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So I’m going to take the MCAT. What’s the very first thing I should do?

  • by Allison Chae
  • Nov 22, 2013
  • MCAT Blog, MCAT Info, MCAT Long Form, MCAT Prep, MCAT Retake

Take a Diagnostic Test!

At the start of your prep, before you do anything else, you should take AAMC MCAT #3 under test-like conditions.

There’s a bunch of chatter out on the internet about how prep companies use “manipulative” diagnostic exams that don’t really assess you. I can’t really speak to that. Instead, I think everyone ought to use a real, official AAMC exam as their diagnostic. Even if you’re taking a lecture-style group course and they don’t ask you to, you should still take a full AAMC on your own as your diagnostic.

Ultimately, the real problem with taking a diagnostic at the beginning of your MCAT class is that it is already too late. You’ve already committed time and money to a group class, when the real time to take a diagnostic is before you’ve started planning your MCAT prep.

When you’re thinking about taking the MCAT, you should do the following things, in this order:

1. Take AAMC MCAT #3 under test-like conditions. You can find this test available for free at

2. Print out and review the official outlines of science topics. You can find these available for free here:

3. Based on #1 and #2, decide how much time you will need to prep, and register for the MCAT. You can do so here:

4. Decide whether you want to use tutoring or just self-study.

5. Set up a study group!!

6. Based on the materials available to you through #4 and #5, buy prep materials.

The reason you should take AAMC MCAT #3 totally cold is because what you’re trying to assess is one critically important factor, a factor that you cannot possibly know until you take a practice exam: how well do your native reading and critical thinking instincts align with how the test makers want you to think. This is, obviously, the most clear in your verbal score.

So you may think, “yeah but I already know that I’m a horrible test-taker so I don’t need to take a practice test to know that I’d do bad.”

But here’s the thing: we (and by “we” I mean “humans”) are really really bad at assessing ourselves, especially on a topic we’re not expert on. (See the Dunning Effect)

The second critically important reason you need to take a full AAMC at the very beginning, before you’ve even started planning your prep, is that your performance on that exam is going to have a huge impact on how you decide to prep.

Now I know that the internet is full of posts with people bragging about how they raised their score a bajillion points and so on, but the reality is that score improvements tend to be pretty tightly clustered. And statistics are a cruel master – they apply to us all (whether it’s MCAT scores, your chances of getting in a car accident, or whether it makes rational sense to buy a lotto ticket).

I’ve worked with literally thousands of MCAT students over the years and based on my experience, he’s a (very) rough rundown of how we need to react to our diagnostic score:

Diagnostic was a score I’d be okay with on the real exam (30+): Congratulations! You won the critical thinking lottery. Somehow you’ve managed to walk in doing phenomenal. You shouldn’t just go take the exam now, but give yourself 5-6 weeks of self-study to brush up on sticky parts of the content, and mostly you just want to finish taking all of the AAMC’s. Good luck!

Diagnostic was okay, but I’d like to boost my score 2-4 points (26-30): Good job! Again, this is a very strong position to be in. Score improvements don’t come for free, even modest score improvements of like 3 points do take work. So allocate about 8 weeks of self-study to do a quick review of all the science topics (something like the ExamKrackers Study Kit books) and take all of the AAMC’s.

Diagnostic was weak, and I need to boost my score 5-9 points (21-26): Okay, not to worry. That’s going to take a lot of work, but this is the situation that the plurality (if not majority) of students are in. You will need to get help – either tutoring or a really good study group. And you will need to work hard – something like 12 weeks of full time MCAT prep. The good news is that you’re a dedicated pre-med so hard work isn’t a problem for you. Keep at it, keep positive, and get expert help and you’ll get that score.

Diagnostic was rough, and I need to boost my score 10-13 points (17-21): This is where we start to worry. Raising your score 10 points or more is exceptionally rare. Exceptionally. If your score was that far from your goal, then there’s something wrong. Perhaps you haven’t yet taken physics. At this point, your best bet would be to delay the MCAT by a bit so you can take some more courses to build your content and critical thinking skills (take a Logic class). If you still want to plow into MCAT prep, you’re going to have to expect to spend >5-6 months.

I’m really not sure what happened. I need to boost my score >13 points (<15): I’m so sorry that things went bad. At this point, you really can’t take the MCAT. In over a decade of experience, I’ve never seen a student go from a score below ~15 to being able to get into an allopathic U.S. program. I’m sure it’s happened somewhere, but banking on a miracle is an irrational choice. Instead, you need to change your plans (Caribbean school, alternative health program that requires the GRE, etc) or you need to spend a year or two taking and re-taking classes to build your content and skills.

So again, where you place on your diagnostic vs. your goal can dramatically alter how much time and how much money you need to throw at the MCAT. I can’t tell you how many times I saw students walk into my classroom (when I was teaching for one of the big companies) whose diagnostic score made it clear that they were wasting their money. Kids would walk in with a 29, meaning they wasted thousands of dollars – they would’ve been just fine with self-study. And kids would walk in with a 12, meaning they wasted thousands of dollars – no prep class in the world could get that to a 30.

The second major step in assessing yourself at the beginning of your prep is to work your way through the official AAMC outlines, and flag topics as “know it well” vs. “sort of know this” vs. “wtf is that even english?” How you break down your comfort level with the various science topics can have some impact (although not a huge one) on the sorts of materials you buy or the plan you set up for your prep.