Understanding how to identify success is easy for certain activities. If you enjoy bowling, for example, you know 200 is a strong score. Bakers recognize a blue ribbon indicates a prize-winning pastry. Academics can be a little more difficult to measure, particularly if you’re a student starting the medical school application process. You may find yourself with a lot of questions.
How high does my GPA need to be? Were my science classes challenging enough? What is a good MCAT score?
Your score on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) can be especially hard to interpret, particularly if you’re taking the exam for the first time. It doesn’t help that the scoring scale changed in 2015.
Still, you need to have a good handle on how your score stacks up. It can help you better understand the strength of your overall application. Get ready for a primer in all things MCAT.
How is the MCAT scored?
Before you can understand how your MCAT performance stacks up, you need to become more familiar with the scale itself. Scores can be 472 at the lowest and 528 at the highest. That might sound confusing when you consider this four-part exam includes 230 questions, but there’s a reason why. It’s all about fairness.
Each year, there are multiple forms of the MCAT. While all of them are designed to test the same knowledge in the same way, they feature different question sets. This means some versions are inevitably more challenging than others. Raw scores need to be converted to ensure all students are on level playing field.
The first step is tallying your total number of correct answers. Then, those raw scores are converted to a scale ranging from 118 to 132 for each section. Your overall MCAT result is the sum of those four scaled scores.
What is a good MCAT score?
It’s easy to understand how you fared if your score is far to one end of the spectrum, but that leaves a lot of grey area. Evaluating averages can help.
Students applying to start medical school in 2018 achieved a mean score of 505.6. The mean score for accepted students, on the other hand, was 511.2. It’s worth mentioning that both averages have been increasing over time. And keep in mind that you can look into averages for specific schools.
Another thing to consider is that you’ll receive another metric with your results. Dr. Jarita Hagans, Family Physician and author, reminds that you’ll be provided a percentile ranking. Some students may actually find that number to be more informative since it puts your score into a little more context.
"In broad strokes, the percentile is the most useful thing to see how a student performed on the test relative to their peers."
“In broad strokes, the percentile is the most useful thing to see how a student performed on the test relative to their peers,” says Dr. Rishi Desai, Pediatric Infectious Disease Physician and Chief Medical Officer at Osmosis.
How important is your MCAT performance?
Admissions committees want to be selective to ensure accepted students can handle a rigorous medical education. Some programs have minimum MCAT score requirements for this reason.
“It is more of an initial factor to determine who meets the mark for that medical school,” Dr. Hagans offers. “Minimum score requirements are school-dependent and can help them narrow down their applicant pool.”
It’s possible that medical schools could view your MCAT score as a snapshot of how you’ll eventually fare on your licensing exams. There’s research suggesting MCAT performance helps predict United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) performance. Dr. Desai says this correlation probably has a lot to do with how students prepare and how comfortable they are during examinations. The MCAT and the USMLE Step 1 are quite different, after all.
"Outside of basic test-taking skills, I don’t think success on the MCAT correlates with success on the USMLE Step 1."
“Outside of basic test-taking skills, I don’t think success on the MCAT correlates with success on the USMLE Step 1,” Dr. Hagans says. She adds that the MCAT is more about basic science and reasoning while the USMLE Step 1 requires you to apply your knowledge.
You should also keep in mind that your MCAT score is just one of many application components. Your GPA, letters of recommendation, personal statement, clinical experience, extracurricular activity involvement, and interview performance are also extremely important. And some medical schools don’t allow themselves to be so rigid as to discount applicants who score below a certain benchmark, instead favoring a holistic review.
"Let’s be clear—the MCAT is important, but it’s not the only important thing to consider."
“Let’s be clear—the MCAT is important, but it’s not the only important thing to consider,” Dr. Desai says.
What should you do if you didn’t get the score you wanted?
Let’s say you get your results back and you didn’t do as well as you’d hoped. There’s no need to panic. Retaking the MCAT is an option.
“In my experience, there are a lot of things that students can do in terms of how they study that can improve their performance in these high-stakes exams,” Dr. Desai offers. He suggests adopting different learning strategies like interleaving, spaced repetition, memory palaces, etc.
You should also evaluate your results to determine both your weakest and strongest areas. It can help you figure out where you may have gaps that you should target when studying. Dr. Hagans thinks it’s helpful to try simulating the testing conditions when practicing. She also says you need to be very aware of how retaking the MCAT aligns with your overall timeline. You don’t want to end up behind schedule because you’re waiting on your results.
If you’ve already planned far enough ahead to allow multiple MCAT sessions, just make sure you’re being purposeful about it. There are limits on taking the exam after all—no more than three times per year, no more than four times over two consecutive years, and no more than seven times in total.
“I think it raises a red flag if you take it more than three times,” Dr. Hagans suggests. “It may make medical school admissions boards wonder about your ability to evaluate yourself and change course when failure comes.”
"I think it raises a red flag if you take it more than three times."
Doing your best to maintain perspective can also help significantly. It’s an important test, but you shouldn’t be studying simply with the intention of excelling as an MCAT examinee. And you certainly shouldn’t be motivated by anxiety.
“I think that curiosity is a better way to go over fear,” Dr. Desai says. “So, make sure that you’re learning because you genuinely want to know something and not because you feel like you have to learn it for the test.”
Make sure you’re prepared
Having a strong MCAT score can absolutely help your application, but it’s just one part of the overall package. Instead of asking yourself, “What is a good MCAT score?” try asking, “Does my MCAT score make me competitive?” Maintaining strong grades, securing great letters of recommendation, and representing yourself well during interviews are all equally important.
Perhaps you’re feeling a bit anxious about attending interviews. While they can be nerve-racking for even the strongest students, there’s a lot you can do to make sure you feel ready when interview season starts. Learn how to gear up for these all-important conversations by reading our article “How to Prepare for Medical School Interviews: Steps for Success.”
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