It's one of the biggest concerns of students applying to medical schools – how low is too low on the MCAT? Although each medical school has its own minimum requirement for the MCAT, there are real limits to what is considered an acceptable score. After all, a higher MCAT score helps the admissions committee feel more confident about your abilities to handle advanced coursework in medical school.
Another thing to think about is that the admission committee will associate your MCAT scores with your potential Step 1 scores, which are a major factor for residency admissions. Since schools want to ensure that their students match to their desired specialties, they aim to recruit students who have done well in school and on the MCAT.
So is there a magic number that you should aim to surpass when you take the MCAT? Dr. Shirag Shemmassian, founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting and a medical school admissions expert, says that if you receive an MCAT score below 500, "it is highly likely that you will not be accepted to any MD program, unless you happen to live in a state with a public medical school that accepts in-state students with lower stats or are in other ways a compelling candidate at other medical schools that accept students with lower average stats. In the case of public medical schools with a strong in-state student preference, out-of-state applicants typically need higher stats to be competitive."
For osteopathic medical schools (DO program), the absolute lowest MCAT score you can achieve and still get into medical school will be lower than for MD programs. Again, there is no specific threshold given that medical school admissions is a holistic process, but "achieving below a 490 MCAT score will leave you in a really tough position," Shemmassian says.
While a score below 500 could mean a rejection from most medical schools, you may need to aim much higher on the exam, depending on the specific tier of schools you are targeting. More selective schools will have a higher cutoff for MCAT scores. Shemmassian points out that a student with a 3.8 GPA and 512 MCAT score may want to retake the MCAT to increase their odds of getting into a top 30 school.
Ideally, you should be looking to score 500 and above on the low end, but also 125 and above on all four sections. "Having less than a 124 on any section -- most often CARS -- or having a score discrepancy of five or more points between your highest and lowest sections -- are good reasons to consider retaking the MCAT," says Shemmassian.
So what are your options if you feel your MCAT score is too low on your first attempt? Of course, retaking the test is your best bet, which is why it's very important to plan ahead and take your first MCAT well enough in advance of application deadlines. But if retaking the test is not an option, then you will have to make sure that the rest of your application is as airtight as possible.
"A higher GPA, stellar extracurriculars and a strong application can somewhat buffer against a lower MCAT score. That said, the lower the MCAT score, the higher the required buffer. For instance, a 3.8 GPA won't make up for a 502 MCAT score at most medical schools," Shemmassian says.
Another option, though much less advisable, is to explain your low score in the personal statement section of your application. However, Shemmassian says this would only help if you have something "acute and meaningful to explain," which doesn't include excuses like test anxiety or not getting enough sleep before the test. While a death in the family right before the exam might be considered a compelling reason to an admissions committee, he adds that "in almost all circumstances, I advise against trying to explain a very low MCAT score."
To be sure you achieve the highest MCAT score you are capable of, be sure to prepare early on with well-planned and consistent study efforts – and leave enough time to retake the test if necessary.
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