Questions About the MCAT
The Cost of MCAT Preparation
Question: I’m worried that I won’t be able to do as well as I want on the MCAT without taking a prep course, but prep courses are so expensive! Do you have any advice for preparing well but without spending so much money?
Answer: If you qualify for the AAMC Fee Assistance Program, many expenses are subsidized, including cost of the MCAT. Learn more about it online. You can also save some money just by registering for the test in a timely manner – registration is less expensive, and more refunds are offered for rescheduling/cancellation, if you register a month or more prior to the exam.
Whenever test prep companies offer free exams or other free/discounted opportunities, we post them in Vitals, so be sure to take advantage of those. While HPA does not endorse one test prep company over others, we do share their offers with you so that you can evaluate them for yourself. We also have a borrowing library of MCAT study materials donated by students and prep companies, which you’re welcome to borrow for two weeks at a time. You can also try contacting local test prep company representatives – they sometimes hire student workers and offer a free course in return. The Premed Society and MAPS student groups also sometimes receive offers from test prep companies – join their groups and mailing lists for more information. If you plan to enroll in a post-bac program to continue to enhance your preparation for medical school, many programs include in-house MCAT prep, so take that into consideration as you evaluate programs.
The AAMC has partnered with Khan Academy to provide free content prep and review questions. The AAMC also provides a number of lower-cost prep materials, including a full-length practice test, the Official Guide, which includes 120 practice questions, and the MCAT Question Pack Bundle, which includes 720 practice questions: https://www.aamc.org/students/applying/mcat/prepare/.
That said, if you start working through test prep materials and feel that you really need a course to stay on track, gain access to additional materials, and feel confident in your preparation, this may be a place where you make the financial investment now in order to reach your goal of becoming a physician. The MCAT is a high-stakes exam – best not to cut corners too much in your preparation. ♦
Early MCAT, Multiple MCAT's
Question: I wanted to ask your advice on taking the MCAT before completing all of the courses Princeton requires for admission to medical school. In the past, I have always felt more comfortable taking a standardized test twice rather than once, and I was curious what you would think if I took the MCAT this summer having not yet taken MOL 214. By summer, I will have completed Gen Chem, Organic Chem and Physics. The only course missing would be MOL 214. If I took a test prep course, do you think I would have a decent chance of doing well on the MCAT without having done 214?
I plan on taking MOL 214 as well as an upper-level Biology courses as a junior and senior, but would feel more comfortable getting the MCAT out of the way this summer if possible. Of course if the scores were not up to par, I'd simply take the MCAT again next year.
Answer: This is a really, really bad idea. Finish MOL 214 before attempting the MCAT. No one should take the MCAT without being as prepared as one can possibly be. Also, never take the MCAT for practice. The MCAT should be viewed as a one-shot deal (unlike, perhaps, you viewed your SAT). Many medical schools will average multiple MCAT scores, and the schools that do not average multiple scores will still potentially question your judgment if you took the test more than once, especially when you didn't have to with proper planning and patience. The computerized MCAT is offered on over 30 days throughout the year, so you will be able to find a convenient date to take it next year after you've had MOL 214. [Also, sidebar: Princeton does not require these courses for admission to medical school - medical schools require them!] ♦
MCAT 2015 News
Question: Hi HPA – any new news about the MCAT that I’ll be taking in Spring 2015?
Answer: The best source of information is the AAMC’s official MCAT 2015 webpage – the AAMC is the organization that administers the MCAT and they are producing information to help you prepare for the exam, including a highly detailed FAQ and a Preview Guide that includes a description of each section of the MCAT and the concepts that will be tested, along with some practice questions.
Briefly, the MCAT2015 will include four sections. The first two sections will test knowledge of Biology, General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry, and Physics, as applied to living systems. You will be asked to use your scientific inquiry, reasoning, and research and statistics skills to approach the problems. The questions in these sections are designed to test scientific competencies that have been deemed important in training future physicians (read more about the competencies in The Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians). The third section is approximately 60% psychology, 30% sociology and 10% biology content, and tests your understanding of the Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior. The fourth section will test your critical analysis and reasoning skills via reading passages and answering questions, similar to the passages in the reading section of the SAT.
There is work underway to create free study materials for the MCAT 2015, which are being made available through the AAMC MedEdPortal and a full-length practice test has been released. We will continue to provide updates on our MCAT page, and the AAMC is the best place for the most up to date information.
MCAT Prep Courses
Question: I'm a sophomore, and at the end of this semester I will have finished all the necessary courses for the MCAT. So I'm planning to take the test this summer rather than waiting until sometime during my junior year. My question is about MCAT preparatory courses, and whether or not they are necessary. Is a course extremely helpful? Is it really necessary in order for me to score well?
Answer: First of all, it is wise to reflect on your experience with the last big standardized test you took, the SAT. Did you take an SAT prep course? If so, was it helpful? Are your SAT scores excellent, and did you study by yourself? We find that only very disciplined students who are naturally gifted test takers can achieve their maximum performance on the MCAT without some form of organized preparation. The prep courses are very expensive, and sometimes paying that much money has a powerful focusing effect on one's studying. Prep courses also structure your practice tests, requiring you to take a certain number, and practicing the MCAT multiple times under timed conditions is the best way to prepare. Lastly, prep courses are communal, and some students find that they like attending a class with others who are going through the same ordeal. If you are a procrastinator or worry that you will not carve out enough time to study and practice on your own, you probably should take a course. Whatever you decide, study hard, beginning your preparation roughly 2-3 months before the test date (depending on how much time you have to devote in those months) and taking at least a half a dozen practice MCATs, and do not take the test as a "trial run" or before you're ready. ♦
Question: Hi, I’m in the process of trying to figure out which MCAT course to take next spring. I have to choose between Kaplan and Princeton Review and I was wondering if you have any advice on which on to choose. Are there any basic differences between the two, and/or is there one that more people prefer? Thanks for your help!
Answer: It matters not. The products that Kaplan and Princeton Review sell do vary slightly—last we checked, Princeton Review offered more class time—but in essence the two companies provide you with the same chance to review materials and practice enduring a long standardized test. Consider where you will be during the three months of studying prior to the test and make sure that the company you go with has a local test center and resource library that you can get to easily; you're really paying for access to practice tests and scoring, as much as, or more than, the class-time instruction. The real benefit of doing a prep course for the MCAT, after all, is the structure with which you're forced to take full-length, timed practice tests. The four or five practice tests suggested by P.R. and Kaplan are a minimum—we recommend you do at least half a dozen...so that's a couple on your own beyond what you do as part of your prep course. If you’re doing the prep course during the semester when you’re on campus, the P.R. office is on Nassau St, the Kaplan center in Palmer Square (both quite close). However, if you’re looking to do the prep course back home or in another city, think about the distance to the test center (no one enjoys driving an hour each way to sit in a prep course class!). ♦
Question: Hi HPA: I’m starting to think about taking the MCAT this summer. I’m shopping around for study options – what else is out there to study for it beyond Kaplan and Princeton Review?
Answer: We at HPA don’t recommend one prep method over another – it’s best to do some research on the various options and decide what’s best for you. Anecdotally, about half of our applicants take a prep class and the other half do self-study – the key seems to be lots of practice exams (preferably the AAMC versions) to gain familiarity with the computer-based format, with time spent analyzing what you got right and wrong, then adjusting your study based on your performance on the practice exams.
That said, in addition to Princeton Review and Kaplan, here are some links to other test prep services that other students have recommended: The AAMC offers a MCAT Self-Assessment package designed to gauge your strengths and weaknesses in terms of content knowledge, cognitive skills and confidence. Dr. Flowers MCAT is a customized online class that has a number of pricing options and plans (they offer a free 3 day trial to test the product). Examkrackers has classroom options, fairly inexpensive prep books, and a “home study” outline for those who want guidance to use the books without taking a class. The Berkeley Review also offers home study materials. ♦
MCAT Score Release
Question: I am currently registering for the MCAT, and I was wondering whether or not it is a good idea to release scores to schools and other institutions that request them.
Answer: Absolutely release them. Please release them to the HPA office when you’re registering for the test, as well as other organizations/schools that the AAMC represents. We have not heard of people being inundated with unwanted mail. ♦
MCAT Testing Locations
Question: I’m a junior staying on campus this summer to work in the lab, and I’ll be preparing to take my MCAT as you’ve suggested, no later than the end of July, since I’m applying this cycle. (I have done my pre-application interview, my letters of recommendation are coming in, and I will submit AMCAS before I take the exam). I know there are multiple tests in July, but I’m not sure where to go. Can you tell me where the closest MCAT test sites are from campus? And, if I do decide to go home, how would I find out where I could take them in my home state?
Answer: We’re glad you asked, since many students wonder about where to take the MCAT. (And we are glad you are on track with the application process!). According to the AAMC, you should not wait until the last minute to register for the MCAT: “For the best chance at reserving your preferred test date and location, we recommend that you register 60 days or more in advance of the exam day.” As for where you can take the test if you are in Princeton, there are several locations that are all about an hour (give or take a few minutes) away: Hamilton/Deptford, West Orange, Clark, Toms River, and Fair Lawn, but the test is not given in all locations on each testing day. You must first get yourself an AAMC user account at AAMC.org MCAT Registration. Then, you may login to register for the MCAT at https://services.aamc.org/20/mcat/. When you enter your preferred date and state, you will see your options for test sites. You can click on any of these options to find out the directions and driving times, as well as any public transportation available. Register for the test site that is most convenient for you, and make sure you know where you are going before test day rolls around. Good luck! ♦
Question: Dear HPA, I’m wondering when I should take the MCAT. When is the best time to take it? When is too late? Is it possible to take it too early? Thanks!
Answer: There are many MCAT-related scenarios discussed in the archived Questions of the Week on our website, so make sure you read through those. Generally speaking, it’s best to take the MCAT as close to the time you completed the required coursework as possible. Waiting for a year or more, between the time you finished your last science (biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics) and the MCAT test date, isn’t recommended, simply because your knowledge of these subjects may fade. When is too late? Anything later than July of the summer when you’re applying to medical school. We suggest taking the MCAT no later than April or May of that year since then you will know your MCAT percentiles when you submit the application in June. However, please do not take it any later than July or you will hold up your application at the secondary stage. When is too early? Good question! Likely reasons it’s too early are, a) you haven’t had the required courses, b) you haven’t adequately prepared, including 6-8 full-length practice tests, or c) your score will expire before you pursue all of the things you’d like to do between college and medical school. As for that last reason, it’s important to remember that MCAT scores are good for 3 years at most medical schools, meaning that an MCAT from 2015 would be good for anyone matriculating in 2018, or earlier. ♦
Question: Should I take the MCAT in the spring of my junior year or can I wait until the summer after? I will have Physics in my junior year, so I don't know how that will affect my performance in March or April, but I understand that there are certain advantages to taking the test as early as possible and knowing your scores sooner. I want to apply to med school during the summer after junior year so I can go straight out of college. And if my score isn’t good, can I re-take it?
Answer: You will be far enough along in Physics to do well on that portion of the test if you take the test in the spring, especially if you take a commercial MCAT prep class and study as you should, an hour or so per day for 3-4 months before the test with at least half-a-dozen practice tests. The main advantage to taking the test in the spring is that you will have your score when completing your AMCAS application in June. Generally speaking, in order to avoid having a late application, we advise you to take the test no later than the end of July during the summer you apply; however, the one disadvantage of taking the test any later than May is that you would be completing your AMCAS in June without knowing your MCAT score. Without an MCAT score, you would complete the AMCAS in June along with other applicants. When your MCAT score came back later in the summer, if it was surprisingly good or surprisingly poor, then you would log back into your online AMCAS application and add schools if need be (if you think your overall qualifications have changed). But to repeat: if you took the test in the spring, you wouldn’t need to worry about this because you would be completing your AMCAS knowing what your MCAT score is. As for re-taking the test, you should strive to take the MCAT once. By and large, medical schools do not like you to take the test more than once, and some schools average together multiple scores (other schools do not average them, but they will see all scores from all administrations). ♦
Question: I was supposed to spend the break doing a lot of MCAT studying, but I was too busy with JPs, and now I feel like I won’t be ready for a test in April or May. What will happen if I take it in June? Would it be too late to apply this year?
Answer: If you take the test in June, you won’t receive your scores until July. If you wait until you know your scores to apply, your application will be processed late and will arrive at schools late, you’ll be working on secondary applications late, and we will write committee letters in the order in which students’ files are complete at their schools; all of these will put you at a disadvantage, in terms of timing. The earlier your application is complete, the sooner the admissions committee is evaluating your application, and the more room they have in the interview calendar to offer you a interview. The later you apply, the more discerning an AdCom might be in who they are inviting to interview.
One strategy you might consider if you take the MCAT in June is to still send in your AMCAS application in early June, applying to a smaller cohort of schools (e.g., your state schools, a couple of your favorites). Then, once you know your scores, you can add more schools based on your scores and how your “numbers” profile stacks up at different schools. This way, your application is being processed while you wait for your scores, and you will remain on track with the “apply as early as possible” timeline. Adding more schools to your application after you have submitted it does not affect the time that it takes AMCAS to process your application.
That said, you’re only a junior, and perhaps this is a first sign that you are not ready to take on the entire application process right now. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with your pre-application materials and the thought of taking MCAT and doing secondaries this summer, consider just focusing on MCAT for the summer, and applying next year. Reread “Ten Good Reasons to Consider a Glide Year” in your Applicant Handbook, and think it over! There’s no rush—you want to apply the best way that you can the first time that you do it. ♦
Multiple MCAT Scores
Question: Just got my new MCAT scores and wanted to update you. Total score of **! I'm pretty excited since I went up 5 points from the first time I took it. Hopefully this will help with my application. I've completed all my secondaries, but I think a lot of schools were waiting for these scores. I had one question though, how much weight will schools give my first set of scores? Do some schools average the scores? Or will they just look at the highest one?
Answer: Good for you! Raising your score 5 points is an extraordinary achievement. Some schools will take the most recent scores only, a few will average the scores and others will take the highest score from each section; a majority of schools choose to take your most recent or highest scores. However, ALL scores are seen by admissions personnel. When one re-takes the test, showing improvement is expected. Congratulations! ♦
Potential Expiration of MCAT Scores
Question: I am a senior who just got offered a place in a two-year masters program. I’d love to accept the offer. The problem is, I took the MCAT during the summer after my sophomore year, and it would expire if I waited another year to apply to medical school. What do you suggest I do? Apply to medical school now, for matriculation in 2015, and risk not getting a deferral? Wait a year to apply to medical school and risk my MCAT expiring? Take the MCAT again?
Answer: Of the options you present, we would not recommend that you apply now, knowing full well that you cannot matriculate in 2015. Deferrals are generally reserved for people are accepted to a program, usually an internationally known one like the Peace Corps or Teach For America, AFTER they’ve initiated the application process—sometimes after they’re well into the process by the time they know that the Peace Corps is even a possibility. If you are enrolled in another graduate program while applying to medical school, and know that you will not complete the program by the fall of 2015, this fact will be exposed during the process, on secondary applications and in interviews, and many medical schools will not like it; their primary aim is to fill the entering class of 2015. Whether you have to retake the MCAT or not will depend on the kindness of medical schools, given your situation (one you couldn’t have foreseen back as a rising junior when you took your MCAT early). Come up with a list of schools and ask them, via phone or email, if they would require a retake of the MCAT should you not matriculate until 2016. Exceptions are made with some regularity re: the ‘shelf life’ of MCATs, and while most schools say they accept scores only three years old, they will waive this rule in certain circumstances. That said, you should be prepared for a few schools to be strict, and if they’re schools you want to attend—and you want to do the masters program—then you may need to take the test again. ♦
Psychology Classes for the MCAT
Question: I was planning my schedule for next semester and would like to take psychology for the new MCAT. I was wondering which psychology class you would recommend among PSY 101, PSY 207 (abnormal psych), and PSY 252 (social psych).
Answer: PSY 101 is going to cover more of the topics on the MCAT than the other two, but it is also a larger time commitment, since it has the lab component. Topics in both abnormal and social (as well as NEU 258, SOC 101 and others) will be covered on the MCAT, and each of those will provide you with some context in which to study the rest of the psyc content on your own, so either one would be fine. For more detail about the topics covered on the MCAT, look at the content outline in the preview guide available online. For those students who don't have room in their schedules for a psyc course, many test prep companies will be creating materials that students can use for self-study or in prep classes, and free materials are being created by the AAMC. As soon as a practice test is released, we will send you more information about our recommendations based on this new information.
Registering for the MCAT
Question: Dear HPA, What can you tell me about registering for the MCAT? I know the next test dates are in January. I've been to the website but it's kind of confusing. When do I register? I don't want to take it in January but I'm thinking next June maybe. How early do I have to sign up? Have you heard of any problems with registration? Any advice?
Answer: Excellent question. If you focus your perusal of the MCAT website on "MCAT Essentials" (upper right corner, under "Required Reading"), all will become clear. It might be a good idea to print out the "MCAT Essentials" document and read it in total.
For all MCAT-related information, including a link to online registration dates, go to http://www.aamc.org/students/mcat/start.htm (if this link doesn't work, paste address directly into your browser). The most important thing to know is: Register early, ideally on the first date possible for your intended test date.
Some additional things to remember:
- You will be traveling to a site other than Princeton University to take the computerized MCAT. Thomson Prometric is the company partnering with the AAMC to offer the MCAT on the computer, so you will go to a Prometric site to take the test. The closest sites to Princeton will be Hamilton, NJ, Toms River, NJ, 3 locations in NYC, and another in Philly. The MCAT website includes a link to the complete list of test sites.
- You will be charged additional fees for changing your date or your test center location after you've registered, so think carefully about where and when before you complete your registration.
- Once you've initiated the online registration, you have 20 mins to complete it. If you're determined to get one particular site on one particular date, don't dawdle during those 20 mins.
- Lastly, MCAT questions should be directed to the staff at the AAMC directly responsible for the new computerized administrations: Call 202-828-0690 (press 1, then 2, then 0 for an AMCAS/MCAT representative). ♦
Repeat of the MCAT
Question: I received a disappointing MCAT score -- 4 points below my most recent practice test. I'm worried about taking the new test but I don't think I can be ready for the old test dates. What should I do?
Answer: Our advice will depend on what the actual score was, how it compared with your practice tests more generally, what you did to study, your overall candidacy and your medical school goals. It seems likely to us that any current student trying to retake will have to sacrifice something important to prepare for the test properly. Plus, there is no guarantee that your score will improve -- frequently, students who retake the exam score within a couple points up or down from the original score. For a couple of points, it is probably not worth the sacrifice of time, expense and stress caused by retaking. Please come by to see us to discuss your specific situation! ♦
'Shelf Life' of MCAT Scores
Question: When they say that MCAT scores are "good for three years," what does that mean? Does it mean you must apply to medical school within three years of taking them? Or does it mean you have to enroll in medical school within three years? In my case, I took them in April 2014, so three years would be April 2017. Does this mean I must enroll by Fall 2017, or does in mean I have to apply by Fall 2017? Thanks.
Answer: MCAT scores are good at most schools for three years prior to matriculation, so a 2014 score would still be valid for consideration as long as you matriculate no later than the fall of 2017. That would mean you need to apply by the summer of 2016 at the latest (applying starts in the spring/summer, not the fall). This policy holds true for most, but not all, schools. A minority of medical schools do consider MCAT scores "too old" after only two years, and some allow them to be five years old. But three years prior to matriculation is the standard. ♦
Taking Physics Just for MCAT Prep
Question: Hi, I entered Princeton with 2 units of AP Physics credit from high school. The only Physics I’ve taken in college has been Physical Chemistry to satisfy the pre-med requirement. For the MCAT, would reading over the preparatory book or taking a prep course be sufficient to do well on the Physics portion of the test, or should I really retake Physics?
Answer: You’d be surprised how often we get this question, or a similar one from someone with AP in Chemistry. No, you do not need to retake Physics to prepare for the MCAT. You have the knowledge of introductory physics, necessary to do well on the test, from your high school AP experience. Simply prepare well, reading the prep material carefully and taking as many full-length practice tests as humanly possible. If you were to take Physics at Princeton you would forfeit your AP credit, and there is no reason to do this if you study properly for the MCAT. ♦
Taking the MCAT for Practice
Question: I was wondering what you would think if I took the MCAT in January just to get a sense of what it involves. Then of course I'd do a prep course later, but I'd go into the real test later knowing more about it. I'm curious about what the test is like. I’m almost done with the pre-med coursework.
Answer: You should definitely take many full-length practice tests to get a sense of the MCAT, but you should not do it within the official test environment. All scores for the MCAT are released to medical schools, so never take it as a 'trial run'! A few medical schools average multiple scores, and even if they accepted your higher score, they would see the first one, and thus potentially question your judgment for taking it unprepared, or otherwise make assumptions based on your first low score. Additionally, it's expensive to take the MCAT, and there is a lot of psychology that goes into it -- having a low first score may put more psychological pressure on you going into a second administration, and negatively affect your performance. The MCAT is not like the SAT, which one is sometimes encouraged to take it multiple times. Your goal should be to prepare for the MCAT so thoroughly that only one administration will be necessary. MCAT practice tests are available in many ways: in MCAT prep books, through prep companies like Kaplan, Princeton Review, and Examkrackers, and best of all, from the MCAT section of the AAMC itself. It's a bear of a test. Take it once. ♦
When Taking a Year Off
Question: I am a premed Mol Bio junior hoping to take a year off before I go to medical school. It would be nice to spend a year not studying - of course, I would make sure that I was doing something "useful" like research. Now, can I take my MCATs this summer (before my senior year) and then apply to medical school during my year off? Or do I have to do everything before I graduate (take MCATs, apply) and then defer a year? I'm not sure what medical schools think about students who apply a year after they've completed their undergrad education. Also, what if I decide to take my MCATs during my year off? Is that possible? See, I am not quite sure if I really want to go to medical school yet, and it seems that most people by their junior year have already taken the MCATs at least once. Since I am uncertain, however, I would like to space everything out - studies at Princeton are hectic enough already without having to worry about taking the MCATs!
Answer: You can take the MCAT whenever you like, though ideally it would be taken by the April of the year in which you are applying. You only want to have to take it once! Most students who plan to take a year off would take MCAT in August or September between junior and senior years. You actually do most of what you need to do for us regarding the application process before you leave campus in the spring as either a junior or senior, so it doesn't matter which of those years you apply. The actual application process takes place in the summer before the year in which you'd like to matriculate. Thus, you would be applying in the summer of '15 to matriculate in '16 if you wanted a year off. The medical schools truly don't care when students apply, though students who are a little older tend to have more experiences and coursework to talk about in their applications and interviews. About 65-75% of Princeton students take at least one year off (in the '15 applicant pool, 77% took one or more "glide years"). ♦