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When Should I Take the MCAT exam?

  • by Sam
  • Mar 27, 2018
  • MCAT Blog, Pre-Med Support

What to consider when choosing your MCAT test date

by Dr. Anthony LaFond

One of the most important choices a premed must make is: when to take the MCAT. There are multiple factors that must be considered when selecting from potential MCAT Test Dates.

Below we will outline several aspects of your MCAT “readiness” that you should think through before you decide on an official exam date:

Academic Courses

While the AAMC officially contends that there are no official “prerequisites” for the exam, there is undeniably a large body of requisite science knowledge necessary for success on the MCAT. This means that the more preparation you have in these areas (biology, biochemistry, physics, etc.), the better start you have when preparing for the exam.

Next Step has several Office Hours sessions dedicated to explaining which undergraduate courses are “required” or “strongly recommended” or even “ideal but possibly optional” in acquiring the necessary knowledge base. Generally speaking, a minimum of 1 semester of formal instruction in high yield topics (General Chemistry, Biology, Biochemistry, Physics, and Psychology) is considered the bare minimum to even consider taking the exam, with second semesters and lab strongly recommended in many areas as well.

This translates to a typical student taking the MCAT in the spring or summer of their junior year. If you have taken a lot of AP classes, or are in an accelerated program, you may be ready the summer after your sophomore year. However, there is no need rush to take the MCAT, as taking it in the spring of junior year  will still allow you to meet the early application deadlines, and maximize your chance to fit in as many helpful courses as possible.

 

Application Cycle

 

Most medical schools practice rolling admissions. This means the schools accept students throughout the cycle, filling up their class as they go along. The later you apply in the cycle, the fewer spots there are to compete for. The AMCAS, the centralized application for most U.S. M.D. schools and the AACOMAS, the analogous application for D.O. schools, open in early June and May respectively.

Ideally, you can have all of your information input and ready to go on the day the application cycle opens, and all you need to do is hit submit. However, without an MCAT score, many medical schools will not consider your application complete, and thus, you will not be competing for any seats in their class until those scores come in. An important point to note is that the application takes 30 days to process your MCAT score, and it takes weeks for the application services to process and forward your application to your desired schools. This means the earlier you can have a complete application (i.e. all required information + MCAT score), the better your chances are.

Waiting until August or September to take the exam (meaning a September or October score) will put you at a significant disadvantage for that application cycle (though your chances are never 0). If you are not going to be ready for a spring or summer MCAT, it may be better to delay your application until the next cycle to give yourself the best chance at admission.

 

Diagnostic Results, Score Goal, and Preparation Methods

 

There are multiple paths to Test Day. Some students utilize the extensive library of Next Step MCAT resources and self-study for the exam. Others take 6 months of intense study time, along with personalized 1-on-1 tutoring to get themselves ready. There are also thousands of students who utilizes courses like the Next Step’s Online MCAT Course each year. The point is there is no best way to prepare, but you need to find the path that is best for you.

An MCAT diagnostic, along with an evaluation of your current academic record (often done with your premed advisor) can give you a good idea of your current readiness. A good diagnostic exam will give you evidence as to how well you handle the unique nature of the MCAT. Your initial readiness and preferred style of prep will influence your study timeline and thus, your possible MCAT dates.

If you are a self-studier, but are taking a full semester of coursework in the spring, you may not be able to start your MCAT prep until May. If you have a light semester, and only need a bit of fine tuning, you could study part-time during the semester and be ready quicker. Effective study plans for the new MCAT typically range from 12-20 weeks in length, with most falling between 12-16 weeks. You may be right within the range, you may not, there is no magic timeline and more study time does not necessarily translate to better results.

You must evaluate your current skills and set a desired score goal before you can settle on a test date. You should aim to score at or above a 513 (~ 90th percentile) for U.S. medical schools. Having proper information and analysis done before you start planning your exam will help ensure going from your initial score to your desired score will be as efficient as possible.

 

Familiarity with the Exam

 

An important part of your MCAT prep will be taking practice tests. Even more important will be reviewing and analyzing your results on those practice tests. Next Step recommends that students plan to take 8-10 full length exams in the typical study schedule described above (we currently offer 10 full-length exams to help students prepare for Test Day). This is partly because in order to be confident when you walk into to your official exam on Test Day, you need consistent results across multiple practice tests that show you can achieve the score you want.

Effective MCAT study plans eventually reach a point where the student is taking 1 full-length practice exam per week. The rest of of that week is then taken up with analyzing, reviewing, and then planning homework based on the test results. The reason for this pace is that your brain needs time to familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of the exam. Its style, its tone, its format, even the degree to which the test makers will expect outside knowledge to be utilized by the student (what many students call the “fairness” of the test) must be familiar in order to be ready. Making sure you have time for sufficient practice is crucial to picking the ideal test date.

 

Non Exam-related Commitments

 

This is an oft-overlooked aspect of MCAT prep. As much as many premeds believe the contrary, your life should NOT become all-MCAT, all the time, for the duration of your studies. Your brain will need rest, and you will need time away from the exam in order for Lessons Learned to sink in, for information to become accessible knowledge to your brain, and for MCAT techniques and strategies to become second nature.

You must consider your life apart from the MCAT when choosing your test date. Are you in school full-time? Do you have a job? Family commitments? Vacations planned? Whether mandatory or voluntary, extracurricular activities should factor into your prep, and must be considered when choosing an exam date. Taking an exam in the middle of a summer you plan to spend abroad, or starting a new research project, may mean extending your studies, and choosing a later test date. Before you choose an exam date, be honest with yourself about what your calendar looks like, and how much time you can realistically expect to spend studying for the exam, while allowing you’re the equally necessary time away from studying, so that you can prevent burnout and maximize results.

Your own life may contain factors in addition to the ones discussed above, so please take these into consideration when choosing your exam date. With all the proper variables deliberated, you will be able to map out your best path to test day. Good luck, and keep studying!

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