The best answer is: once. You want to take the PCAT exam only one time if possible.
You may hear a lot of pre-pharm students say they want to take it early, get a feel for the exam. This is a waste. You can get a feel for the exam through timed practice exams, like the ones we offer. You should not take the official exam until you are fully prepared. I’ll repeat that; you should not take the official PCAT until you are prepared for the exam. If you do wait, you’re much less likely to need a retake.
Why should you take the exam once?
There are many reasons why it is a good idea to sit for the PCAT just once and they vary by student. We’ll highlight the two most common below:
This is a relatively expensive exam; you can see a cost breakdown in our post here. That alone is motivation enough for many pre-pharm students to take the exam once. On top of the costs of the exam itself, you’ll likely need to purchase more prep. If you choose to take the exam before you’ve even begun to prep, then you will need to purchase all of your preparation books, practice tests, etc . If you took the exam and weren’t satisfied with your score, you’ll likely need additional prep. If what you did the first time didn’t work for you, then why would you continue on that path?
You should be aware that admissions committees will see each of your PCAT attempts. While they may only focus on your best score, there is no guarantee what they’ll be looking for. They could focus on your gains, or wonder why you did so poorly the first time. They may only look at your best overall score or your best section score from each attempt. They may take an average of all of your scores. You don’t know. So, if you don’t have to take the exam a second time, why would you?
What to avoid if you want to take the PCAT once?
The longer you wait to begin prep, the less time you have to prepare. You don’t want to reach test day and find that you’re not ready for the exam.
Underestimating the Exam
One of the easiest things to do is to underestimate the difficulty of this exam. You’ve been learning about the subjects covered as an undergrad; isn’t that enough? Unfortunately, no. You need to get to know the exam as well. Take practice exams. Study with PCAT prep books. Familiarize yourself with the exam just as much as the subjects being tested.
Overestimating your Abilities
You may get great grades in your pre-pharm courses. Maybe you did well on the first PCAT practice test you took. That’s great! But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t study for the exam. This goes hand-in-hand with the previous point. If you believe you already know enough to do well on this exam, then you’re likely underestimating the exam as well. Don’t make such a careless mistake. Studying for the exam can only improve your scores.
Not Preparing Properly
You may be an expert at self-study, or you may have trouble disciplining yourself. Either way, make sure that you’re preparing for the exam properly. If you have the discipline and focus for self-study, then by all means go that route. But, if you don’t, consider getting outside help. There are plenty of PCAT courses, both in-person and online, if you want to study for the exam as a whole. If you feel like you need more personalized attention or only want to focus on one or two sections, consider PCAT tutoring. Find the prep that works for you, your weaknesses, and your timeline.
When is it okay to take the exam more than once?
You may be allowed to take the exam 5 times, but that doesn’t mean you should. There are, however, situations that may call for you to retake the exam. Even if you don’t plan on retaking the exam, you should schedule your PCAT early enough that you can retake should you need to.
If you really feel that your score does not reflect your best performance, you may want to consider a retake. If you typically score in the 70th percentile on your practice tests and your scored in the 50th on your official exam, retake it. There are plenty of reasons that you may do poorly on your official test day. Maybe you were sick. Maybe there was some environmental factor or disruption in the testing center. Or, perhaps, you had a bought of test anxiety. It happens to the best of us and is nothing to be ashamed of. If you really feel that your scores don’t reflect your knowledge, then retake the exam.
You shouldn’t plan to retake the exam and you should certainly aim to take it once. But, if you need to retake it, then retake it. Just make sure you consider all your options before you make your decision. Will this PCAT score combined with your GPA still make you a competitive applicant at your choice schools? Is it really a bad score or do you just feel that you could have done better? Did you leave yourself enough time to retake and get your scores in before the deadline? Could I have prepped differently or more efficiently?
Plan to take the exam one time. But, don’t swallow a bad score if you know you could’ve done significantly better. There are many factors that could force a retake, but the best way to avoid it is making sure you’re prepared for the exam. Next Step offers a free full-length PCAT practice exam to get you started. Knowing where you’re starting from can help you build a study timeline that will get you to test day with confidence.