When should you schedule your MCAT?
Every single MCAT is “equated” against a standard scale. This means that a score of “30” on one test is comparable to a “30” on another test, even if one test is slightly harder than another. You’re not being graded against the other people taking that particular MCAT, so there’s no need to worry about the MCAT having an “easier curve” during one time of the year or another. The idea that it’s better to take the MCAT later in the summer because it’s easier is nothing more than a myth.
So if all MCATs are essentially the same, which one should you take?
There are four major considerations to think about: Coursework, Prep, Deadlines, Retakes
First, your coursework. The MCAT covers material equivalent to a year of physics, a year of chemistry, a year of organic chemistry, and one to two years of biology. It’s generally not a good idea to take the MCAT until you’ve finished most or all of this work. Students will occasionally take the test during their second semester of organic chemistry or their second semester of physics. That’s usually okay, although if it’s possible to wait until you’re done, you probably should.
Next, your prep work. The most important factor to consider in deciding when to take the test is your schedule. When will you have a solid three to four months during which you can spend at least an hour or two (or more like three to five) every single day on MCAT prep? If you’re still in school, think of MCAT prep as a semester long class that’s worth 8-10 credits all by itself.
While it’s quite common to take the MCAT during the spring semester of junior year, if you’re already taking 18 credits and doing volunteer work, you should probably wait until the summer. On the other hand, if you have a demanding internship lined up for the summer, it might be a good idea to free up your schedule in the spring so that you can focus intensely on the MCAT.
By contrast, if you’re already out of school and are working, there may not be a time when you can dive into the MCAT full-time. In that case, you’ll need a longer window of time: 5-6 months rather than 3-4. And instead of working 3 or 4 hours a day on MCAT, you may only do an hour or so.
The final two considerations—Deadlines and Retakes—go hand in hand. You’ll want to make sure you’ve finished the MCAT well before the application deadlines, and chances are you’ll want to give yourself time to retake the test if necessary.
The vast majority of test takers (85%) only take the test one time, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. You may find that the prepping is harder than you expected, or life may throw a curveball your way. Better to plan on getting the test done early so that you have breathing room. If you schedule the test for the last possible minute, you’ll be creating lots of unnecessary stress.
So what’s the best choice? Usually the best way to balance these considerations is to aim to take the test during one of the May test dates. If you stick to your New Years Resolution to work hard on the MCAT, a May test date gives you a solid 4 or 5 months of prep. If things aren’t working out the way you planned, you can pay the reschedule fee and push your date back to late May or early June.
By taking the test on, say, April 27th or May 11th, you’ll have your scores back by early June. If everything has gone well, then you’re off to the races with your applications. If not (knock wood), you’ve still got plenty of time through June and July to do an intensive summer prep and retake the test in mid-August.
Having to retake the test in August or September can certainly hurt your admissions chances. By September the schools are well underway interviewing (or selecting for interviews) their first round of candidates. By the time you get your scores back at the end of September, schools have already started filling their classes. In a rolling admissions cycle, that means you’ll be competing for fewer slots later in the year. Nevertheless, there are still spots available so you’re not totally out of the game.
When should you not take the MCAT? The short answer is simple: before you’re ready. If you haven’t completed the prerequisite coursework, or haven’t prepared thoroughly, you won’t do well. The MCAT is a grueling and expensive process, so there’s no reason to do it “just to see how it goes”.
Finally, don’t put the MCAT off. Pushing the test back to the end of the summer for no good reason does you a real disservice. If you absolutely have to take the MCAT in September, then it’s nice to have that safety net there. But don’t plan from the start on waiting until the very last minute. It’s a risky approach.
If you have specific questions about your own individual scheduling concerns, set up a time for a free consultation with one of our MCAT tutors. We’d be happy to talk to you about your needs and suggest a way to tailor your study plans to your schedule.