How To Break Through an MCAT Score Plateau
Let’s imagine that, throughout your MCAT study journey, you’ve been taking third-party and/or official AAMC practice exams and consistently scoring within a certain range. However, you might not be reaching your MCAT score goal. No matter what you try, your score doesn’t seem to change much. This could indicate that you’re plateauing in your MCAT score, but it also might not. How do you recognize when you’ve hit a plateau? Luckily, there are few telltale signs either way.
Recognizing an MCAT Score Plateau
If your third-party practice scores are high (515+), this is not a plateau. Every third-party exam, no matter how representative, will always predict a lower score than the official AAMC material. Even if you are not scoring higher on your practice exams, it is recommended that you move on to AAMC material and take official practice exams. These will be much more representative, and you can expect to notice a score improvement, as many students do.
If your official AAMC practice scores are high and you still aren’t reaching your target score, this might be a plateau. If you have taken all 5 (4 full length + 1 sample) exams, and your score distribution across all of them is the same – especially with no fluctuations between section scores – you are probably in a scoring plateau. AAMC exams get more representative as you go from the first to the last exam, and the content that is tested in the latest exams is generally the most accurate representation of what you should expect from the real exam. In addition, as you move through practice exams, taking one or so a week, you should be scoring progressively better on each exam you take, given proper review and section bank work in the meanwhile. If you are not seeing score improvements despite dedicated efforts to the AAMC material, recognize that you are in a plateau, and move on to Understanding Why You’re Plateauing.
If either your third-party or AAMC practice scores are consistently “low”– 510 or below (510 is the average for a matriculant to medical school) — this may or may not be a plateau, depending on a few things. If your scores vary widely in each section with each practice you take, this could be more indicative of either sectional content issues, improper focus, or poor testing strategy. If your scores are generally consistent per section, but still low in certain sections, your plateau is only sectional, and focusing on that section only in exams, content review, or question banks is your key to breaking that plateau. Additionally, if your scores are poor (sub 124-125 per section) across the board, this would imply you have large content or skill gaps, as opposed to a plateau. Finally, if your scores are consistently low across the board in each section, you are most likely in a plateau.
Understanding Why You’re Experiencing an MCAT Score Plateau
First, recognize your successes. If you are consistently scoring over 130 in a particular section, like CARS, understand you are a 93rd percentile scorer in an incredibly difficult section. Second, recognize if you have broad issues which need to be addressed over the course of the exam. This may mean something as simple as slowing down. If you are consistently answering questions quickly and completing MCAT sections with over ten minutes remaining, you are going too fast. Your speed may be affecting your accuracy in your sections and rushing to answer questions may make you feel anxious and impair your thought process. Slow down and try to understand what the question is asking, taking your time to think through all the answer choices. Another easy-to-fix issue and reason you may be plateauing and failing to meet your MCAT score goal is overworking. Students tend to forget that sometimes, the best thing you can do to break through an MCAT Score Plateau, is to take a break, or a day off. There is no reason to brush against the grain. If you are unfocused or distracted, you’ll have a hard time being productive and you’ll lose time that you could have spent recharging. Taking the time to relax and refocus will allow you to be both mentally and physically prepared the next time you sit down and get to work.
If your issue isn’t with speed or burnout and cannot be amended with an easy fix, the reason you are plateauing is most likely because of what you do after your exam. If you are scoring consistently and have a solid background in content, you should consider adjusting what you are doing after you take the exam, in both your review and in strategy.
Breaking Through the Score
There are a few ways of breaking through that MCAT score plateau you’re stuck in and working towards achieving your score goal. The most important and effective way is to review your practice exams and question bank sets properly. After taking any practice exam, you need to sit down and thoroughly go through it. Consider writing down your thought process for each incorrect answer and actively working through the “correct” process you should be using to get the question right. In addition, try writing down the types of questions you tend to get wrong, the type of content it tested, whether or not you guessed the answer, and any other information that could have affected your decision-making towards the answer. Try using Excel to make a separate column for each category and fill it out for all 4 sections of every exam. There are even “Why I Missed It” Excel spreadsheet templates available online to make this process easier. To make the most of your practice exams and question banks, make sure you are actively working to learn from your mistakes. Remember that any mistake made on a practice exam is an opportunity to learn and ensure you are on track for achieving your MCAT score goal on test day.
When properly reviewing practice exams, prepare to spend another 1-2 days going through your exam after taking it. Though this may seem like an incredible expenditure of time just to get 1-2 more questions right per section, it can also be incredibly rewarding. Though it might not seem like a lot, 1-2 extra right answers could make the difference between a 128 in that section and a 130. The key to breaking through the MCAT score plateau is being specific and detailed in why you are getting questions wrong. Many students will find that, although their content understanding is solid, their critical reasoning might not align with that of the AAMC’s, leading to incorrect answer choices.
When going through practice exams you may notice correlations and trends; if you end up switching your answer a lot and getting it wrong, make a mental note to go with your initial answer and trust your gut. Try to read the passage more closely, not to miss any keywords that could point you to the answer. Identifying the types of questions you get wrong most frequently and creating a plan to avoid following the same logic is one of the most important parts of breaking a scoring plateau. In addition to this, if you notice that you are getting certain questions wrong, make sure to practice and pay attention to these types of questions in your question bank. Most importantly, try to assess why you are getting it wrong, and physically write it out into words on your spreadsheet.
Another strategy that can help you break through a scoring plateau is ensuring that you are using the right problem-solving techniques. What this means is identifying the type of question you are answering and applying the correct method or logic to get to the answer. Though the MCAT is an exam based in content knowledge – that of chemistry, biology, and so on – the exam primarily asks logic questions to test your critical thinking skills. Make sure that you are employing the proper logical approach to a question in addition to using your background in the content. For example, a question might ask: “which is the best solvent to use to separate two chemicals from a reaction?” Here, you’d want to use your knowledge on which chemicals dissolve what matter. However, to get to the right answer, you will need to use the proper logic to determine what makes one solvent better than another and get to the correct answer. To develop this logic and achieve your MCAT score goal, the crucial thing to do is to review the exam properly, determine why your logic is flawed on incorrect answers, and understand the correct AAMC logic which is employed on the exam. If you are not specific with this and do not understand why your way of solving problems is flawed, you will likely continue to make mistakes.
If you find that you are missing content surrounding a particular topic or section, you might not learn enough from just reading the answer and its explanation. Don’t be afraid to go back into your content books or notes and review a particular concept. If you find that it isn’t covered or explained well enough, check out an additional supplemental resource, such as Khan Academy’s videos. They are generally extremely thorough and explain the content well. Just don’t forget to make an Anki card for whatever you learn, so you can continue to drill and review with spaced repetition. If you follow these steps and continue to push yourself, you will be able to break through your MCAT score plateau and become one step closer to achieving your score goal.