Video 13: MCAT Scoring – Part 2

How is the MCAT scored, and how do you approach it? In this video we’ll talk about:

  • Which section score counts most with admissions committees?
  • Some insights that are key for approaching this section

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Video Transcription:

Hey everyone, it’s Radhika here again! Today we are going to talk about the MCAT, particularly some of the scoring that I believe is important information for you to know, should you be willing to write this exam sometime in the near future. The purpose of this video is essentially to talk to you about three basic things. First I want to discuss what it means to have a competitive score. Next I want to discuss what it means to have an easier version of the MCAT vs. a difficult version of the MCAT, I really want to reiterate that this doesn’t really matter. The third thing I want show you is what kind of majors do really well on this exam. So let’s get started!

What makes a competitive score on this exam? First and foremost, a score that is greater than the 80th percentile, is a pretty competitive score for most medical schools. You have to take that into consideration, in terms of an 80th percentile, followed with a very high GPA. That makes you a good, strong applicant, or a good, strong candidate. Now what’s an excellent MCAT score and it makes you an extremely competitive candidate? Something that’s greater than the 90th percentile. What that means it that if you scored in the 90th percentile, that means 90% of the people who have written this exam have scored below you, or equal to you. That means out of the thousands of students that write this exam globally, only 10% of the population was able to score higher than you. That means, you’re pretty much cream of the crop.

The other thing you also want to aim for is making sure you have an extremely balanced score. That means, that if you’re going to hit about an 85th percentile in the physical sciences section, that you want to make sure that you hover around there for the CARS section, the biological sciences section and also the behavioral sciences section. The reason being is because what this shows admissions committees is that it’s not like you got a very high overall percentile because you got 97th percentile in biology and CARS, and maybe the 53rd percentile in the behavioral sciences. It shows that you are a good, well-rounded student because you could score pretty much the same in all four of the sections. It’s important to have a balance score because it shows your well roundedness. It shows that you have equal levels of proficiency in all of those scores. You have to remember, that these are sections that they do feel will be some sort of a yard stick of measurement in terms of how much of a good physician you’ll be in the future. They don’t want somebody who is terrible in the physical sciences, but amazing in the behavioral sciences. This reiterates the impact of the interdisciplinary factors that are very relevant in the sciences. They want to see somebody who’s good in all of these areas, who is great in all of these sciences, who performs overall in terms of these critical thinking skills, so a balanced score.

The other thing you want to also remember, and take this one with a bit of a grain of salt, is that there is a trade-off between your MCAT score and your GPA. If you have a low GPA, or something that isn’t extremely competitive, scoring extremely well on the MCAT, 90th percentile or above, really boosts your application. Admissions committees like this because they can see that you’ve turned yourself around, they can see that you’ve exhibited very strong thinking skills by having a strong MCAT score. The reason I advise that you take this with a grain of salt is because the reverse isn’t always true. It’s not like having a very high GPA means that you can score lower on the MCAT and still get away with it. To some extent, yes, but by no means should it be the invitation for you to say: “Hey I’ve t a 3.96 GPA, that means I can get away with scoring 60th percentile on my MCAT.” That still going to have an adverse effect on your application. Tradeoff, taken with a grain of salt, if you have a bit of a lower GPA, you can offset that by having a very competitive MCAT score. That doesn’t mean that: “I have a very high GPA” therefore, I don’t need to worry about my MCAT very much. Remember those pieces of information.

Now that you have an idea of what a competitive score is overall you’re probably wondering: “So Radhika, you’ve told me about your scaled score and your total scaled score, what does that really mean? What does it mean to achieve a competitive scaled score and what is that number? What’s that magic number I should be aiming for?” You’re not going to like this answer, the truth is we really don’t know. Prior to 2015, when the old version of the MCAT was still being offered, 30 was the magic number. This exam was scored from 3-45 and you scored on each of the three sections from 1-15. So 15×3 is 45, that’s the highest score you could have gotten. Thirty was the magic number. That meant that you got a 10, minimum, in each section to be a competitive applicant to medical school. So you’re probably wondering, “Hey, what’s the new 30?” And that’s what I’m trying to say, unfortunately we don’t know. There’s a reason we don’t know. That version of the exam was around for a very long time, and over the years medical schools started publishing the data of the matriculants. When we say matriculants, these are the people who got into medical school, and accepted that offer. So we were able to calculate that 30 based on the date published by all these medical schools, coming from the matriculants for each year. Since the exam changed in the summer of 2015, unfortunately we haven’t been able to collect that data. Medicals schools are still accepting, in some cases at least, the older score. So we can’t say anything about the matriculants anymore, because they may have written the new version of the MCAT, they may have written the old version of the MCAT or they may have written both. Now as medical schools start phasing out the acceptance of the old scoring system and start saying, “Hey for the class of 2021, you must only have written the new MCAT and these are your minimum cut offs or these are the average scores.” At that point we’ll be able to collect more data. Unfortunately, we don’t have any conclusive data yet. You’re probably wondering, “Uh oh, I’m writing the MCAT this summer and there’s no data, how am I suppose to pick a goal as to what’s good?” So we did some thinking, and we came up with something we think works pretty well. If we take the old 30 magic number and we correlate it to a percentile, what we find is that 30 was around being in the 85th percentile range, approximately. We do have percentile ranges of the 2015 exam scores and the 2016 exam scores. So we thought, why don’t we find the 85th percentile and figure out what a total score looks like. That’s exactly what we’ve done. Let’s take a look.

What you can see here is the normal distribution starting from the lowest score you can get, that 472, going all the way to 528. It does look like a pretty good, normal distribution. These numbers here show that the mean is 499.6, which is around 500, which we said was the median. The median and mean are pretty close, that’s a good indication, with the standard deviation of 10.4, not bad either. It’s a nice looking curve, it’s not perfectly symmetrical but it’s a pretty good-looking curve. Now let’s find 85th percentile on here, and there it is. In order to achieve 85th percentile, you must have scored between a 510 or 511 on the new version of the exam. So that is kind of like the new 30, 510, 511, is the total score that you’re aiming for. Now what does this mean for each section? Well let’s take a look what it means to be in the 85th percentile for all four of those sections.

Here are the average section scores from the chemical and physical foundations, biological systems part and CARS. So for chemical and physical foundations, what we see is that in order to be in the 85th percentile, you must have scored between a 127 to a 128. In CARS, to be in the 85th percentile, you must have scored between a 127 to 128 to have scored in the 85th percentile. Now for the biological and biochemical foundations of living systems section, you must have scored between a 127 and a 128 to fall in that range. Same thing for the psychological, social and biological foundations of behavior section, score between a 127 and a 128 in that section specifically to have scored around an 85th percentile. So that gives you more of a targeted goal. However, I want to caution you one more time, we don’t know what the new 30 is. We estimate that this is a good percentile, based on the fact that we’ve taken the old 30, correlated that to a percentile, found that percentile in the new scoring system and then correlated to that to a sectional score. Your goal, obviously, should still be to achieve within your abilities, the highest possible score. So take that with a grain of salt, but you can aim to achieve around a 127 to 128 in each of the individual sections, and a 511 overall, to hit that 85th percentile. If you’re aiming for the magic 30.

Let’s move on. Next thing I want to talk to you about is this question that I get all the time. As a test prep company, something that our instructors get and they say: “Hey Radhika, how am I suppose to answer this question?” The question is an infamous one, and it says: “Are some MCAT exam versions easier than others?” And the answer is, yes, there are. There are some that you may find “Wow, I did four months studying for that and that was ridiculously easy!” Or you could say “I did four months of studying for that and I covered tons of stuff, I studied eight hours a day, I’m not sure what happened, that exam was really difficult!” And your gut feeling is probably true. You probably have a good indication of what makes an exam easy or what makes an exam very difficult. Now, does that mean anything though, to get a very easy exam or a very difficult exam, the short answer is: no, it doesn’t. That’s because equating that statistical tools that the AAMC uses will offset any variations in difficulty. What this means if you have an extremely easy exam, the scale of that exam, which converts your raw score to a scaled score, will be very unforgiving. Perhaps in the physical sciences section, if you have an extremely easy version, if you got two questions wrong in an easy version, maybe you’re already at the 85th percentile. Where is if you got a very difficult version of the exam, and you got seven questions wrong, you’re still at the 85th percentile. Now these are just examples that I’ve given to you verbally, we don’t know what the raw score to scaled score conversion is really like. This is data that the AAMC has no published yet; they did for the old version of the exam. We are eagerly waiting to see if they will publish any data. They probably just need more students to be able to write it, in order to come up with a conversion table, which they haven’t yet. Keep checking our website, as soon as we know about it, we’ll let you know as well.
The short answer of the question is yes, some versions are much easier than the other, but it does not matter, because the equating that they do, that statistical tool that they use, will offset any variations in actual difficulty.

Moving on to my third part of this video “Do some majors do better on this exam than other majors?” The answer is, yes, they do. So what I’ve shown you here is the data that has been collected when the old exam was administered. Studies like this have not been conducted yet on the new version of the exam. However, there’s no reason to assume this data is not applicable anymore. So what we can see the physical sciences section, the biological sciences section and the verbal reasoning, which is now CARS, we can see the composite score that these majors, going down on the left, have achieved in each of those sections and the number of applicants from that major. What I want to reiterate to you are these three-circled area. The physical sciences section is performed best on by the physics majors. Which makes sense, physical sciences use to be a very physic heavy section, and we expect the physics majors to do the best on it. In the biological sciences, the people that do the best are the biomedical engineering group or the neuroscience group. In the verbal reasoning section, uh oh, no surprise there, the people that do best are the English majors. In fact study after study has indicated that biology majors, overall, of all the majors, tend to perform the worst on this exam. So if you look at these composite scores that are ranged from the highest to the lowest, look who appears right at the bottom, the biology majors and the pre-med majors. There could be a few number of reasons for this. One of them being that biology majors are taught to think in a very different style, throughout their undergraduate studies, from what the MCAT actually requires. We’re taught to memorize, we’re taught to read for detail, we’re taught to be thorough. Remember, this is a critical thinking exam. There’s a very different skill set that’s required than what’s taught in these biology and these pre-med programs, that you need in order to actually do really well on this exam. We predict, that because of that thinking pattern, that biology majors and pre-med majors don’t tend to do so well on this exam. The second reason is, if you also look at the number of applicants, there are 12 000 out of 41 500 applicants, that are from biology. There’s a huge probability for just sheer variation in this area. It just may be that in all biology majors and all pre-med majors that write this exam that you get some of the best biology majors and you get some of the worst biology majors. It may not be that biology majors do not have the correct thought pattern, or aren’t taught the correct thought pattern, but that there’s just so many of them, and there’s so much variation, that some of them do extremely well and some of them don’t do so well.

Well, there you have it. These are the majors that do best on each of those three sections. The reason I’m bringing it up is because, now that you’re aware and you’re cognizant of this, if you are biology major, it’s something that you can work towards. You know now that this is a thinking skills exam. It’s going to test you on your critical problem solving skills. You know that biology majors don’t tend to perform well on it, and this awareness should bring about some changes in your studying. You shouldn’t study for this exam the same you study for your undergraduate exams, because it’s not going to equip you with the right set of skills, or the techniques. So this isn’t a means to scare you, or to frighten you, or to tell you: “Hey, if you’re a biology major, don’t write this exam!” It’s just a means to bring about the awareness and to let you know this is what studies have shown; this is what the data has indicated. Now that you’re aware of that, to start coming up with ways that you can overcome this. Again, that’s if you’re biology major.

That concludes my talk for today. The three things that I talked about that I think were super important in this exam, were that, a competitive score may not necessarily be known yet because we don’t know enough data, we don’t have enough data for the medical schools or for the AAMC to come up with that. We do kind of estimate that to be around a 510 or 511, in terms of total scaled score. The second major take away from this video is probably that a balanced score does mean a lot. You want to make sure you hit a balanced score. Having a 90th percentile overall, while performing 53rd percentile in one section, and 97th percentile in the other three sections, is not indication of a strong applicant. A balanced score is a good score to have. The third take away being that yes, there are some versions of this exam that are significantly easier than other versions. However, that doesn’t matter since it’s equating, or this process of creating a scale based on your raw core, should equate for any variations.

Well I hope you were able to learn quite a bit about MCAT scoring. I’ll see you next time, take care, bye bye!

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