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Photo by Amy, Article by Ben Feuer

The dreaded MCAT test; six hours of academic torture, followed by six weeks of equally torturous waiting. So just how concerned should you be about earning a top score on your MCAT? We would be happy to explain.

Every student applying to allopathic (MD) medical school must take the MCAT. Unlike with business school and certain other types of degrees, there is no substitute test that can be used in place of it. Generally speaking, it is wiser to only take the test once, since all scores must be submitted to the school. There are obviously exceptions.

Since medical school applications have risen in recent years, the MCAT has become more important because it is the most efficient way for schools to weed out large numbers of candidates. 

Here are some of the basic facts you need to know about the MCAT, and how important it really is.

All allopathic (MD) medical schools have MCAT cutoffs, but where that cutoff lies varies by school and by year.

For all intents and purposes an MCAT score below 25 will make it almost impossible for you to gain admission to allopathic (MD) medical schools. You will still be competitive for osteopathic medical schools, podiatry schools and Caribbean medical schools.

For some of the more prestigious medical schools in the country, the minimum MCAT score is around 30 to 32 - below which you will not make it past any screening for interviews, regardless of how strong the rest of your application is.

This is the conventional wisdom, although the medical school establishment is working to counteract it. In 2008, 2009, and 2010, the AAMC polled students to determine what their GPAs and MCAT scores were, then compared that to whether they were accepted to medical school.  One important caveat here; the study evaluated whether the students were accepted to ANY school, not to their first choice school. The data showed that approximately eight percent of applicants with UGPAs ranging from 3.80 to 4.00 and MCAT total scores ranging from 39 to 45 were rejected by all of the medical schools to which they applied. In contrast, about 18 percent of applicants with UGPAs ranging from 3.20 to 3.39 and MCAT scores ranging from 24 to 26 were accepted by at least one school.

The MCAT matters more for getting an interview than it does for getting admitted.

In 2007, Kaplan test prep reported that in a survey sent to all allopathic medical schools (about 125 at the time) and admissions officers from 83 schools responded. 77% of the responding schools reported that GPA was the first or second factor considered in applications.

75% of the responding schools reported that MCAT was the first or second factor considered in applications. This implies that about 75% of the MD schools consider GPA and MCAT to the first two factors considered in an application.  Letters of recommendation and community service round out the top five most important factors in determining admission.

Yet, the five most important pieces of data for making offers of acceptance are, in order:

1) Interview recommendation

2) Letters of recommendation

3) Science and math GPA (BCPM)

4) Medical community service

5) Cumulative GPA

Clearly, once you pass a certain threshold, the numbers become less important and other factors are weighed more highly.  In the words of one Dean of admissions at a top 10 school, "As much as we hate to turn away that 40/4.0 student in terms of our average numbers, if (s)he is an arrogant jerk they are gonna have to go somewhere else. We use the interview to screen out the arrogant jerks."

The advantages of a high MCAT score tail off after a certain point.

In 2012, a score of 25.2 puts you at the 50th Percentile. A score of 31.6, one standard deviation from the mean, corresponds with the 84th Percentile, and a score of 38, two standard deviations from the mean, corresponds with the 99th Percentile.

Obviously, even top schools cannot fill their ranks exclusively with 99th percentile MCAT students. Nor would they want to; diversity is an important factor in every school’s admissions policy. In fact, if you do have exceptionally high numbers, it is important to project humility and concern for others even more strongly than an average or above average student, to offset the impression of arrogance. Might not seem fair, but it is reality. Ultra smart students face a certain amount of prejudice, partly due to jealousy, and partly due to the fact that a lot of really smart people are arrogant.

A high MCAT score can compensate for a low GPA, or vice versa.

The GPA reflects how seriously an applicant has taken his or her undergraduate studies. A high GPA is a reflection of strong study habits.  Obviously, not all GPAs are created equal. Medical schools love to see high science GPA’s, in particular.

Generally, anything above a 3.5 GPA is considered very good and very competitive. Jumping from a 3.0 GPA to a 3.5 GPA will make a huge difference in someone's application, whereas jumping from a 3.5 GPA to a 4.0 will not be quite as dramatic (although it is obviously an advantage to have a 4.0 versus a 3.5 GPA) -- unless that candidate has a low MCAT score. Then, that extra boost to GPA can really matter a lot.


So, do you need a 35 or not?  That depends on what you are trying to achieve. If you want to get into a top school, you will need at least a 33 or 34 to clear their cutoffs.  From that point on, the other factors in your application will begin to matter more and more. If you just want to get into a medical school period, then you should make sure to study enough beat the 50% mark and focus more on other factors that are easier to control, such as recommendations and community service.  If you cannot clear a 24, then you should probably choose a different type of school; there are many types of medical schools that are not as concerned with MCAT scores.