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The Reason You Have Low MCAT Scores & What You Can Do About It

mcat premed May 28, 2020

Have you ever wondered why some premed students are able to earn a top MCAT score and others seem to fail with multiple times with low MCAT scores?

Even if two students had the exact same MCAT prep their scores can vary dramatically.

Two college girls studyingPhoto credit: CollegeDegrees360

I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. Students from the same college who’ve taken the same premed classes, enrolled in a commercial MCAT prep together and 35 days after sitting for the MCAT they log into the AAMC website where one student is on cloud 9 and the other is dejected.

What gives?

The Medical College Admission Test is unlike anything you’ve ever encountered.

What worked in your premed classes won’t earn you a passing score on the MCAT. In fact it often does the opposite - low MCAT scores.

The Premed Mentality

As a premed student you took the following courses:

  • General Chemistry
  • Biology
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Physics

All with their associated labs.

However, what was required for a top grade in these classes is the complete opposite of what you need for a top MCAT score.

In your premed coursework if you showed up to class you were fine. School came down to read the book, do the problems and memorize equations.

I’m not saying this was easy but it was doable.

If you worked hard and proved to be a diligent student you had a pretty good idea of how you’d do on your test. However, the MCAT demands more and if you want a competitive advantage then you will need to a new approach to MCAT preparation.

Most Professors Are Lazy Teachers

College lecture hall and blackboardPhoto Credit: Chipp Schwab

University professors aren’t at college to teach.

Your professors are actually recruited because of their research, grant writing, and publications. Teaching undergrads is not their highest priority and this is sometimes reflected in the classroom.

Oftentimes, when it comes to your tests your professors will recycle old exams just changing the words and numbers but the overall objective remains the same.

Your professors are busy people and their career trajectory is not correlated to how many of the undergraduate premed students earn an A, B, C or dare I say F in their class.

Since the professors are not focused on being creative with their test writing this turns into a vicious cycle for you as a premed student.

You realize if you put in X amount of work you’ll get Y as your grade in the class.

I bet you’re a lazy student too.

Has anyone every asked, “Is this going to be on the test?” If the answer is yes, that means you’re lazy. Maybe in your mind you’re thinking that’s not fair and I’m being harsh but it’s the truth.

I was once a premed student and I know the thought process.

The goal isn’t to immerse yourself in the course material and take in all of its intricacies.


You want to know enough to pass the test and earn a top GPA. I certainly don’t fault you for this at all. Besides, medical school admission comes down to your:

  1. MCAT score
  2. Grade Point Average.

Heck, we’ve all been there when we’ve just wanted to pass a class and move on.

Maybe you can identify with this scenario...

A test is coming up in less than a week. You’ve been studying all along for the test because you absolutely have to do well. Then three days before the test your entire study methodology changes. You’re in the books, doing problems with the sole purpose of memorizing as much as possible.

Cram. Cram. Cram.

Pack as much into your brain cells as possible.

Test day comes you fight your way through the problems and yes there were a few you just weren’t sure about but overall you think you’ll have a decent score.

Before you are even out of the lecture hall you’re doing your brain dump. By the time you go to dinner you’d be hard pressed to remember half of the equations you memorized for the test.

But hey you don’t care.

You put in enough studying to fall within the curve. Or maybe you didn’t do as hot this time around. You tell yourself on the next test you’re going to study early, put in the extra time studying and you will not have to pull an all-nighter for this class ever again.

You’ll get your act together.

Premed Has Trained You for Failure

What if I told you your premed years have trained you for failure?

You’ve always gotten by with memorization and cramming. In most cases it worked and you find nothing wrong with this vicious cycle of skating on autopilot in between tests and then suddenly having to ratchet it up in the days before your test.

You know if you just cover all the material at least once you’ll do alright.

The professor is happy you memorized and he is more than happy to give you the score you deserve based on your ability to recall his example problems and what you could recall from the powerpoint presentation.

Houston We Have a Problem

Space Shuttle Launch

The MCAT is the biggest exam of your life.

Everyone knows what’s at stake.

If you earn a competitive MCAT score you’ll get into medical school and be on your way to becoming a doctor. However, if you bomb the MCAT you can kiss goodbye your chances of getting in.

There’s a reason why 60% of first time applicants to medical are rejected.

Remember our two students from similar backgrounds but who earned totally different MCAT scores.

There’s a reason for that.

But first, what’s the deal with the MCAT?

The MCAT is not a test of memorization. Let me share with you how to actually ace the MCAT

You can memorize every equation, every fact and every definition and still earn low MCAT scores.


The MCAT is a test to determine if you have what it takes to be a doctor.

As a doctor you do not memorize. Well, there are some basic facts you have to memorize but that makes up a small portion of what it means to be a successful physician.

You have to apply your knowledge to new problems, difficult patient presentations and based on the history, exam findings and any labs you order come up with an assessment and plan for your patient.

This is the basis of medicine.

The MCAT is the gatekeeper to ensure only those who have this aptitude are allowed into medical school.

The way the MCAT accomplishes this gatekeeping role is to move away from memorization and focus on concepts. The entire exam comes down to knowing concepts and not how much you can regurgitate back on the exam.

How to Avoid Low MCAT Scores

To excel on the MCAT you have to realize the objective of the exam which is to produce doctors.

This means you have to change your entire approach to preparing for the MCAT or face the dire condition of not earning a passing score.

Know your concepts and the basis for what you’re memorizing. If you can do this you will be successful and can avoid low MCAT scores.

You have to remember the test writer is always going to know more than you. He can use an arcane word you’ve never heard before and he has the entire scientific community at his disposal when writing his questions.

But there is one unassailable truth.

Once concept alone can explain a thousand facts. If I were a betting man I’d certainly bet on knowing the concept which I can apply to many different problems where only the details are changed.

Here’s what happens to most students when they take the MCAT and why they walk away with low MCAT scores.

I recently spoke with a student who didn’t do so hot on the MCAT. They were even a physics tutor and thought they would have this section in the bag. They had memorized all the physics equations but found they weren’t that helpful.

My response is that is the most common pitfall of students.

I can guarantee on your MCAT you had a ton of charts, graphs, and experiments. There’s a reason for this.

These are novel topics which you have never seen before and the test writer wants the unprepared student to get bogged down in the details of the question while the prudent student realizes the underlying concept and although he may not know all the details he can see what’s going on and arrive at the most likely answer.

Same thing you’ll be doing as a doctor.

You won’t know what’s going on with your patient but you can think and apply your outside knowledge to the entire picture by understanding pathophysiology and come up with the most likely differentials for your patient.

What You Should Be Asking Yourself

The Question Why must be askedPhoto credit: Eric

Now that you understand the problem at hand there must be a solution.

The solution is to overhaul your approach to the sciences and how you prepare for the MCAT.

Its unfortunate no one every clued you into what’s really going on with the MCAT because it would certainly save you a lot of pain and agony.

This explains why students enrolled in a commercial MCAT prep course have dramatically different outcomes. These are what I call cookie-cutter and they use a one-size fits all approach. This is great if you’re weak in the basic content you’re expected to know on the MCAT as the goal of these courses are to review what’s on the MCAT.

I have not seen a commercial MCAT prep course teach you how to think and prepare for the MCAT. If they did students would not have to retake the MCAT due to their low MCAT scores.

It’s for this reason that many premeds find themselves struggling to earn competitive scores or worse yet log into AAMC to check their MCAT score report and become completely unhinged when they realize their prospects of getting into medical school have come undone due to their low MCAT scores.

Since you’re reading this post you’re going to be ahead of your peers because you are now informed about what it takes to be successful on the MCAT.

Here’s what I want you to do going forward as you prepare so you can avoid any and all low MCAT scores.

Stop asking yourself “What” while reading and doing problems. This is only training your mind to be a memorizer and focus on the nitty-gritty details.

The MCAT will have details but you’re better off understanding concepts and the underpinnings to the factoids that you’re clinging to in the hope the more you memorize the better your MCAT score will be.

How’s that working for you?

Wipe, what from your memory.

Replace it with asking the “How” and “Why”? It’s that simple.

When you start thinking in this manner you’ll see a dramatic boost in your mastery of the material required for MCAT success. Give it a try after reading a paragraph or page and ask yourself how does this all come together and why is this important? There had to be a reason why someone thought it was important enough to put it in MCAT review.

This is going to slow you down at first but you’ll make huge gains in the long run.

Remember how as a premed you’d cram and dump.

When you start internalizing concepts they will then stick with you for days, weeks, and months and won’t be forgotten.

One student saw what was going on and by trial and error realized the MCAT wasn’t like any test he had encountered and adjusted his studying accordingly which allowed him to walk away with a very competitive MCAT score.

The other student was clueless and thought it just meant he had to work harder and do more problems to be successful. This was totally wrong and his atrocious MCAT score reflects this erroneous thought process.

You’ve been empowered with the keys to MCAT success so you can avoid low MCAT scores. 

But it gets better.

Checkout my MCAT Mastery Companion Course so you can crush the MCAT and get into your top choice med school!

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