Home » 5 Reasons You Got a Low MCAT Score

5 Reasons You Got a Low MCAT Score

15 min


A frustrated pre-medical student studying for the MCAT.


You’ve gotten your MCAT score back, and you scored a lot lower than you hoped, what now? While it can certainly be heartbreaking to think all the work you put into studying didn’t pay off on test day, you can think of this as an opportunity to refine your study strategy and show significant improvement on an MCAT retake. Before planning for a retake, you should stop and consider the MCAT score you received in context of your ultimate goals. Since technically you can’t “fail” the MCAT, you have to figure out if the score you received necessitates a retake. Some general things you may consider when deciding whether to retake the MCAT are: are you hoping to go to an MD or DO school, and what are the ranges and mean scores of students accepted to the schools to which you are planning to apply? Compare the MCAT score you received to the scores of accepted applicants at your target schools. The AAMC’s Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) database or the ChooseDo database are great places to start to find the score ranges for successful medical school admits. These databases have accurate and up-to-date information about the admits at all U.S. and Canadian medical schools. You might also ask your pre-med advisor, if applicable, or someone close to you that is familiar with the medical school application process their honest opinion of your application in the context of your MCAT score. 


If you decide to take the MCAT a second time, it is important before preparing for your MCAT retake to thoroughly understand where things went wrong in your first attempt, and gaining a better understanding of when you may be ready to take the exam. Taking the MCAT more than once is not necessarily a mark against you in your medical school applications, but you’ll want your retake score to be not just a few points higher, but significantly higher than your first attempt. Nothing makes a medical school application lukewarm like an MCAT retake that only increased by 1 or 2 points from the first attempt. Admissions committees like to see that a student can learn from their “mistakes” and reapply themselves in a successful manner to get a higher MCAT score the second time around. The medical school application process is holistic, but the MCAT still makes up a considerable portion of the evaluation for most programs, and thus it is important to put in the time and put your best foot forward on a retake.  In this blog post, we will talk about the top 5 reasons students score low on the MCAT, and some potential solutions.



1. You Didn’t Give Yourself Enough Time to Study


This may seem like too simple an answer, but often I find this to be the case when talking to students who didn’t score as highly on the MCAT as they wanted to. Studying for the MCAT is a significant time commitment and the importance of creating and adhering to a comprehensive study schedule can’t be understated. I often advise students to schedule their MCAT retake for a time when they don’t have too many other life/school/work commitments in the months leading up to the exam to ensure they have protected study time. The amount of necessary prep time varies from student to student, so check out some of our other blog posts about creating MCAT study schedules for tips and tricks to dialing in a personalized schedule. If you think that not giving yourself enough time to study leading up to the exam contributed to your low MCAT score, make sure you give yourself more time than you need leading up to a retake. For some students, this may mean delaying their application to medical school by another application cycle depending on the time of the year they get their score back. Adding a gap year, or taking another gap year if you are already in a gap year, is common amongst medical school applicants. This extra time will allow you to double down on your studying for the MCAT and maybe even further strengthen your application via full-time or part-time work or volunteering. 



2. You Skipped or Glazed Over Important Content During Your Review


In the same vein as not giving yourself enough time to study, I often find that students who don’t achieve their goal scores on the MCAT didn’t fully cover all the necessary content. This is often due to lack of time, dislike for a certain subject, or assumed mastery of a particular content area. I typically recommend that whatever resource a student chooses for the MCAT, they go through all sections of it, no matter how comfortable they feel with the material. For example, if using MCAT review textbooks, this would mean thoroughly studying, reviewing, and understanding each chapter in the books. While it is impossible to predict what you’ll see on test day, simply relying on “high-yield” reviewing of a limited list of facts to carry you through to a high MCAT score does not typically pan out. Don’t be afraid to seek out help from a knowledgeable friend, a pre-health advisor, or an MCAT tutor, or use different resources for subjects you struggle with. 



3. You Didn’t Take Enough Practice Exams or Do Enough Practice Questions


The best way to prepare yourself for the pace and style of the questions you’ll see on your MCAT retake test day is to do practice exams and practice questions. If you struggled with running out of time or feeling overwhelmed by the length of the passages during your first MCAT and think that may have contributed to your low score, prioritizing practice exams during your second study period is very important. Make sure to simulate the actual test day as closely as you can during your practice exams. Practice taking appropriately timed breaks during practice exams and always do your practice exams timed. The more practice exams and practice questions you do, the more comfortable you become with the process, and the more comfortable and confident you will feel during the real exam. Moreover, the scores on your practice exams provide immediate feedback on how you’re doing and can help you identify topics to focus on.



4. You Didn’t Choose a Study Resource That Worked With Your Learning Style


With so many resources to choose from to study for the MCAT, it can be hard to decide on one resource over another. In choosing a resource for content review, it is helpful to have an idea of your learning style. Most resources out there can be grouped into two main classes: video lectures and review textbooks. If you are someone who learns better from reading on your own than watching a lecture or vice versa, take that into consideration when choosing your study materials for your MCAT retake. Before committing to a resource, do your homework and get an idea of what options are out there. Additionally, it is important to iterate on the content you review and not just look over it once. If you didn’t the first time around, try to incorporate active recall in the form of flashcards (i.e. Anki). 



5. Test Day Didn’t Go as Planned


Another scenario that can lead to a low MCAT score is test-taking anxiety leading to a test day where you didn’t perform at your best. This may be the case if you had consistently high AAMC practice exam scores but received a significantly lower score on your actual MCAT. Test-taking anxiety is exceptionally common and is experienced by almost all students at one point or another. When taking an admissions test like the MCAT, the stakes can feel very high, leading to normal test-taking anxiety compounding to performance-impacting levels of anxiety.


Moreover, because the MCAT is a long test with multiple sections, often students let their perceived performance on a previous section impact their ability to focus on the next section. Think back to how you felt during your MCAT and how you managed your stress. Did you find yourself fixating on previous sections or questions you thought you got wrong? Did you feel overwhelmed? Did you take breaks? Did you use any mindfulness or breathing techniques during break times to reset? If you think your low score was a direct result of your test day performance, focus on simulating test day during practice exams when studying for your retake and explore techniques for calming your nerves. Many students find tricks like stopping to take a few deep breaths when they start to feel overwhelmed by a question really helpful in staying focused during the MCAT.  


We hope this list of the top 5 reasons students score low on the MCAT was helpful for you as you investigate what changes you can make in your MCAT studying to score higher on a second attempt! Remember, take the time to address the issues from your first attempt before studying for a retake. Happy studying!

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