MCAT Scoring Explained in 5 minutes
Life as a pre-medical student has always been difficult. In addition to taking difficult science classes, juggling extracurriculars, and maintaining work-life balance, aspiring doctors must sit through the longest standardized test ever created for any pre-professional discipline: the MCAT. With 230 questions and a total testing time of 6 hours and 15 minutes, this test is notorious for crushing the hopes and dreams of pre-med students. Here at Atlantis, we want to calm the anxiety of our pre-meds by shedding light on the test, starting specifically with explaining the way it is scored.
When the AAMC (the institution that writes and scores the MCAT) decided to update the MCAT in 2015 from a three-hour ordeal to a six-hour marathon, pre-meds were thrown into confusion and a fit of hair-pulling. Not only did they add in a few new subjects (Biochemistry, Psychology, and Sociology), but they also changed the entire scoring system for the MCAT. In order to help you determine your MCAT goals and interpret your score a month after test day, we have put together a short explanation of the scoring situation.
When you receive your MCAT test score, you will see four different elements describing your performance:
- percentile rank
- confidence band, and
- score profile
We will begin with the overall score.
The overall score is the most basic part of your score. Each of the four individual sections of the MCAT are worth 132 raw points, with 118 being the lowest possible section score. Therefore, as a whole, the entire exam is worth 528 points, with a range of 472 to 528. See Graphic 1, an AAMC resource that displays the range of MCAT raw scores for MCAT 2015:
The midpoint of each individual section on the MCAT is a 125. Therefore, with all the sections combined, the midpoint score of the entire exam is a 500. The average pre-med student (the 50th percentile) scores somewhere between a 498 and a 502 on the exam.
The percentile rank you receive in your report is not based solely on your raw scores (the number of questions you answer correctly) but rather on the performance of all the other students who have taken the exam. This means that your score reflects how well you did on the exam compared to all the other students who took it. According to the AAMC’s website, “percentile ranks show the percentages of test takers who received the same scores or lower scores on the exam than they did. They show how their scores compare to the scores of other examinees.”
For example, see Table 1 for a compilation of the percentile ranks for the 2016-2017 MCAT:
To give you an idea of how to read this, let’s say you scored a 509 on the MCAT during this period. That means you would have performed better than 82% of the test-takers. Not bad!
Each section of the MCAT is graded the same way individually. For example, see Table 2 for the spread of percentile ranks for the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems section of the MCAT for 2016-2017.
If you scored a 127 on this section of the MCAT, you would have performed better than 79% of the other students who took this section.
When you receive your MCAT score, there will be a column next to your raw scores that is labeled “Confidence Band.” (see Figure 1)
What does this mean? The confidence band portion of your score simply describes the range of the accuracy of your score. According to the AAMC website, “scores from the MCAT will not be perfectly precise. Confidence bands help signal the inaccuracy of test scores and are intended to discourage distinctions between applicants with similar scores.” For example, if you receive a score of 127 on your CARS section, with a confidence band of 126-128, this means that your score, after taking into account the flaws of the grading system, was actually somewhere between a 126 and a 128. This helps medical schools get a more accurate picture of how you scored when taking into account the inherent flaws of a standardized test. This system also encourages medical schools to consider students who scored within just a few points of each other similarly.
The final portion of your MCAT score is your score profile. The profile is given for each section and helps you understand which sections were your strengths and which were your weaknesses. See Figure 2 for an example of a score profile.
You can see from this hypothetical score profile that the student performed just below average in the first section, well below average in the second section, and above average in the last two sections. What’s the purpose of a score profile? Since you will never receive specific details on which questions on the MCAT you answered incorrectly, it’s helpful to see some sort of breakdown when you receive your score. This way, at least you have a general idea of which subjects you knocked out of the park and which sections could use some work. If you choose to take the MCAT again, you can use this score profile to help you know on which sections you should be focusing your efforts.
What do I need to score to get accepted to medical school?
The average score for a matriculant (a student who gets accepted and then goes to medical school) is a 508.7
According to the AAMC, the average score for an applicant to medical school is a 501.8, while the average score for a matriculant (someone who actually gets accepted and then goes to medical school) is a 508.7. The unspoken rule is that if you score higher than a 508, you will probably be accepted to one medical school.
However, that ignores the dozens of other important variables that affect your acceptance, such as involvement in extracurriculars and your cumulative GPA. Also, medical schools vary widely in what a competitive score looks like for their school. For example, the median MCAT score for a student accepted to Vanderbilt School of Medicine is a 520, while the median MCAT score for a student accepted to Texas A&M Medical School is a 510. The AAMC Medical School Admissions Requirements resource has all of these statistics and more for each medical school.
The best answer to the question above is: you should aim to score competitively for the school you hope to attend.
Wherever you are in the process, from a high school senior to a college junior, take the time now to understand how the MCAT is scored. That way, you can set realistic goals for yourself and how much time you should devote to the test. When score reveal day comes and you open up your score, you will know how to interpret it and which medical schools you should apply to.
Julia grew up in Northern Virginia and graduated with high distinction from the University of Virginia with Bachelors degrees in biology and music. She plans to attend medical school in 2019. She has traveled abroad to eight countries in Europe, including France, Germany, and the Czech Republic. As a member of the Atlantis team, Julia enjoys helping other pre-med students discover a love for medicine and grow in their understanding of the field.
or check out more of our stories and resources for pre-meds below: