When to Take the MCAT
- Jun 29, 2022
- MCAT Blog
- Reviewed By: Liz Flagge
When to Take the MCAT
It can seem daunting to decide when to take the MCAT and what MCAT date to choose. Is there a month you need to sign up by? Does taking a gap year affect when you should take your MCAT? How do retakes factor into the schedule?
Unfortunately, there’s no one “magic hour” to take the MCAT exam for optimal results. There are a lot of personal factors that determine when your test day should be, so no two timelines are going to be the same. However, we can help you crack the code and determine when you should take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).
The Early Bird Gets Their MCAT Score in First
You’ve probably heard dozens of advisors and online forums saying you need to take the exam early – and for good reason. There are advantages to getting the MCAT done and over with sooner rather than later.
A big plus is that you get to focus on the other time-consuming parts of your med school application: the personal statement and essays, work and activities pages, and the painstaking attention to detail required to input all coursework correctly.
Hopefully, an early MCAT gets the ball rolling enough that you also finish those applications ahead of schedule. This can be a huge advantage because a fair number of med schools have rolling admissions, which means you’re competing with more people for fewer seats as the admission year marches on. (And admissions “year” is a literal term; it’s not until a year after the summer you apply that you get to enroll).
So, you stand a better chance of getting in if you apply early, and an early MCAT score that you’re happy with is a big part of doing this with confidence.
The flip side to this is that most medical school admission boards won’t look at your application until your MCAT is scored (even if they sent you a secondary application before then), so waiting for that vital number can mess up the rhythm of the process.
We know that it takes about a month for MCATs to get scored, and for a majority of schools’ applications don’t open until early June. That means the latest you want to be taking the MCAT is mid-May of your application year, a full 15 months before you plan to begin medical school (or even that April, if you want more wiggle room).
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It’s Gonna Be May?
Alright, now we know why everyone swears by testing in the month of May. But if the goal is to be finished with the MCAT early, why wait until your application year to take it? Couldn’t you do it earlier in your college career?
Absolutely, but don’t get too ahead of yourself. To cut down on MCAT prep time and increase your chances of scoring higher, you want to be familiar with most of the material on the pivotal exam (at least 80% of it or so). For this reason, you might need to wait until fairly late in your sophomore year to take the MCAT, likely even the summer between sophomore and junior year. By then, you’ll have finished most of your medical school prerequisites, and be better equipped for what the MCAT throws at you.
But you don’t have to be that quick. Again, the latest you want to be sitting for the MCAT is in May of your application year, so that gives you a pretty wide range of dates to pick from.
If you’d rather wait until you’re nearly done with your undergrad education, and take a gap year or two (which is increasingly common), then you should shoot for taking the exam between January and April of your final year.
No matter your application timing, a ideal goal is to have your MCAT score in hand at the start of your application process.
Not only will this date allow you to devote more time to the plethora of forms to fill out and essays to write for the rest of your applications, but it can help you decide where you want to apply. Your MCAT exam score can affect how competitive you are as an applicant.
So, when it comes to determining which programs to apply to, it helps to ask, “what is the average MCAT score?”, whether in general or for a specific school. You can do this before taking the MCAT exam or after receiving your score, but understanding what the MCAT averages are will help you determine which school to apply to.
There’s little point in wasting your time and money applying to programs that admit few students in your score range. And the importance of rolling medical school admissions should not be understated – being able to send your full medical school application in as early as possible is key.
Time (and Again?)
It’s worth mentioning that you can take the MCAT more than once. In fact, you can take it three times during a testing year, four times over two consecutive years, and seven times total during your lifetime. And yes, voided tests or missed exam dates still count towards these restrictions. However, retaking the MCAT more than three times is not recommended without clear extenuating circumstances.
Prospective medical schools are likely to view more frequent test takers as struggling with the necessary prerequisites and content. For this reason, your chances of acceptance are significantly reduced after the third try. (This doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but aim to succeed earlier.)
Plenty of medical students retake the MCAT once or twice.
If you think you’ll follow in their footsteps, it’s important to separate your MCAT test dates rather than immediately retest. When planning a retake, you’ll want to figure out how you can improve from the previous exam and take the steps (and time) to rebuild your MCAT knowledge and skills. That way, you’re more likely to see a score boost on your retake.
The good news is that exam scores don’t expire. So far as AAMC is concerned, the score you got sophomore year and the one you got your senior year are both valid. However, some medical schools have additional limits. It’s most common for them to specify that your MCAT scores need to have been earned within the past two to three years, varying on whether the cutoff date is that of your application or of your matriculation.
In any case, it’s worth double-checking what restrictions these programs put in place, especially if you plan to take time off before pursuing your medical education.
Red Flags (and Not the Swiss Kind)
Now, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing the optimal time to take this monumental exam, but it’s worth mentioning some times when you absolutely should NOT take the MCAT. Here are three red flags you should heed:
1. Scoring poorly on an MCAT practice test.
There’s a difference between scoring less than you hoped for and scoring badly. If you find yourself doing poorly on practice test after practice test, odds are you need to spend more time reviewing content and getting comfortable with the test format.
It’s better to adjust your timeline and give yourself more time to review. What this means varies at different times in your study. A good rule of thumb is to push back an MCAT date if you’re in the last month of study without an official practice score within 10 points of your goal.
2. Unfamiliarity with the material.
The whole reason students wait until after their sophomore year of college to take the MCAT is so that the material isn’t brand new. However, you may find after waiting that you still don’t recognize much of the material by then. Maybe you’re not tackling a good chunk of the content until the fall of your junior year. That’s okay.
Taking the MCAT in May at the end of your third year still gets your score early enough, and there might even be enough time to fit in a retake. It’s better to wait and have a good grasp on MCAT concepts than to take the MCAT too early. No need to struggle through unfamiliar material that you’re going to learn in upcoming classes.
3. Too much going on.
We know undergrad can be a hectic, crazy time. Your course load may be too packed one semester to even dream of having enough time to study for the MCAT. You may be balancing jobs and extracurriculars that make your schedule too variable to pencil in an exam date before summer.
Breathe and focus on addressing what’s important in those times. The MCAT can absolutely wait a little longer if the delay lets you be healthier from an academic, personal, or mental standpoint (it really can wait!).
If you noticed, a trend in these red flags is that they all indicate the need for a proper MCAT study schedule. There’s no point taking the MCAT if you aren’t prepared for it. Most medical students schedule anywhere from twelve to twenty weeks of prep time for the MCAT exam. The MCAT is a hard test – don’t make it more difficult for yourself by rushing!
When to Take the MCAT Checklist
- You want to have your MCAT exam scores in hand by the time med school applications open in June of your application year – that’s over a year before you want to matriculate.
- The earliest you should consider taking the exam is the end of your sophomore year, and the latest you want to take it is early May of your application year.
- Where your test lands in that large, multi-year schedule depends on how many times you need to take the Medical College Admission Test (hopefully, the first time’s the charm).
- It also depends on when you’re going to have the most quality time to study for it, and how much of the content you’ll have seen in school already. Thorough MCAT preparation, rather than taking the exam blind, can make a significant difference in landing your goal MCAT score.
- If you’re planning to take a gap year or two off after college, consider any time-based restrictions the programs you’re applying to might have.
- And finally, make sure the MCAT test date you pick is a goal you can reasonably work towards, given your other commitments. If you do all that, you’re sure to pick the perfect time to take your MCAT!
If you’re in need of MCAT preparation, Blueprint Prep offers courses to prepare future medical school students for the MCAT exam. Enroll in an MCAT prep course today and use our FREE MCAT Question of the Day to take the first step toward an average 15-point increase!
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