Acing the MCAT is one of your biggest hurdles on the way to medical school.
For most students, this is not a one and done situation.
Many students take the MCAT at least twice,
Some going so far as to PLAN for a retake “in case I don’t do well the first time.”
When preparing to retake the MCAT, students typically hope for a 5-10 point jump or higher, but according to the AAMC most students barely improve by 2-5 points on their second attempt.
Does this mean the situation is hopeless?
Should you just give up on your dreams of becoming a doctor and settle for something else?
Maybe your aunt’s advice of settling for nursing school is not such a bad idea after all.
That’s a terrible idea!!!
Before studying someone else’s data or listening to their anecdotal information,
Make sure you understand the complete picture,
Not just what’s there, but look for what’s MISSING in their story too.
Most students may not be aware of or didn’t take into consideration, what I’m about to share with you regarding retaking the MCAT.
In working with thousands of premeds preparing for the MCAT,
I have seen 2 common situations in which a student has to retake the MCAT:
- The student WAS ready for test day, but something outside their control prevented them from doing their best.
- The student simply was NOT ready for the MCAT. Some know this going in, while others are surprised by their low scores.
Let’s throw in a quick honorable mention for reason #3.
I’ve worked with students who required a score of 492-500 to get accepted into a post-bacc or special master’s program designed to help them overcome past academic challenges such as a low GPA.
These students needed to test quickly and chose to earn the lower but acceptable score, for now, knowing they would be studying again for a higher MCAT score before starting their med school applications down the line.
This is a unique situation in which planning to score low NOW will help them improve their academic background before studying again for a higher score later on.
But if that’s not you, then I assume you’re reading this to learn how to avoid retaking the MCAT,
Or if you DO have to retake it, how to know when you’re ready so that it’s just one more and done.
As per the AAMC guidelines you are limited to taking the MCAT
- 3 times in a one year
- 4 times in a 2 year period
- 7 times in your lifetime
Not showing up or voiding your exam still counts as an attempt, but will NOT show up on your records. Meaning, medical schools won’t know that you skipped or voided it.
This applies to the new (post-2015) MCAT only. If you took the old exam you have 7 attempts for the new one.
Does this mean you should take the MCAT 7 times and try to do better each time?
Not at all!
With so much riding on the MCAT, you want to make sure that you do your absolute best your first time if possible.
Meaning, only plan to take the MCAT once!
If you already have to retake it, plan for this next test to be your very last one.
This means showing up to test day ready to crush the exam,
Or postponing if you’re not ready, no matter the consequences.
Because if you DO have to retake, you’ll face those consequences regardless.
Every scored attempt WILL show up on your records and may be viewed negatively on your application, however, this doesn’t mean you won’t get accepted.
Remember, most premeds take the MCAT twice, but you never want to PLAN for having to retake.
Retake Situation #1 – circumstances outside of your control
This is the most frustrating situation in my opinion.
Imagine that you have done everything within your power to prepare for the MCAT. You’ve studied and practiced, you’ve taken your full-lengths at strategic intervals, and you’ve proven to yourself that you're ready to test (avoiding reason #2 below).
You show up to test day ready to do your best, and then…
(Here are just some of the situations I’ve heard about from my students)
- You catch a bug or virus right before test day and spent half the exam coughing, blowing your nose, dealing with sinuses and headaches, or running to the bathroom with an upset stomach
- Massive family blowout and feeling too physically and emotionally exhausted to concentrate
- Testing center power/network outage (far too common) in which you lose time, exam freezes or you have to wait for hours to resume your exam.
- Construction happening next door to the testing center, making it too difficult to concentrate over all the noise
- Sitting next to a panicked student who is crying the entire exam
- Too much coffee morning of the exam (ouch) and fighting dizzy spells trying to focus on the screen
And the list goes on
While you can try to prepare for “realistic testing conditions” by learning to focus despite distractions, there are some situations in which focusing and doing your best is simply not feasible.
In a situation like this, don’t panic.
Instead, have a silent conversation with yourself; CONFIRM to yourself that you’re not copping out, you’re not being a chicken, and you truly feel that these conditions are making it truly impossible for you to do your best day.
Accept this as soon as you know, and then proceed with the exam as planned for the experience (might as well since you’re already here) and to get a better understanding of what the “real” exam is like.
Then when you get to the end, triple check to verify that you choose VOID so that your exam is not scored/recorded.
If you were ready to test today, then you’ll still be ready to test in a week or two. Wait the mandatory 24 hours and then sign up for the very next available test date.
This is not an, ‘I have to do better next time with more studying’ situation.
This is one of those nightmarish days that will go away when you sleep it off and sign up for another date.
Try to test as soon as possible so that the momentum you built up for test day doesn’t wear off before your new test date.
Retake Situation #2- Your scores were not high enough.
This reason for retaking the MCAT is, unfortunately, the most common.
When students tell me they have to retest because of their scores I ask, “Were you surprised by your scores?”
Some students are not surprised.
They knew they were not ready going in, but they tested anyway.
This one boggles my mind the most.
- They’ve already paid for the MCAT and don’t want to waste their money.
- They were desperate to test before applications open despite knowing their progress.
- They suspected, but chose to ignore their numbers hoping for a better outcome.
- They really REALLY 🤞 hope for a better outcome despite their numbers.
However, there are some students who are completely taken aback by their low MCAT scores.
Instead of data, they rely on their strong academic backgrounds including a high GPA and recent science classes, or simply judging by how many hours they invested into MCAT prep.
They’re shocked when their scores come back having truly expected to do better.
Their expectations are based on emotional and anecdotal information, rather than data-driven estimations
When I look at their numbers (or lack thereof), I typically could have predicted a less-than-ideal outcome.
I don’t share this with you to put them down. I know firsthand how difficult it is to take a step back and look at the big picture when you’ve invested your heart and soul into something and desperately don’t want to read the warning signs.
I’m sharing this with you to help you understand the situation.
Knowledge is power, and I want to make sure you have that knowledge – of exactly what it takes. This way you only need to take the MCAT this ONE TIME (and if you’ve already tested and have to retake, your next exam should be it).
By showing you how to understand where you’re at,
I hope that you’ll use this information to carefully evaluate your situation,
and if you can’t say with certainty that you’re ready for your test date, you will agree not to test until you’re ready.
Don’t put yourself into a situation where you think and hope you did your best,
sit on pins and needles for an entire month,
then undergo the 5 stages of grief when you finally see your MCAT scores.
Let’s make sure you understand what it’ll take to ace your exam on your next attempt!
It’s not magic, it’s just math!
1) The first thing you’ll need is data!
Specifically, MCAT full-length practice tests from a reputable company, taken under realistic testing conditions.
One student came to me after bombing her first MCAT.
When asked, she admitted that she hadn't taken a single full-length practice MCAT prior to the real thing.
Not a single one! This was her advisor's idea of “getting a feel for the exam.”
I’ve worked with many more retesters who’ve taken fewer than 5 full-lengths total.
There isn’t a hard and fast rule for how many full-lengths to take.
In fact, how many you need is custom to your situation including your baseline score and required jump.
this is something I work on with students in the MCAT Study Hall
However, you will want to take enough practice full-lengths:
- To establish a proper data trend for YOUR scores/improvements
- To properly identify weaknesses so that you can learn from and improve with each exam
- To prove that you are indeed capable of hitting at or above your target score
Establishing a proper data trend:
A random full-length here and there does not provide enough information.
If you tested on a bad day or caught a really easy passage, how do you know if this score is realistic for where you are?
Taking multiple exams at strategic intervals will help you identify patterns and trends in both your overall and section scores, and will help you identify your specific weaknesses.
Identifying weaknesses through full-lengths:
Full-lengths aren’t just about taking an exam to see how you do.
Every full length must become an in-depth learning opportunity to help you identify strengths, specific weaknesses, and suggest areas for improvement.
I discuss this in more detail here: 3 Steps to Raising Your MCAT Scores With Full-Length Practice Tests
Prove that you’re capable of hitting at or above your target:
No matter how well you prepare for the MCAT, you WILL be nervous on test day.
Those nerves can cause you to freeze up a bit, especially at the start of each section before you get in the zone.
Lost points due to test day nerves will not hurt you if you build in a few points buffer during practice.
For example, if you have a 510 MCAT target score, and you hit 510-512 in practice, chances are you’ll come out with a 510 despite test day nerves.
However, if you have a 510 target and you barely hit a 509, chances are you may come out with a 507.
To be clear,
I’m not saying that you CANNOT score higher on test day.
Instead, I’m telling you that it’s more common to go down rather than up on test day, so you may as well come in prepared with those buffer points.
Which brings me back to my initial point: preparing to retake the MCAT in case you don’t do well the first time.
When a student tells me, “I want to give myself time to retest in case I don’t do well the first time,” I ask, “Why do you think you won’t do well the first time?”
And outcomes the calculator.
Look at your trends.
Look at your numbers.
If you’re still in Phase 2, calculate the average jump between full-lengths at regularly spaced intervals (I suggest 2 FL per month).
Then run a simple calculation.
Take how many more points you need to hit your target score, and divide that by the average jump per full-length.
While this isn’t set in stone, this will help you figure out if you’ll be ready by your target test date.
If the math says no, then the argument of “having time to retest in case I don’t do well” becomes
“postponing my exam because I can already tell I’m not ready to hit my target, but I will use the extra time to make sure I CAN reach my goals”.
If you’re in Phase 3 and just days or weeks from your MCAT, ask yourself a different question:
“Did I hit near or above my target score in multiple practice full-lengths?”
Remember, you need multiple to verify that one high score was not a fluke.
If the answer is no, let’s take away the surprise.
Take the average of your last 3 full-lengths, subtract 2 points for nerves, and ask yourself this:
“How would I feel if I scored this number on the real thing?”
If the answer is “I would want to retake it,” then make that decision NOW by postponing, or at least preparing to void your exam.
This will save you from a low score that forces you to retest.
When should you schedule your exam?
My argument is actually NOT to schedule your new date yet.
You’re better off taking a monetary penalty for a partial refund if you can.
Run the numbers as above (average jump, how many more weeks) and keep an eye on it.
Only sign up for your new test date as you get closer to Phase 3 with a verified practice full-length trend.
Don't worry, seats always open at the end of the gold zone
Then treat yourself like a retake student, because you’re essentially retaking the MCAT without the negatives associated with actually earning a low MCAT score.
I discuss how to prepare for a retake (real or postponed) in this article: Should I Retake my MCAT?