One of the most common questions we get from our students is: "When should I take the MCAT to maximize my ?" There is both a simple answer and a practical answer to when is the best time to take the MCAT. Students will need to consider that when they take the MCAT, and potentially retake it, will impact their scores and admissions chances. In this blog, you will learn when you should take the test, when it's not the best idea to take the MCAT, and how to choose your MCAT test date.
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The simple answer is that you should write the MCAT when you feel 100% ready to write the MCAT. Period. How do you know you are 100% ready?
1. If You Consistently Score in the 90th Percentile on Mock Tests
As a medical school candidate, you should be able to evaluate your progress and readiness objectively, using concrete measures. The best way to do this is with your mock tests. Try graphing your scores according to when you took the test and what score you got; then, you can evaluate the trajectory of the scores and see if you’ve been performing above the readiness threshold. The key word is consistency; if you aren’t consistently scoring in the 90th percentile, then you’re not quite ready yet. By consistently, we mean scoring in the 90th percentile in at least 5 mock tests in a row.
If you need more convincing on the importance of practice tests, check out what our MCAT expert, Dr. Monica Taneja, MD, graduate of the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the program has to say about them and how they can help you not only decide when I should take the MCAT, but prepare you in other ways as well:
“Practice tests really help in two ways: 1) it really helps to sit down for that length of time as you want to make sure you're able to maintain the stamina through the length of the exam, 2) the best way to practice is to see as many questions as possible so that when you get to exam day, you're more likely to have seen the question before.”
Our other MCAT expert, Dr. Neel Mistry, MD, a graduate of the who completed his residency at the , shared his final MCAT score with us; “I got 97th percentile on the MCAT.” When you’re comfortably in the highest percentile that’s a good sign, but having a high score can also help in choosing where to apply. For Dr. Mistry, “getting a high score broadened the number of schools I could apply to and increased my chances of admission to medical school.”
You must score at least in the 90th percentile in your practice tests before you take the MCAT
2. If You Have Shown Improvement
Using the results of your mock tests, you should not only be looking for consistency, but you should also consider how much you’ve improved. If you’re continuing to get better scores each time you take a mock test, this shows that your content review and test-taking strategies have been productive. If your scores are inconsistent or you aren’t improving from mock test to mock test, then you should consider looking at ways to improve your content revision and exam-taking strategies. In this case, you might consider an or an .
And if you think that hiring an MCAT tutor or getting MCAT coaching is a cop-out, don’t! Many of our MCAT experts took advantage of professional ! Dr. Monica Taneja, MD, said about her MCAT prep course, “I really enjoyed the in-person component, but for me it was most helpful as it came with a structured study schedule.” A study schedule is precisely one of those things that a tutor can be most helpful with, and something that is tricky to do on your own.
As Dr. Taneja put it, “given that this was my first large, standardized test (the MCAT) I really appreciated the structure.”
3. You Can Score in the Range of Matriculants
To be realistic about when you’re ready, you should know what you’re up against. Take a look at the schools you’re applying to and review the MCAT score data. It can also be helpful to know individual section scores so you can compare performance on certain topics.
4. When You Have Plenty of Time Before Your Application Deadline
The practical answer for “when I should take the MCAT” is that you want to balance the timing of the exam with completing enough coursework or independent study to have the necessary background for the test, while still leaving time in your university career to re-write it if you perform poorly and getting your application in on time. So begin by researching and keep in mind that there are some , so be sure you check the requirements of the schools you want to apply to before you take the test.
Once you have a good idea of medical school application deadlines, you can dedicate the two or three months before the deadline to study for and take the MCAT, although you have to be 100% confident in your ability to get your target score. There is a lot of debate on whether you should plan on retaking the MCAT or just plan to get a high score on your first attempt and there are advantages and disadvantages to both.
A on applicants to found that getting an initial high MCAT score was one of three predictors for getting into medical school (the other two being having a degree in biology, chemistry, or physics, and a positive score increase between first and second attempt scores). But another important takeaway from this study is that the people who scored the lowest on their first-attempt showed the most improvement the second time around (although, sadly, not enough to get accepted).
But this study goes to show how getting a first high score is important, but so is putting in the work to get an even higher score the second time around. For the participants in this study, retaking the MCAT was not enough, since they had low initial scores. But if you score a 510, 515 or somewhere around there, you’ll have a greater chance of getting accepted if you retake the test and show an increase in your score.
An increase in score is exactly what happened with one of our students, Conan, who is now attending medical school at the Carver Medical College in Iowa. Conan initially scored a low 497 for his first exam, and that score is an automatic retake, since it is not competitive enough to get into even the easiest medical schools to get into, including the allopathic medical school in West Virginia highlighted in the study, which has an MCAT cut-off of 500. But Conan knew he needed to hunker down and study to get a sorely-needed increase. He took some time off and scored 510 on his second attempt – a 13-point increase!
What is a general timeline for taking the MCAT?
The following is a general timeline that many students, though not all, can consider using:
Most traditional applicants will choose to write the MCAT after their second year of university as the bulk of the MCAT content is covered in first- and second-year . Most non-traditional or mature applicants probably will choose to write it as soon as they can to not delay their application. While many schools will consider your most recent scores (i.e. giving you the option to re-write without it penalizing your application), the expense of time, energy, and money makes it worth writing only once. Also, don’t let having the option of delaying or re-writing the MCAT distract you from making your best effort to prepare. The most successful applicants are those who set out to write the exam only once, whenever that may be.
“Ensuring you treat this as a full-time job, putting in adequate work and practice, while taking time off when needed, are my best strategies and study habits to excel on the MCAT. Finally, trust the effort you have put in and go in with confidence on test day.” - Dr. Neel Mistry, MD, University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine on the best MCAT study habits and prep strategies.
Do you want to know when it's best to take the MCAT?
Consider When You Want To Attend Medical School
It's also important to consider when you want to attend medical school. Some students will prefer to go straight into medical school from their undergraduate degrees, while others may take a year or two off in between. Once you know when you want to go to medical school, you can make sure you schedule your MCAT prior to applying. Students hoping to attend medical school in the fall may want to take the MCAT the year before. Make sure to research MCAT test dates to find out available dates to take the MCAT.
“I knew from the get go that I wanted to take the MCAT in the summer. For me, this was the right time as I did not want to juggle MCAT studying with school work. I set aside two months which was the duration of the course I was taking, and scheduled my exam a few days after the course was scheduled to end.” - Dr. Monica Taneja, MD, University of Maryland School of Medicine on how she decided when to take the MCAT and how long it took her to prepare.
Consider Other Aspects of Your Application
Don’t forget as well that your GPA and MCAT scores don’t count for everything in your application. Think of it this way: most patients don’t want a doctor who is only a good diagnostician and prescriber; they want someone who listens and communicates well and is empathetic to their situation. A doctor they can trust. While having high grades and a strong MCAT score gives medical schools an idea of how you would “treat” a patient, they don’t tell them how you would “care” for a patient. It is only through non-academic activities that you develop the non-cognitive abilities that medical schools are looking for in future doctors. This means that you should give enough attention and care to crafting your other application components, including a strong and that will show intrinsic motivation.
“I have seen many students over the years with perfect GPAs and MCAT not get in, while those with less impressive statistics get in...to optimize your chance of getting into medical school, you want to have a solid application. This means not just having a stellar GPA and MCAT, but also being thoroughly involved with research, extracurriculars, and leadership experiences, along with awards and scholarships.” - Dr. Neel Mistry, MD, graduate of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine.
1. If You Don’t Feel 100% Ready
Firstly, as we already emphasized, you should not take the exam if you do not feel 100% ready. Understandably, you might be pressured for time and feel that you must write the exam if you want to have a chance of getting into medical school as soon as possible. However, writing the exam unprepared can result in a poor score and therefore, the inability to get into the schools to which you are applying, even the .
Additionally, you will waste a lot of money and time. Preparing and writing the MCAT is a stressful process, so if you are going to do it, make sure you feel ready for it. If you already have a date scheduled, but think you are not ready – check the deadline for rescheduling or canceling your test date.
2. During Your Application Process
Another time you should avoid writing the MCAT is during your application process. Yes, you can certainly schedule a test date sometime during the application cycle but preparing for the MCAT and composing your medical school application at the same time is tremendously challenging. The latest period you should consider writing the MCAT is from January to March or April of your application year. This way, you will finish the exam just as the AMCAS and TMDSAS application season opens. If you are applying to , check when their applications open and schedule your MCAT accordingly to leave yourself an ample amount of time to work on your application components.
3. When You’re Rushing to Prepare
Why is it a bad idea to work on preparing for both, your MCAT and your applications? Be realistic. The MCAT is a huge undertaking. To ensure success, you must start by taking the to see your baseline. Even if you just finished all the necessary prerequisites and feel prepared, it would be unwise to avoid taking the practice test to see if you are truly ready. The diagnostic test will reveal what disciplines and areas of knowledge are your weak spots and what you should focus on during your MCAT prep. Unless you score 100%, you should take some time before your test to go over the material that you felt was challenging during your practice test.
1. When should I take the MCAT?
The number one rule when planning on writing your MCAT is feeling 100% ready. Do not take the test if you are not feeling confident in your knowledge. You must be scoring in the 90th percentile during your practice tests before you take the actual exam.
2. Should I take the MCAT more than once?
We highly recommend you take it only once. This means that you have to give it your all during your initial preparations. Remember, the MCAT takes a lot of your effort, time, and money. Why torture yourself more than once? If during your mock exam you are consistently scoring in the 90th percentile you should be able to ace the actual test.
3. How many times can I retake the MCAT?
You can take the exam 3 times in a single testing year, 4 times over two consecutive testing years, and you have 7 overall lifetime attempts. If you choose to void your exam or not show up on test day, it will still count toward your overall attempts.
4. Can medical schools see all my MCAT attempts?
Yes. The medical schools you apply to will see all your previous exam scores and they may have guidelines about how they review multiple scores. Check with the schools of your choice to learn how they consider your MCAT scores.
5. Can I reschedule my MCAT?
There is a deadline to reschedule your MCAT test date. If you’ve registered to take the MCAT but don't feel ready or can’t make it, go to the AAMC website to see if you're still able to reschedule your test. Bear in mind that you may have to pay a rescheduling fee.
6. What is a good MCAT score?
Generally, getting an excellent MCAT score means to score in the 90th percentile (514-517).
7. How long are MCAT scores valid for?
MCAT scores are usually valid for about three years but check to see how old your MCAT score can be with your chosen schools.
8. How should I prepare for the MCAT?
Take multiple full-length MCAT diagnostic tests to see if you are improving. Recreate the actual test's environment by doing the full test in one sitting, timing yourself, and taking the right breaks.
If you notice that you consistently score in the 90th percentile, you are most likely ready to take the test. Remember, only take the MCAT when you feel absolutely ready.