How Low is Too Low on the MCAT?

For the purposes of this article, "med school" refers to a US allopathic (MD-granting) medical school.

Here's a shocking statement: you won't get into med school with a low MCAT score.

"Holy crap!" you're thinking, "I've never heard this before!"  Your sarcasm is duly noted.

But the key question is why.  Why won't med schools let you in with a low MCAT score?

Well, most med schools say that MCAT scores predict whether you will graduate medical school and pass the USMLE.  The higher your MCAT score, the more likely you are to pass, and the easier your path to becoming a doctor will be.  Conversely, if you can't pass or don't graduate, you can't become a doctor.  It's that simple.

But here's the interesting thing: how low can your MCAT score be and still become a doctor?

Well, shockingly low.

First, we need some reference.  When most people talk about good MCAT scores, the conversation usually centers around getting a 127 in each section (so a 508, or a 30 on the old MCAT).  Scores that are competitive for top tier medical schools are in the 128-130 range (512-520 overall, or 33-39 on the old MCAT).

But the scores that show whether you will, say, graduate from medical school are completely different from a score that will get you in.

Here's some data put out by the AAMC that correlate your overall MCAT score with the percentage of students who are able to successfully complete key obstacles in their medical education.

(Note: this data is from 2006-2009, so we have added the new MCAT Equivalent for comparison)

So, as long as you score between a 488-491 on your MCAT (which would put you in the bottom tenth percentile of all test-takers), you are unlikely to drop out, you're likely to graduate (admittedly in 5 years, but you will graduate), and you're even likely to pass the USMLE step 1 on your first attempt.

Holy crap!

Before you get excited, though, your low MCAT score probably won't get you into medical school.

Think about it from an admissions officer's perspective: if I'm a med school admissions officer, I want students who are at a very low risk of dropping out.  The lower the risk, the better, so I would want only to take students with the lowest possible risk of dropping out.

But there's a huge difference between the scores required to get in and the scores required to do well in med school.  To guarantee success in med school, all you need is a 504.  There is no meaningful difference in success rates (both in graduation and at the USMLE) of applicants scoring between a 504 MCAT and a 528.  Graduation rates, USMLE passage rates, and drop out rates are either the exact same or awfully close.  

By contrast, A 504 puts you in just the top 40th percentile of all test-takers (not bad, but certainly not great).  In other words, just proving that you are good enough to make it through medical school is NOT enough to get accepted.  

In reality, then, there are two questions we must ask:

Question 1 - How low is too low to succeed in medical school?  (answer: below a 504 will be a tough - though not impossible - sell at most medical schools.

Question 2 - How low is too low to get in to medical school?  That is a much different question, and it must mean that there's something else going on with why medical schools have preferences for scores higher than a 504.

Check back for next week’s article to find the answer for question 2.