When you took the SAT or ACT for college admissions, you likely approached the test with the mindset that you can always retake until you get the score you want. For the MCAT, however, this mindset does not apply. This article explores both how many times you can take the MCAT and how many times you should take the MCAT.
AAMC Restrictions on How Many Times You Can Take the MCAT
According to AAMC guidelines, a registrant may only hold one MCAT appointment at a time. This means that if you are registered to take the MCAT on a specific date, you are unable to register to take the MCAT on a second date unless you cancel your first date or wait until your first date passes.
Within one testing year, an examinee may only take the MCAT up to three times. Within two testing years, an examinee may only take the MCAT up to four times. Within a lifetime, an examinee may only take the MCAT up to seven times.
The AAMC does not make explicit why these restrictions apply. If I had to speculate, I would say score improvements from a test-taker taking the MCAT this many times would be due to chance rather than actual knowledge or skill. Chance-derived improvements have the potential to interfere with the MCAT’s mission of evaluating test-takers universally on their knowledge and skill.
Advice on How Many Times You Should Take the MCAT
Even though one can take the MCAT up to seven times in his/her life, taking it that many times has severe drawbacks.
The following excerpt is pulled from the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s website:
How will my application be viewed if I have taken the MCAT more than one time?
We expect that many students will take the MCAT on at least two occasions. In that scenario we will look at the best set of scores, which is usually the second set. If those scores are competitive, the fact that you have taken the test twice will not matter at all. This may change if you take the test more than two times. Even with improving scores, your application, in terms of the MCAT exam, will be deemed to be less competitive overall if you have taken the test three, four, or more times.
The University of Maryland SOM was explicit stating how multiple retakes hurts applicants, but many medical schools are not so clear. Regardless of whether or not their policies are stated on their websites, most medical schools view multiple retakes unfavorably for admissions.
In other words, taking the MCAT more than twice can hurt your application, even if your score improves. Consistent with the statement above, once you take the MCAT multiple times, chance–rather than actual improvements in knowledge or skill–generates score improvements. Med schools want to be confident in their students’ abilities, and the possibility of score improvements from chance dilutes the impact of a high MCAT score.
Additionally, medical schools want to see strong scores on standardized tests on the first try, as medical students should be passing their Step Exams on their first attempt. Medical school admission committees (“AdComs”) show some mercy by generally not penalizing a single retake. This is likely because they understand that the MCAT is unlike any standardized test where most applicants have taken it before, and therefore grant a little wiggle room.
Overall, stick to the mindset that “less is more.” You want to knock your MCAT score out of the park on your first try. Again, retaking the test once will generally not harm your chances at admission, but multiple retakes likely will.
Deciding Whether or Not to Retake the MCAT
As a rule of thumb, do not retake the MCAT unless:
- You will do something differently to prepare
- You confidently believe you can raise your score by three or more points on your first retake (and by even more points on subsequent retakes)
What Will You Do Differently?
Tame Impala penned some lyrics that are especially relevant when deciding whether or not to retake the MCAT: Feel like a brand new person, but you make the same old mistakes.
Do not let these lyrics apply to you. If you feel inspired to take on the challenge of retaking the MCAT, take measures to ensure that you do not make the same old mistakes you made before.
The biggest changes to make are likely:
- Holding yourself more accountable
- Allocating more time to prepare
- Learning the material at a deeper level
Design a study plan that is realistic, specific to you, and strategic in helping you achieve your goal for score improvement. For more advice on how to study for the MCAT, click here.
Is Your Score Improvement Worth It?
I once spoke to an AdCom member at the Ohio State University School of Medicine. She told me that the AdCom only recommends retaking the MCAT if you believe you can raise your score by more than a few points.
This is sound advice because, with all of the time and energy you spend raising your MCAT score, you could be gaining valuable clinical experience or volunteering in your community. These engagements could help your application as much as (or even more than) a handful of points on your MCAT.
If you have already retaken the MCAT, you need to pause and think hard about if an additional retake will raise your score. Ask yourself: If retaking the test was how to get a better score, why didn’t my score go up with the first retake? If you have a clear answer to this, be honest with yourself to determine whether or not the score improvement from an additional retake will be worth the energy, and the possible penalty, when applying to med school.
Med School AdComs can view view multiple MCAT scores in a number of ways, but the most common way is to focus almost entirely on the most recent score. AdComs also note trends, with a steady improvement between tests as quite favorable, and volatility or score decreases between retakes as unfavorable.
Making Sense of AAMC Restrictions and AdCom Recommendations
The AAMC has strict restrictions on how many times you can take the MCAT. Even if you have multiple retakes remaining, you should reflect on why you would retake. Remember, your goal is not to necessarily get the highest MCAT score possible but to take action to best improve your chances of a medical school acceptance.
Take time to reflect on whether or not a retake is the best path to improve your chance of admission into medical school. If you decide an MCAT retake is the way to improve your application, ensure that you have a plan to avoid those same old mistakes and take control of your preparation.