by Christian Becker
Author of The Official Student Doctor Network Medical School Admissions Guide
The discussion here will focus on the MCAT scores, timing, strategies and other issues. Discussion about the content of the MCAT and details about the exam itself will be held to a minimum and would extend this already lengthy post too much.
Obviously, the higher your GPA, the better. Generally, anything above a 3.5 GPA is considered very good and very competitive. Jumping from a 3.0 to a 3.5 GPA will make a huge difference in someone’s application, whereas jumping from a 3.5 to a 4.0 GPA will not be quite as dramatic (although it is obviously an advantage to have a 4.0 versus a 3.5 GPA).
The GPA really reflects how seriously an applicant has taken his or her undergraduate studies. A high GPA is a reflection of strong study habits and work ethics. Medical schools look at an applicant’s GPA for that reason – to evaluate if the applicant is likely to work hard in medical school. A high GPA has been found to be a very good predictor of success and the likelihood that someone will NOT drop out of medical school.
It is also worth pointing out that a high GPA can compensate somewhat for a lower MCAT score. The GPA usually does carry a lot of weight in the admission decision. If both MCAT and GPA are lower, admission to medical school becomes much harder. However, having said that, there is more to the overall application than the MCAT and GPA alone. An otherwise stellar application can also overcome a lower GPA and MCAT score – to a point.
The 3.0 GPA is a cutoff for most medical schools. However, some applicants are accepted every year that have a lower GPA, so this value is by no means absolute. Again, it all depends on the strength of the overall application…and the MCAT score.
For example, for the 2005 school year, 155 applicants were accepted to allopathic medical schools (out of 17,978 total accepted that year) with a GPA that was lower than a 2.75. (Undergraduate Grade Point Average, Medical School Admission Requirements, 2007-2008, page 29) So, it is possible to gain admission with a low GPA, but you can see from these numbers that this is very rare. Also, these individuals most likely had stellar applications otherwise.
For most of the allopathic (MD) medical schools, an average GPA of 3.0 is the minimum they will consider for extending interview invitations, regardless of what the rest of your application looks like, but there are a few exceptions.
The MCAT (or Medical College Admission Test) is one of the most dreaded parts of medical school preparation and is required by all U.S. medical schools, including all allopathic (MD) and osteopathic (DO) schools. Note that most Caribbean and international medical schools do not require the MCAT.
As of 2007, the test is administered in a computerized format throughout most of the year. Before 2007, it was only given twice a year as a paper test-once in April and once in August.
If possible, you should try to take the MCAT early so you receive your scores back by the time you submit your medical school application (AMCAS for allopathic schools and AACOMAS for DO schools). Before 2007, it took sixty days to grade the MCAT and release your scores, so taking the April MCAT around April 15 gave you the best possible timing for submitting your applications early (around June 15).
The earliest date applications can be submitted is June 1, but you needed to wait for your MCAT scores to submit your application. So, in reality, your earliest day for submitting your application before 2007 was around June 15. With the 2007 changes, scores are now returned within thirty days (and supposedly the eventual goal is a fourteen-day turnaround at some point). To submit your applications on the earliest day possible, you should therefore plan to submit your applications June 1 and take the MCAT no later than thirty days before this date (May 1). Submitting your applications early gives you a huge advantage in the admissions game.
The MCAT score
Each of the three multiple-choice sections (biological sciences, physical sciences, verbal reasoning) is worth 15 points for a total of 45 points, but it is nearly impossible to achieve a perfect score. The average MCAT score each year is somewhere around a 24 (eighty in each section).
A good score that is competitive at most MD schools is around 30 and a stellar score is somewhere above a 34 to 36, which is competitive at the top medical schools in the country. A score of 36 or better would put you in the top 2 percent of the country. The writing sample is scored with a letter system from J (lowest) to T (highest), but is much less important than the number score. You never hear anyone mention the letter score. All you ever hear people talk about is the number, although some people insist that the letter score is also considered in the admissions process somehow.
To give you an extreme example that the MCAT is not the only measurement that is important, 60 applicants were admitted to allopathic medical schools in 2005 who had an MCAT score that was less than 17 (Performance on the MCAT, Medical School Admission Requirements, 2007-2008, page 27). Keep in mind that there are a few allopathic medical schools in Puerto Rico, for example, that have very low MCAT averages (20.1, 21.3, and 23). These schools could be responsible for many of these numbers. Again, this sort of low score is a rare exception. Essentially, an MCAT score below 25 will make it almost impossible for you to gain admission to allopathic (MD) medical schools. You will still be competitive for osteopathic (DO) medical schools, podiatry schools, and Caribbean medical schools.
For most of the allopathic (MD) medical schools, an MCAT score of 21 is the minimum they will consider for extending interview invitations, regardless of what the rest of your application looks like. For some of the more prestigious medical schools in the country, the minimum MCAT score is around 30 to 32, below which you will not make it past any screening for interviews, regardless of how strong the rest of your application is.
The more applications a medical school receives every year, the more the school tends to eliminate applicants by MCAT scores and GPA alone when screening applicants. It is the easiest and most cost-effective way to limit the search for competitive applicants – and especially the more popular and prestigious medical schools use these criteria more heavily.
Medical schools like to use the MCAT as a way of screening and comparing applicants since it is the most objective measurement. Your GPA varies with the difficulty of the courses you take and the type of college or university you attend for undergrad. The MCAT provides one way to compare everyone at the same level.
The MCAT score is a reflection of your ability to reason, think, and interpret charts and data. It has less to do with your work ethic or your ability to memorize, which are two factors reflected more by your GPA.
The MCAT test is intended to test material presented in general biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, and general physics. For review, it is important to stress the most important concepts and information in each of these areas. Generally, it is better to know the basic concepts very well than to know a lot of information superficially. Having said that, most of the questions on the MCAT are very difficult, and often it feels like they are testing concepts you have never heard of. Some additional course work can be helpful, but is not required. Although it is not necessary to memorize every formula in physics, chemistry, and the other courses covered, you should know the bread-and-butter formulas of each subject, particularly in physics. Don’t focus on all the derivative formulas. Memorize the main ones – you will need them.
They may ask a question like “If I throw a ball out of a window 25 m above the ground, at an initial velocity of 15 m/s, how long will it take until it hits the ground? How far does it travel vertically until it hits the ground?” So, you will need to know your formulas to figure out these questions. However, most questions are not this straight forward.
You will need to decide what type of person you are and what you will need for preparation. Some students swear by commercially available review courses such as offered by Kaplan, Princeton Review, Columbia Review, Cambridge, and Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. They are rather expensive, with a price tag up to $1,500, but many physicians and other successful applicants strongly suggest you take a review course.
Review courses often provide a classroom type setting with lecture format to review pertinent topics in all the MCAT prerequisites. You still have to study the extensive review material that comes with the course as you would in any class. Other programs just provide the materials and the plan without classroom lectures. In either case, they provide the structure and the plan to get you through all the pertinent material in an orderly fashion.
You still have to put effort into the prep course like any other class you have taken before. Just attending the prep course may not help you out much, although they do cover a lot of test-taking strategies, which are helpful for test taking in general and not dependant on how much material you learned. Also note that these courses work only for review. If you have not had physics or organic chemistry before, you cannot learn the material in the prep course. These are review courses.
They also offer practice tests throughout the course and provide hints and tricks, do all kinds of analysis of what was on previous tests, and help you with time management techniques and other topics. This type of review may be very well worth it if you are the type of person who is a procrastinator or needs a structured program that is already set up and scheduled.
For those who are able and willing to work through self-study, there are many good review books and book series from the same MCAT review companies. The Student Doctor Network has also published its own MCAT review book. The books contain the same basic material used in the courses, but you are on your own. So, you have to set aside a certain number of hours per week for a few months to review and work through the materials on your own. Expect to prepare for three to four months before the test.
I would highly recommend purchasing the Web practice MCATs online. They are the real deal, made available by the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges), the makers of the MCAT and not some version made up by Kaplan, Princeton Review, or other test-prep companies. These practice tests are well worth the money and you can take them under real testing conditions. Set aside a few Saturdays at your library in a quiet corner, or at home – undisturbed. You can grade yourself at the end to see how you did. One of the practice tests is available free of charge. You can purchase additional practice tests online (http://www.aamc.org/students/mcat/practicetests.htm ) for $35 each.
The MCAT is really a thinking test. You will need to know the sciences to do well, but many of the questions do not directly test knowledge. They may ask you to interpret some data or extract some answers from a passage. It has been said that you cannot really cram for the MCAT.
Average GPA and MCAT scores
Note that the two following tables give average GPA and MCAT scores for both allopathic (MD) and osteopathic (DO) school matriculants for a few years.
Data for allopathic (MD) schools
|Entering Year||Overall GPA||MCAT (Verbal)||MCAT (Phys)||MCAT (Bio)||MCAT (Essay)||MCAT Total|
Mean Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) Scores and Grade Point Averages of U.S. Medical School Applicants and Matriculants, AAMC Data Book, 2006, page 38
Data for osteopathic (DO) schools
|Entering Year||Science GPA||MCAT (Verbal)||MCAT (Phys)||MCAT (Bio)||MCAT (Essay)||MCAT Total|
Grade Point Averages and Mean Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) Scores for Entering Students, Osteopathic Medical College Information Book, 2007 Entering Class, page 80
Note that it is easier to get into osteopathic (DO) schools than allopathic schools (MD) by roughly 5 points on the MCAT and something like 0.15 points on the GPA.
Regarding GPA calculation, MD schools count every course grade earned even if you have retaken a course. If you earned a “C” in organic chemistry the first time, retook the course and earned an “A” later, they will count both grades for calculating your GPA. DO schools only count the retake grade (“A” in this example) and not the lower grade you earned the first time.
The average MCAT score for MD schools is around 30 and GPA is around 3.6. For DO schools, the average MCAT score is around 25 and GPA around 3.4. Especially if your MCAT score and GPA are below these values, your extracurricular activities weigh heavier in the admissions decision and can make the difference between getting an interview and no interview.
Caribbean medical schools typically do not have any MCAT requirements with few exceptions. If they do, they will accept lower GPA and MCAT scores than MD and DO medical schools.
Retaking the MCAT
If you score low on the MCAT, it may be a good idea to retake it. However, you absolutely have to show improvement. I know some students who increased their scores a good three to five points and it made all the difference. If you score the same or lower than your original MCAT score, retaking the MCAT only hurts you because you have just demonstrated that you really cannot do well, even if you have another chance.
Often, it is advisable to take a prep course, if you haven’t already done so, to prepare for retaking the MCAT, especially if you didn’t take the exam seriously enough the first time. You have to be willing to put a lot of hard work into preparation before retaking the exam again; just retaking it will buy you nothing.
Sometimes, if the MCAT score is not very high but still acceptable, it might be better to work on extracurricular activities to increase the overall strength of the application to compensate. However, a lower MCAT can limit some of your medical school choices. Certain medical schools may not consider you at all. Generally, osteopathic (DO) and Caribbean medical schools have lower MCAT requirements than allopathic (MD) schools. There is also quite a bit of variation between various MD schools.
The decision to retake the MCAT may depend on your goals overall and not necessarily on the score you received the first time. Also, keep in mind that it is very hard to increase your MCAT score, especially if you were prepared for the test the first time and there is not much else you can do to prepare. Increasing a score from a 24 to a 28 is probably much easier than raising a score from a 30 to a 34.
Important Note: A premedical advisor should be consulted to help you decide whether you should retake the MCAT and what strategies are appropriate for you to maximize the effectiveness of additional preparation. Only an experienced premed advisor who knows you personally and knows something about the MCAT can tailor advice to fit your specific circumstances. This is a big and important decision.
You may retake the MCAT up to three times, which can be all in the same year if you wish. However, retaking the MCAT for the fourth time, and every time thereafter, you have to jump through some hoops to be able to take the MCAT again. The AAMC requires a letter proving that you are really applying to medical school and not just taking the MCAT for other reasons (maybe you are teaching MCAT prep courses on the side and you can teach it better by taking the MCAT yourself every year).