Timing is a crucial element when deciding how to prepare for and when to take the MCAT. Taking the MCAT prematurely can lead to a score below your potential, whereas taking it too late can disrupt your medical school admissions process.
I have taken the MCAT twice: once between my sophomore and junior years of college (scoring a 509—79th percentile) and again the winter after graduating college (scoring a 519—97th percentile). Through studying two different ways and earning two drastically different scores, I’ve learned how to weigh different factors to determine when to take your MCAT.
To Determine When to Take Your MCAT, Wait Until…
1. You Are Confident You Want to Attend Medical School
I’m not the first one to say it: the MCAT is a doozy. It takes months of intense (and stressful) preparation to do it well. Taking the MCAT when you are not certain you want to be a doctor is a waste of valuable time you could spend setting yourself up for a career you care more about. Before carving out a schedule for MCAT preparation, reflect on what you want to do with your career.
Before making MCAT plans, take time to gain some clinical experience, as well as explore other career fields. Apart from becoming a physician, there are many different health-related professions to look into. See if they would align better with your personal and professional goals. These include nurse, physician assistant, licensed clinical social worker, physical therapist, occupational therapist, pharmacist, researcher, genetic counselor, hospital administrator, and so on.
In addition to shadowing physicians, I took time to work in an ecology lab and at a nonprofit organization before studying for the MCAT. Engaging in all of these experiences made it clear to me that working as a physician combines what I loved about research and nonprofit work. Taking that time granted me clarity that I wanted to jump through the necessary hoops to become a physician (and this means taking the MCAT) .
2. You Complete Relevant Coursework
The MCAT’s content runs the gambit: physics, general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology. Self-teaching any one of these areas will demand a large amount of time and energy. To self-teach more than one at a time will land you in a world of hurt.
Bear in mind that most medical schools require different combinations of the above courses. Therefore, you should plan to take most (if not all) of these courses anyway as a part of your pre-med requirements. Using this logic, you may as well set yourself up for success by doing so before your MCAT.
Of the mentioned topics, psychology and sociology are going to be the easiest to self-teach. There is not much physics on the MCAT and the material is not very in-depth; therefore, if you took physics in high school, you should have a solid enough foundation to self-teach physics for the MCAT. For the rest of the subjects, I would say a college-level understanding is necessary to do well.
3. You Have Money to Purchase Prep Materials
Costs of MCAT preparation can add up fast. Books, online question banks, practice tests, classes, and tutoring can all add up. Set yourself up for success by spending the one or two years before you study for the MCAT setting aside money for preparation materials. For more advice on how to manage MCAT-related finances and how to best make use of prep materials, check out How to Study for the MCAT.
4. You Have the Time to Study
There are two dimensions of a successful study schedule: setting consistent times each week to study and ensuring you have enough weeks to get through all the material. For most college students, there are no substantial windows during the school year to study 15-35 hours per week for the necessary number of weeks. In total, your time spent studying for the MCAT should equal roughly 300 hours.
Most pre-med students set aside time in the summer to prepare, generally the summer after their sophomore or junior year. However, for those aspiring to apply to medical school while in their final year of college, both of these windows pose some major time-related issues:
Summer After Sophomore Year:
Most students have not completed all of the required pre-med coursework by the end of sophomore year. All of my college peers who completed their coursework by then either had AP Chemistry credit, took summer classes between freshman and sophomore year, or took Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry at the same time.
I did none of these things, but I still chose to take my first MCAT the summer after my sophomore year. Having not taken Organic Chemistry II yet, I was ill-prepared for the MCAT and ended up scoring below my potential.
Summer After Junior Year:
By the end of junior year, most pre-med students have completed all of their pre-med requirements. However, for students aspiring to matriculate to medical school right after college, this summer is when to complete med school applications.
Managing two stressful processes at the same time often leads to neither being done the best way possible. Read Section 6 for more info about how the application timeline works and to learn more about the downsides of a post-junior year MCAT.
Taking this into account, It may be wiser to take a gap year to two to ensure you have a substantial window to study. There is absolutely no substitute for a good MCAT score. If taking a year or two between college and medical school is what you need to give yourself the time to properly study, then that is just what you will need to do.
5. You Set Realistic Expectations
Understanding what is feasible—both study-wise and score-wise—will help you determine when to take the MCAT. If your goal is to get in 300 hours of studying, scheduling the MCAT six weeks from when you begin studying is not realistic. Instead, plan on studying three-four hours per day for three or four months. Also, be sure to set aside full days to complete full-length practice tests.)
Also, be sure to set realistic expectations for your study time, based on your diagnostic score and your goal score. If you score a 490 on your diagnostic test, scoring a 515 on the real test will likely demand more than 300 study hours. Conversely, a diagnostic test score of 500 would likely demand much fewer than 300 hours to get to a goal score of 510.
When I was studying for the MCAT the first time, not only did I not complete the relevant coursework beforehand, but I also did not take seriously the advice about how much to study for the MCAT. I scored a 494 on my first diagnostic test, and I had a goal of a 515. I averaged 15 hours of studying per week for 8 weeks. My official score of 509 was well above my diagnostic score but also quite a bit below my goal score.
The second time around, I designed (and stuck to) an intensive, yet realistic, study schedule. I gave myself 16 weeks, studying an average of 20 hours per week and holding myself accountable. My diligence led me to improve my score greatly—all the way to a 519.
Another tip is to eliminate as many non-MCAT-related stressors as possible leading up to test day. I once had an MCAT student who planned on moving into a new apartment the day before her MCAT (not exactly ideal). Minimizing stressors allows more energy to focus on the MCAT.
6. You Understand the Admissions Timeline
You can submit your AMCAS application as early as June 1st. Medical schools will not open your application for review until they receive ALL requirements, which includes your MCAT. Medical schools also interview and accept applicants on a rolling basis, with interviews beginning as early as August. An early interviewee has a better shot at acceptance, as there are more unfilled seats in the incoming class when interviews begin compared to the end of the admissions cycle.
Putting this information together, you want to turn in all of your application materials as early as possible to have the best possible chance at acceptance. Therefore, I would say the latest comfortable date to take the MCAT is April during the year you apply, while May can be the safety-net-date if something goes awry.
Never apply to med school with a pending MCAT score (unless it is a retest). Applying without knowing your score could result in you applying to too many undershoot or overshoot schools, neither of which is an effective use of your time, money, and energy. Given that you are fully prepared, it is best to take the MCAT as early as possible to give yourself time to research schools and gather necessary application materials.
Those retaking the MCAT have a little bit of wiggle room. If their goal is to bump up their MCAT a handful of points, their current score can serve as a placeholder. Once a retester receives his/her updated MCAT score, he/she should send prospective medical schools an update letter immediately. This is because, if a med school rejects someone (which some schools do early in the application cycle), a new MCAT score cannot reverse this decision.
In summary, early test dates are best for retesters, in addition to first time test-takers.
7. You Are Ready
By MCAT test day, you want to be at the point where studying more would not have improved your score. In other words, if you had more time, there is no new MCAT-related information for you to learn.
If test day is a few weeks out and you still feel like there is no way you can get through learning all of your remaining material, consider pushing back your test day. Of course, you do not want to disrupt your med school admissions process, so make sure you fully understand the effect a later MCAT date will have on your applications.
Now You Know When to Take Your MCAT
Time can be your biggest enemy when preparing for the MCAT, but, if you are strategic, it can be on your side. By meeting all of the above conditions when taking your MCAT, you can set yourself up for success and achieve your highest possible score.