their dreams and to aim for a lower target score. 

“But wait a moment Leah,
didn’t you say that nothing was impossible?
That if we don’t aim high we’ll never know?
That we have to at least give the big goals a try?” 

“Shouldn’t I work my tail off to reach my absolute best and not settle for anything less, knowing that if I don’t hit quite a 520, I’ll still come out with a solidly competitive score?”

Why am I pushing students so hard to follow their dreams, but having them knock 5, 10, or even 20 points off their target MCAT scores?

There are a few reasons for this, but before we get into it, let me ask you something.

Is a high number on your MCAT your ACTUAL goal?

Meaning, is acing the MCAT for the sake of acing the MCAT your goal?
If it wasn’t required for medical school, would you even WANT to take the MCAT?

I want you to imagine this for a moment. You get a phone call from the admissions committee of your top choice medical school: 

“Hey, we heard about you from your adviser/professor/doctor you shadowed…
We’re very impressed by all you have done, and yes, we know about some of your failures too. But that just made an even greater impression on us overall.

We recognize how you’ve overcome so much adversity and never given up on your dreams. 

We feel that you would be a great asset to our upcoming medical school class and that you would greatly thrive in our program.
We know you haven’t yet taken (or retaken) the MCAT, but that’s ok. We’d like to give you a seat in our program.
You can start as early as this Fall.”

I posed this scenario to a few of my students and asked them to consider their reactions: “I would scream, I would cry, I would be so excited, I would tell my friends and family.”
“Where do I sign up?”

And when I posed this question to 50 students in a live Workshop, same thing.
Not a single NO.
Not a single student said, “This sounds great, but actually I still really really want to take my MCAT before anything else”.

Why does this matter?

If you really stop to think about it, the MCAT is not your goal.

You probably don’t even want to take the MCAT.
You probably dread taking the MCAT.
However,  you know it’s something you have to do.

That’s the distinction:
Scoring well on the MCAT is not your dream.
It’s not your end goal.

You don’t dream of getting a great score on the MCAT, printing out your score, framing it on the wall, and then hanging up your hat because you’re done.

‘You’ve achieved your life’s mission by acing the MCAT…’
Not even close!
Your dream is to become a physician!!!

Maybe this is a newer dream for you.

Perhaps you’ve already started in another career but could not escape your calling for medicine.
Perhaps this is the dream you’ve had since you were a little kid, having witnessed the kindness of a doctor caring for you or a family member,
or worse, having seen what the lack of proper healthcare can do for your family or community.

leah4sci MCAT premed Stephanie 488 mcat burnout medical acceptance

Stephanie’s goal was simply to overcome her 488, and now she’s in med school after scoring a 504.

Regardless of how you got here,
Your dream is to get THROUGH applications and interviews so you can get to that white coat ceremony. This is where you know that you are one step closer, that
your foot is in the door.

All of the hard work and sacrifice is so that you can start working with patients and to make a difference in the lives of the human beings under your care.

Human beings going through unimaginable sickness and pain.

Your dream is to bring your compassion and humanity,
combined with your medical training,
to help them through these difficult times,
to make a difference when they need you most.

THIS is the dream. Not the MCAT. 

The MCAT is but a stepping stone, one more hurdle to pass on this journey.
One that you will most likely (perhaps even intentionally) forget as you move on to boards, rotations, residency, and beyond.

If this exam is but a stepping stone, do you really want to put in all that extra effort to reach the highest possible score?

Would you be okay figuring out the right amount of effort to hit a ‘comfortable competitive score’ so that you get accepted, and then MOVE PAST IT?

In other words, instead of asking, “What is the absolute highest score that I can possibly get on the MCAT?”

You ask,

“What is the highest score that I can possibly reach,
Still investing 110% effort so that my scores are just competitive enough?
(To be discussed more below.)
And keeping within the most practical timeline FOR ME?
This way I can move past the MCAT, and on to applications, secondaries, and ultimately interviews!” 

Let’s sidetrack from this conversation for a moment and look at specifics.

What it takes to raise your MCAT scores:

Once you know where you stand with your MCAT baseline,
it takes a lot of effort and education to raise your MCAT scores.

I take a 3-Phase approach to MCAT prep to ensure the best possible foundation and strategy for bringing up your scores. Content is the tedious, but simple enough, first step.

Say you’re reading a passage about enzyme mutations,
where the question asks you to recognize that when a tyrosine replaces alanine at the active site, the enzyme distorts enough to lose function. Perhaps you follow the passage,
perhaps you even remember that alanine is small and nonpolar where tyrosine is massive with an OH group, but you weren’t able to choose the letter ‘Y’ as the 1-letter abbreviation for tyrosine.

Perhaps you see a simple microscope question,
but you forgot the equation for how to calculate focal point distance or magnification. You know, “if only I remembered this equation I could have gotten this question correct.”

These are Phase 1 fixes. You’re missing content.

You work on content, and your scores immediately improve due to an increase of knowledge.

When working with students scoring well under 500, it’s usually due to a significant lack of content. This is a time-consuming but easy fix.

Once you enter Phase 2, it becomes increasingly more difficult to raise your scores. The key is to be very strategic with your full-length review as I explain here: 3 Steps to Raising Your MCAT Scores With Full Length Practice Tests

On a hiking trip last year to Lassen Volcanic National Park,
my husband and I took up the challenge of climbing Lassen Peak.
It’s just 2.5 miles to the top, but it has a 2,000 foot gain in elevation.
I don’t know if you’ve ever climbed at high elevation,
but when the air is thinner, you get exhausted much more quickly.

Leah at Lassen Peak
As avid hikers we felt prepared, and the first mile was simple enough.

Sure it was tough, I think we had to stop for at least 1 breather,
but as we continued to climb, it became increasingly more difficult.

Our pace slowed down, we had to stop more and more frequently, and we caught quite a few hikers calling it quits and turning around. Near the end we were stopping every 5-10 minutes.

Raising your MCAT scores is like climbing a mountain.

While it’s never ‘easy,’ it gets even more difficult the higher you climb.
If you keep at it you WILL continue to make progress, but your pace slows down.
You may have to stop for a bit (plateau), and some will never make it past a certain point. 

Every additional point becomes increasingly more difficult to attain.

The initial gaps are easy to plug,
but once you’ve learned and mastered many concepts,
it becomes increasingly more difficult to plug every additional knowledge gap.
It is increasingly difficult to perfect every strategic weakness,
and work out yet another testing flaw that is costing you points.

Say you manage to jump from 490 to 495 (5 points) in just 2 weeks.
It may take you just as long to jump from a 502 to a 503 (1 point),
but an entire month to jump from 514 to a 515.

At which point do you call it and realize you’re facing diminishing returns? Especially if you’re already at a competitive enough score, and the effort required to continue improving is nothing but a waste of time.

To clarify, I’m NOT saying to stop when the going gets tough,
and I’m DEFINITELY not telling you to give up when you hit a plateau.

Instead, I urge you to evaluate where you are stuck, and consider if it makes sense to continue pushing higher.

But why not still aim high to be more competitive? 

When you’re working hard towards a goal,
you put pressure on yourself to reach that goal.
That’s important and certainly suggested within reason.

Here is what I tend to see with students. Say your goal is to attend your local state medical school:

They have a very solid medical program, you know a few respectable doctors who’ve graduated from this school, and hey, it’s only 40 minutes from your house so you don’t have to uproot your life and family.

Say this state school has an average accepted score of 508.
In an effort to be as competitive as possible you set your sights high: 516.
That’s a very healthy score and guaranteed to impress the admissions committee.

You set out on your journey and slowly slowly bring your scores up.
You put in the time and see your efforts rewarded as you slowly approach and pass 500, then see your practice scores continue to rise: 502, 503, 505, 506.

You know you’re well on your way, but you take a step back to evaluate…
and you panic. 

Why? Because you’re only at a 506 which is TEN POINTS shy of your goal.

You know just how hard you’ve worked to reach a 506, but instead of being motivated, you feel overwhelmed and filled with dread:
“How am I going to get another 10 points with just two months till my target test date?”

It’s not possible!

You try to push forward, but every day you’re battling with yourself thinking,

“What’s the point, I’ll never get there!
I’m a failure!
Am I even cut out to be a doctor?”

You get in your own head,
and you lose motivation.
Slowly, slowly, you begin to burn out.

THIS is the EXACT scenario I’m trying to avoid by having you aim for a lower target score.

Think about it, if your school has a 508 average accepted,

This means that about half the medical students were accepted with scores BELOW 508.

While it varies from school to school,
you have to imagine that MCAT scores follow a bell curve, just like everything else. 

For every new med student with a 510,
someone else got accepted with a 506 to balance the average.
And for that student who scored a 513,
well they probably balanced out another
student who got accepted with just a 503 score. 

Now, before you take this to mean,

“Oh, so I can aim below average and still get accepted because another student with a higher score will balance it out.”

NO!!

That’s not what I’m saying at all.

You don’t want to tell medical schools
“Hey, so I really want to be a doctor but I wasn’t willing to put in the effort to reach even your basic average MCAT score stats.”

Who knows what else those students had going for them on their applications which helped them overcome a lower MCAT score?

Instead, here’s what I suggest:

Find your school’s average MCAT score, add 2 buffer points, and set that as your target.

If you score ABOVE your target, that’s simply a bonus!

If you panic on test day and drop 2 points,
guess what, you only dropped your buffer points,
and you’re still applying with a score that meets their competitive requirements.

Going back to our example above,
if you set your goals to a 510 and you’re evaluating your 506 two months out, you’re so close to your goal.

You wake up every day motivated and ready to go.

You know how hard you worked to get to this point,
and you can already see the light at the end of the tunnel
because you’re just a few points out.

You continue working hard and putting in the effort,
but you’re much less likely to burn out and much more likely to hit your goals.

Remember, you’re not limited to your target score.
It’s simply how you evaluate your progress on a weekly basis.

Erin scored a 36 on her MCAT

Fetal Surgeon

Take Erin as an example. She scored a few points above her target score:

Was she upset for scoring a 36 (old MCAT) rather than her 32 target? Not at all, but she was confident that she WAS ready to hit that score based on her practice numbers.

She’s now working in her dream field of high risk fetal surgery.
(I didn’t even know this was a specialty, but wow!)

Now imagine the stress she may have felt on test day if, in her mind, she was aiming for a 38+ (~518), knowing she’d never even passed a 34 in practice.

At what cost?

When just starting out, many students are looking to jump too much in a very short period of time. Once mapped out, if the timeline is unrealistic, we look for 3 things.

  1. Do you need more time?
  2. Should you aim for a lower score?
  3. Combination of the 2?

This is a question I challenge students not to answer right away.

Instead, I want you to create your study plan,
map out your timeline, and evaluate with real world data.

We’ll see how you do for a few weeks and see how your progress matches up with your target timeline.

Because here’s the thing — even if you were willing to put in everything you’ve got into reaching an amazing 520 score, chances are you’re never going to get there.

Now before you close this link thinking,
“Leah doesn’t even know me. She doesn’t know how hard I’m willing to work. Where does she get the nerve to make such a blanket statement?”

You’re right, I probably have no right to say this. But egos aside, let’s look at the numbers.

The AAMC publishes their percentile rankings every May.
AAMC percentile ranks Why Aiming for a Lower MCAT Score Will Increase Your Med School Chances Leah4sci

At the time that I write this article, a 520 score is in the 98th percentile.
This means that for every 100 students taking the MCAT, only TWO will score 520 or above.

That’s 1 in 50!

This means that no matter how hard you work and how much effort you put into your MCAT prep, there’s a 98% chance that you will NEVER hit a 520.

I don’t feel bad saying that, because you know what, it doesn’t matter.

Let’s face it, you don’t need a 520.

It’s like saying most people will never walk down the street and find a 20 dollar bill.
It happens often enough, and it’s a really exciting feeling
(2nd year undergrad, was having a crappy day and yes, it 100% made my day),
but you know what, if you don’t find $20 on the ground you’ll still be okay. Life will go on, and your dreams will not be diminished in any way.

I’ve worked closely with hundreds of premeds over the years, and so far I’ve only had FOUR students score above a 520 since the new scoring system was introduced in 2015.

I suspect it’s because students capable of scoring this high don’t need my help.
My specialty is working with students who need help and guidance to bring up a low score to a competitive level, and because I tend to talk students OUT of setting goals >520 as explained in this article.

But you know what, many of my former students are currently IN medical school (or graduated) with ‘just good enough’ scores.
Like
Stephanie with a 504, Stacy with a 504, and Jen with a 505.

What would it really take?

Say you DID want to do whatever it takes to hit a score in the 5-teens or 520+.

If that was the case, you would need to map out a very detailed plan that accounted for the following:

  1. Where are you now? (baseline score)
  2. What is the reason for every single question you missed? (as I teach here
  3. Willingness to devote weeks, and maybe even months, to perfect this like never before and working longer and harder than anyone else. Therefore you never miss these questions again.

If the average student spends a few months on content, you’d want to spend a year.

Where the average student spends one week reviewing their full-length,
you’d want to spend two to four.

Where the average student is okay missing a question here and there because a 512 is more than good enough for them, you will have to make sure you do everything in your power to miss as few questions as possible.

How does aiming for a LOWER target score actually IMPROVE your chances of getting into medical school?

Say you are willing to do whatever it takes within a reasonable amount of time. Are you actually hurting your chances of getting into your dream school?

Once you start aiming higher than the average,
you have to consider cost and diminishing returns.

Will a 512 impress the admissions committee more than a 510? Probably?

What about a 516 or a 520?

Sure, it’ll look better, but is it better enough to justify the time and effort invested into making it happen?

Once you’re on track for hitting that 510,
how much more time and effort would it take to raise your scores?

Do you need a few more weeks to jump to a 512?
How many more months to jump to a 516 and beyond?

What if, instead of aiming for that 516 and beyond,
you take your MCAT earlier, when you’re ready to hit that 510,
and then turn your efforts to other aspects of your applications?

If jumping from a 510 to a 516 would have taken you another three months,
what else can you do in that time that is not related to the MCAT but will help you become a stronger and more competitive med school candidate? 

Can you use that time to submit your application EARLIER to improve your chances with schools that have rolling admissions?

Can you use the extra time to write a BETTER application?

Can you use those three months to research and write a much better personal statement and primary application essays?

The best place to start is with Dr Gray’s book, The Premed Playbook: Guide to the Medical School Personal Statement: Write Your Best Story. Secure Your Interview.

Then, perhaps take a few weeks off and return to it with fresh eyes to make improvements.

From one of my students:it was super helpful!. The examples in there are much better than some of the other’s I’ve read. For example [Other book] only have essays from people that are applying ivy league. Most of the experiences were not relatable where Dr Gray’s book is much more helpful for my situation. Thank u so much!

Can you use those three months to research secondary essays for your target schools and prewrite them?

Many schools judge you on how quickly you return those secondaries.
What if you had all the ‘thinking/planning/writing’ time done in advance so that you can return your secondaries quickly AND have time to really think about them and polish them to perfection?

The MCAT is just ONE piece of the premed puzzle.

With a finite time for the entire premed timeline,
do you see how settling for a ‘good enough competitive score’
and focusing the rest of your time on a stronger application can actually improve your chances of getting accepted into medical school?

If you’re still taking classes,
can you now put more effort into every single class,
so that if you’re on track for a B- you raise it to a B+,
raise that B+ to an A-, or that A- to an A? 

With your MCAT prep out of the way,
Can you improve the other areas of your application like your volunteering, shadowing, and gaining more experiences which you can happily discuss in your interview?

Can you use those extra three months to be super prepared FOR your interview?

Once again, I will defer to another of Dr Gray’s books: The Premed Playbook Guide to the Medical School Interview: Be Prepared, Perform Well, Get Accepted

Another issue with simply aiming for “my absolute best and not settling for anything less”:

I have an OCD obsession with numbers.
I look for patterns in everything I experience and can usually tell you how many steps it took to walk a block, or how many tiles in the public bathroom after just one use.

I find a way to turn every goal into numbers so that I can measure it.

This is painfully annoying to those around me (just ask my husband or sister), but quite helpful to my students (just see my MCAT math without a calculator video series).

I recently met with a student who is preparing to retake her MCAT.

She’s smart, has a very high GPA in her junior year of a biochemistry degree, read many journals for her research classes, and even went through a big-name MCAT prep course offered by her school.

She went into her first MCAT very confident,
only to come crashing down to earth with a 495 MCAT score.

She measured her readiness by external factors.

She didn’t set a target score because she simply hoped to score ‘decent’ and be competitive for her state medical school (506 average accepted). She FELT she had everything in place and had put in enough work to reach her goals.

She was shocked when she scored over 10 points below the accepted average.

I asked her,
“Did you have any DATA to back up your assumed readiness?”
The answer was no. 

She was so focused on “aiming very high” that she never stopped to measure and evaluate her actual progress.

My approach to MCAT prep is very numbers and data driven.
I look for patterns and trends.

I like to understand what you’ve done so that we can calculate
and project where you can expect to wind up.

But if your target score is…
“my absolute best and not settling for anything less”,
how on earth do we measure progress?

What’s the timeline for improving from where you are today to
“my absolute best and not settling for anything less”?

And how do we measure the halfway point to
“my absolute best and not settling for anything less”? 


Numbers are to infinity…

If we evaluate your progress for the last month,
how do we figure out your total progress as a percent of
“my absolute best and not settling for anything less”?

See the problem?

If you started at a 493 and your goal is a 508, then hitting a 500 means you’re about halfway there.

Yes, it becomes exponentially more difficult at this point, but we know where you are and can easily CALCULATE your trend and projected scores.

Even if you’re not as OCD about numbers as I am, can you afford not to know where you are? Can you afford not to understand how much progress you’ve made so that you can estimate how far you still have to go?

Redefining the conversation of aiming for YOUR best

Firstly, thanks for lending me your eyes by reading this far.
This is an argument I’m very passionate about,
as I see so many students set themselves up for failure by not setting realistic targets to begin with.

However, before you run from this page discouraged and defeated,
let’s redefine the conversation so that you still understand what it means to aim for YOUR BEST!

To confirm, I will NEVER tell you not to aim for your best, nor to settle for anything less than you are capable of.

You must always always push out of your comfort zone and work your hardest to achieve your dreams, even when others do not believe that you have what it takes.

So how is aiming for a lower score not a contradiction?

Your target score does NOT define your efforts.

Your target score is a number that gets you where you need to go, and WILL still require 110% effort to reach that goal.

Remember, the MCAT is NOT the real goal. Your ultimate goal is medical school.

Come up with a target that will require your best effort,
and once you get there take a step back,
evaluate the NEXT STEP in your premed journey,
and set a new target that will allow you to put in 110% effort, be it your applications, secondaries, interviews, or first year of medical school.

If you’re thinking, “I get it Leah, but I have good reasons to still want to aim higher.” Great, that’s fine!

I’m not against higher scores, but I want you to be realistic about it.

  • Take your baseline exam,
  • identify the issues,
  • make a plan to work on the issues, then set a realistic timeline

“What happens if I can’t hit my goals during the allotted time?”

Find a way to prove to YOURSELF that this is something you are capable of doing, not because of what I said, what someone else told you, or what you read on the internet.

Measure your ability based on YOU having proven to YOURSELF that this is something you can indeed pull off.

Be fair to yourself.
Don’t put yourself under unnecessary pressure
trying to reach a goal that you know you cannot reach. 

Figuring out goals, targets, realistic timelines, and more is my speciality.
I do this with students in a
strategy session, and what I work on with my Study Hall members.

You can get started here:

  1. Setting Your MCAT Goals and Target Score
  2. MCAT Prep: How Much Time Do You REALLY Need? (it’s more than you think)
  3. Creating Your Custom MCAT Study Schedule

I’d love to hear from you. What is your target score, and what is the motivation behind aiming for such a high (or not so high) number?
Let me know in the comments below

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