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GPA & MCAT

The GPA

Obviously, the higher your GPA the better. Generally, anything above a 3.5 GPA is considered very good and very competitive. Jumping from a 3.0 GPA to a 3.5 GPA will make a huge difference in someone's application, whereas jumping from a 3.5 GPA to a 4.0 will not be quite as dramatic (although it is obviously an advantage to have a 4.0 versus a 3.5 GPA).

The GPA really reflects how seriously an applicant has taken his or her undergraduate studies. A high GPA is a reflection of strong study habits and work ethics and medical schools take a look at an applicant's GPA for that very reason - to evaluate if the applicant is likely to work hard in medical school. The GPA has been found to be a very good predictor of success and the likelihood that someone will drop out of school or keep going.

It is also worth pointing out that a high GPA can compensate somewhat for a lower MCAT score. The GPA usually does carry a lot of weight in the admission decision. If both MCAT and GPA are lower, admission to medical school becomes much harder. However, having said that, there is more to the overall application than the MCAT and GPA alone. An otherwise stellar application can also overcome a lower GPA and MCAT score - to a point.

Generally speaking, the 3.0 GPA is a cutoff for most medical schools. However, some applicants are accepted every year who have a lower GPA, so this value is by no means absolute. Again, it all depends on the strength of the overall application…and the MCAT score.

For example, for the 2005 school year, 155 applicants were accepted to allopathic medical schools (out of 17,978 total accepted that year) with a GPA that was lower than a 2.75. So, it is possible to gain admission with a low GPA, but you can see from these numbers that this is very rare. Also, these individuals most likely had stellar applications otherwise (or a very rich uncle whose name you can find on the seven-digit donation plaques in the hallway of the medical school).

For most of the allopathic (MD) medical schools, an average GPA of 3.0 is the minimum they will consider for extending interview invitations, regardless of what the rest of your application looks like, but there are a few exceptions.

At the end of this section are some numbers to give you an idea of average MCAT and GPA for both MD and DO schools for a few years. But first, let's look at the MCAT in more detail.

The dreaded MCAT

The MCAT (or Medical College Admission Test) is one of the most dreaded parts of medical school preparation and is required by all U.S. medical schools, including all allopathic (MD) and osteopathic (DO) schools. Note that U.S. Podiatry schools and most Caribbean and international medical schools do not require the MCAT.

As of 2007, the test is administered 22 times per year in a computerized format from January until September. Before 2007, it was only given twice a year as a paper test - once in April and once in August. With the change in 2007, the MCAT has also been changed in length. The time has been nearly cut in half to 4.5 hours and the test has 30% fever questions, which were removed equally from all sections.

If at all possible, you should try to take the MCAT early so you receive your scores back by the time you submit your medical school application (AMCAS for allopathic schools and AACOMAS for DO schools). Before 2007, it took 60 days to grade the MCAT and release your scores, so taking the April MCAT around April 15th gave you the best possible timing for submitting your applications early (around June 15th). The earliest date applications can be submitted is June 1st, but you needed to wait for your MCAT scores to submit your application. So, in reality, your earliest day for submitting your application before 2007 was around June 15th. With the 2007 changes, scores are now returned within 30 days (and supposedly the eventual goal is a 14-day turn-around at some point). To submit your applications on the earliest day possible, you should therefore plan on submitting your applications June 1st and take the MCAT no later than 30 days prior to this date (May 1st). Submitting your applications early gives you a huge advantage in the admissions game.

The MCAT is still pretty much an all-day event and takes 5 hours and 30 minutes to complete, including breaks. All sections, except the writing sample, which is essay, are multiple choice. Students are typically given a section of text to read and then asked questions about the section. There are also some general knowledge questions that are part of the exam, but they are far less frequent than the passage-related questions.

Overall, there is not much time to read the passages and answer questions, so you have to work at a pretty fast pace, as you can see in the following table. Considering the fact that you have to first read a passage before answering questions you may actually have less than one minute to answer each question. The questions are not easy and often require some intense thinking, reasoning, and interpretation.

These are the sections on the MCAT:

Section Questions Time (minutes)
Optional Tutorial
5
1. Physical Sciences (Physics & General Chemistry)
52 70
Optional Break
10
2. Verbal Reasoning
40 60
Optional Break
10
3. Writing Sample (2 essays)
2 60
Optional Break
10
4. Biological Sciences (Biology & Organic Chemistry)
52 70
Survey
5

On test day, make sure you have had a good night's rest the night before, a good breakfast so you don't get hungry, be at the testing center early, and take a sweater with you in case the room is colder than expected. You'll be expected to bring photo ID, your admission ticket with a photo attached. So make sure you don't forget those, either.

It is also very important during the test to pace yourself, so bring a watch. That is one reason why you should take plenty of practice exams - to get used to timing and pacing yourself, so you know how much time you can spend on each question.

You may want to skip questions or passages that are too hard or complicated and then return and finish them later. Many expert test takers also recommend reading the questions first, then reading the passage, so you can already look for answers specifically as you read the passage the first time. However, make sure that you don't leave any questions unanswered because you are not penalized for guessing wrong.

The MCAT Score

Each of the three multiple choice sections is worth 15 points for a total of 45 points, but it's nearly impossible to achieve a perfect score. The average MCAT score each year is somewhere around a 24 (8 in each section).

A good (competitive at most MD schools) score is around 30 and a stellar score is somewhere above a 34 to 36 (competitive at the top medical schools in the country). A score of 36 or better would put you in the top 2% of the country. The writing sample is scored with a letter system from J (lowest) to T (highest), but is much less important than the number score. You never hear anyone mention the letter score. All you ever hear people talk about is the number, although some people insist that they are also considered in the admissions process somehow.

Just to give you an extreme example that the MCAT is not the only measurement which is important: 60 applicants were admitted to allopathic medical schools in 2005 who had an MCAT score which was less than 17. Keep in mind that there are a few allopathic medical schools in Puerto Rico, for example, which have very low MCAT averages (20.1, 21.3 and 23). These schools could be responsible for many of these numbers.

Again, this sort of low score is a rare exception. For all intents and purposes an MCAT score below 25 will make it almost impossible for you to gain admission to allopathic (MD) medical schools. You will still be competitive for osteopathic medical schools, podiatry schools and Caribbean medical schools.

For most of the allopathic (MD) medical schools, an average MCAT score of 21 is the minimum they will consider for extending interview invitations, regardless of what the rest of your application looks like, but there are a few exceptions. For some of the more prestigious medical schools in the country, the minimum MCAT score is around 30 to 32 - below which you will not make it past any screening for interviews, regardless of how strong the rest of your application is.

The more applications a medical school receives every year, the more the school tends to eliminate applicants by MCAT scores and GPA alone when screening applicants. It's the easiest and most cost-effective way to limit the search for competitive applicants - and especially the more popular (and prestigious) medical schools use these criteria more heavily. These are typically the medical schools which receive the most applications.

Medical schools like to use the MCAT as a way of screening and comparing applicants since it is the most objective measurement. Your GPA varies with the difficulty of the courses you take and the type of college or university you attend for undergrad. The MCAT provides one way to compare everyone at the same level. It becomes even more important in validating your GPA, so if your GPA is significantly lower or higher than what your MCAT score indicates you know, it may raise some questions.

The MCAT score is a reflection of your ability to reason, think and interpret charts and data. It has less to do with your work ethic or your ability to memorize, which are two factors reflected more by your GPA (discussed previously).

MCAT Preparation

The MCAT test is intended to test material presented in General Biology, General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry and General Physics. For review, it is important to stress the most important concepts and information in each of these areas. It is, generally speaking, better to know the basic concepts very well than to know a lot of information superficially. Having said that, most of the questions on the MCAT are very difficult, and often it feels like they are testing concepts you have never heard of.

Some additional coursework can be helpful, but is not required. Although it is not necessary to memorize every formula in Physics, Chemistry and the other courses covered, you should know some of the "bread-and-butter" formulas of each subject, particularly in Physics. Don't focus on all the derivative formulas. Memorize some of the main ones - you'll need them.

They may ask a question like "If I throw a ball out of a window 25 m above the ground, at an initial velocity of 15 m/s, how long will it take until it hits the ground? How far does it travel vertically until it hits the ground?" So, you'll need to know your formulas to figure out these questions.

See what successful applicants did to prepare for the MCAT.

You will need to decide what type of person you are and what you will need for preparation.
Some students swear by commercially available review courses such as offered by Kaplan, Princeton Review, Columbia Review, Cambridge, Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. They are rather expensive, with a price tag up to $1,500, but many physicians and other successful applicants strongly suggest you take a review course, particularly the Kaplan course (Kaplan is considered the leader of the pack).

Review courses provide a classroom type setting with lecture format to review pertinent topics in all the MCAT pre-requisites. You still have to study the extensive review material that comes with the course like you would in any class.

So, you could say that you still have to put effort into the class like any other class you have taken before. Just attending the prep course may not help you out much, although they do cover a lot of test taking strategies which are helpful for test taking in general and not depending on how much material you learned. Also note that these courses work only for review. If you have not had Physics or Organic Chemistry before, don't think you could just learn the material in the prep course. These are review courses.

They also offer practice tests throughout the course and provide hints and tricks, do all kinds of analysis of what was on previous tests, etc. and help you with time management techniques and other topics.
This type of review may be very well worth it if you are the type of person who is a procrastinator or needs a structured program that is already set up and scheduled.

For those who are able and willing to work through self-study, there are many good review books, including a Kaplan Comprehensive MCAT review book for about $50. They contain the same basic material used in the course, but you are on your own. So, you have to set aside a certain number of hours per week for a few months to review and work through the materials on your own. Expect to prepare for 3 to 4 months prior to the test.

I would highly recommend purchasing the "real" paper or web practice MCATs online (preferably the web versions since the MCAT is now computerized). They are the real deal, from the makers of the MCAT and not some version made up by Kaplan, Princeton Review or other test prep companies. They are well worth the money and you can take them under real testing conditions (set aside a few Saturdays at your library in a quiet corner, or at home - undisturbed). You get the actual test booklets and multiple choice answer sheets, or access to the online equivalent, and you can grade yourself at the end to see how you did. You can purchase these paper practice tests here.

Since the MCAT is now in the computerized format, get access to these real tests online to take them under similar circumstances as you will with the real exam.

The MCAT is really a "thinking test". You will need to know the sciences to do well, but many of the questions do not directly test knowledge. They may ask you to interpret some data or extract some answers from a passage. It has been said that you cannot really "cram" for the MCAT.

You can find more information about the MCAT on the Official MCAT Site.

Average GPA & MCAT scores

Note that the two following tables give average GPA and MCAT scores for both allopathic (MD) and osteopathic (DO) schools for a few years.
(To check average MCAT and GPA for specific schools check the med school stats page.)

Data for allopathic (MD) schools
Entering Year Overall GPA MCAT (Verbal) MCAT (Phys) MCAT (Bio) MCAT (Essay) MCAT Total
2004 3.62 9.7 9.9 10.3 P 29.9 P
2003 3.62 9.5 9.9 10.2 P 29.6 P
2002 3.61 9.5 10.0 10.2 P 29.7 P
2001 3.60 9.5 10.0 10.1 P 29.6 P
2000 3.60 9.5 10.0 10.2 P 29.7 P


Data for osteopathic (DO) schools
Entering Year Science GPA MCAT (Verbal) MCAT (Phys) MCAT (Bio) MCAT (Essay) MCAT Total
2003 3.45 8.07 7.99 8.51   24.57
2002 3.44 8.06 7.97 8.50   24.53
2001 3.43 8.10 8.08 8.54   24.72
2000 3.43 8.11 8.18 8.69   24.98
1999 3.43 8.22 8.29 8.77   25.28


Note that it is easier to get into osteopathic (DO) schools than allopathic schools (MD) by roughly 5 points on the MCAT and something like 0.15 points on the GPA.

Regarding GPA calculation, MD schools count every course grade earned even if you have retaken a course. If you earned a "C" in Ochem the first time, retook the course and earned an "A" later, they will count both grades for calculating your GPA. DO schools only count the retake grade ("A" in this example) and not the lower grade you earned the first time ("C" in this example).

Generally speaking, the average MCAT score for MD schools is around 30 and GPA lies around 3.6.
For DO schools, the average MCAT score is around 25 and GPA around 3.4.
Especially if your MCAT score and GPA are below these values, your extra-curricular activities weigh heavier in the admissions decision and can make the difference between getting an interview and no interview.

Also note that Podiatry schools and Caribbean medical schools typically do not have any MCAT requirements (with a few exceptions) and will accept lower GPA and MCAT scores than MD and DO medical schools.

Retaking the MCAT

If you score low on the MCAT, it may be a good idea to retake it. However, you absolutely have to show improvement. I know some students who increased their scores a good 3-5 points and it made all the difference. If you score the same or lower than your original MCAT score, retaking the MCAT only hurts you because you have just demonstrated that you really cannot do it, even if you have another chance.

Often, it's advisable to take a prep course, if you haven't already done so, to prepare for retaking the MCAT, especially if you didn't take the exam seriously enough the first time. You have to be willing to put a lot of hard work into preparation before retaking the exam again - just retaking it will buy you nothing.

Sometimes, if the MCAT score is not very high, but still acceptable, it might be better to work on extra-curricular activities to increase the overall strength of the application to compensate. However, a lower MCAT can limit some of your medical school choices. Certain medical schools may not consider you at all. Generally speaking, DO, Podiatry and Caribbean medical schools have lower MCAT requirements, and there is also quite a bit of variation between various MD schools.

So, the decision to retake the MCAT may depend on your goals overall and not necessarily on the score you received the first time. Also, keep in mind that it is very hard to increase your MCAT score, especially if you were prepared for the test the first time and there is not much else you can do to prepare. Increasing a score from a 24 to a 28 is probably much easier than raising a score from a 30 to a 34.

Other related topics

You can read more about MD vs. DO vs. Caribbean vs. International schools in the School Considerations section.

You can find some statistical data about medical schools including MCAT scores and GPA data in the Med School Statistics section.


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