posted by Kevin Jubbal, M.D.
If you were doing work on your car, and needed to buy special equipment, it’s not uncommon to find a tool with a lifetime warranty and money back guarantee. If the tool breaks while you’re changing your oil or swapping your wheels, they’ll replace it for you, no questions asked.
Guarantees like these make sense, and is part of the reason I recently bought a nicer Craftsman breaker bar with a lifetime guarantee compared to cheaper alternatives on Amazon. I’m reassured on the quality of the tool and it gives me the peace of mind.
But when it comes to studying for the MCAT, guarantees like these are misleading at best and dangerous at worst. Here’s why.
The money-back guarantee has been an increasingly prevalent marketing tactic, growing in popularity in the last decade. You, as the consumer, are concerned whether or not the product or sold by a certain business will deliver on its promise. By offering a guarantee, you’re reassured that you’ll achieve the results you desire, and if you don’t, you have little to lose. While this makes sense for products like tools, it doesn’t make sense for the MCAT. Yet we’ve seen student after student fall for the score guarantee from various MCAT prep companies, only to be let down with a suboptimal score and a rejection of their guarantee claim.
You don’t need me to tell you that the MCAT is a grueling test lasting over 7 hours, testing knowledge in 4 separate sections, and often taking 3 or more months of intense studying to adequately prepare for. Unlike a simple tool, your outcome isn’t straightforward based on a simple input. Instead, your outcome, being your MCAT score, is dependent on multiple complex factors, including not only which study materials you choose, but also how you use them. Two students can take the identical practice test or read the identical chapter in a content review book, yet have vastly different levels of retention because the quality of studying is more important than the quantity. Factors outside of their study approach also influence their score, such as the quality of their sleep, during which memory consolidation takes place, or their ability to mitigate stress leading up to and during the exam.
Because premeds are anxious about their MCAT performance, several MCAT prep companies have developed their own score guarantee to lure in students with the promise of success and the vision of getting that elusive acceptance to medical school. This is worrisome for two main reasons:
The fine print with regards to these guarantees is riddled with nuances and technicalities that makes it often difficult to claim.
For example, The Princeton Review’s 510+ score guarantee sounds great, but upon closer examination, it’s not as straightforward as you would expect. If your starting score is below 500, they only guarantee an increase of 10 points or more, as Martin recently found out, much to his chagrin. If you score at a 500 or higher as your starting score, only then is a score of at least 510 guaranteed. What would be more accurate to state is “10 point increase guaranteed, up to a maximum of 510.” But that doesn’t sound nearly as sexy, does it?
Your starting score is determined in one of two ways: either your most recent official MCAT test score prior to starting the MCAT test prep program with The Princeton Review, or the score on your first practice test, which must be taken before the first scheduled class (or on the scheduled initial practice test date).
It doesn’t stop there. You must further attend all scheduled class sessions, complete all diagnostic tests according to the schedule and syllabus for each subject, complete 8 full-length practice tests according to the schedule, each of which must be completed in one sitting while observing official time limits for all sections and breaks, plus complete all assigned homework and attend all recommended Topic Focus sessions. You must also take the official MCAT test on or before the recommended test date for your course.
Then, and only then, if you meet all these requirements, are you eligible for the 510 guarantee, which includes a refund of your tuition, less the fee for course materials and shipping charges.
The general consensus from students is to avoid the 510 guarantee altogether, as it’s the same materials compared to the cheaper program that doesn’t have the guarantee. You’re simply paying a premium for the guarantee, which is riddled with nuances.
Altius has an even more ambitious promise, guaranteeing a 90th percentile MCAT score to every student who fully completes an Altius 1-on-1 MCAT Mentoring Program. And if you don’t score in the 90th percentile or above, they’ll continue working with you free of charge, forever, until you do. This sounds great!
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Speaking with prior students who took the course and were lured in by the guarantee, they say you must of course complete all assignments and required studying to qualify for the guarantee. The issue, they say, is that the workload is tremendous, requiring over 60+ hours of studying each week between the MCAT prep book, tutoring sessions, Anki, small groups sessions, group sessions, CARS practice, and more. As one student writes on Reddit, “it is physically impossible to complete all this while being a full time student.” Or as Arsalan Kamran told us, who explains his MCAT study journey here, “I was sucked into their guarantee of scoring in the 90th percentile or higher. The problem is that you have to do insane amounts of work to qualify for this that just isn’t realistic.”
Even if you do somehow qualify for their guarantee, you won’t get your money back or improved resources. Your prize is simply the opportunity to go through the intensive program again. This is a perfect embodiment of Einstein’s famous quote, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Kaplan has the most reasonable, and therefore least impressive, guarantee. They state you’ll get a higher score guaranteed, or you can either get your money back or continue your prep for free.
Again, you must have a sufficient baseline score for comparison and contact Kaplan within 60 days of your Kaplan program expiration, meaning you must take the official MCAT within approximately 30 days of your course ending.
This is a reasonable guarantee, but not a particularly enticing one. After all, you’d hope that after studying a few months intently for the MCAT, your score would go up by at least 1 point.
The second point is perhaps not as readily appreciated by students studying for the MCAT, but through tutoring hundreds of students ourselves, we’ve grown to appreciate the importance of the psychology of effective MCAT prep.
Through these guarantees, we find that students often get into a checkbox mentality when approaching their MCAT studying. They understand that if they complete the assignments and fulfill any requirements, they’ll qualify for a guarantee. As a result, they focus on counting the hours, rather than making the hours count. Instead of focusing on the quality and intensity of studying, they focus on getting through the material, checking the box, marking the assignment as complete.
Some may consider this a minor point, but it makes all the difference. It results in a lazier approach that hopes for the best, rather than encouraging the student to prioritize an approach that would yield a better result come test day.
In developing Memm, we’ve performed countless user interviews to better understand the pain points of students studying for the MCAT and how to best help them. And through other endeavors, such as Med School Insiders, Dr. Jubbal and Dr. Li, the founders of Memm, have years of experience tutoring students to top scores on the MCAT. If there’s one thing we’ve obsessed over, it’s finding ways to help students better approach the MCAT.
From these combined experiences, one thing is clear: it is incredibly common for students to get lured into score guarantees from various companies, yet the overwhelming majority of them fail to qualify for the guarantee.
There are no shortcuts in life. The only guarantee is that the results you get out of the MCAT will be reflective of the work you put into it. That means intelligent, focused, and diligent studying will yield a score you’ll be proud of. And this is something we’ve seen time and time again, as discussed recently with Martin and Arsalan.
We don’t provide a guarantee with Memm — we let the results speak for themself. Memm leverages the latest in learning science in a single, easy to use, streamlined tool. Give it a spin with a free trial, and once you purchase, we provide a 7 day 100% money back guarantee, no questions asked.
May 19, 2021MCAT Raw vs Scaled Score
What’s the difference between a raw and scaled score on the MCAT? Which one do you see when you get your results? We explain the intricacies of MCAT scoring.
May 11, 2021Why Making Optimal MCAT Anki Cards is Impossible
It’s literally impossible to make optimal MCAT flashcards while you’re studying for the test. Learn the major barriers to flashcard success and what you can do instead.