Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner
Back in the olden days (like prior to 2007), the MCAT was only offered a few times a year, and test-takers took the paper exam with a No. 2 pencil. There was also a restriction placed on the number of times you could take the exam in a single year, as well as in your lifetime.
Today, the MCAT is offered 17 times a year with the following limitations on how often an applicant can take it:
– Three times in one year
– Four times in two years
– Seven times in a lifetime
It’s become increasingly common to take the exam, retake it, and then sometimes retake it again before applying to medical school.
Why You May Be Anxious
Lots of applicants get nervous about submitting multiple scores because no one quite knows how the adcom view multiple scores. Some schools prefer to look at your best scores for each section from multiple tests, while others average your scores, both the total and section numbers. There is no way to find out which schools use which method, as it may not even depend on the school, but on each individual adcom member. Multiple scores are a wild card.
What Really Happens with Multiple MCAT Scores
That being said, it’s not a total mystery. We’ve learned a lot from speaking to selection committee members and other “insiders” in the med school admissions biz. Here are some trends that we’ve seen:
• The most recent score is usually the most important score and carries the most weight.
• Also important – you want to show an increasing trend in your test scores. If you started out low and then worked your way up, that shows that you worked hard, persevered, and succeeded – all really good things!
• Generally speaking, when there is high variability among the scores, adcoms considered the highest score for each section and also calculate the average.
Taking the MCAT multiple times may reveal academic weaknesses, but also shows your persistence, tenacity, and dedication, and if you actually do improve your score, then you’re well on your way to impressing the med school selection committee.
Three Case Studies
Here are three examples of premeds who actually did make significant improvements to their MCAT scores by making changes in their preparation. Thanks to Accepted consultant Dr. Barry Rothman for providing these case studies. (All names and some details (not scores) have been changed.)
1. The Dangers of Complacency & the Importance of Taking Responsibility
Accepted consultant Dr. Rothman worked with an applicant named “Anne,” a career-changer in a postbac program, who took a commercial MCAT prep course and complacently went along with the program. She attended all classes and did all assignments. The result was a 27 total score (on the old MCAT). Anne then realized that she was not sufficiently engaged with the study material, and was not holding herself personally responsible for learning the content. After four additional months of studying on her own, and “holding her feet to the fire,” Anne earned a score of 34.
Take-home lesson: Don’t over-rely on commercial prep courses. Don’t proceed mechanically or rely on the fact that you’re spending X dollars and Y hours. You’re ultimately responsible for learning the material.
2. Improve Your MCAT: Reduce Stress
“Jenna” was the obedient, bilingual daughter of an immigrant family, who struggled with low verbal MCAT scores. Contact with her overly-critical family and significant other only worsened the situation. When she turned to Dr. Rothman, he suggested that she minimize contact with the people who were critical and negative, and instead start a regular walking exercise routine. In addition, he encouraged her to monitor her stress levels and not worry so much about the MCAT content. Jenna learned to relax, retook the MCAT, and earned a much higher verbal score.
Take-home lesson: Stay away from stress-inducing situations and people, as stress can have a more negative effect on verbal (and perhaps other) scores than lack of content knowledge.
3. Balancing Your Activities & Battling Over-Confidence
Another one of Dr. Rothman’s applicants, Ray, was a very modest-seeming Filipino immigrant, who had a perfect 4.0 GPA as a US undergrad, and was capable of taking on many other responsibilities while earning that shiny GPA in college. When it can time to study for the MCAT, he figured he could take that on without diminishing his other commitments. To his shock, he received a 22 on the MCAT and no interview invitations when he initially applied with that score. Realizing that he had indeed exceeded his capacity, Ray dropped many of his distracting activities, and focused long and hard on the MCAT. He retook the exam, scoring a 35 on the MCAT and later receiving many interview invitations.
Take-home lesson: It’s best to know how much is too much before embarking on such a high-stakes project.
So…What Should YOU Do?
You took the MCAT once and don’t believe it’s competitive for your target schools. Should you retake the exam? YES. Unless you plan on slacking off or completely failing to address the obstacles that held you back the first time around–thereby risking an even lower score. If you’re determined to make the changes necessary to raise your score, you have absolutely nothing to lose by taking the exam a second or even third time.
Here are some additional pointers to keep in mind:
- Do your best the first time around. Since you can’t erase a bad score and many programs will weigh it at least slightly, give that first test your all. And let’s face it, you have better things to do with your life than prepare multiple times for the MCAT, not to mention paying to take it and prepping for it more than once.
- Allow yourself the time necessary to prepare for and ace the exam.
- Make sure you’re learning the material as well as the tactics.
- Stay away from stress and negativity.
- If you do retake the exam, prepare differently the second time around and take ownership of your MCAT prep to make major improvements to your score. If you find that your MCAT is not an acceptable score given your other qualifications and target programs, then you will need to take it again, but improve something in your preparation to improve the outcome.
Demonstrating Determination with Multiple MCATs
“If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” You’ve seen this before–on a magnet at your uncle’s house or on the needlepoint pillow at grandma’s. It’s a popular adage for a reason: not everyone succeeds the first time they attempt difficult challenges, and when they don’t, trying–and then trying again and again if needed–is the admirable, courageous thing to do.
You know you want to become a doctor, and you know that a high MCAT score is essential to getting into your target program. By taking the exam multiple times, you’re convincing the adcom that you see no other future for yourself than becoming a physician.
While I don’t advocate taking the MCAT five or six times, I do recommend that you learn from each practice exam you take and that you use that knowledge to improve. Create a strategy that will not only help you get into medical school, but one that will help you succeed in medical school and in your future medical career.
Linda Abraham is the founder and CEO of Accepted, the top-tier admissions consultancy that helps you unlock your competitive advantage. She founded the Admissions Straight Talk podcast in 2012. She has discussed admissions in numerous publications and media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, US News, Poets & Quants, Business Because, Inside Higher Ed, Bloomberg, and CBS News.