Questions About the MCAT

The Big Picture

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.

MCAT 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.

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:

I'm a sophomore and my parents are encouraging me to 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 (including Biochemistry), 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 2022 will be good to apply through fall 2025 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.

When should I take the MCAT to apply to start medical school in the fall after I graduate?

You apply to medical school over a year before you hope to matriculate. It's a long process! So if you want to start in the Fall after senior year, you'll apply the summer between junior and senior years.

To have the best chance of receiving interviews and acceptances, you should aim to have your file complete at your schools (i.e., your primary application, secondary, MCAT score, and HPA committee letter should arrive at schools) by late July or early August. That's when interview invitations start to go out, so you'll have the most opportunities to receive one. About 60% of the interview invites that our applicants receive are between August and October.

For your application to be complete by late July, you should submit your transcripts and your primary application (AMCAS for MD programs, AACOMAS for DO programs) by early June. It can take up to eight weeks for the application to be processed. 

It takes about a month to receive your MCAT score after you take the exam.

If it's important to you to know your MCAT score prior to submitting your application, and you want to submit your application by early June, that means you should take your MCAT by early May.

If you're comfortable submitting your application without knowing your score, you could submit your application in early June and take the MCAT in late June / early July. Your score will arrive a month later, which is still in that late July / early August window.

When should I take the MCAT if I'm planning to take a glide year between Princeton and med school?

You apply to medical school over a year before you hope to matriculate. So if you want to take one glide year, you'll apply the summer after senior year.

If it's important to you to know your MCAT score prior to submitting your application, and you want to submit your application by early June, that means you should take your MCAT by early May of your senior year (see above question for the rationale behind this).

Seniors who try to take the MCAT in May often struggle to manage senior thesis, preparing for their glide year job, general burnout, the pull of wanting to spend time with friends before everyone graduates, and other priorities. This is why many of our glide year students decide to take the MCAT earlier than May--often in the summer between junior and senior year or in January before the spring term begins. This is also why many students decide to take two glide years--they can then focus on the MCAT after graduation, either during the summer or when they're established in their postgraduate location and life.

In 2020, about 24% of Princeton applicants were early assurance or direct entry candidates; 30% took one glide year; 22% took two glide years; 24% took three or more years between graduation and medical school matriculation. Additional data can be found on our website.  

 

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.
 

When do MCAT scores expire?

Most schools will accept a score taken within three years of expected matriculation. If you are applying for 2022 matriculation, your MCAT can be as old as 2019.

A fair number of schools will accept a score that's four years old. A small minority will only accept a score within three years of the exact date of matriculation (e.g., a September 2019 MCAT for September 2022 matriculation). 

School by school information for the current application cycle can be found in the AAMC MSAR reports.

MCAT Study Tips

I know HPA offers and MCAT panel with students -- are there recordings or notes?

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.

    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. 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 about shadowing are available on our website.
       
    How much time should I spend 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 Network, Kaplan, 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;
      • Blueprint 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!

    Princeton Courses & MCAT Prep

    If i retake classes where I have AP credit, will I be better prepared for the MCAT?

    Not at all! You have the requisite knowledge, and you'll refresh that knowledge as you prepare for the MCAT. The classes at Princeton aren't necessarily aligned with MCAT prep, so it's more efficient to study from prep materials for those courses where you already have some background knowledge (for others, like Biochem, the classroom background knowledge will definitely be beneficial, though). 

    Prepare well, read the prep material carefully, and take full-length practice tests until you feel confident that your scores are aligned with your goals.  

    What are the best Psychology courses to take for MCAT prep?

    PSY 101 is going to cover more of the topics on the MCAT than others, but it is also a larger time commitment since it has the lab component. Topics in Psychopathology (PSY 258), Social Psychology (PSY 207), as well as NEU 201, SOC 101, and others, will be covered on the MCAT. Any of these classes will provide you with some context in which to study the rest of the psyc/soc content on your own.

    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 PSY/SOC courses, there are plenty of self-study prep options or MCAT courses that will cover what you need.

    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 gaining experience or developing competencies.

    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, brushing up on your earlier science content knowledge, and starting to prepare for the CARS (critical analysis and reading) section. You can then take the MCAT in January after you’ve taken Biochem.
     

    MCAT Courses

    Is an MCAT course extremely helpful? Is it really necessary in order for me to score well?

    If you qualify for the AAMC Fee Assistance Program, many expenses are subsidized, including cost of the MCAT. 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 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. 

    Some of our student organizations sometimes receive offers from test prep companies – join their groups and mailing lists for more information. If you plan to enroll in a postbac 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. 

    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. 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 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. 

    Some of our student organizations sometimes receive offers from test prep companies – join their groups and mailing lists for more information. If you plan to enroll in a postbac 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. 

    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.

    In essence, the two companies provide you with the same chance to review materials and practice enduring a long standardized test. The real benefit of doing a prep course for the MCAT is the structure with which you're forced to work through the content and take full-length, timed practice tests. Test drive their materials (you can access copies of their books in our HPA library) and talk with friends who have taken the MCAT about their experiences. If you have friends who are taking the MCAT this summer, you may want to coordinate so that you have accountability partners taking the same class as you are.

    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 (including the official AAMC tests) 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 listed on our standardized tests web page.

    MCAT Scores

    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 around 517/518). We would be happy to talk with you about your academic metrics, experiences, and other aspects of your candidacy more holistically! 

    I’m worried that my MCAT score is too low to get into top schools. Should I retake it?

    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.

    What happens if you take the MCAT multiple times? Do schools average scores? Look at the most recent?

    It varies by school. Some schools will consider 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 into consideration. However, ALL scores are seen by admissions personnel. 

    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 (MSAR) 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!

    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, the MCAT/GPA grid published by the AAMC will give you some data to use as a guide. For example, in the 2018-2020 application cycles, it shows that among students with a GPA of 3.0-3.1, about 17% were accepted, regardless of MCAT; about 81% of students with a 517 or greater MCAT were accepted regardless of GPA.

    There are other "AAMC FACTS 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, but averages are just averages: there's a wide range of accepted GPAs and MCATs and many other factors come into play! 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.

    HPA has additional data that we share with students available in our office and on our website under Admissions Statistics.