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Guest Post: How Important Is The MCAT?

Last updated: August 15th, 2019 |

Learn how well MCAT scores predict med school admissions and med school success

This is a guest post from Dr. Shirag Shemmassian, a medical school admissions expert who helps students get into medical schools at Shemassian Academic Consulting


How Important Is The MCAT? By Dr. Shirag Shemmassian

Dr. Shirag Shemmassian of Shemmassian Academic Consulting

Medical school admissions is somewhat of a black box.

You know that you have to achieve a high GPA and MCAT score, participate in various extracurricular activities, and write a strong personal statement, AMCAS Work and Activities section, and other essays. However, adcoms don’t tell us the relative weight of each application component when making admissions decisions.

It would be nice if schools would publish this information so that you could know exactly what you need to achieve to get in. Otherwise, it can all seem random. Why did a certain student get rejected from everywhere they applied? Why did another student get into UCSF but didn’t even get an interview at UCLA?

Whereas the quality of extracurricular activities, essays, letters of recommendation, and interviews is difficult to quantify, GPA and MCAT scores have numerical values. Hence, many medical school applicants attempt to oversimplify the admissions process by focusing on these stats.

“How important is the MCAT?” is one of the most common questions I receive when guiding students through their admissions process. There are many variations to this question, such as “What MCAT score do I need to get into med school?” and “Is my MCAT score good enough to get admitted?”

As with GPA, higher MCAT scores are associated with higher admissions odds. In other words, the better you do on the exam, the more likely you are to get into medical school.

For instance, according to data published by the AAMC, among students with a 3.60-3.79 GPA, 51.5% of them with a 506-509 MCAT score got into medical school, compared with 66.3% of 510-513 scorers. Students who scored between 514-517 matriculated at a 75% rate, while 88.3% of students who scored 518+ enrolled in med school.

Clearly, the MCAT is very important for medical school admissions.

However, these data don’t tell us whether it’s fair for a single exam to determine so much of your academic future and career. To determine that, we want to know how well your MCAT score predicts success in medical school, USMLE exam scores (e.g., Step 1), and residency performance.

How well do undergraduate GPA and MCAT scores predict medical school performance? 

The AAMC recently published data to help answer this question. First, they calculated the percentage of students who did well enough during their first year to advance to their second year without delay. 96% of students with an MCAT score of 502-505, 97% of students with a 506-509, and 98% of students with a 510-517 advanced.

While the general trend is that MCAT scores positively predict progression from M1 to M2, students who score anywhere in the 500+ range have a very strong chance of advancing.

AAMC also analyzed correlations of GPA and MCAT scores with first-year performance. MCAT scores alone had a slightly higher correlation with first-year performance than GPA alone, but combining MCAT score and GPA yielded the highest correlation. This finding supports the AAMC’s recommendation to consider both sets of scores when making admissions decisions.

Does the MCAT predict USMLE scores and residency performance?

A study published by researchers in 2015 analyzed associations between MCAT scores and GPA, clinical skill assessments, first-year residency performance, and other variables.

The authors found that whereas assessments occurring earlier in medical school (e.g., USMLE Step 1) were somewhat associated with MCAT scores, MCAT scores had weak associations with GPA, evaluations based on direct observation (e.g., interpersonal skills), and first-year residency performance.

Why do medical school admissions committees place so much importance on MCAT scores?

The presented data might lead you to wonder why adcoms care so much about MCAT scores and to question the practice’s fairness. Shouldn’t schools rely more on GPA—since it was achieved over multiple years—extracurricular achievements, and personal factors as demonstrated by essays, letters of recommendation, and interviews?

It’s important to remember that medical school admissions is a seller’s market, meaning goods (medical school spots) are scarce and sellers (adcoms) can keep prices (threshold to get in) high. Adcoms are looking to make the surest bets with regard to admitting students who not only will graduate and match to a residency, but who they also consider to have the highest ceiling when it comes to academics, research, etc.

If adcoms have the choice between students with different MCAT scores but who are otherwise equal, they will likely admit the student with the higher MCAT score because it’s a helpful decision-making shortcut.

During the many years that I’ve been guiding students through the med school admissions process, I’ve observed the following trend: applicants with the highest MCAT scores spend as much time studying test strategy as they do test content. This is unsurprising, since greater scientific knowledge does not necessarily result in higher test scores. This statement is true for organic chemistry exams and the dreaded MCAT.


Dr. Shirag Shemmassian is a medical school admissions expert who has helped thousands of students get into schools such as Harvard, Mayo, and UCSF.

Dr. Shemmassian has been featured in The Washington Post, US News & World Report, and NBC, as well as been invited to speak at Stanford, Yale, and UCLA. He presents on topics including writing a memorable medical school personal statement, developing a unique extracurricular profile, and acing interviews.

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