Should You Retake The MCAT? An Honest Evaluation

You waited anxiously for a month to pass and get your score. But when you checked it, you got a score lower than what you wanted. 

This often sends students into a tailspin for at least a few weeks, if not months. 

And they usually don’t know where to go next. 

Questions pop up such as “is it bad to retake the exam,” and “should I retake the MCAT?” 

And ultimately, “Can I do any better, and what would I do differently this time?” 

Not to worry, we will cover all these questions and how to determine your next steps to get your dream score and to ultimately get into medical school. 

How Many Times Can You Retake The MCAT?

Point blank, you can take the MCAT three times in one “testing year” and seven times during your lifetime

*Note that voids and no-shows count to your lifetime total. Check our guide for more. 

There is also a two year limit: you can take it 4 times over 2 testing years. 

However most med schools do not punish retakers. On the contrary, I’ve heard from many students that schools said that they admired their resilience and improvement. 

With that being said, you still want to be smart with your retakes. 

It is common to retake. 

It is also common to not improve. 

Many students retake hoping (gambling) for the best – but this can make the admissions committee question your maturity and decision making:

If you retake and get the same score, show minimal improvement (less than 3-4 pts increase), or do worse you will create a big flag in their mind. 

You stand out, but in a bad way

But the students that retake the MCAT and improve significantly will stand out – in a good way. 

This gets us to the most important point, how do you know if you should retake the MCAT – and ultimately how can you be sure that you’ll get a better score? 

Should I Retake The MCAT?

There are some steps you need to take before making this major decision. 

In this section we’ll walk through the big picture things to consider, along with the little details to best determine if you should retake the MCAT or not.

Step 1: Have you taken a step back?  

Since you are reading this, you either got a score you are unhappy with or are worried that you botched it while you wait for your score. 

But it’s important to take a step back regardless. Students often rush to retake without being strategic. 

They panic. 

So take a step back. If you just got your score, wait 3-7 days and let yourself process the emotions. 

If you’re waiting on your score you can feel free to start planning, but make sure you go through these steps again after you have your actual results. 

And if you’re thinking about needing to retake the MCAT before you’ve even taken your test because you can see things going in a bad direction, please reach out for help BEFORE you take an unnecessary gamble. 

It’s important to determine if you’re ready or need more time so that you can avoid retaking in the first place! 

Once you’re in a better headspace, you can take in good advice, make better decisions, and put a plan in place to succeed! 

Step 2: Do you have a clear idea of your goals? 

Figuring out if you should retake the MCAT depends a lot on your goals. 

If you are focused on MD, the average MCAT score at the schools you’re applying for will be the big factor.

510 is safe, 515 is better. 

However, depending on your home state, some people can get away with lower. 

So first, look into your state schools, how many students they take locally, and then determine if you want to apply with your score. 

With that being said, for MD schools a good rule of thumb is to retake the MCAT if you scored below a 510, and only retake above a 510 if you absolutely need it (or if you know EXACTLY what to do to score even higher). 

A retake without improving looks very bad. It causes schools to question your maturity, and you never want this. 

Your GPA also matters. A higher GPA, allows you to feel more comfortable with a 510ish score. 

If you have a lower GPA, you may need an even higher MCAT to compensate (for MD schools especially).

Now if you are open to DO schools, you are more likely to be safe with a 505+ and maybe even a 500+ if the rest of your application is great and you have an in-state DO. 

In other words, do not retake a 510+ if you are open to DO! 

So now that you’ve determined your goal in terms of what score would give you some decent leeway for applications, let’s look at your actual approach to retaking the MCAT. 

Step 3: Have you taken Inventory – what went wrong and what are your habits? 

This step is crucial. We need to know exactly what happened and why your test didn’t go to plan. 

Did you not give yourself enough time, ignore your weaknesses, or not know how to attack the test in the first place? 

I would suggest looking at my how to study for the MCAT article and my list of the best MCAT practice tests. Read these to see if you fell into any of the common MCAT traps (for example: focusing on content and not enough on the critical reasoning aspects of the test).

Then, determine if you took these necessary steps for success. 

If it turns out that you didn’t, there’s a strong chance that retaking the MCAT can improve your score if you simply do these things better the next time around. 

Additionally, this process allows you to judge what habits you have. This is very important, because we tend to repeat our habits. 

The best way to prevent a low score from happening again and again is to be aware of your habits so that you can change them. 

Some common bad habits are: 

  • Rushing
  • Being stressed by the timer
  • Focusing on content because you are afraid to get questions wrong
  • Not learning well from the practice tests and assuming you “got it” just because you read the explanation
  • Struggling with the math
  • Being filled with doubt
  • Getting overwhelmed and frustrated by the process
  • Feeling stuck both when studying and when doing questions

I mentioned earlier that statistics show most students don’t do better when they retake the MCAT, and the number one reason is because they don’t improve their habits. 

This causes them to repeat the same mistakes as the last time they took the test, and it even prevents them from surpassing the hurdles that keep them stuck. 

A proper inventory of what went wrong and what habits made you underperform is vital. It’s entirely possible to assess this for yourself if you are diligent, but students often feel stressed and pessimistic which ends up coloring their analysis. 

If you struggle with this step, get someone to help you. Otherwise, you shouldn’t retake the MCAT since it’s unlikely that you’ll improve. 

However, students who do this well will improve if they simply implement what they learned! 

Step 4: Can you be honest with yourself? 

This builds on what I said in the last couple paragraphs: a majority of your success when it comes to retaking the MCAT will come down to how honest you can be with yourself. 

But remember that being honest isn’t the same thing as being overly critical or harsh. 

Often people lean toward being negative because they think that means they’re being more honest. In reality, that makes us more subjective and it snowballs into more negativity.

On the other hand, people can blind themselves by trying not to focus on the bad. This also limits them, because they cannot look at their mistakes. 

Honest is honest. It is objective.

So ask yourself: are you willing to be honest with yourself? 

It’ll make all the difference in how easy and effective retaking the MCAT becomes. 

If you can’t be honest with yourself, can you trust someone else to be honest with you and take that in? If so, do it! If not, you’re unlikely to score better.  

Step 5: Do you think you can realistically improve? 

Now that you have done steps 1-4, this step is easy. 

By now you’re hopefully in a more calm headspace, looked at what went wrong, and checked that you’re approaching this honestly and objectively. 

If this is true, then you can clearly tell if it’s realistic to improve. And the good news is that when students do this, improvement is almost always possible.

I suggest aiming for a 10 point improvement on practice tests.

Here’s why:

Anything less than a 3-4 point improvement can actually look bad, so I suggest retakers establish a bigger buffer for things to go wrong on test day.

Step 6: Are you giving yourself enough time?

So now you know there are areas to improve and want to go for it. Great!

But know that the most common way students sabotage themselves at this point is by rushing their next test date. 

Students that retake the MCAT are notorious for this. 

They often think that because they took it before that they can do the studying process faster. Or, they fall into the trap of trying to “catch up” since they are “behind.”

DO NOT DO THIS. Even if you need to apply in the next application cycle. 

You will likely not get in with a poor MCAT score, which will leave you rushing and retaking year after year. You may even know someone who has fallen into this trap. 

Be effective. Don’t focus on being efficient. 

When you are effective, you naturally get more efficient. Do it right, take the time you need, and be done with it! 

Step 7: Are you able to stay self-motivated and in a growth mindset? 

Notice that many of these steps will require good self-assessment, so keep staying honest with yourself.

Did you struggle last time with staying motivated? Did you struggle with staying in a growth mindset?

Research has shown there is a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. 

Briefly, a fixed mindset is when a student encounters a problem and they believe that they can’t do it because they think intelligence is fixed. 

If they struggle, they get rapidly discouraged. 

They start comparing (inaccurately and biasedly) against themselves, and it becomes debilitating. 

A growth mindset on the other hand means that a student sees opportunities for growth. 

They know a poor score, a wrong problem, or a bad day are all just temporary. 

They look forward to the challenge of improvement and know it’s just a matter of when, not if. 

They believe innately that if they keep working, they will find a way to get better. 

I believe that a huge reason students struggle to stay motivated is because they fall into a fixed mindset.

Think about it, it sucks to be discouraged. If all you do is focus on what’s going wrong, why would you feel motivated to keep going? 

You have to learn to change this, because it’s rare to see someone who gets stuck in a fixed place improve. 

Luckily, you can often start developing this growth mindset. But you’re struggling to make progress with this, you absolutely need to find support systems and tutoring. 

The amazing thing is when students use the MCAT to improve in these mental aspects, they have a MUCH better time in medical school. 

Once the habits are down, they are yours for life! 

Additionally self motivation involves good assessments. If you set yourself up to fail with a poor plan, you’re naturally going to struggle to stay motivated. 

Step 8: Can you make an effective game plan? 

This leads right into my next point.

Can you make an effective gameplan? 

So much of your ability to succeed will be coming up with the right plan for you, and the right plan does not mean the perfect plan.

It means adjusting to your needs and the different things life throws at you. It means learning from your past experiences and setting yourself up for the future ones. 

This is often one of the hardest things for students who are retaking the MCAT. They’re not an MCAT expert after all, so the correct approach will always seem slightly unclear.

So why are some people able to get away with self-studying? 

Well from my own experience, I always had an idea of how to best study for tests like this (and I loved this style of testing).

So my intuition guided me in what to do. It was like a positive snowball. The more I studied, the more I knew what was working and how to attack it.

Most students who didn’t do well don’t necessarily have this intuition yet (or else they would have done well). It’s less about their intelligence and more so knowing how to attack the test and get out of their own way. 

If you feel at all uncomfortable with this step, I strongly suggest you reach out for a few sessions. A good tutor can break down what you need to do next and touch in to make sure it is going smoothly. 

I do talk in my other articles about how to get a good plan together, so if you want to self study I’d recommend starting there. 

But don’t avoid getting help because of the financial investment. This is where it’s smart to think strategically. If a few sessions will put you on the right course, in the long run that will save you a lot financially! 

So if you’re not sure if you should retake the MCAT, it’s important to ask yourself if you have a clear game plan that accounts for all the factors we’ve discussed so far.

And does this plan give you confidence to the point where you can get out of your head and just study? 

If so, you are on the right track.

If not, you need to wait to retake your MCAT until you get a good gameplan in place. It will save you a lot of effort and heartache. 

Step 9: Are you willing to get help if needed? 

If any of the questions and steps we have been discussing seem difficult, you need to reach out for help.

And that’s nothing to feel bad about! Most retaking students will need some guidance. The problem is when students ignore the clear signs that they could benefit from some help.

Now don’t get me wrong, I know the financial strain of this whole process first-hand. But a lot of students also avoid getting help due to anxiety or pride.

And this sabotages their ability to get the score they want. 

This is especially common for students with a strong record of academic success otherwise, a good work ethic, and peers or mentors who they trust to offer advice. 

Our friends and parents mean well, but ultimately they don’t have enough time or energy to really get into the weeds of your personal experience and develop a plan. 

A retaking student needs individualized, nuanced, and focused help. But most advice is generalized and passive (like “you should just take more tests.”) 

The problem is, they mean well, but these generalized statements often create stress rather than help. The student then tries to follow this rule, but it may not actually be relevant or apply to them. 

For instance, you can take a bunch of tests, but if you don’t know how to learn from them or apply that learning to time-pressure, then it’s not a complete solution.

Ultimately, if you’re in a spot where you genuinely need help but are not willing to get it, you’re simply making it harder for yourself. 

To the point that you may need to hold off on retaking the MCAT and go back to Step 2 to better evaluate your goals. 

There are absolutely ways to work with any situation except when someone is stuck in their pride. This is because if they aren’t willing to get past their pride, they’re unlikely to change other habits. 

If you know you will be stressed financially, the best solution is to do less tutoring and spread your studying out longer to give yourself more time to practice. 

You would use the tutoring to make a good plan and check in as much as you can to see how well you’re improving and get directions on what to do next. 

Think of it as getting golf or tennis lessons. 

You get a lesson once in a while, and then it’s on you to put what you learn into practice before coming back for the next round of improvements. 

You’ll be surprised how effective this can be if you continue being honest and patient with yourself! 

Step 10: Put the pieces together 

So now that we’ve worked through the necessary questions to determine if you should retake the MCAT or not, it’s just about putting the pieces together.

  1. Are you in a good headspace?
  2. Do you have clarity with your goals?
  3. Do you know what you need to work on to improve this time around? 
  4. Can you be objective and do good self-analysis?
  5. Are you able to improve based on the analysis?
  6. Are you setting yourself up for success in your timeline? 
  7. Can you embrace the growth mindset to stay self-motivated? 
  8. Have you come up with a good plan of attack? 
  9. Are you willing to get individualized help when needed? 

Once you have the answers to all of these, you should have a clear answer to if you should retake the MCAT! 

Step 11 – Adjust as needed to crush the MCAT!

The thing about studying for a test like this is it is not a linear process.

You will have ups and downs. Even if you answer the question perfectly as you go, you will come to new realizations that will require you to adjust. 

The test itself expects this of you. That is why it is critical reasoning. 

So your studying will require this as well. 

Do not get caught up in rigidity. Being adaptable is key. Remember, you want a growth mindset, not a fixed mindset! 

You can run through these questions at any time to reset yourself and to keep adjusting. 

Along with these questions and my two main articles (1,2) about MCAT studying that I have referenced before, you’ll have everything you need to make good MCAT adjustments. 

And of course I am in your corner to help you adjust as needed! 

Feel free to let me know if these questions helped you determine whether you should retake the MCAT or if you got stuck. I’m happy to dive in with you on a free strategy call.

Do Medical Schools See All MCAT Scores?

You have no choice in the matter. AMCAS (the application service for medical school) will automatically include all MCAT scores ever taken. 

However, schools won’t know if you voided or canceled a test. Additionally, you can let them know if you are taking an upcoming test. 

But once the score comes in, it will be automatically sent with your app. 

Is It Bad To Retake The MCAT?

It makes sense why a student may wonder if it’s bad to retake the MCAT. 

However, this question is almost always irrelevant – except when someone already has a good score (MD focused: greater than 510, especially 515+; DO focused 505+).

Why do I say that? 

Nothing will have a bigger impact on your application than MCAT. Not your ECs, not how early you apply, probably not even your GPA (because we all know this is school dependent). 

The MCAT is the most uniform measure and the easiest way for admissions committees (AdComs) to compare students. 

If you don’t have a score that you feel confident will get you accepted, then don’t worry if it is “bad” to retake or not.

It is WAY worse for your application to have an underperforming MCAT score than to have multiple retakes.

For example, I had a student who came to me as a retaker, we got her score up and she got 10+ interviews and into multiple top schools. 

Her retake had no discernable negative impact. If anything, we were able to spin her dedication, maturity, and growth and so her overall application became way stronger combined with improved MCAT score. 

She now attends one of the best schools in the country.

So don’t worry if it is bad to retake the MCAT or not. You need to put yourself in their shoes, and ultimately, someone who retakes and does well looks totally fine. 

BUT if you are trying to do too much, rush, and score poorly, over and over again, this raises a lot of questions not just about are you capable, but are you mature enough? This is what you really want to avoid. 

That’s why you should only retake the MCAT once you’re confident that you’ll get the score you know you need! 

Conclusion

No one looks forward to retaking the MCAT, but it’s actually a pretty common experience.

About 80% of test takers will benefit from retaking it, and about 80% of those students will need to retake to have a real chance of getting into med school. 

And the key to doing this well is to thoroughly and accurately assess what went wrong. 

Have a game plan to overcome those hurdles, process and navigate the MCAT scars that are left behind from the first time, and then crush your retake and show off your full potential! 

And remember, you want the best chance of success, reach out to an expert.

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