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To 515 and Beyond! Why an MCAT Score is More Than Just a Number

Five hundred twenty-eight. Compared to seeing the numerals “528,” the written words have a much different vibe for me now. There I was, shooting for 100%s on exams through college, then suddenly people are telling me I “need a 528,” but “don’t worry 515 MCAT score is great,” or “honestly anything over 510 is solid!” Excuse me, what?! It can be rough to study for the MCAT while keeping track of all the percentiles, breakpoints, and recommendations. Let’s take a moment to talk about why putting in the work to secure a great score is worth your time, from an admissions perspective. 

First, it’s worth remembering that a lot of students take the MCAT. Many more than apply in a single year. In 2021 AMCAS fielded over 62,000 med school applications for about 22,000 seats, but each year there are nearly 100,000 individual MCATs taken1. Some of those sittings are retakes, and you can apply with an MCAT score over a year old, but broadly speaking that means there are medical school seats for just under 10% of MCAT scores from a given year. That intimidates me, and I’m past that whole process! The situation isn’t quite as dire as that might make it sound, as there is more to your application than just an MCAT score. However, that statistic does highlight the importance of nailing a high score to succeed at this part of your application.

Why do they care about a high MCAT score? Why is this important to an admissions committee? Is it the science? It’s gotta be the science; now everybody knows you’re bursting at the seams with cool mnemonics and flash card knowledge that will totally impress a trauma surgeon who’s already practiced for 20 years, right? Not…exactly. Learning science content is a critical part of getting a phenomenal MCAT score, and yes, you will need to memorize a lot of science to succeed in med school. However, the content isn’t really what separates the MCAT from all those other science exams taken in the classes already on your transcript. If you have a 3.85297 science GPA, it’s clear that you can learn science. The MCAT, though, actually tests a couple skills in a much more intentional way than many other exams: critical thinking and performance under time pressure.

Did someone say cool mnemonics? Fun fact, Blueprint and Sketchy, who makes cool memory aids all day long, have a special bundle where you can get Blueprint’s full-length MCAT exams and Sketchy’s MCAT course at a discounted price. Just sayin’.

For example, try to spot the difference between the following two questions:

  1. What is a competitive inhibitor?”
  2. Assuming that oligomycin has a high affinity for ATP synthase, which of the following is the best explanation for the findings presented in Table 1 regarding the amount of ATP produced with oligomycin pre-treatment?

I’m thinking you might have seen a teeny-tiny difference there. OK, ok, the second one is, comparatively, a beast. Question B here is much more like the MCAT, and much more like the experience of practicing medicine. Why do MCAT questions like B (which is patterned after an official passage-based practice question) help indicate to admissions committees that you have the characteristics required of practicing physicians? 

Well, to start, Question B just flat out requires way more cognitive engagement than a simple definition question. With all the moving parts of this question, even approaching B requires comfort and experience in order to perform efficiently. This pattern of analyze then approach is repeated, in different ways, 230 times over the course of an MCAT exam. If you ask me, that sounds a lot like medical practice: a series of similar-but-different challenges that all require specific, decisive action.

On top of the question’s complexity, answering question B presumably requires you to have some understanding of the passage and associated figures. But wait, there’s also more new information in the beginning of the question stem that we need to integrate. You’ve already read the passage, evaluated any figures in the passage, at least briefly, and now there’s this new information about ATP synthase to consider.  As a doctor, of course you’ll know what classes of drugs do and when a specific treatment is ideal for a patient. But practicing medicine in real situations is more than that. It requires integrating a mountain of medical information, often in seconds or minutes, and delivering an appropriate, effective medical response. When a patient adds “by the way, my left arm has hurt constantly for about a month now” and there are two minutes left in their appointment, you have those two minutes to make sure they aren’t ignoring a potential medical emergency. That process requires the appropriate knowledge, yes. But beyond that it takes the ability to put the patient’s new statement together with the rest of their known medical history and know what to look for from there. Under time pressure. With someone’s health (or life) potentially on the line!

Those stakes are obviously much higher than those for any question or final score on your MCAT exam. Still, though, the critical thinking, decision making, and confidence under time pressure that the MCAT requires are all characteristics of a great doctor, and your MCAT score can reflect these skills to admissions committees. So, as you’re memorizing content like the Doppler equation or the order of reactions in the electron transport chain, don’t forget that you’re building an MCAT knowledge base to apply to situations that require critical thinking. As you’re completing MCAT practice—as you’re pushing toward a 90th, 95th, or 99th percentile MCAT score—remember that you’re building skills that relate to practicing medicine. Your killer MCAT score will create a strong early impression for admissions committees and interviewers that you have the skills required of a successful medical student, and a competent medical doctor.

This article is part of a series of collaborative posts with Sketchy, who also helps students build vital skills for medical school and beyond. Sketchy’s MCAT course trains you for whip-smart memory on the toughest sciences topics, and their medical courses have changed the way med students study microbiology, pharmacology, and many other subjects. Their companion post is about accountability and structure in MCAT prep. To attack your MCAT prep with proven memory techniques and the best practice tests around, make sure to check out the Sketchy X Blueprint bundle!

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