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Should I Retake the MCAT?

You were shooting for a 38 but instead you got a 37.  Time to buckle down and study harder to retake the exam?  Probably not.  Unfortunately, most students don’t find themselves in this wonderful dilemma.  Instead, they were shooting for 30+ and perhaps received a 28.  If you missed your mark by a few or more points, should you retake the exam?  The short answer is: it depends.

Continue reading below for a quantitative analysis, and make sure to also check out our MCAT retake calculator!

The two major questions to ask are:

  1. What’s a “good enough” MCAT score for me?
  2. What are my chances of improving my score?

What’s a “good enough” MCAT score?

Let’s examine the issue as objectively as possible with some statistics.  First, the big numbers: in 2011 there were 43,919 applicants to all US medical schools.1 Of those, 19,230 matriculated; just under 44%.

So how do these two groups compare in terms of their MCAT stats?

Student scores for applicants, matriculants, and students not accepted.  Ranges from each group include one standard deviation above and below the mean. The data for students not accepted were extrapolated from 2009-2011 aggregate data2

This graph shows us the range of scores one standard deviation above and below the mean for each group. Overall that means each bar represents 68% of students in that particular group. It’s clear that if you’ve scored 30+, your chances of getting into med school are good.

Confirming these observations, 69% of students who scored 30-45 were accepted in 2009-11 while only 29% of students who scored 18-29 were accepted. To that point, scoring 27-29 made you twice as likely to be admitted as scoring 24-26, and scoring 30-32 made you 42% more likely to be admitted as scoring 27-29. Once you hit the 33+ range, the increases in your chances of acceptance are marginal.

Ultimately what is more telling is how your GPA is coupled with your MCAT score. A great GPA can only help you so much with a low score, and vice versa.

Correlation of GPA, MCAT Score, and Acceptance Rate from aggregated 2009 to 2011 data2. Yellow area indicates acceptance rates of >50%. Note that the smallest dots do not distinguish between a 0% acceptance rate and a lack of applicants with that combination of scores.

Aside from a few outliers, the data show a clear “sweet spot” of score combinations where a majority of applicants are accepted. Our earlier range of 30+ can be revised down to 28+ if you’ve got the GPA to back it up (3.7 or higher). However, your leeway diminishes rapidly with your GPA.

Since admissions aren’t a lottery, you should always factor in various personal characteristics, extracurricular activities, and other experiences. Indeed there were about 9% of people with a GPA of 3.8+ and an MCAT of 39+ who were not accepted to med school. Clearly there are no guarantees.

What are my chances of improving my score?

Even if you think you may want to retake the MCAT, you should still carefully consider your chances of improving your score.  Only 2/3 students manage to increase their score by 1 or more points.  To make it worth all the extra effort and time studying, extra money, and opportunity cost of not doing other application-enhancing activities, you probably want to see at least a 2-3 point increase in your score.  This is something only half of retakers manage to achieve.

Some students may be concerned that the higher their original score, the lower their chances of improving their score.  This turns out not to be the case.  If you scored below 21, your chance of improving by 2 or more points is only 58%.  However, if you scored over 30, your chance of improving by 2 or more points is 49%.  Overall a difference of 58% vs. 49% is marginal given the difference in starting score.

No matter what, however, if you do decide to retake the exam, your chances of improvement are very low if you don’t study hard and really focus in on your trouble areas.  Make sure you have a good answer to ‘How will you study differently this time?’ Quantity of time studying is rarely the key factor in your score; study strategies, pacing, subject focus, and a number of other factors can have a much bigger influence.  That’s why it’s important to make sure you supplement your studying with reliable MCAT prep content or courses.

Other general factors

  • Do not retake the exam if your only motivation is to improve your writing score. The writing section is mostly ignored by medical schools, hence why it is being completely phased-out in 2013.
  • If you scored below 7 on any individual section or if your target schools have a minimum cutoff you haven’t met, you should consider retaking the exam.  Though we didn’t discuss it, a 14-14-5 generally looks far worse than 11-11-11.  A very low individual subject score often shows significant gaps in knowledge and can be a big red flag.

You can also check out our MCAT retake calculator!

1 MCAT Scores and GPAs for Applicants and Matriculants to U.S. Medical Schools, 2000 – 2011. https://www.aamc.org/download/161690/data/table17.pdf

2 MCAT and GPA Grid for Applicants and Acceptees to U.S. Medical Schools, 2009-2011 (aggregated). https://www.aamc.org/download/270906/data/table24-mcatgpagridall0911.pdf

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