As a premed student preparing for your upcoming MCAT, it's normal to feel worried and unprepared. After all, your MCAT scores may very well be the difference between a medical school admissions committee reviewing your application or tossing it into the reject pile.
Perhaps you set up a long-term study plan and scheduled your testing day in advance. But as your test date draws closer you may be wondering ‘should I postpone my MCAT date'?
As an MCAT tutor I get this question on a regular basis. The answer is that it really depends on your individual situation. I will attempt to lay out your options in the remainder of this article.
Why Your MCAT Score is So Important
Without getting into a heated discussion of the MCATs true ability to indicate your potential as a medical student, know this: Your MCAT score will be a HUGE deciding factor in your acceptance into medical school.
Every medical school will have different requirements, so I recommend researching the schools you're applying to. But overall, you will have to score at least a 30 on the pre-2015 MCAT to be considered a competitive candidate in the average American school.
How does this translate to the new exam? Only time will tell. So far it looks like at least a 506 is required for the average school.
Doesn't matter if you have a stellar application, including a high GPA at an Ivy League University, hours of research and volunteering, if your MCAT score is low, you are likely not getting into an American medical school.
When You Apply Is Just As Important
However, a high MCAT score with stellar application still doesn't guarantee your acceptance. Medical schools operate on rolling admissions. When the application cycle opens you are competing for 100% available seats. As the cycle continues the number of seats go down. Your applications will be scrutinized with more detail and your chances of acceptance get lower and lower.
Despite a high MCAT score and stellar application, you may still find yourself wait-listed or potentially rejected if applying by October.
So if your MCAT studying is not progressing as desired, you are faced with a dilemma. Take your MCAT sooner as planned, and risk a lower score, or postpone your MCAT date and risk rejection.
Why Anyone Would Postpone Their MCAT Date
A student recently emailed me asking for advice. With less than 3 weeks to his scheduled MCAT he wanted to know how to increase his score having earned a 490 on a recent full length practice test. I told him in no uncertain terms to postpone his exam.
Based on my experience as an MCAT tutor, I've never seen a student improve their score from 490 to over 500 in a span of 3 weeks. I suspected that if he did take his exam as planned he'd be lucky to earn a 495, guaranteeing him rejection from just about every US medical school.
Applying early in the cycle with a low score may result in rejection. Applying late in the cycle with an extremely low score is guaranteed to result in rejection. By postponing your exam date you give yourself additional time to study and improve. This increases your chances of working towards a higher and more competitive score.
If you're on the right study track, and see yourself improving slowly but surely, taking a later exam will give you the time to reach an acceptable MCAT score.
Drawbacks Of Postponing Your MCAT
There are pros and cons to every argument, and postponing the MCAT is no different.
If you decide to postpone your exam at the last minute, you won't be able to change the date. Instead you lose your initial investment, and now have to pay for a brand new exam resulting in money down the drain.
You must also consider the emotional risk of postponing. If you postpone because you don't' feel ready, keep in mind that you may never feel fully ready. Postponing once opens the gate for postponing again and again to the point where you talk yourself out of testing at all.
If you do choose to postpone and can't get your money back, sit the exam and void it. The experience may very well be worth the $300 spent.
So When Should You Postpone Your Exam?
Be reasonable with your expectations. In my ebook, MCAT Exam Strategy – A 6 Week Guide To Crushing The MCAT, I discuss the concept of researching your desired medical school to understand your required MCAT scores. I also explain the process of strategically using AAMC practice exams to gauge your study level and progress over time.
In following this strategy, and scoring poorly on one or more practice exams, assume that your actual exam will result in a similar score. If you're not within a few points of your target score, you need to postpone.
If your score is fairly close to your target you may choose to test as planned. If you don't like your final score you will likely wind up retesting anyway.
Keep in mind, medical schools will get to see both scores.
How Soon Do You Make The Decision To Postpone?
If you're score is abysmally low – in the low 490s, and you have less than 6-10 weeks remaining, you need to postpone.
If your score is in the high 490's the decision may be a bit more complex. I've put together a hypothetical time-table based only on my years of experience as an MCAT tutor. Keep in mind that every student comes from a different academic background and has a different capacity to learn and improve.
Depending on how much time remains until your exam, you can compare your AAMC practice exam scores to your potential for improvement. The lower your initial score, the easier it is to raise the score, and quickly. For example, a student scoring a 490 (reasonable) on a practice test is clearly lacking in various aspects of the exam.
This may stem from not knowing the content or inability to read and process passages. If this is the case, you can quickly improve your score by learning the content and doing appropriate practice. In working with students at this level I've seen an average improvement of 1-3 points per week. These improvement points come from a strong strategy and heavy study of the material.
However, at a score 495 you will have a more difficult time improving as quickly. By the time you reach a 497, you are near the average of testers. You probably know the material reasonably well and are reading through the passages at a decent pace.
This is where you must carefully analyze your practice exams and figure out what went wrong. You may be reading slowly, you may need more practice understanding passages, or perhaps there are still a few topics you haven’t mastered. In working with tutoring clients at this stage, I’ve seen a reasonable increase of 1-2 points per week.
As you get closer to and above 504, it becomes increasingly difficult to raise your score.
Once you’re at a 500, you likely know the material and have a decent time getting through the exam. Now you must really dissect everything from your study strategy, content, application, and even your physiological and psychological conditions while taking your practice exams.
One of my recent students was stuck on a 499 for 2 weeks until we figured out her psychological barriers, after which she jumped to a 503 on her next practice AAMC exam.
But only you will know how much time you need to improve your score. Take your most recent AAMC score into consideration: where do you stand? Do you know what it will take for you to reach the next step? And if so, do you have enough time to achieve your results?
If yes, go for it, and study like there is no tomorrow.
If no, heavily consider your options. If you have at least 2-3 weeks to go, you don’t have to make your decision just yet. Analyze your most recent score, work as hard as you can on your identified weak areas, and take another practice AAMC in about a week’s time. Now that you have another score that can gauge your progress ability, make your decision.
If you have less than 2 weeks to go, be reasonable. If you are not yet scoring an acceptable number on your practice AAMC, and you know you can’t apply with the score you’re getting now, postpone!
Also keep in mind that you will probably lose a few points due to exam nerves. If you score a 508 on the practice exam, you may walk away with a 506 on the real thing. If you scored a 502 in practice, you may be nervous during the real exam and only walk away with a 500.
Is Postponing Really That Bad?
One of the biggest arguments I hear from students regarding postponing their exam is,
I don’t want to waste another year of my life
But ask yourself this: is it really the end of the world? The average MCAT student is in their mid 20's. One more year won’t make or break you in terms of your medical career. If you have to wait, use this year wisely.
Take a biochem or other medical type course, do some research or volunteering, travel and see the world; do something to make yourself a better person and stronger medical candidate. And make damn sure the time was worth it by scoring much higher on your next MCAT.
I’ve worked with premed students in their 30's and even 40's. If a single mother of 3 teenagers can take her MCAT at 42 and get into a US medical school, there is no reason YOU can’t do the same.
Look at it this way: if you apply this year with a 20, you probably won’t get accepted. You will have wasted your time and application money and will sit around hoping and waiting only to find yourself having to retest and reapply.
You will have ‘wasted' a year anyway, only you'll feel so much worse because it wasn't YOUR decision. Postponing to get a better score is the better option.
Your MCAT score is a huge part of your medical school application. If you don't score well you decrease your chances of acceptance. If you postpone you risk applying too late for this cycle, but sometimes a choice between outright rejection is worse than being wait-listed or even taking another year to improve your score and apply early in the next cycle.
What Do You Think?
In your personal opinion, when is the right time to make a decision to postpone or keep at it? Let me know in the comments below
Your MCAT score is a huge part of your application. If you won’t score well, then postpone it so you can submit a stellar application. While every student is different, you can gauge where you stand