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Anna Karamazina

26.11.2022 15:00

Navigating the MCAT Retake

Aspirants to U.S. medical schools must pass the MCAT test, and choosing whether to retake it after a subpar first attempt should take various factors into account, experts advise.

The MCAT: Why Is It Important?

When deciding who to admit, medical schools take several aspects into account, including undergraduate GPA, grades in specific science courses, personal statements, and letters of recommendation. But according to Javarro Russell, senior director of admissions testing service at the Association of American Medical Colleges, which oversees the MCAT, the Medical College Admission Test is arguably the most objective evaluation of what a student understands or is able to achieve.

Admissions personnel are very aware of the potential implications of various MCAT scores.

Schools use MCAT scores to "narrow down candidates and see who they'll move forward with" due to the "notoriously difficult" application process for medical school (tens of thousands of applicants each year, less than half accepted), according to Dr. Renee Marinelli, director of advising at MedSchoolCoach, an admissions consulting service for prospective medical students.

The MCAT is one way for schools to determine if applicants to their program have the necessary skills to handle the demands of medical school, according to the expert. The highest MCAT requirements are found at the most selective medical schools. There is research that links a student's MCAT score to their future success in passing license examinations, both in medical school and beyond.

According to Dr. Theodora Pinnock, associate dean of student affairs and admissions at Meharry College of Medicine in Tennessee, critical thinking is a crucial talent for medical school students as well as practicing physicians after graduation. The MCAT measures this capability.

Additionally, the MCAT measures a candidate's level of knowledge and background in science. That should be established before medical school, and that information is assessed by the MCAT. Even while it isn't ideal, it provides a solid notion of where a particular individual stands.

Considerations for MCAT Retake

The MCAT has four sections, is seven and a half hours long, and has a total score range of 472 to 528. Test takers who are unhappy with their results might consider retaking the exam by asking themselves several important questions, according to experts, including:

  • Is a second test definitely necessary?

  • How likely am I to get a better grade?

  • Can I afford the time and money required for another test?

It's better to avoid having a "knee-jerk" response to quickly retake the exam in an effort to fulfill the target deadline for submitting an application to medical school, advises Marinelli, who writes for the U.S. News Medical School Admissions Doctor blog.  She adds that some test takers perform worse on a retake because they frequently aren't ready for it.

The annual and overall restrictions on the number of MCAT attempts must be understood, according to Russell. Three times a year at most, four times in two straight years, and seven times total are the maximums.  Also, take into account if the timing of the subsequent attempt falls within the window during which the institutions require applications to be filed, he advises.

To have enough time to prepare for a retest, which should start with "digging deep" into why earlier results were subpar, Marinelli advises delaying for another year or until the summer. Think about whether there was test-day nervousness, a lack of practice exams, a general lack of preparation, trouble on each subject, a particularly difficult section, or a mix of variables, she advises.

Take your time, carefully consider your actions, attempt to identify where you went wrong, and work toward change. This generally requires more time than you normally want to commit.

How to Study for a Retake of the MCAT

Candidates for medical schools who opt to retake the exam should come up with a plan that will improve their chances of doing well, according to experts.

Since the same approach frequently results in the same outcome, Pinnock advises that students think about going back and adjusting how they handled the exam. She continues by advising applicants to be sure they have the time to study and to take into account their financial situation, as MCAT testing and preparation may be expensive, costing as much as $10,000 for certain prep programs or coaching.

According to Russell, it's critical to comprehend your preferred learning style, the ideal methods for retaining the knowledge essential to ace the MCAT, and ways to create and adhere to a study strategy.

Talking to someone who just received a high score is another smart move, advises Pinnock. “If you have a friend that did well on the test, ask them what their approach was. What did they do to prepare? If you didn’t get the score you wanted, don’t prep the same way all over again.”

When you have determined what went wrong, create a new, tailored test-preparation strategy and “prioritize where your yield is going to be the greatest, where you’re going to make the best difference in terms of improving your score,” advises Marinelli. There are similarities between entering medical school and what you will do as a doctor. Being a doctor involves, among other things, sitting down to determine what actually went wrong and how to go differently.

She suggests focusing on a particular area of the exam rather than enrolling in a course that covers the entire exam, for instance, if you did badly on the MCAT's Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills, or CARS, segment. If you discover that you didn't spend enough time studying alone, consider spending extra time reviewing the material and doing practice tests rather than enrolling in a course.

There isn't a perfect solution for how to advance, claims Marinelli. A poor performance doesn't always indicate inadequate prior preparation; it just indicates that something wasn't done properly.

According to Russell, the AAMC offers a free, comprehensive practice test that is graded. Along with the numerous free study resources the AAMC and others provide, this is a useful approach to measure your preparation for the MCAT, according to the author.

Experts concur that completing more practice questions and practice exams will be beneficial.

Do practice exams that are as long as the actual examination, Pinnock advises. You might not pass the test based on your stamina, endurance, and underlying approach since you might be too exhausted to think clearly.

She also suggests reading papers from medical journals and getting practice reading passages. It isn't a question of intellect or necessarily critical thinking; rather, it is a matter of getting your brain accustomed to reading passage after passage and extracting the information you want. One of the endurance metrics you can really improve on is that.

Pinnock advises speaking with a counselor if you frequently have severe test anxiety. “You can spend all this time preparing, and if you can’t sleep the night before and you’re so anxious you can’t think through the passages and items during the test, you have not helped yourself.”

Should You Cancel Your MCAT Assessment?

At the conclusion of the exam, test-takers have the option to "void" their MCAT test, in which case it won't be scored and the medical schools selected to receive the results won't be made aware of their involvement.

Except in exceptional, unforeseen circumstances like acute illness, the loss of a loved one, or serious technological difficulties throughout testing, experts do not recommend this option, which is an irrevocable exit route.

Voiding a score is “such a terrible thing to have to do” and ought to be done very cautiously, according to Marinelli.  "Students should be aware that after spending six or seven hours on an exam, they won't feel fantastic about the results. They won't feel well, maybe feeling like they failed. They did good, but frequently they are mistaken. They simply feel that way because it is so demanding and draining.

Consider the possibility that subsequent test dates within your preferred time range may be fully booked with no open seats when choosing whether to void, advises Russell.

He advises against using the void unless it is obvious to you that you were unable to exert your full effort due to an extraordinary circumstance.

Voiding an attempt still counts toward the MCAT test limit, much like not turning up for the exam.

The wisest suggestion in this difficult scenario, according to Marinelli, is to avoid making a hasty or poor judgment. And if you fail the test, you won't know how you truly performed, making it impossible for you to learn from it. Now, there may be a good justification to void the test if you missed a whole section or experienced a panic attack and had to leave the room for 30 minutes.


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