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How to Decide When to Take the MCAT

MST Tutors Kevin Wang and Jeffrey Abrams contributed to this article.

The question of when to take the MCAT creates anxiety and worry for almost every pre-med student. Choosing your MCAT test date is a very personal decision, and your optimal test date depends on many factors. Careful planning can help you set an optimal date and lessen the anxiety around your decision.

So first, let’s assume that you have not yet begun intensively preparing for the MCAT. Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself is this: When do you actually plan to apply to medical school?

If you’re on the fence about when to take the test and haven’t started studying for the MCAT, you probably shouldn’t plan to apply during the upcoming cycle. Why?

1. If possible, late medical school applications should be avoided

Studying for the MCAT generally takes at least 12 weeks, with some students beginning their studying upwards of half a year in advance. Ideally, you want to have your MCAT score before submitting your primary, which can be submitted as early as May 31st. This means that you should try to take your MCAT by early May so you can have your score by the time you submit primaries, as your MCAT score will play a huge role in deciding what schools to apply to.

If you’re not able to take your MCAT by early May, it’s not the end of the world, but it takes away a potentially easy edge that all savvy applicants should try to take advantage of: Early applications are one of the easiest and surest ways to boost your medical school admissions odds. 

Plus if you’ve been busy studying for the MCAT, you’re less likely to have put together a top-notch application. For all of these reasons, when students are forced to choose between 1) a rushed MCAT preparation and a delayed AMCAS application or 2) a thorough MCAT preparation and a deferral of the application cycle, I generally advise the latter.

Application deferral is an under-appreciated choice. Deferred applications allow you to optimize the application process and the MCAT study process. More importantly, the resulting gap year(s) can be highly enriching personal experiences. What’s more, they often benefit students in myriad ways during their medical school years.

So let’s assume I’ve convinced you to hold off on your application until later. That still leaves the question of which test date you should choose.

2. Take it when you’re ready… to score well

One of the most important factors in deciding when to take the MCAT is how much time you will have available to study. Although a May date might seem appealing because it allows for you to have the most time overall, consider your schedule. If you’re going to be a full time student finishing your Spring semester, you may not be able to study for the MCAT as much as you would like, whereas taking the exam in January or August will allow for you to take winter/summer break to really crank down on studying.

In addition to the rough 12+ week time estimate I mentioned above, the amount of time you will need to study depends on a number of variables: The first of these is test-taking ability, which is demonstrated by your past performance on standardized tests. The second is mastery of the MCAT content based on success in the courses covered on the MCAT. It’s generally not a good idea to take the MCAT until you have taken all of the courses (two semesters of gen chem/gen physics/gen bio/organic chemistry, one semester psychology/sociology/biochem). Most students find psychology and sociology to be easier to self learn while considering the other courses best learned in a classroom setting.

With all of this said, once you conclude the best time to take the MCAT that will allow for you to have at least 12 weeks to study, go ahead and sign up for an exam date. Once you’ve done that, though, it will be key to consistently assess your progress during your study process with practice MCAT exams.

There are currently three official AAMC MCAT exams available from the AAMC website that were once given as actual MCAT exams. This means the score you receive on those exams are the scores you would have received if you took it with that cohort during some previous year. These exams should be saved for the final weeks of your studying to prepare you for the actual MCAT as well as giving you an idea of how you will score. Most students find that they actually score within 3 points (higher or lower!) of the average of their official practice exams. If you aren’t scoring where you need to be as you get closer to your test date, don’t take it. Blindly sitting for this exam and hoping for the best is not a strategy for success. Sometimes it’s important to recognize that you just aren’t ready and to push things back.

If nothing else, remember that ultimately the goal isn’t to just get any score — it’s to get the score that will help your application the most. Waiting until you’re truly ready to achieve your target score is a prudent move.

On that note, while some students rush to prematurely take the MCAT, others over-prepare and still push back their test-date because they never feel quite ready. This is a similarly problematic situation — one laden with burnout, anxiety and diminishing returns — so at a certain point, it becomes necessary to sit for an exam and see what happens.

At the end of the day, setting your test date is only the first step in the long process of preparing for the MCAT; your ultimate success will depend on the hard work that comes afterward. Spending some time optimizing your test date decision before jumping into the books can pay off significantly, so I sincerely hope these points help you do so. Good luck!



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