When Should I Take the MCAT? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

When should you take the MCAT?

For aspiring doctors, there are a lot of rigorous exams and academic expectations.

They will be taking care of the health of others, after all.

But no exam has as big an impact on their future as the Medical College Admissions Test, or MCAT.

The standardized test is required to apply to almost any medical school in North America and is accepted by many abroad as well.

It is designed to show an admissions committee how well prepared you are for the intense course of study that med school students are expected to complete.

When should I take the MCAT if I want to go to medical school?

Preparing for the MCAT is a lengthy process.

The first thing that you need to decide is when to take the exam.

  • Your study schedule and even the classes that you take may be impacted by your target exam date.
  • Take it too early and you won’t have the academic background to do well.
  • Wait too long and you will be competing against many other applicants at the end of admission season.

The Association of American Medical Colleges says that applicants should “take the exam when you feel most prepared,” which is going to look different for each individual.

But, there are certain times that are better than others to take the exam.

  • First, the exam is only offered January through September, with 2-6 test dates offered each month. If you have a conflict with a particular date, you will need to find another offering.
  • The test will not reschedule for you; you need to reschedule to accommodate the test.
  • Keep in mind that the deadline to register, change your information, and cancel (if needed) can be as much as a month in advance of the test date.

The MCAT is something that requires planning and should not be taken on a whim.

  • The ideal time to take the MCAT is the spring of your junior year of college, if you plan to attend medical school immediately following graduation.

If you plan to take some time off, the best plan is to decide when you want to start med school and backward plan your application timeline.

What month should I take the MCAT? 

The MCAT is only offered in January through September, remember?

The earlier you take the MCAT, the better. It allows more opportunities to retake the test if you decide that it is necessary.

  • It can take up to a month to receive your scores, so build in that additional time to determine if a retake may be needed.
  • Aim to take the MCAT by May of the academic year BEFORE you plan to apply.
  • This means that you will be taking the MCAT in May, getting your scores in June, and completing your applications during the following fall.

If you need to retake the MCAT, you will still have a few test opportunities before you need to get your application finalized (which is usually no later than December, but maybe earlier).

MCAT guidance for college students 

Balancing the MCAT and college coursework can be challenging.

  • The Association of American Medical Colleges says that most test takers studied “on average for three months for 20 hours per week.”

This will require discipline and intense studying to do your best. Current college students should give themselves time to retake the test, if needed.

The MCAT may be the first test of its kind that you are taking.

If you wait until the last minute to take the test, you may have a score that doesn’t display your best abilities or miss application deadlines entirely.

The good news for college students is that they are often in classes that can help them prepare.

Work with other pre-med students and your counselor to make the most of your MCAT studying. They can also help you create a study schedule and answer questions about registering for the test.

I took one year off after college. When should I take the MCAT?

If you are out of an academic setting, you may not be fully tuned in to the school year calendar.

  • For those who have taken a year off after college and are now applying for medical school, you should plan to take the MCAT by May of the calendar year before you want to start med school.

If you want to start in the fall of 2020, you should take the MCAT in the spring of 2019.

Here is a sample timeline for someone who has taken time off after college before applying to medical school.

  1. May 2018: Graduate from college. Congratulations!
  2. June 2018-May 2019: Worked odd jobs, traveled, studied, performed volunteer work.
  3. May 2019: Take the MCAT
  4. June 2019: Get MCAT scores
  5. July, August, September 2019: Retake the MCAT, if needed
  6. Fall 2019: Complete med school application
  7. August 2020: Start medical school. Congratulations!

What about taking the MCAT after two years off after college?

The same guidance applies to those who have taken even more time off after college—2 years, 3 years, or more.

  • You should take the MCAT in the spring of the calendar year before you plan to start medical school.

The challenge that these prospective med students face is that they don’t have the same academic resources on hand and may need additional time to relearn concepts that they have not seen in a few years.

If you have a day job, making time to study for the MCAT can also be difficult but is crucial for test success.

  • Study groups. Seek out a study group at a nearby University. It may require more work on your part to find, but the benefits will be well worth the effort.
  • Study aids. Incorporate flashcards, practice questions, and other study aids at every opportunity. Your morning commute or workout can be great times to get a little bit of studying in.
  • Practice tests. The more familiar you are with the test, the better. This is especially true for those who have been away from academia. Practice tests are available online and at your local bookstore.

Is it bad if I take the MCAT more than once?

You should take the MCAT as many times as needed to get a score that displays your abilities.

  • Many students take the exam more than once, which is why it is so important to allow yourself extra time to do so before the application deadline.

There are limits on the number of times you are allowed to take the test, however.

  • You are able to take the test 3 times in a test year (January through September) or 4 times over 2 test years.
  • Over your entire lifetime, you are allowed to take the test up to 7 times.

You should also know that your score is reported to medical schools every time you take the test.

  • Some schools will take all of your scores into account, while others only look at the highest one.

Applicants can lose sleep by worrying about how an admissions committee will view their MCAT scores. The best course of action is to prepare and do your best on every test.

  • If you need to take the test more than once, showing improvement on each attempt with a high final score is often enough to convince the admissions committee that you are a strong applicant.

The only way to avoid multiple scores in your application is to choose not to score your test.

  • This can be done on test day if you feel that you did very poorly.
  • Voiding your exam or missing the test still counts as an attempt towards your yearly and lifetime limits, so it should only be done if you really feel that your score will be very low.

How many times should I take the exam? 

Most students take the MCAT more than once, but there are a few factors that you should consider before registering for a second (or third or fourth) test.

  • Preparation. If you retake the test without doing any additional studying, your score is not likely to increase very much. Don’t waste your time and money retaking the test unless you think you will score higher.
  • Timing. Waiting too long to take the test may mean that your scores, even if they are higher, will not be included in your application. You may want to present the scores you have or wait until the following year to apply to med school.
  • Cost. The MCAT costs $315, with additional costs for late registration. Taking the MCAT more than once can be a sizable investment for a college student or recent graduate. If your score and application are strong, it may be money that is better spent elsewhere.

The bottom line is that you should take the test multiple times if you feel that you need a higher score to be competitive.

But each test attempt should show improvement, which only comes from additional preparation and work.

There is no substitute for good old-fashioned effort, often over many hours, to get the score you want.

Pros of taking the MCAT multiple times 

  • You are more likely to score higher.
  • Some med schools take the highest score in each individual section.
  • You may have less anxiety on test day the second time around.

Cons of taking the MCAT multiple times 

  • If you don’t show improvement or your score goes down, the admissions committee may wonder if you will be able to handle the academics of medical school.
  • There is a limit to the number of times you can take the test.
  • Each test requires a new registration fee. 

What pre-requisites do I need to take the exam?

The MCAT does not require a certain set of academic coursework or professional experience to register.

  • But, it is a skill test that focuses on the background knowledge students will need to be successful in medical school.

A pre-med program includes many of these courses, but even those in other majors or who are changing careers can prepare by taking the following classes:

  • Chemistry, including Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry, with labs
  • Biology with lab
  • Physics with lab
  • Psychology
  • Sociology

Many of these classes are prerequisites for admission to medical school, so prospective students will need to complete them for their application even though they are not required for the MCAT itself.

If you are able to continue on to more advanced courses in these areas, you will be even better prepared for the test and the eventual rigors of medical school.

A good study guide can help review concepts but nothing beats having the needed background coursework.

How many seats are there at each test location? 

The number of seats in each individual test location varies.

  • There are usually multiple test locations in each state. But in order to register for a test, there must be an open seat.
  • The MCAT is a computer-based test that is given in an independently run testing center.

Test takers will sign in to a computer terminal, separated from other test takers by partitions and monitored via video.

  • Most test centers have 20-30 seats available, but they can fill up months in advance of a test date.
  • This is especially true of spring test dates.

You can sign up to be notified should a seat become available, but it is not something that you should count on for taking the test.

  • Your best plan is to register early or be ready to drive to another location to take your test.

It is important to register early for your desired test date and location.

Once the seats are filled, you will need to find another date or location. Waiting until 1 or 2 weeks before test day may mean that you pay the late registration fee, as well.

How long do I need to study for the MCAT? 

Preparation is the most important part of the MCAT process.

You should plan on studying consistently for 3-6 months for the exam. Each individual test taker has his or her own weaknesses or areas to focus on during preparation.

Minimum study (for those who are in a rigorous pre-med academic program or perhaps a BS/MD program, like PLME or HPME):

  • 20 hours per week
  • 3 months of preparation
  • Review class notes, study materials, and coursework
  • Take multiple practice tests to become familiar with MCAT format

Moderate study (for those who have taken pre-med courses but need additional preparation):

  • 30 hours per week
  • 3-6 months of preparation
  • Work with a study group to help fill in gaps or reinforce concepts
  • Take multiple practice tests to gauge progress

Intense study (for those who have other commitments or have taken time away from academia):

  • 20-40 hours per week, depending on time availability
  • 6 months of preparation
  • Work with a study group to stay up-to-date on current test requirements and insight
  • Study with a paid test-prep company to really focus your studying
  • Take classes at nearby university, if possible

Start with a free practice test to see where you are relative to where you would like your score to be.

This can help you determine how much preparation you will need and which areas you should focus on in particular.

Advice From a Professor

From Mike Davis, assistant professor of biology and pre-med advisor at Sweet Briar College:

If students are planning to go to medical school right away, they should plan to take the MCAT the summer between their junior and senior year.

However, I recommend that students take at least a year between undergraduate school and medical school, usually so that they have enough time to take the required coursework. In that case, they should take it the summer after they graduate.

Conclusion: When Should I Take the MCAT?

The MCAT is an important step to becoming a med student and eventually a doctor.

But getting the score that you want doesn’t need to be an impossible feat.

Preparation, registering for the right test at the right time, and knowing where the MCAT fits into the medical school application season can make the entire process easier to understand and master.