Learn the pros and cons of retaking the MCAT for applying to medical school
Despite hearing again and again about how medical school admissions is a “holistic process”, you know that your GPA and MCAT score—your “numbers” or “stats”—are an incredibly important factor for your admissions success.
With good scores, you set yourself up to get into perhaps even the top med schools. With mediocre numbers, your entire admissions odds are compromised.
(Further reading: What MCAT Score Do I Need to Get Into Medical School?)
Performing worse than you hoped on the MCAT is especially upsetting. You spend months studying, only to find out that your overall score isn’t quite competitive for the schools you’re hoping to get into or that your section scores are all over the place.
At that point, most students inevitably ask, “Should I retake the MCAT?” or “Does retaking the MCAT look bad?”
This article is meant to answer your MCAT questions directly so that you can make the right decision for your admissions process.
How many times can you retake the MCAT?
Before we begin evaluating whether you should retake the exam, you should know that the AAMC limits how many times you can take the MCAT, as follows:
You can take the MCAT up to three times a year
You can take the MCAT up to four times during a two-year period
You can take the MCAT up to seven times during your lifetime
(Note: Voided scores and no-shows count towards your testing limits.)
How are multiple MCAT scores evaluated by admissions committees?
While medical schools will see all your MCAT scores, admissions committees will use multiple scores in different ways, including:
Considering your highest score only
Considering the average of every score
Considering all scores, but weighing your recent score most heavily
Consider your highest section scores across tests (i.e., “superscore”)
Most schools’ websites will not describe how they evaluate multiple MCAT scores. However, you’re welcome to contact admissions committees and ask.
Does retaking the MCAT look bad?
Like reapplying to medical school, retaking the MCAT does not look bad. In fact, studying hard and raising your score with each attempt can demonstrate your commitment to becoming a physician.
Should I retake the MCAT?
(Note: Generally, your overall score will be weighed more heavily than section scores. That said, some schools have overall score or section score cutoffs, meaning they only further evaluate applicants who achieve scores at or above a certain threshold. Unfortunately, most schools will not provide these cutoffs—they’ll bring up their “holistic admissions” process if you ask them—though higher-ranked schools unsurprisingly have higher cutoffs.)
Many medical school applicants assume that they will achieve a higher MCAT score the second (or third, or fourth) time they take the exam.
When making your decision, keep in mind that the MCAT is designed to be reliable (i.e., scores tend not to vary significantly from one administration to another) and that retaking the MCAT may lead to a higher or lower score.
In addition to risking a lower score, retaking the MCAT comes with various opportunity costs. For instance, studying hard for the MCAT will take time away from coursework or extracurricular activities. If you retake the exam right before or during your application cycle, your study time may compromise the quality of your medical school personal statement or other admissions essays, as well as how early you submit your applications.
(Further reading: The Ideal Medical School Application Timeline)
With these concerns in mind, let’s dig into the various reasons you should or shouldn’t retake the MCAT.
You should consider retaking the MCAT if…
Your highest overall score is not competitive for your target schools. When constructing your early school list, you should review the average GPA and MCAT score for each medical school (found also on MSAR). If your stats are considerably lower than the schools you’re eyeing, you may have to retake the exam.
Your section scores are significantly imbalanced. Some medical schools expect students to achieve minimum section scores. While it’s difficult to know each school’s thresholds, it may be worth taking the MCAT exam again if one of your section scores (most commonly CARS) is 5 or more points below all others.
You did not sufficiently prepare for the previous attempt(s). It’s no secret that the MCAT is an incredibly difficult exam. Yet, students routinely underestimate its toughness and don’t prepare well enough. If you didn’t study hard (i.e., 20+ hours/week) for at least two months, you probably didn’t maximize your scores.
You were ill or had to navigate another personal difficulty on or around your test date. Unfortunate things come up, sometimes during particularly inconvenient times. If life threw you a major curve ball right around your MCAT date, you likely didn’t perform at your best and may want to retake the exam.
Your practice test scores, especially ones from the official AAMC exams, were considerably higher than your actual scores. A small number of students report doing much better on the actual MCAT than on practice tests. Most students report surprising results in the other direction. If you were scoring much higher on official AAMC materials—practice exams that best predict your MCAT performance—you could likely achieve a higher score.
You have a strong sense of what went wrong previously and have a clear plan to address it. For instance, you may have paced yourself poorly during the MCAT and missed an entire CARS passage. Or you may have underestimated the social sciences section and not studied enough relative to the other sections, which led to lower performance. Regardless, you should honestly evaluate and address the primary reason(s) why you scored lower than expected.
You should not retake the MCAT if…
You scored a 518 or higher. Assuming a strong GPA and extracurricular profile, scoring a 518 or above will help you be competitive for the highest-tier schools, even if their average matriculant GPA is a 520 or 521. With scores at this level, an MCAT retake is not necessary because schools will consider you to be academically elite.
Your score is high enough for your target schools. There is such thing as “good enough” when it comes to MCAT scores. For instance, if most of the schools you’re aiming for have a 511 average MCAT score and you scored a 512, you won’t have to retake the exam. The one exception is if your GPA is considerably lower than those same schools’ averages.
You sufficiently prepared for the exam and your actual score is very near or above your scores on official practice exams. Some medical school applicants are confident they will perform much better on a subsequent MCAT, despite evidence to the contrary. If you studied incredibly hard for the exam and your score is very close to what you achieved on official AAMC materials, you can be confident that you’ve scored at or near your highest.
You do not have a clear plan nor time to address issues from your previous exam. Doing well on the MCAT requires a significant time commitment. If you have personal, academic, or application responsibilities that will require the resources you need to adequately prepare for the exam, you may do the same or worse when you retake the MCAT. Similarly, if you study blindly (that is, without knowing how to effectively change your study approach), you may not see the score gains you’re hoping for.