Questions About the MCAT

MCAT Basics

Just what exactly is the MCAT?

The best source of information is the AAMC’s official MCAT webpage – the AAMC is the organization that administers the MCAT and they are producing information to help you prepare for the exam, including a highly detailed FAQ and a Content Guide that includes a description of each section of the MCAT and the concepts that will be tested, along with some practice questions.

Briefly, the MCAT has four sections. The first two sections will test knowledge of Biology, General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry, and Physics, as applied to living systems. You will be asked to use your scientific inquiry, reasoning, and research and statistics skills to approach the problems. The questions in these sections are designed to test scientific competencies that have been deemed important in training future physicians (read more about the competencies in The Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians). The third section is approximately 60% psychology, 30% sociology and 10% biology content, and tests your understanding of the Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior. The fourth section will test your critical analysis and reasoning skills via reading passages and answering questions, similar to the passages in the reading section of the SAT.

How early do I need to register? What test date should I choose?

 

  • Register as early as possible since test centers fill up, and register for the exam you’re mostly likely to take. If you must change your date later, you’ll be able to do so for a fee.   
  • If you might be eligible for the AAMC Fee Assistance Program, apply for that ASAP so that you can use the benefits to reduce the cost of the MCAT.
  • We have a longer winter break coming up. If you haven’t started studying yet, use the AAMC “How to Create a Study Plan” to gauge whether or not you could be ready for a January date.
  • If you’re taking the exam in March, the 13th will be the first day of spring break, so think about what your midterms week may look like and plan accordingly—the March 26 date may make it easier to juggle midterms and MCAT, and it gives you spring break for studying.
  • If you’re hoping to take it as late as possible while still knowing your score before submitting your application, aim for May 14/15 (see FAQ on “Why Apply Early” for rationale). The only available dates for this round of registration are January and March, so no need to register yet. 
  • If you’re a junior taking a glide year, no need to register yet – you’ll probably take the exam in August and those dates aren’t open for registration yet!
Where is the test offered?

If you go into the MCAT exam registration system, you can enter an exam date and state, and you will see your options for test sites. You can click on any of these options to find out the directions and driving times, as well as any public transportation available. Different test sites may be available on different dates. 

Princeton and Piscataway are the closest options to campus.

Timing

Can you take the MCAT too early?

I’m wondering when I should take the MCAT. When is the best time to take it? When is too late? Is it possible to take it too early? Thanks!

Generally speaking, it’s best to take the MCAT as close to the time you completed the required coursework as possible. the longer you wait, the more your knowledge of the subjects may fade. 

When is too late? If you want to know your score before submitting your application, take it by mid-May. If you're okay with submitting your application before knowing your score, then late June/early July is okay. Taking it any later than that may delay your consideration by your schools, which is detrimental in a process where there are a limited number of interviews and seats. 

When is too early? Good question! Likely reasons it’s too early are, a) you haven’t taken the required courses, b) you haven’t adequately prepared, including taking enough full-length practice tests that you're consistently scoring around your target score (for most students, this means at least 6-8 tests), or c) your score will expire before you pursue all of the things you’d like to do between college and medical school. As for that last reason, it’s important to remember that MCAT scores are good for three years at most medical schools, meaning that an MCAT from 2021 would be good for anyone matriculating in 2024 or earlier.

MCAT as a first year (?!)

A friend of mine who’s a first-year told me he’s planning to start studying for the MCAT over the vacation and it stressed me out! Should I be thinking about the MCAT already?

There is definitely no requirement to think about the MCAT yet! The earliest you’d be taking it is the summer after sophomore year (and only a small handful of students take it that early) -- the most common time to take it is the summer after junior year. But, we know that some students just feel more secure knowing some basics about the exam. If this is the case for you, here are some resources to use:

MCAT as a Sophomore

I’m a sophomore. I attended a very strong high school and took a lot of AP science. I took MOL 214, orgo and biochem already, and I’m fairly confident that I want to be a doctor after many years of high school volunteering and shadowing. My parents are encouraging me to not do any internships or other activities this summer and focus all of my time on the MCAT so I can apply next summer and start medical school after graduation. Are other sophomores doing this? Is it advisable?
 
If you’ve taken the required courses, feel very focused on and motivated for medicine based on concrete experience, and feel ready to tackle the process of studying for the MCAT, we do have a few sophomores every year who take the exam successfully. A few words of advice:

  • Don’t just do MCAT. MCAT prep doesn’t need to be a full-time job. If you study a few hours a day and take practice tests on weekends, you’ll be well-prepared. If you’re applying after junior year, this is the last summer that you have to continue to gain experiences outside of the academic year that will inform your future plans. We can brainstorm possible areas to enhance and ways you might do that part-time alongside studying.
  • MCAT scores expire for many schools after three years, so an MCAT from summer 2021 will be good to apply through fall 2024 matriculation. If you find an amazing two-year post-grad opportunity, like a Rhodes Fellowship or a research position, you would have to retake the test.
  • Don’t rush the process. Take a half-length diagnostic early on and see how it feels. Are you really feeling ready for this? If so, excellent – keep moving forward. If at any point you don’t feel that you’ll do as well as you’d like for your schools of interest, don’t be afraid to change your timeline. Trying to do things just to do them is not a good excuse for poor performance. If it does work out, it’ll be nice to have that piece of preparation behind you so that you can focus on the next things!

This is a very case-by-case situation, so please don’t hesitate to be in touch. We can connect you with students who have taken the MCAT so you can learn more about what it’s like from them, and help you gauge your own candidacy, readiness, target scores, and potential for success via a conversation.

MCAT Timing When Applying Direct Entry

I. Spring vs Summer MCAT with no glide year

I want to apply to med school during the summer after junior year so I can go straight out of college. Should I take the MCAT in the spring of my junior year or can I wait until the summer after? I will have Physics in my junior year, so I don't know how that will affect my performance in March or April, but I understand that there are certain advantages to taking the test as early as possible and knowing your scores sooner.

You will be far enough along in Physics to do well on that portion of the test if you take the test in the spring, especially if you take a commercial MCAT prep class and study as you should, an hour or so per day for 3-4 months before the test with at least half-a-dozen practice tests. The main advantage to taking the test in the spring is that you will have your score when completing your AMCAS (common application) in June. Generally speaking, in order to avoid having a late application, we advise you to take the test no later than the end of June during the summer you apply; however, the one disadvantage of taking the test any later than May is that you would be completing your AMCAS in June without knowing your MCAT score. Without an MCAT score, you would complete the AMCAS in June along with other applicants. When your MCAT score came back later in the summer, if it was surprisingly good or surprisingly poor, then you would log back into your online AMCAS application and add schools if need be (if you think your overall qualifications have changed). But to repeat: if you took the test in the spring, you wouldn’t need to worry about this because you would be completing your application knowing what your MCAT score is.

II. MCAT in June if applying this year

I was supposed to spend spring break doing a lot of MCAT studying, but I was too busy with JPs, and now I feel like I won’t be ready for a test in April or May. What will happen if I take it in June? Would it be too late to apply this year?

If you take the test in June, you won’t receive your scores until July. If you wait until July to apply, your application will be processed late and will arrive at schools late, you’ll be working on secondary applications late, and we will write committee letters in the order in which students’ files are complete at their schools; all of these will put you at a disadvantage, in terms of timing. The earlier your application is complete, the sooner the admissions committee is evaluating your application, and the more room they have in the interview calendar to offer you a interview. The later you apply, the more discerning an AdCom might be in who they are inviting to interview.

If you take the MCAT in June, we recommend submitting your AMCAS application in early June, applying to a smaller cohort of schools (e.g., your state schools, a couple of your favorites). Timing of MCAT score reports does not affect AMCAS processing time. Once you know your scores, you can add more schools based on your scores and how your “numbers” profile stacks up at different schools. This way, your application is being processed while you wait for your scores, and you will remain on track with the “apply as early as possible” timeline. Adding more schools to your application after you have submitted also does not affect AMCAS processing time.

That said, you’re only a junior, and perhaps this is a first sign that you are not ready to take on the entire application process right now. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with your pre-application materials and the thought of taking MCAT and doing secondaries this summer, consider just focusing on MCAT for the summer, and applying next year. Reread Ten Good Reasons to Consider a Glide Year and think it over! There’s no rush—you want to apply the best way that you can the first time that you do it.

 

MCAT Timing When Taking a Year Off

I am a premed Mol Bio junior hoping to take a year off before I go to medical school. When should I take my MCATs? Can I take them after I graduate? Also, what if I decide to take my MCATs during my year off? Is that possible? See, I am not quite sure if I really want to go to medical school yet, and it seems that most people by their junior year have already taken the MCATs at least once. Since I am uncertain, however, I would like to space everything out - studies at Princeton are hectic enough already without having to worry about taking the MCATs!

If you want to know your score before you submit your application, we recommend taking MCAT no later than early May of the year in which you are applying. You only want to have to take it once! Most students who plan to take a year off take MCAT in August or September between junior and senior years, then submit their application in June at the time of graduation. You'll then go on medical school interview during your glide year. It can be hard to commit to MCAT study when you're unsure of your future in medicine, so it may be that it makes more sense to spend the summer gaining the kinds of experiences that may help you better decide whether you want to go to medical school, which would mean making time in your senior year for MCAT. Or, if you feel that you need a summer to study for MCAT, you could look at submitting your application without your score and taking the exam a little later, or considering two glide years. The medical schools truly don't care when students apply, though students who are a little older tend to have more experiences and coursework to talk about in their applications and interviews. In the 2017 applicant pool, about 30% of our students applied direct entry to begin after graduation, 40% took one glide year, and 30% took two or more.

MCAT during the pandemic?

Hi HPA – I’m a junior planning to take a glide year, so I was planning to take the MCAT this summer. Now that the format has been changed, do you still recommend taking the exam now or waiting until it goes back to its regular format?
 
I think there are a lot of issues at play in this question and we can be a sounding board for you to consider pros and cons. Here are a few we’ve been thinking about:
 
Arguments for taking the exam this summer:

  • Since many internships and other opportunities have been canceled, you may have more time than expected to study and prepare this summer.
  • It’s the last summer you can take the exam with one glide year—if you don’t take it now, you’ll be managing it alongside classes, thesis, job search, application prep, and the rest of your life.
  • There will be ample time to regroup and retake the exam if necessary (but we recommend studying as if you’re only going to take the test once). 

Arguments for waiting until January or the spring:

  • The exam will hopefully return to its normal length, with more breaks.
  • Practice tests more accurately reflect the regular exam than this summer’s shortened exam, so you may be better able to gauge your performance during your exam prep for the regular exam.
  • There will hopefully be less chance that exams will be canceled due to the pandemic.
  • There will hopefully be less anxiety and stress associated with the pandemic that could affect your test performance.
  • January will be a true vacation with no finals—there will be more time to study compared to past Princeton winter breaks.

Without knowing what the world will look like in January and next spring, it’s hard to consider the future exam with certainty. If you feel confident in your studying this summer, can secure a seat for the exam, and feel that you have the stamina and are in a mental space that you can do well, this summer may be fine. If you prefer to wait and hope for a more known exam format, then aim for January or spring.

Taking MCAT more than once

Is it okay to plan for MCAT as if you might have to retake the test? I feel like I'd do better a second time since I'd know more of what to expect after the first time.

The MCAT is not like the SAT where you may be advised to take it multiple times. You should strive to take the MCAT once. It is a difficult, stressful, expensive experience to take the exam and you're better served by studying well once and moving on to other activities that will improve your application than having to study twice. There is also a lot of psychological pressure that comes with taking the exam and the stress of going into a second administration may negatively affect your performance. We rarely see students' scores improving significantly.

Take many full-length practice tests under conditions as close as you can come to the "real thing" (e.g., same time of day, quiet location).  

Medical school will see all scores from all test administrations. Taking it well before you're ready can lead them to question your judgment. Taking it more than once could lead them to wonder which is a more accurate reflection of your ability.
 

Princeton Courses + MCAT Prep

Physics prep and MCAT Timing

I. AP vs retaking classes

I entered Princeton with 2 units of AP Physics credit.  For the MCAT, would reading over the preparatory book or taking a prep course 

You do not need to retake Physics (or Gen Chem, if you have AP credit for that) to prepare for the MCAT.  You have the knowledge of introductory physics, necessary to do well on the test, from your high school AP experience.  Simply prepare well, reading the prep material carefully and taking as many full-length practice tests as humanly possible.  If you were to take Physics at Princeton you would forfeit your AP credit, and there is no reason to do this if you study properly for the MCAT.

 

II. Physics prep and MCAT Timing

I’m a junior MOL major taking Biochemistry right now and PHY 108 next spring (I have AP credit in Physics but I’m not sure that my background is that strong). I’m deciding between January and April MCAT dates and planning to apply this summer. Do you have advice on which date is better?

This conversation can get intricate, so we’d recommend coming by to chat with us about your unique situation. Check out the Physics content on the MCAT content guide online, (or stop by HPA to look through MCAT materials) and see if the topics and practice questions look like something you could tackle with your high school preparation plus some intensive studying over the next few months.

If you definitely plan to apply this year and you definitely want to know your score before you submit your application, we’d recommend mid May at the latest. At the same time, MCAT is a high stakes test, and you should not take it until you feel adequately prepared – for some students this means changing their application timeline completely and applying in a later year. In any case, if you’re fairly sure about taking MCAT and applying this cycle, register for the MCAT early and for the date you think you’re most likely to take it – the fees to reschedule/ refunds if you cancel are the most generous if you register early.

PSYC Classes for MCAT Prep

I would like to take psychology for MCAT prep.  Which psychology class you would recommend among PSY 101, PSY 207 (psychopathology), and PSY 252 (social psych)?

PSY 101 is going to cover more of the topics on the MCAT than the other two, but it is also a larger time commitment, since it has the lab component. Topics in both abnormal and social (as well as NEU 201, SOC 101 and others) will be covered on the MCAT, and each of those will provide you with some context in which to study the rest of the psyc content on your own, so either one would be fine. For more detail about the topics covered on the MCAT, look at the content outline available online. For those students who don't have room in their schedules for a psyc course, many test prep companies will be creating materials that students can use for self-study or in prep classes, and free materials are being created by the AAMC.

Self-studying Biochemistry

I’m thinking of taking the MCAT, but I haven’t taken Biochem yet. Have students self-studied Biochem and done well in the past?

We have seen it happen for the occasional student, but more frequently it doesn’t work out as well as they hoped. They end up spending a lot of time trying to make up for the lack of classroom knowledge that could have been better used toward developing knowledge other and competencies. This summer, you’d also be competing for MCAT seats with students whose exams were canceled in the spring due to the pandemic, so it may be more difficult to find a seat in your preferred test location. We think it’s a more efficient use of time to do something else that’s relevant to your medical school preparation for the summer (we have a lot of ideas on this document), brushing up on your earlier science content knowledge and especially starting to prepare for the CARS (critical analysis and reading) section, and taking MCAT in January after you’ve taken Biochem.
 
See related FAQs: MCAT as a sophomoreMCAT TipsMCAT “just for practice”

Preparing for the MCAT

The Cost of MCAT Preparation

I’m worried that I won’t be able to do as well as I want on the MCAT without taking a prep course, but prep courses are so expensive! Do you have any advice for preparing well but without spending so much money?

If you qualify for the AAMC Fee Assistance Program, many expenses are subsidized, including cost of the MCAT. Learn more about it online. You can also save some money just by registering for the test in a timely manner – registration is less expensive, and more refunds are offered for rescheduling/cancellation, if you register a month or more prior to the exam.

Whenever test prep companies offer free exams or other free/discounted opportunities, we post them in Vitals, so be sure to take advantage of those. While HPA does not endorse one test prep company over others, we do share their offers with you so that you can evaluate them for yourself. We also have a borrowing library of MCAT study materials donated by students and prep companies, which you’re welcome to borrow for two weeks at a time. You can also try contacting local test prep company representatives – they sometimes hire student workers and offer a free course in return.  The Premed Society and MAPS student groups also sometimes receive offers from test prep companies – join their groups and mailing lists for more information. If you plan to enroll in a post-bac program to continue to enhance your preparation for medical school, many programs include in-house MCAT prep, so take that into consideration as you evaluate programs.

The AAMC has partnered with Khan Academy to provide free content prep and review questions. The AAMC also provides a number of lower-cost prep materials, including a full-length practice test, the Official Guide, which includes 120 practice questions, and the MCAT Question Pack Bundle, which includes 720 practice questions.

That said, if you start working through test prep materials and feel that you really need a course to stay on track, gain access to additional materials, and feel confident in your preparation, this may be a place where you make the financial investment now in order to reach your goal of becoming a physician. The MCAT is a high-stakes exam – best not to cut corners too much in your preparation. 

How much time should I spend studying?

I’m trying to study for the MCAT this semester. How much time should I be devoting each week to studying?

On average nationally, students study for about 12 weeks for about 20 hours per week. You should be spending at least a couple of hours per day during the week, with more concentrated time on the weekends. The AAMC – the official test administrators – offer their guidance on how to create a study plan, as do many companies (Student Doctor NetworkKaplan, to name a few): read through their suggestions, then create a plan that works for you. Content review is important, but practice is critical. You have to adjust to an online test with time constraints, and build your endurance for such a long test day. Most of our students take at least 6-8 full length practice tests. A practice test takes 7.5 hours, and reviewing the exam will take at least a few hours. Reviewing the exam is critical: you need to understand what you got right and wrong, why you got things right and wrong, and then adjust your study and test strategies accordingly. You should invest in the official AAMC practice exams and supplement with additional resources (some students just use free exams that are offered from time to time by prep companies; NextStep has been popular for realistic practice exams recently, and we list numerous other resources on our website). This is not an exam that you can cram for and it is important enough that you should not rush to take it before you’re ready. To learn more from students who have taken the exam, we offer an MCAT panel every year - keep an eye out for it!

Advice from Princeton students who have taken the MCAT

I missed the MCAT Panel and I’m hoping to take the MCAT this January. What were some of the main points? Is there a recording?
 
We didn’t record the session, but we compiled notes from a few past panels that are shared on our standardized tests page. Some of the key takeaways:

  • Register early (registration date/time announced on Twitter)
  • Create a calendar so that you know what you’ll be studying and when
  • Studying during the semester is difficult – expect to spend more time over vacations
  • Start taking practice tests early to gauge your progress
  • AAMC official prep materials are the best and most accurate.
     
Full-Time MCAT Study

I was planning to study full-time all summer but a friend of mine told me it would look bad to have no other activities. What do you think?

This sounds a little excessive, and it could easily lead to burnout or studying inefficiently. As a Princeton student, you've probably noticed that you need to be a certain amount of busy to use your time productively. As a Princeton student, your academic preparation for MCAT is also already much more comprehensive than it is for many other premeds given the rigor of our courses. On average nationally, students study for about 12 weeks for about 20 hours per week. There are 15 weeks between the end of finals and the first week of classes. Of course, you should give yourself permission to take some time to relax and be unproductive so that you can come back refreshed for next year, but you could definitely layer in other summer activities. 

Think about activities that may keep you energized during your study time and/or think about areas of your candidacy that you might want to enhance before you apply. For many premeds, community service is something that brings them satisfaction, which will also demonstrate service orientation and commitment to others to medical schools. Consider hospital volunteering, service projects with a population that you're interested in serving ... maybe free tutoring for students from under-served backgrounds, which will help others and could help you reinforce MCAT content. Shadowing also requires a relatively low time commitment (much of the work is in locating individuals to shadow and setting it up), plus seeing doctors at work can help you keep the whole reason you're taking the MCAT in mind. Tips and a handout about shadowing are available on our website.

MCAT Prep Courses

I. Do I have to take a course?

I'm a sophomore, and at the end of this semester I will have finished all the necessary courses for the MCAT. So I'm planning to take the test this summer rather than waiting until sometime during my junior year. My question is about MCAT preparatory courses, and whether or not they are necessary. Is a course extremely helpful? Is it really necessary in order for me to score well?

First of all, it is wise to reflect on your experience with the last big standardized test you took, the SAT. Did you take an SAT prep course? If so, was it helpful? Are your SAT scores excellent, and did you study by yourself? We find that only very disciplined students who are naturally gifted test takers can achieve their maximum performance on the MCAT without some form of organized preparation. The prep courses are very expensive, and sometimes paying that much money has a powerful focusing effect on one's studying. Prep courses also structure your practice tests, requiring you to take a certain number, and practicing the MCAT multiple times under timed conditions is the best way to prepare. Lastly, prep courses are communal, and some students find that they like attending a class with others who are going through the same ordeal. If you are a procrastinator or worry that you will not carve out enough time to study and practice on your own, you probably should take a course. Whatever you decide, study hard, beginning your preparation roughly 2-3 months before the test date (depending on how much time you have to devote in those months) and taking at least a half a dozen practice MCATs, and do not take the test as a "trial run" or before you're ready.

II. Selecting a Prep Course

Hi, I’m in the process of trying to figure out which MCAT course to take next spring. I have to choose between Kaplan and Princeton Review and I was wondering if you have any advice on which to choose. Are there any basic differences between the two, and/or is there one that more people prefer? Thanks for your help!

In essence the two companies provide you with the same chance to review materials and practice enduring a long standardized test. Consider where you will be during the three months of studying prior to the test and make sure that the company you go with has a local test center; you're really paying for access to practice tests and scoring, as much as, or more than, the class-time instruction. The real benefit of doing a prep course for the MCAT, after all, is the structure with which you're forced to take full-length, timed practice tests. The four or five practice tests suggested by P.R. and Kaplan are a minimum—we recommend you do at least half a dozen ... so that's a couple on your own beyond what you do as part of your prep course. If you’re doing the prep course during the semester when you’re on campus, the P.R. office is on Nassau St, the Kaplan center in Palmer Square (both quite close). However, if you’re looking to do the prep course back home or in another city, think about the distance to the test center (no one enjoys driving an hour each way to sit in a prep course class!).

III. Prep Courses other than Kaplan and Princeton Review

Hi HPA: I’m starting to think about taking the MCAT this summer. I’m shopping around for study options – what else is out there to study for it beyond Kaplan and Princeton Review?

We at HPA don’t recommend one prep method over another – it’s best to do some research on the various options and decide what’s best for you. Anecdotally, about half of our applicants take a prep class and the other half do self-study – the key seems to be lots of practice exams (preferably the AAMC versions) to gain familiarity with the computer-based format, with time spent analyzing what you got right and wrong, then adjusting your study based on your performance on the practice exams.

That said, in addition to Princeton Review and Kaplan, here are some links to other test prep services that other students have recommended: The AAMC offers Free Planning and Study Resources to help you get started. Dr. Flowers MCAT is a customized online class that has a number of pricing options and plans (they offer a free 3 day trial to test the product). Examkrackers has classroom options, fairly inexpensive prep books. The Berkeley Review also offers home study materials.

MCAT Scores

Interpreting MCAT Scores

Hi HPA: I just received my MCAT score back and I'm trying to feel out what is a "good" score. 

Keep in mind that medical school admissions overall is holistic and MCAT is just one of many components that schools will take into account. That said, the great majority of scores for accepted applicants from Princeton over the past few years fell between ~511 to ~524 (with a median of 518). We would be happy to talk with you about your academic metrics, experiences, and other aspects of your candidacy more holistically! 

Repeat of the MCAT

Hi HPA – I’m worried that my MCAT score is too low to get into top schools. Should I retake it?
 
First the easiest way to see how your MCAT score aligns with your schools of interest is to subscribe to the MSAR (a subscription is included with the Fee Assistance Program benefits for students from low-income backgrounds; you can also log in for free at HPA). To gauge your academic readiness for medical school, admissions committees will consider multiple factors including GPA, GPA trends, course choices, MCAT score, and academic letters of recommendation. Try to think of your academic readiness more holistically—it’s more than just an MCAT score.
 
There are many questions to ask yourself as you assess if and when to retake the MCAT:

  • How did you prepare for the exam? How much time, what resources?
  • How many practice tests did you take? How well did your score align with your practice tests?  
  • What’s the risk that your score would go down in some sections?
  • Would the time you’d need to dedicate to a retake detract significantly from developing other aspects of your candidacy that may need more enhancement than your MCAT?
  • Are you mentally burned out after studying the first time?
  • How important is it to attend a “top school” versus become a doctor?

We can work with you on these questions and more, and help you determine a new test date if you do decide to retake. The good news is that you have a lot of time between now and application submission in June to decide whether to retake and manage a retake if you have to.

Multiple MCAT Scores

Just got my new MCAT scores and wanted to update you. I'm pretty excited since I went up 5 points from the first time I took it. Hopefully this will help with my application. I've completed all my secondaries, but I think a lot of schools were waiting for these scores. I had one question though, how much weight will schools give my first set of scores? Do some schools average the scores? Or will they just look at the highest one?

Good for you! Raising your score 5 points is an extraordinary achievement. Some schools will take the most recent scores only,  a few will average the scores and others will take the highest score from each section; a majority of schools choose to take your most recent or highest scores. However, ALL scores are seen by admissions personnel. When one re-takes the test, showing improvement is expected. Congratulations!

'Shelf Life' of MCAT Scores

I.

When they say that MCAT scores are "good for three years," what does that mean? Does it mean you must apply to medical school within three years of taking them? Or does it mean you have to enroll in medical school within three years? In my case, I took them in April 2017, so three years would be April 2020. Does this mean I must enroll by Fall 2020, or does in mean I have to apply by Fall 2020? Thanks.

MCAT scores are good at most schools for three years prior to matriculation, so a 2017 score would still be valid for consideration as long as you matriculate no later than the fall of 2020. That would mean you need to apply by the summer of 2019 at the latest (applying starts in the spring/summer, not the fall). This policy holds true for most, but not all, schools. A minority of medical schools do consider MCAT scores "too old" after only two years, and some allow them to be five years old. But three years prior to matriculation is the most common.

II.

I am a senior who just got offered a place in a two-year masters program. I’d love to accept the offer. The problem is, I took the MCAT during the summer after my sophomore year, and it would expire if I waited another year to apply to medical school. What do you suggest I do? Apply to medical school now and risk not getting a deferral? Wait a year to apply to medical school and risk my MCAT expiring? Take the MCAT again?

Of the options you present, we would not recommend that you apply now, knowing full well that you cannot matriculate in the coming year. Deferrals are generally reserved for people are accepted to a program, usually an internationally known one like the Peace Corps or Teach For America, AFTER they’ve initiated the application process—sometimes after they’re well into the process by the time they know that the Peace Corps is even a possibility. If you are enrolled in another graduate program while applying to medical school, and know that you will not complete the program by the intended medical school entry date, this fact will be exposed during the process, on secondary applications and in interviews, and many medical schools will not like it; their primary aim is to fill the upcoming entering class. Whether you have to retake the MCAT or not will depend on the kindness of medical schools, given your situation (one you couldn’t have foreseen back as a rising junior when you took your MCAT early). Come up with a list of schools and ask them, via phone or email, if they would require a retake of the MCAT. Exceptions may be made re: the ‘shelf life’ of MCATs, and while most schools say they accept scores only three years old, they will waive this rule in certain circumstances. That said, you should be prepared for a few schools to be strict, and if they’re schools you want to attend—and you want to do the masters program—then you may need to take the test again. 

One Low MCAT Section

I just got my MCAT score and one section is much lower than all the others. Do I have to retake it?

There are a number of factors we'd want to chat with you about: How low was it? Which section? How did your preparation for that section go? How did the score align with your practice tests? Were there other factors at play in your test performance? What other evidence do you have of ability in that content area? What schools are you aiming for? What are the chances that you could bring it up on your current application timeline? How flexible are you about changing that timeline?

Use the AAMC Medical School Admissions Requirements to try to gauge your competitiveness at schools of interest--you want your GPA and MCAT to fall within the range of applicants that they've accepted in the past, and MSAR is the place to access this information. We can provide additional Princeton-specific information in a meeting. Ultimately, there is always a risk in retaking and scoring the same or lower. There's also significant opportunity cost--those hundreds of hours spent restudying may be better invested in volunteering, shadowing, classes, or other aspects of your application. We're happy to provide guidance based on your specific situation!

MCAT/GPA

I’ve talked to older students who took the MCAT who are hoping for high scores that’ll make up for lower GPAs. How high do you need to score on the MCAT to make up for a low GPA?

Determining whether your academic metrics are competitive for medical schools is dependent on a lot of factors: what courses you took; what the trajectory looked like (did you have a hard first year and then improve over time?); what medical schools you’re aiming for; how strong your academic letters of recommendation will be, especially in the sciences; and the strengths of other aspects of your candidacy, among other factors. A junior with a lower GPA, for instance, would almost always be better off waiting to strengthen other aspects of their candidacy so that their academic metrics had time to improve, they’d have stronger letters (from thesis, for example), and they’d have more experiences as part of their portfolio before applying. A student who has taken two glide years who showed academic improvement and who has done amazing humanitarian, clinical, or research work (with strong letters to go along with them) has more of these other strengths that may help to offset GPA to a degree.

We talk with students all the time about the strength of their candidacies and we’re happy to do so with you, but if you just want some numbers to go from for now, the MCAT/GPA grid published by the AAMC will give you some data to use as a guide. For example, it shows that among students with a GPA of 3.0-3.2, about 16% were accepted, regardless of MCAT; about 83% of students with a MCAT above 517 were accepted regardless of GPA. We have a MCAT/GPA grid specifically with Princeton data available in our office. There are other tables that will give you additional data, including the MCAT/GPA averages by race/ethnicity and MCAT/GPA averages by state of residence. Accepted Princeton students tend to have a lower GPA and higher MCAT relative to national averages. For individual school information, the MSAR is your best resource. HPA has additional data that we share with students available in our office. And keep in mind that in addition to academic metrics, medical schools place a high value on community service, physician shadowing, clinical experience, leadership, and performance in the interview when selecting students (see this report for more information). In addition to studying for the MCAT and classes, give yourself time to engage in enriching co-curricular experiences.