Advice for Premeds

A blog about the medical school admissions process

Ideal Timing for Your MCAT Exam Date

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Ideal MCAT Exam Date

By Niki Cunningham, Senior Advising Dean, Columbia University in the City of New York

Let’s just start by saying that you will never feel 100% ready to take the MCAT. It’s a long, hard, and important test and “I feel ready” will recede into the future infinitely. However the good news is that with good advice and disciplined preparation you can sit for this exam and get the score you need to get to medical school.

So when should you take it? There are a number of things you should keep your eye on when choosing an MCAT exam date. Perhaps the first thing you should know is that the MCAT is not like the SAT which you could take and retake until you got the score you wanted. With the MCAT, you should plan to take it just once. It doesn’t mean you can’t retake it if you have to—it just means that shouldn’t be your plan.

Finish the Coursework Covered in the MCAT

Have you finished, or nearly finished, the coursework covered by the exam? As a rule it is not a good idea to take the exam before you have finished a year of inorganic chemistry, a year of biology, a year of physics, a year of organic chemistry, and ideally a semester of biochemistry and a semester of statistics. It is common for applicants to prepare for the MCAT while finishing organic chemistry or while taking biochemistry. But trying to sit for the exam before taking any organic chemistry is not advised!

Set a Study Schedule

When will you have 2-3 months to prepare for the exam? We recommend investing the same amount of time into studying for the MCAT that you would spend on a science course—so weekly attention over 2-3 months. MCAT preparation is a case where you have to find a balance and sometimes “less is more.” That is, spending an entire year preparing is probably too much time. Conversely don’t try to cram your preparation into one super intensive month. You could wind up without adequate preparation and test fatigue, which will not give you the results you need.

Take the MCAT at the Right Time

Decide when in the year to take the exam by evaluating your timeline for applying. The application cycle opens every year in the early summer. You don’t want to take the MCAT any later than June of your application summer (and ideally no later than the early June dates). The exam takes 30 days to score and if you try to take the exam later in the summer, it will push your application too late and place you at a significant disadvantage.

If you are applying to go straight through from undergraduate to medical school, you will be applying the summer between junior and senior year. Thus you will need to prepare for the MCAT on top of your junior spring semester so you will be ready to take the exam in early June. One of the advantages of taking gap time, that is waiting to apply until after you graduate and having a year or more between undergrad and med school, is that you can spend the summer between junior and senior year preparing for the MCAT and then take it at the end of the summer or early fall (thus avoiding having to prepare for it on top of an academic term).

The MCAT Expiration Date

Finally you need to be aware that the exam has a shelf life. Schools typically accept test scores less than three years old, but some schools only accept tests taken within two years of applying. This might seem like it wouldn’t present any problems but if you jump the gun and take it too early, you could end up with an expired exam and have to take it again. For example, I’ve had students on accelerated academic tracks take the exam after their sophomore year thinking they knew for sure that they wanted to go straight through and apply as juniors. Then an opportunity arose that they wanted to take advantage of before medical school and they ended up with a hard choice—forego the opportunity so their exam was still good or face a retest. It’s far better to take the exam when your test date gives you some wiggle room in your decision about when to apply.

Next week, we’ll share our tips on how to prepare for the MCAT.

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