Updated: April 1, 2016

Mastering the MCAT

If you’re thinking about going to medical school, you’ll need to think about the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), as well. The test and how you do on it carry quite a bit of weight, with the most competitive schools wanting applicants who score above a certain cut-off point. (While the average per section is at an 8, the top 10 schools in the country like to see scores of 12 and above.) We’re not telling you this to stress you out. We’re telling you this so that you know of the kind of preparation you’ll need to master the MCAT and to be a competitive applicant when it’s time to start filing medical school applications.

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The MCAT consists of three multiple choice sections—Verbal Reasoning, Physical Sciences and Biological Sciences—and the Writing Sample section. You’ll then be expected to not only think fast when it comes to answering questions on the periodic table and DNA structure; you’ll also be expected to write a coherent and cohesive essay. Each section is scored separately. The multiple-choice sections are scored on a 15-point scale, while the Writing Sample is scored on a letter system using J through T. You’ll also receive a comprehensive score, which would include your total score on all of the multiple choice sections and your lettered writing sample score. (Your comprehensive score might look something like this: 45T.) The test isn’t scored on a curve, no matter what you’ve heard, so it won’t matter when you take the exam. The best strategy is to take it when you’re the most prepared.

Preparing for the Test

A good way to determine which sections you may need more help with is to take a few practice tests and see how you score. Don’t ignore that writing sample, either, as the AAMC provides an extensive list of potential questions so that you know the kinds of prompts you’ll be expected to reflect on. Each section will be given equal weight, so even if you’re already a science whiz, you’ll be expected to score well on your writing and comprehension sections as well.

Make sure to time yourself when you’re taking your practice tests. It’s a lot different taking a test under time constraints, and you shouldn’t be training yourself to spend as much time as you want answering questions. The AAMC suggests answering each question even if you’re unsure about a response because there is no penalty for guessing on the MCAT, so answer every practice test question, too. Once you’ve got your practice test scores figured out, the next phase of your studying plan should be to focus on those sections that gave you the most trouble. You may have scored poorly on some concepts because it’s been a while since you’ve explored those topics. In theory, the MCAT should test you on what you’ve already covered in your coursework as an undergraduate. In addition to practice tests, you should also take a look at the main ideas that will be covered on the exam, especially in the sections where you scored lowest. Do all this and you shouldn’t find yourself cramming the week before the test.

The Test Day and After

The MCAT is administered between the months of January and September. You should give yourself plenty of time to prepare and to take the test before you start applying to medical schools; taking the test a year out is probably a safe goal. If you’re worried that you may need to take the test again, take the test earlier in the year so that you can re-register if need be. We recommend taking the test only when you’re most prepared, though. Don’t wing this one. Medical school admissions prefer that applicants do not take the test more than twice, so if you feel unprepared it may make sense to move your test to a later date, even if you have to pay a fee.

You’ll need to register for the test through the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), which offers easy online registration on their website. Taking the MCAT isn’t cheap. Expect to spend $230 for regular registration and more if you’re registering late. The AAMC does provide a fee assistance program for those with extreme financial need. If you qualify for the program, you’ll be expected to pay an $85 discounted fee. By this point, you should have taken some standardized tests like the ACT or SAT. You know then to bring a photo ID with you to the testing site, and to leave the personal items at home. (Most standardized tests prohibit cell phones, so if you bring home, you may need to check it in with a proctor prior to entering the testing site.) You should expect to gain access to your scores online about a month after your testing date, and you’ll then be able to release your scores to your chosen institutions electronically. Most schools will take scores that are two or three years old, but you’ll probably need to retake the test if you wait longer than that to apply to medical school.