Perfectionism is a personality trait found frequently amongst future doctors, which most patients would probably consider to be a good thing. But it also leads to intense self-scrutiny when it comes to medical school applications. Striving for perfection is usually a driver of self-improvement—though at its worst, the anxiety and self-doubt produces destructive, rather than constructive choices.
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With the exception of someone who scored a perfect 45 on the MCAT (nationwide, no one did in 2010; the top score was a 42), almost all premeds entertain—however briefly—the thought of retaking the exam in an effort to achieve a higher score. There were almost 16,000 retesters sitting for the exam in 2010. Confronting the decision of whether or not to retake the MCAT requires serious introspection and honest, realistic consideration of several major factors. Here are a few that should not be overlooked:
1. Necessity: How important is it that you achieve a higher MCAT score? Might it mean the difference between admission into a slightly better but overall comparable school, or might it be your only chance of being admitted anywhere? How strong are the other components of your application? If you have a poor GPA and an otherwise lackluster application, no matter how high your MCAT is, your likelihood of admission will still be rather low.
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Conversely, if your application is strong and well-rounded, a few points up or down on the MCAT are unlikely to have much of an impact (see the Association of American Medical Colleges data regarding GPA/MCAT combinations and likelihood of admission).
Also, retaking the MCAT comes with significant opportunity cost, as it will require a major investment of time and effort. Might this time be better spent improving other, more obvious weaknesses in your application, such as spending a summer volunteering in a hospital or working in a lab?
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2. Prognosis: How likely is it that repeating the exam will lead you to a higher score? There are a number of things to consider here:
• How does your score compare with how you were scoring on your practice exams? If you scored within 1-3 points of your practice exams, it is highly unlikely your score will improve more than a couple of points (and don't forget about the possibility that your score will go down, too!).
The AAMC actually provides lots of data regarding how well retesters fare. The highlights are that most retesters end up scoring within 1-3 points of their original score, and that, not surprisingly, the higher your first score, the more danger there is of scoring worse rather than better on the retest. Using this data, this website has developed a MCAT retake calculator to help approximate the likely results of a retest considering your current score.
• Did you suffer from specific extenuating circumstances on the day of the test that won't be a factor the next time around (e.g. transient illness, personal/emotional distress, etc.)? Unexpected life events happen and can affect your test taking.
• How did you prepare for your first sitting? Do you have a plan to prepare differently for the retest? As that famous quote from Einstein goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
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3. Motivation: Ask yourself honestly why you want to retake the exam. Do you truly believe taking the exam again will result in a significantly higher score that will get you into a medical school you sincerely want to attend? Or are there less persuasive motivations at play, such as personal satisfaction ("I really wanted to score at least a 30"), or the conscious or unconscious desire to procrastinate or delay applying for other reasons?
Too many applicants enthusiastically embrace the "opportunity" to retake the exam for all the wrong reasons; rarely do these situations lead to good results. Before you chase that higher score, take a moment to evaluate what is truly driving your decision to retake the exam, and you may discover a new "perfect."
Joshua Klein is a Board Certified OB/GYN and a Clinical and Research Fellow in Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. After earning his medical degree at Harvard Medical School, he completed residency at Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital.