Demystifying the MCAT

The Medical College Admission Test is arguably the most misunderstood part of M.D. admissions.

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The MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) is arguably the most feared and least understood component of the medical school admissions process. To help demystify the test, below is some information about how the test is organized, how it's used in medical school admissions, and whether or not there is a disadvantage to having multiple MCAT scores.

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• What is the test all about? To quickly break it down, the MCAT is composed of four sections: physical sciences, verbal reasoning, and biological sciences—each scored on a scale from 1 to 15—and a writing sample, which is scored from "J" to "T." The highest score possible is a 45-T.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the mean MCAT score for all 86,181 people who took the exam in 2011 was 25.1, with a standard deviation of 6.4 and a writing sample score of "O." However, the average MCAT score of those admitted to any allopathic (M.D.) medical school in 2010 was approximately 30. And keep in mind that the average for many medical schools is significantly higher.

• Is it relevant to medicine? The honest answer is both yes and no. If you ask most practicing physicians for help with calculating the magnetic force acting on a wire, or how they would synthesize a polysubstituted aromatic compound from a 3-carbon or less alkyl halide (things they needed to know for the MCAT), they would likely look at you like you have three heads. However, the test does help to reinforce the basic science foundation needed to succeed in medical school.

[Learn whether a postbaccalaureate medical program is right for you.]

• How is it used in the admissions process? Success on the MCAT has been shown to correlate with success on the first part of the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE Step 1). The USMLE Step 1 is typically taken between the second and third year of medical school, right after you complete the preclinical aspect of your medical school education, and just before you begin your clerkships in the hospital.

This is a big deal because most medical schools require passing scores on the USMLE Step 1 before graduation, and it is a critically important part of the residency "match" process. Additionally, it serves as a common, objective measure between all applicants.

• Is there a disadvantage to having multiple MCAT scores? There can be, but it is situation dependent. Many successful applicants don't score commensurate with their abilities on their first MCAT exam. If they analyze their weaknesses, recalibrate their plans, and show a marked improvement the next time, it is unlikely that their decision to take the test a second time will be seen negatively. However, repeated MCAT examinations—three or more—without significant improvement can be a red flag.

[Check out three tips for retaking the MCAT.]

The bottom line is that the admissions committee needs to feel confident that you are capable of succeeding in medical school. If you work diligently during your undergraduate career, excel in your premedical requirements, and prepare intensely for the MCAT, you are setting yourself up for success in the medical school application process and beyond.

Mark D'Agostino, M.D., M.S., M.Sc. is a Brigade Surgeon in the United States Army. As a Marshall Scholar, he earned a master's degree in Biochemistry at the University of Nottingham Medical School, and a second master's in Health Policy, Planning and Financing from the London School of Economics (LSE) and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). After graduating from Brown Medical School, he trained at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.