How to Bounce Back After a Bad MCAT

posted by Memm

Your MCAT score is arguably the most heavily weighted objective measurement when it comes to earning acceptance to medical school. Admissions committees believe your MCAT score is the best hard indicator they have as to whether or not you can handle the rigors of a medical school curriculum. So, naturally, a high score on your first attempt is ideal. However, it doesn’t always work out that way. 

While it’s true that you can take the MCAT three times in the same year and seven times in a lifetime, medical schools can see how you scored on each attempt. If you score even lower on a second or third attempt, admissions committees will not see you as a worthwhile investment. 

Do not look at the first test as a practice round just because you can take it again. It’s far better to aim for your best the first time around. 

That said, if something does go wrong and you find yourself with a score you’re not proud of, this post will provide you with the strategies you need to bounce back after a bad MCAT. 

What Is a Bad MCAT Score?

The majority of medical schools in the US recommend that students score a minimum of 500 on the MCAT, which means scoring 125 in each of the four sections. So, technically speaking, a bad MCAT score would be anything below 500.

However, in order to be a competitive applicant, you should aim to score much higher than 500. 

A good MCAT score largely depends on the schools you are applying to. The average statistics of recent matriculated medical school students can provide a general idea of how other applicants score and what’s expected, but it is imperative to research each specific school you hope to be accepted to, as standards can vary dramatically. 

For example, osteopathic (DO) schools do not prioritize MCAT scores as much as allopathic (MD) schools.

The average MCAT score for recent matriculants applying through AMCAS is: 511.5

The average MCAT score for recent matriculants applying through AACOMAS is: 503.8

But remember, these are only averages. It’s important to aim for a much higher than average score to be competitive, especially if you have your sights set on some of the more prestigious programs in the country. For example, the median MCAT score of Stanford’s matriculants in 2022 was 518, with the 10th to 90th percentile and 25th to 75th percentile ranging from 512-523 and 515-521, respectively.

While certainly important, a high MCAT score isn’t everything. There’s also your GPA, personal statement, letters of recommendation, and Work and Activities section to help bolster your appeal as an applicant. 

Learn more: Is Your MCAT Score Good Enough?

Should You Retake the MCAT?

Choosing whether or not to retake the MCAT is a personal decision that depends on the schools you hope to apply to, the competitiveness of your current score, your timing, and your availability.

If your score isn’t what you hoped it would be, you can retake the test, but you also run the risk of performing even worse. Since schools can see each of your MCAT scores, this type of downward trend is a major red flag. Let’s say you score a 512. While not a fantastic score, it’s not bad either, and you’ll have to study much more effectively to bounce that score up. It’s much more difficult going from a 512 to a 515 than going from a 500 to a 510. 

It’s imperative that you carefully weigh the risks. If you score a 500, it’s a good idea to retake the MCAT—after you seek tutoring and develop more effective study strategies. However, if you score a 513, you could easily slip down to a 510 on a retake. 

The AAMC’s Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) database is an essential resource, as it allows you to find out how your MCAT score and GPA compare to the students who have matriculated to the schools you’re applying to. Study it carefully, as well as the websites of each school you’re applying to, in order to determine if you need to retake the MCAT. 

Learn more: Should I Retake the MCAT? 3 Critical Factors to Consider.

How to Bounce Back From a Bad MCAT

1 | Reflect and Don’t Act Right Away

Receiving a low MCAT score is a tough blow—there’s no doubt about it. After all those months of studying, you still weren’t able to secure a score you’re proud of. Your instinct will likely be to book another test as soon as possible to improve your score, but it’s vital that you do not rush into anything. 

First, take the time to feel upset. Not living up to expectations is painful. If you force these feelings down or deny them, they can cause you to make rash decisions or lash out at yourself or others. 

Take the time to process your feelings and reflect on where you may have gone wrong. Accept the reality of your situation before making any decisions. Do not book another test until you’ve had time to reflect on and fully assess the situation.

2 | Get Perspective 

It’s also important to put your situation into perspective. The MCAT is one of the most difficult standardized exams in the entire world, so don’t beat yourself up. 

The MCAT doesn’t only test what you know—it also tests the way you think. Within a short, fixed amount of time, you must be able to quickly synthesize information, think critically, and analyze what you’re presented with. Plus, a large number of questions on the MCAT combine content from different subjects, including biology, physics, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, biochemistry, general chemistry, psychology, sociology, humanities, and social sciences.

There’s also the dramatic length of the test. For reference, the LSAT, also considered to be one of the most difficult tests in the world, takes about 3 hours. The MCAT takes 7.5 hours. 

It’s a behemoth of a test that has gotten the better of thousands of applicants who came before you. The fact that you didn’t perform optimally isn’t what matters. One failure does not mean failure in the future. What matters is getting back up, reevaluating your study strategies and habits, and doing better the next time. 

You can turn a poor MCAT score to your advantage by building it into your application narrative. Admissions committees see each of your MCAT scores. If you score better the next time, it shows your grit and determination. You can emphasize these traits in your personal essays as well as during medical school interviews

3 | Assess What Went Wrong

Next, determine what went wrong. Was it exam day nerves? Did you not prepare enough? Were you sick? Did you recently go through a family tragedy or a breakup? Even if you feel like you are dialed in and focused on test day, these external factors can stick in your subconscious and throw you off.

You may consider yourself an extremely resilient person, but your mind is still processing what you’ve been through while you’re taking the test. If you’re even slightly distracted by something serious going on in your personal life, it can lead to a couple point decrease. 

In these cases, a poor MCAT score is not a reflection of your knowledge; it’s really a reflection of your situation and unique circumstances. It’s a one day test that’s designed to assess the entirety of your medical knowledge. It could be that that day just wasn’t your day. Flukes happen.

If you usually score extremely high on the psych section but missed a lot of questions on test day, it doesn’t mean you don’t know your stuff—it means you had an off day. 

On the other hand, if you score low on CARS and you’ve always struggled with that section on practice tests, you’ll need to bolster your reading comprehension and critical thinking skills for next time. 

It is essential that you assess your strengths and weaknesses. Separate the flukes from your real pain points. This will tell you what you most need to focus on in order to score higher next time. This information will also tell you how much work you need to put in before you are ready to retake the test.

4 | Build a New Game Plan 

After taking some time to reflect and assess where you went wrong, it’s time to build a new game plan. 

Retaking the MCAT is an incredible commitment, which makes it a decision not to be made lightly. You need to decide whether or not an updated MCAT score is actually what’s needed or if your time would be better spent on other key aspects of your application.

For example, if you were hoping to score a few points higher than you did, your time may be better spent focusing on bolstering your extracurriculars and research, as these experiences may have a greater impact on your overall application. 

If your MCAT score is significantly below average for the schools you’re applying to, you may need to reconsider when you apply to medical school. Retaking the MCAT will take time, as you must assess your situation, change your study tactics in order to improve, and find an available test date. This may mean you need to apply during the following cycle, and while this could be a disappointing outcome, it’s far better to apply prepared the following year than to risk having to reapply. 

Learn more: MCAT Test Dates and Score Release Dates.

If you felt like your endurance was giving out, do more practice tests and take them under the same conditions every time. Every single week, take a full length MCAT practice test in a similar environment to the test center with the same snacks and breaks and with no distractions. 

If you score lower than a 500, you need to drastically alter your previous study plan, and it may even be necessary to seek out a third party to help you objectively diagnose where you went wrong. If you’re sitting around a 510, you may only need a little extra time to study to shore up your weak areas. 

Regardless of your score, you still need to reevaluate your study strategies and gear them toward the sections you struggled most with while continuing to brush up on the other areas with Anki and practice questions. Avoid passive study strategies that won’t move the needle as quickly. Learn more: The Worst 9 Study Strategies Ranked.

Don’t Let a Bad MCAT Hold You Back

Bouncing back from a bad MCAT is just as much about your mindset. If you create a new plan but go in with the same negative attitude or an “I’m definitely going to fail this” mentality, your results will reflect that. It will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

But remember that setbacks build resilience. Failure is a learning opportunity. Show your grit. Show that you belong in med school by bouncing back from this setback. 

If you scored poorly on your first MCAT, don’t take any chances the second time around. Commit to your success by investing in your studying. That means a clear game plan, quality resources (like Memm), active learning methods, and one-on-one tutoring to ensure you don’t make the same mistakes twice.

Don’t settle for subpar study resources. Memm leverages the latest in learning science in a single, easy to use, streamlined tool. Try it with a free trial. If you decide to purchase, there’s a 7 day 100% money back guarantee with no questions asked.

Last edited on: December 19, 2023


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