Discover the Exact Scores to Aim for to Become a Competitive Applicant
(Note: Because the new MCAT was launched in April 2015 and the fact that many schools will no longer accept scores from the old MCAT, we are only covering the new MCAT in this article.)
Part 1: Introduction
The thought of taking the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) unsurprisingly sends chills down premed spines.
After all, despite admissions committees’ constant reminders that the MCAT is just one piece of your overall application, it seems that the results of this one exam can make or break your chances of getting into medical school.
You may be worried that years of academic effort and non-stop extracurricular activities may be shoved aside if you don’t do well on the MCAT. Or even if you do think you did well, you may be wondering whether your scores are high enough to help you get into a top-10 or top-20 program.
Naturally, then, you’d like to know: What MCAT score do you need to get into medical school? How about to get into the medical schools you actually want to attend?
In this article, we’re going to dive deep into how the MCAT is structured, what your scores mean, what score you need to achieve to effectively solidify your chances of getting into medical school, and how you should develop your school list based on your MCAT score.
Part 2: MCAT Sections and Scores
The MCAT is composed of the following four sections:
- Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
- Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
- Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
Your performance on each section of the MCAT will produce a scaled score that accounts for the difficulty of questions you answered correctly and incorrectly. In other words, answering two different sets of 30 questions correctly will produce different scaled scores.
The MCAT was designed to account for item difficulty to better estimate your “true mastery” of the material being tested. Specifically, you will receive more “mastery points” if you answer difficult questions correctly vs. easier questions. Conversely, you will be more harshly punished for missing easier questions relative to more difficult ones.
In any case, each of the four MCAT sections are scored between 118-132, with 125 being the average score (i.e., 50th percentile) for each section. Your MCAT total score comprises the sum of your four section scaled scores and will therefore range between 472-528, with 500 as the average score.
Alright, that’s enough about the MCAT’s scoring details. Let’s move on to answer the questions you’re here to have answered: What’s considered a good score? and What score do you need to get into medical school?
Part 3: What is a Good MCAT Score?
Like so many other aspects of the medical school admissions process, the true answer to this question is, “It depends.”
Med school admissions committees practice “holistic review” when evaluating applicants, which means that they consider your grades (including undergraduate institution attended), extracurricular activities and achievements (i.e., AMCAS Work and Activities section), journey to medicine (via personal statement), fit (via secondary application essays), letters of recommendation, and MCAT scores when deciding whether or not to invite you for an admissions interview.
Moreover, each medical school receives applications from candidates with varying degrees of grades, MCAT scores, and experiences. Therefore, MCAT scores that may be competitive for one school may not be competitive at another school.
Collectively, then, a “good MCAT score” will depend on the strength of the other pieces of your application, as well as the schools you intend to apply to (e.g., top-25 only vs. top-50; M.D. only vs. D.O. only vs. M.D. and D.O.).
Nevertheless, let’s now take a look at some telling MCAT total score averages for M.D. programs (source: Association of American Medical Colleges [AAMC]):
- Average (mean) MCAT total score among all medical school applicants
- 2016-2017: 501.8
- 2017-2018: 504.7
- Average (mean) MCAT total score among all medical school matriculants (i.e., students who were accepted to and enrolled in an M.D. program)
- 2016-2017: 508.7
- 2017-2018: 510.4
There is a very important conclusion we can make based on these data: Although the mean total MCAT score among all test takers is 500 (i.e., 50th percentile), most successful M.D. applicants typically achieve an MCAT total score at or above the 75th percentile (i.e., 507-508+).
Now, that doesn’t mean your application to M.D. programs is doomed if you don’t achieve a 507-508+, or that success is guaranteed if you do. Remember: Your MCAT score will be evaluated in the context of your other achievements when making admissions decisions. Therefore, we must understand how various MCAT scores predict admissions success in the context of other variables, most notably GPA.
Let’s take a look at the numbers:
These data allow us to make additional important (though somewhat unsurprising) conclusions about the relation of GPA to MCAT scores, as well as how these numbers collectively predict admissions success to M.D. programs, including:
- GPA is positively associated with MCAT scores (i.e., students with higher GPA tend to score higher on the MCAT, and students with lower GPA tend to score lower on the MCAT)
- Higher GPA and MCAT scores independently and collectively predict higher acceptance rates. In other words, students with higher GPA and MCAT scores have a better chance of getting into medical school.
- The lower the GPA, the higher the MCAT score needed to get into medical school, and vice versa.
While these conclusions provide great information about your admissions odds based on numbers alone, there are two additional questions that we need to answer:
- Where should you apply based on your numbers?
- How should your stats impact the number of M.D. vs. D.O. programs you apply to?
Part 4: Where to Apply to Medical School Based on Your Numbers
In a previous article, we covered how to develop your specific medical school list to maximize admissions odds in depth.
The primary purpose of this section, therefore, is to discuss the relative percentages of M.D. vs. D.O. programs to apply to based on your GPA and MCAT scores to ensure medical school admission success.
Assuming a good cumulative GPA (i.e., 3.5-3.6) and well-written application essays, we suggest the following program breakdowns depending on your MCAT total score:
- 510+: 100% M.D. programs; 0% D.O. programs
- 505-509: 75% M.D. programs, 25% D.O. programs
- 500-504: 25-50% M.D. programs; 50-75% D.O. programs
- Below 500: 0-25% M.D. programs; 75-100% D.O. programs
Of course, you should shift these percentages depending on your GPA. Specifically, if your cumulative GPA is at or above a 3.7, you should generally apply to a higher percentage of M.D. programs. On the other hand, if your cumulative GPA is at or below a 3.4, you should generally apply to a higher percentage of D.O. programs.
(Note: These suggestions assume that you prefer to attend an M.D. program. If that assumption does not hold true for you, please modify these percentages accordingly.
Moreover, while M.D. programs are generally more competitive than D.O. programs with regard to GPA and MCAT scores, certain D.O. programs may have higher stats requirements than certain M.D. programs. If that is the case for schools on your list, you should also modify these suggested percentages accordingly.)
Your MCAT score represents a foundational piece of your medical school applications.
However, while higher MCAT scores are associated with higher rates of medical school admissions success, they are evaluated in the context of your GPA, extracurricular achievements, letters of recommendation, and essays when determining whether or not to invite you for an interview.
Still, understanding your admissions odds based on your MCAT score and taking an empirical approach to developing your school list is critical to maximizing your odds of getting in.
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Part 5: Frequently Asked Questions
Below is a list of the most frequently asked questions (FAQ) I receive about the MCAT that are not answered in this article.
I encourage you to ask any other questions you have about the MCAT in the Comments section below. I'll make sure to answer your questions within 24 hours and add some of them to this FAQ section to make it easier for other students to find this information.
Question: Should I retake the MCAT if I scored X the first time?
Answer: As with any well-constructed standardized test, the MCAT was developed to be reliable, meaning that scores from different administrations are unlikely to meaningfully vary under consistent conditions.
In other words, your scores from two different test dates will probably be pretty close to one another unless the conditions under which you took the test change.
Some conditions that may meaningfully impact MCAT scores across different test dates include:
- Barely studying for your first attempt but studying hard for 3 months for your second attempt
- Experiencing a significant illness, panic attack, etc. during your first attempt but feeling healthy during your second attempt
Question: How many MCAT attempts are too many?
Answer: The right question to ask is not whether there is a certain number of attempts that is considered to be too many, but rather at what point you should stop retaking the MCAT.
Assuming you dedicated your best studying effort each time you took the test, it’s advisable to stop taking the MCAT if your scores did not change by more than 2-3 points across multiple administrations.
Question: How does my MCAT section breakdown impact this article’s recommendations?
Answer: Students commonly achieve MCAT score breakdowns with notable discrepancies across sections. The discrepancy we most routinely hear about is achieving a lower score on the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section relative to the others.
Whereas the AAMC offers data regarding mean MCAT section scores among all medical school applicants and matriculants (i.e., accepted students who enrolled), we unfortunately don’t have data on how section score discrepancies predict admission success.
That said, in our 10+ years of experience, we’ve observed the trend that the MCAT total score carries more weight than any individual section score or score discrepancies, assuming no one section is too low (this number will vary depending on the medical school).
Question: How do medical school admissions committees evaluate cumulative vs. science GPA?
Answer: Once again, we unfortunately do not have data from the AAMC regarding how well cumulative vs. science GPA predicts admissions success.
However, we can anecdotally tell you that science GPA tends to be weighted more heavily than cumulative GPA.
Most medical school applicants will have achieved a higher cumulative GPA than science GPA because, let’s face it, undergraduate science classes are generally tougher than non-science classes. Therefore, don’t fret too much about this GPA difference unless your science GPA is super low (this number will vary depending on the medical school).
Question: What role does my undergraduate institution play in medical school admissions?
Answer: The same GPA from two different universities may carry a very different meaning to admissions committees.
Although many institutions offer a very challenging premed curriculum, brand names matter. For instance, a 3.6 GPA from Princeton or another prestigious university will be seen as more impressive than a 3.6 GPA from a lesser-known state school. Whether or not this is fair is beyond the scope of this article, but we want to offer you the truth.
The MCAT’s primary goal is to serve as a common standard by which to judge applicants’ knowledge and skills in areas that medical schools deem important. Therefore, regardless of which undergraduate institution you attend(ed), doing well on the MCAT can raise your status among the applicant pool.
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