"Should I retake the MCAT?" may seem like a question with easy answers, but as with most aspects of medical school admissions the answer can be complicated. While many medical schools in Canada and the U.S. have clear MCAT score cutoffs, the decision to retake the MCAT is never a simple one.

In this blog, we'll help you make an informed choice on whether you should retake the MCAT or whether you should try getting into medical school with a low MCAT. If you decide to continue with plans to retake the MCAT, read on to find tips to improve your study and prep strategies leading up to it.

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How Important is My MCAT Score?

Along with your undergraduate GPA, your MCAT score is a central quantitative measurement of your academic proficiency. It may seem like any other standardized test, but the way admissions committees look at your MCAT scores is actually fairly complex.

To start, it’s important to understand that the MCAT is seen as a significant indicator of future success in both medical school and a career in medicine. Why? In large part this is because of the specificity of information tested by the MCAT. Its four sections cover fields that are fundamental to becoming a competent medical professional, regardless of specialty. For instance, doing well on the MCAT biology questions in the BBLS section is so integral to medicine that it’s considered a central predictor of successful USMLE-1 scores, and is therefore given extra attention by many medical schools. As such, admissions boards for medical schools want to see that you not only have potential to be an effective medical practitioner, but that you can also excel in future examinations required to get you into the field fully. 

Admissions committees will therefore often use the MCAT score as a first-round evaluative tool, with low scores almost always overshadowing more qualitative elements like your extracurriculars for medical school and recommendation letters. Given how many applications these committees sort through, many admissions teams will utilize hard cutoffs on the MCAT and GPA in order to “thin the herd” immediately. All the public service and flattering words in the world can’t overshadow the dire reality of a 480 MCAT score.

Conversely, a good MCAT score can help offset a weaker/sub-median GPA. It won't compensate for a poor personal statement or letters of recommendation, but the relationship between GPA and MCAT scores is fairly linear, meaning that more of one can, to a small extent, make up for less of another. If your GPA and MCAT are both on the lower end of acceptability, retaking the MCAT is a prudent and necessary move. 

If you would like to watch a video on Retaking the MCAT, check this out:

How Often Can I Retake the MCAT?

You can take the MCAT up to 3 times during a given year, 4 times in a 2-year period, and 7 times in your lifetime. Even with a gap year before medical school, odds are you’ll be working within that middle ground of 2 years, so we’ll just say 3-4 times—and trust us, if you’re considering a 6th or even 7th test, you may want to consider a school that doesn’t require the MCAT at all. 

Of course, just because you can retake the test doesn’t mean you necessarily should. Deciding to retest demands a significant investment of time, money, and energy, so before you commit to doing so there are some crucial factors to consider. 

Are you looking for a shorter MCAT study schedule?

Should I Retake the MCAT?

Determining if your current score is high enough is naturally the first question you should answer when considering a retake. An important caveat when comparing your score is that you absolutely must score better on a retake. Retaking the test and getting a lower score signals a lot of negative things to admissions committees, not the least of which is the fundamental suggestion that you may struggle to learn from your mistakes. If your original MCAT study schedule and practice program failed you, then you should be able to prove your adaptability by making changes that have a positive impact. Adaptability and flexibility are vital qualities in both medical students and practicing physicians, and you don’t want to give the impression that you lack either. 

Tests are retaken by students at all ranks, but the majority of test re-takers are in the 66th percentile or lower. Many schools don’t just have a threshold, they consider MCAT scores based on other scores that year; they care as much about the percentile in a given cohort as they do the raw number. This is what schools mean when they say they are looking for “competitive” scores. You can use that as a factor in deciding for or against a retest.

With that said, evaluating whether your score is sufficient is your first step, long before considering ways to improve your preparation strategy. There are three main components to evaluating your score, each of which is important. 

Some things to keep in mind if you are considering retaking the MCAT:

Overall Score Distribution

The AAMC has provided an extremely helpful table charting the overall acceptance rates based on GPA and MCAT. Some basic guidelines can be pulled from this data:

School-Specific Averages and Thresholds

The above numbers are an overall average created by combining data from all surveyed medical programs. However, each school has their own average MCAT data based on the statistics of prior year’s matriculants. Additionally, most medical schools will provide an MCAT bottom threshold or “floor” for their matriculants to even be considered.

Take the Mayo Clinic’s Alex School of Medicine in Minnesota. Among the most prestigious medical programs in the world, its median matriculant GPA was a whopping 3.94 and MCAT score a staggering 520. Not a small feat for any student, and keep in mind these are median numbers! A fair share of students admitted to the Mayo Medical School will exceed even these lofty achievements. Going back to the AAMC’s table above, a student with a 514 MCAT and 3.7 GPA could, in a vacuum, appear to have a 72% chance of being admitted. However, the school-specific numbers for Mayo put this MCAT score decisively in the lower end of possibility, and would almost assuredly initiate a retest if Mayo Medical School is the only school you are applying to. 

Cutoffs add another level of brutal clarity to these comparisons. Continuing with Mayo as our example, they note in their admissions page that their MCAT threshold for further consideration is the 75th percentile, meaning a score of 508 at least. So our beleaguered imaginary student with a 507 is unlikely to receive a secondary application.

Keep in mind, not every school has an explicit, or at least public, MCAT threshold, so while you should seek these out by consulting their admissions materials as well as the AAMC’s MSAR database, it’s possible you’ll have somewhat limited matriculant numbers to work from. Ultimately, though, retesting in many senses is a drastic and very demanding measure. Unless your heart is set on only 1 or 2 schools where your MCAT and GPA are too low, you should instead consider finding other schools whose thresholds are more accommodating to your performance. 

Score Scaling by Race/Ethnicity

One last component in determining your MCAT score’s viability is the potential for weighting based on race or ethnicity. Many, if not most, medical programs are mindful of maintaining a racially and/or ethnically diverse student body, and so additional consideration may be given to students from historically underserved or economically disadvantaged groups. We can see on the AAMC’s table of Matriculant MCAT data by Race/Ethnicity that the average student identifying as either White or Asian is admitted with an MCAT score of 512 or 513 respectively, while students identifying as American Indian or Alaskan Native matriculated with an average MCAT score of 503.8. 

There’s a lot to unpack in numbers like this, and one of the central points to keep in mind is that this explicitly does not mean that student scores are uniformly weighted by race/ethnicity by each institution. That is, a Navajo student applying to Johns Hopkins probably won’t get in with a 504 MCAT, despite this average. These means and averages are created by calculating data from all matriculating students regardless of school—so, it may be students from races/ethnicities that have lower averages simply, on average, attend less exclusive programs. The general point here is that consideration of race and/or ethnicity can create more “wiggle room” for admissions committees. Going back to our hypothetical student with a 507 MCAT and 3.5 GPA, they may stand more of a shot with a moderately competitive program if they identify as, say, African American, but it does not mean that they necessarily will be treated different based solely on their racial or ethnic identity. It’s simply another layer of complexity in the admissions process.

The obverse of this is that if your MCAT score is below your racially-adjusted average then you absolutely should consider retaking the test. That 507 is well below average if our hypothetical student identifies as Asian, and as such should be a clear indication that they should retest. In general though, scaling based on race and ethnicity is tricky to extrapolate for many schools, so you should in most cases defer to comparisons based on overall and school-specific numbers, and consult racial/ethnicity averages only to clarify the former two. 

How Do Medical Schools Handle Multiple MCAT Scores?

What percentile of test-takers retake it?

It’s not uncommon for students to retake the MCAT. If you have decided to re-take the test: don’t panic.

Medical schools use various methods for consideration when a candidate has multiple MCAT scores.

Some institutions use the highest score. Let’s pretend you took the test four times and scored 503, 505, 498, and 500. That 505 would be the number considered.

Some institutions take the average score. Using those same numbers, an average score would be 501.5 (could be rounded up to 502 or down to 501).

There is another method, which is to use the most recent number. In the list of example numbers, that would be 500.

What does any of this mean for you? Well, it should be taken into consideration in your re-test strategic plan.

Let’s use an example. Let’s say you just scored a 510 on the MCAT and your top-choice medical school has an MCAT requirement of 512. You’re just below the cutoff, and retesting can boost a score over that 512, statistically-speaking, so why not study hard, retake the test, and get that boost?

You remember to check their multiple MCAT test policy and it turns out they average the tests. If you score 512, your average will be 511 – still lower, and you would have to take it again. Or, if the worst outcome happens and you test at 508 the second time, your average is now 509.

In that circumstance, it might be a better idea to just sit at the 510, count on your GPA, medical school secondary essays, letters of recommendation, or other aspects of your application to boost you over the top.

Before making the decision, though, see if you can find out what the average MCAT is for matriculating students at the school. Some schools have a lower MCAT average than their theoretically cutoff point. If they do, there may be other factors you can use to get accepted.

Be sure to look at all factors, as discussed above, in deciding if and when to retake the MCAT. 

Check out how MSAR can help you get into medical school.

Other Factors to Consider in Relation to Retesting

If you’re still unsure about retaking the MCAT in light of the scoring criteria above, there are a few more non-quantitative considerations before committing to retesting.

Do You Have Time for a Retest?

Studying for a second MCAT should be approached with as much, if not more, energy and dedication than the first attempt. In our blog about when to study for the MCAT we recommend a six-month schedule in order to accommodate initial MCAT diagnostic testing, studying, progress-testing, and copious subject-specific practice work. You can work with less time than that if absolutely necessary, but to avoid burnout and faltering in your other responsibilities, a six-month plan is best. 

When to take the MCAT is a related consideration. If the rest of your life feels too full to afford even part-time study over a few months, it may either be that you shouldn’t retest and risk a worse score, or that you may want to consider taking a year off or “gap year.” Gap years before launching into the gauntlet of medical school are increasingly common for students, and aren’t typically viewed negatively by admissions committees—provided you spend the year productively, such as getting a premed gap year job. Additional volunteering, shadowing, improving your personal statement, and of course committing to a disciplined and consistent study schedule are all beneficial ways to spend this extra time. Additionally, if you manage to get back into testing shape quickly, you may have enough time to take the MCAT a third time if absolutely necessary. We don’t recommend that, but an entire year does afford quite a bit of room to work with and can give you some “emergency room,” so to speak, if test #2 doesn’t go as well as you’d like.

Do You Have an Improved Study Strategy?

This was mentioned above but it bears repeating: if you’re just repeating the same study schedule/methodology over again—which failed you the first time—you need to make a new plan and really commit to it. In addition to consulting expert MCAT CARS strategies, we of course recommend meeting with an admissions expert in order to feel confident in your new preparation plan. Having expert guidance and feedback on what you’re doing makes a massive difference, and in order not to waste your time, you want to make sure your studying for round 2 is a significant improvement from your first attempt. 

When Is It Advisable Not to Retest

The most obvious time when you should not consider a retest is if you honestly feel that you have brought your very best performance to the MCAT and you will not get a higher score. You are the only person who can truly answer whether or not you have nothing else to give, so apply as much self-aware personal analysis as you can and move forward.

Consider the schools you are applying to

Get to know the admissions processes of your top-choice schools. A difference in method could change your results. Queen’s University School of Medicine, for example, has a step-by-step review process, first reviewing GPA, then moving on to MCAT only if you meet the GPA standard. You therefore cannot rely on the whole of your application to get you over a deficiency in any one area. If your MCAT does not meet muster, you won’t pass that gate.

If you are dead-set on going to a school that works with a rubric the way Queen’s does, consider a re-test. If your choice schools look at applications holistically, you might be able to get away without needing to go through the MCAT again.

If your application is in-line with your top-choice school’s priorities

You do some research and find out that the schools you are applying to don’t weight the MCAT very much, or they weight GPA and essays more, or they are focused on something else. Don’t bother using up your time to study for a test that isn’t counting for as much of your chances as you thought.

If your application is strong

The MCAT is only one part of your application. If you have a robust GPA and an impressive record of accomplishments – lab works or research papers, for instance – the MCAT might not drag you down. You might be better served, in that circumstance, to let your overall record speak for you.

If your application needs work

The inverse might, paradoxically, also be true. Say you have a good MCAT – maybe not great, but okay – and you have one more course to finish up; furthermore, you need this course to boost your GPA. You know you have to devote a lot of time to that course and the rest of your application, so you might want to allocate your remaining time towards shoring up your weaknesses instead of trying to double-down on something that isn’t really a problem in the first place. Stress this again: to retake or not to retake is the question that can only be answered by multiple, carefully-considered factors. If you think another aspect of your application needs more attention than your MCAT score, you may want to skip retaking the test.

If this is your fifth time retaking the test and your scores aren’t changing, no matter what you do

Taking the MCAT once or twice is normal. Taking it three or four times isn’t unheard-of, but if you need to take the MCAT over and over again, just the act of retesting could, eventually, become a point of concern for a medical college – especially if you are only getting average scores each time. 

You might find yourself looking at test score after test score that reads “501”, or within one or two points. If you have a tight grouping on your scorecards, regardless of your study strategy or how you change up your approach to the test, it might be that you just aren’t going to get a higher number. 

If you are improving, it might tell a different story. So, if you re-test, make sure you are improving. Even getting the same score a second time looks bad on an application because it looks like you don’t improve, don’t learn from mistakes, and don’t have forward momentum. It can even look like you are just unsure of yourself. A lower score or the same score isn’t good; improvement is the only option.

If you don’t know why you didn’t score higher

If you can’t imagine how to study better, how to approach the test while you’re taking it, or how you can achieve a higher score, you won’t be able to correct your approach. See if you can articulate what you can do better. The more specific you can get, the better your chances of improvement; if you cannot articulate a problem, you cannot fix it. Contrariwise, if you can name the problem, you can come up with ways to surmount it.

If you can’t imagine what went wrong, but you know you need to retest because of a low score, you should enlist the aid of a keen outside eye. A tutor or MCAT teacher will be able to pin-point your problem, tell you what went wrong, give you strategies to compensate, and a way to improve your score.

If You Decide to Retest…

Ultimately, you make the decision that you want to retake the MCAT. You have done a thorough evaluation and know you only stand to gain by taking a second test. Great. How do you make sure that history won’t repeat itself? What you need going in for the second is the winning strategy to hit the score you need.

Check Out Our Video Here For More Discussion of Diagnostic Tests:

 

Conclusion

The main takeaway with all of these considerations is that you should start preparing and studying for the MCAT as early—and as intelligently—as possible, and if your first attempt doesn’t meet the criteria above, you shouldn’t despair. Retaking the MCAT once or even twice is not uncommon, despite serial retakes being frowned upon. Don’t let an initial defeat dash your hopes of a career in medicine, and by all means make a very careful and calculated decision when it comes to retesting. Utilize experts, stay focused, but relax! Much of what you’re being tested on is information you’ve already absorbed in one way or another, and it’s entirely possible to bomb the MCAT due to nerves short-circuiting your recall. Part of the value in adopting a good strategy is to minimize, if not eliminate, incessant doubt or second-guessing throughout your preparation, so make good plans and trust them. There’s plenty of time to let the adrenalin flow when you’re serving a residency in emergency medicine—don’t burden these early ordeals with panicked self-sabotaging. 

FAQs

1. Should I retake the MCAT?

Because retaking the MCAT is such a demanding and drastic choice, the answer to this question is ultimately “only under certain circumstance.” If your most recent test was bad—but not bad enough to consider scrapping the MCAT entirely—then maybe. If you have your heart set on a specific school or schools, and your MCAT or GPA misses their cutoffs, then maybe. In general, retesting should be viewed as a last resort under specific circumstances—not a haphazard decision based solely on bumping your score up a few points.  

2. Is there a lowest acceptable score for the MCAT?

Not exactly, but based on current data a score below 498 should warrant a retest. As always, consult the admissions information provided by the specific schools to which you’re applying.

3. How high should my MCAT score be?

In general, don't settle for one specific score. Prepare, study, and aim to get the highest score possible in your first test sitting. Don't settle for the minimum requirements, which is likely to discourage your study habits and determination. If you're applying to extremely competitive programs, though, you'll want to aim for their school-specific matriculant median score, regardless of overall data. So with that last point in mind, the only explicit number that applies is what your chosen schools accept; don’t just look at their cutoff number, aim for the numbers that actually get in to the school. Otherwise, aim high and do your best.

4. How can I improve my MCAT score?

You’ve come to the right place to ask that question! In addition to combing through practice chemistry questions and physics prep guides, we recommend talking to an MCAT tutor or admissions expert to fully flesh out a strategy that fits your time and energy levels. Practice may not make perfect, but it can get you out of the 500s and toward that lofty 520 a lot better than simply rereading your course notes for the millionth time (though you should do that too!).

5. Should I retake the MCAT if I scored especially poorly on a specific section?

In most cases, no, although there are some exceptions to this. McMaster, for instance, only looks at scores in the CARS section, so if your overall score was decent but your CARS score was bad, you may want to consider retaking the MCAT. If you find yourself in a situation like this though, you should spend a great deal of thought considering whether another school that doesn't weigh a specific section would meet your needs.

6. What school has the highest median matriculant MCAT score?

New York University's Grossman School of Medicine and UPenn's Perelman School of Medicine both top the charts with a staggering 522 median matriculant MCAT score.

7. What school has the lowest median matriculant MCAT score?

With a shared median accepted score of 499, the two schools friendliest to lower-scoring students are the Universidad Central Del Caribe School of Medicine and the Ponce Health Sciences University School of Medicine, both in Puerto Rico. However, there are numerous schools that don't require the MCAT at all, which should warrant your consideration if you've scored poorly on your initial test.

8. How many times can I retake the MCAT?

You can take the MCAT up to 3 times during a given testing year, 4 times in a 2-year period, and 7 times total in your lifetime.

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting


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1 Comments

Nana Yeboah

Should I retake a 498? 125/123/125/125. I have a cGPA of 3.93 and a scGPA of 3.89. Most schools have an average MCAT score in the mid 500s. What does does mean for me?

Reply

BeMo Academic Consulting

Hello Nana. Thank you for your question. The decision to retake depends on a lot of factors. Most importantly, research what kind of MCAT scores are typically accepted by your schools of choice. If they do not accept MCAT in your range, then you may need to retake or look for schools that accept scores in your range. Generally, speaking anything under 503 is not considered competitive, but some schools are less focused on MCAT. 

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