Many medical schools are theatrical stating that they view applications holistically. The truth is, however, that GPA and MCAT are the two most important factors in admission, as they open the door for a full application review. Scoring too low on either of these will cut you.
Other factors, like writing and extracurriculars, will only be considered after the initial screening. For most schools, they screen after receiving your completed secondary application, so they profiteer off of you, even if your stats keep your acceptance at bay.
Before determining what percent of the application the MCAT accounts for, let’s look at the four major reasons why medical schools value the MCAT
When dealing with a sea of applicants vying for a limited number of seats, there needs to be some objective method of cutting them down to size; GPA and MCAT serve this role.
Some medical schools receive 10,000 applications for 100 seats in the incoming class. Imagine if you were in this position: How would you sort through them all?
While it is hard to hear, medical school admissions committees (“AdComs”) scrap whoever does not reach certain objective criteria. Most medical schools are not explicit about what their cut-off scores are, mostly because doing so could deter lower-end applicants who shell out $100 or more of their own money for nothing in exchange except lowering their rejector’s acceptance rate.
In January 2019, the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA sparked major controversy by stating outright they will reject all applicants with an MCAT below 512. Think about it–each year, UCLA receives more than 14,000 applications for 175 seats in the first year class.
The David Geffen SOM AdCom (just like those at all other med schools) obviously had some objective way to cut the pool down to size. Now, they are just being upfront about it which is actually helpful. Now you know not to apply there if your MCAT score is below 512. Easy.
Looking at two students from the same undergraduate institution, the student with the higher GPA is probably going to be the stronger student. However, when comparing between schools—especially schools that vary in academic rigor—the information GPAs provide is much more nebulous.
The MCAT serves the important role of allowing AdComs to objectively compare academic ability and reasoning skills between students who attended different undergraduate schools. This makes the MCAT a standardized test.
The MCAT’s ability to allow AdComs to compare students universally intertwines with what was stated above—MCAT scores serve as a consistent way to whittle down the applicant pool to a practical size. The MCAT’s objectivity allows for this whittling to be more of a meritocracy, rather than narrowing down the pool based on totally arbitrary factors.
According to AAMC, these are the percentages of students moving on to year two of medical school without delay, based on their MCAT scores:
Medical schools cannot afford to lose students at all. Therefore, a lower MCAT score can make a student a liability. One may argue that the 1% difference between 518+ and 510-517 scores is not much, but the latter has double the risk of facing a delay than the highest scoring group.
The MCAT is also correlated with performance on the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam. Medical schools want to do themselves a favor and accept students who are already likely to score well on the USMLE.
Compared to undergraduate universities, medical schools tend to have less of a focus on rankings. Nonetheless, a good ranking can lead to more funding, or even prominent physicians and scientists seeking faculty positions.
U.S. News uses a med school’s median MCAT score as 13% of criteria for the med school’s research rankings (vs. median GPA, which is 6%). Therefore, if an AdCom is choosing between two students with similar extracurriculars, writing, and GPAs, it may as well go with the individual with a higher MCAT to help boost the school’s ranking.
Clearly, medical schools have solid reasons to place such a value on the MCAT.
As far as how the MCAT plays into admissions, each AdCom has their own process. If I were to tell you what all AdComs do to evaluate MCAT scores and other application components, I would be giving you misinformation.
As stated above, the MCAT (along with GPA) are used to screen applicants. AdComs evaluate writing and extracurriculars before deciding to offer an interview. Post-interview, however, the interview holds a lot of weight, but AdComs generally continue to view the other factors when making the final judgment call.
For example, imagine a med school interviews two applicants with similar GPAs, MCATs, and experiences. One student’s interview goes very well, while the other one only does an okay job at their interview. The med school will pick the great interviewer over the “so-so” one.
Now imagine the med school interviewed two different applicants: one with great stats who interviewed alright, and one with underwhelming stats who interviewed extremely well. While this could be a toss-up, many med schools are going to go with the student with the great stats, as this would boost average admissions scores.
Again, each AdCom has their own process, but the flowchart below is a common method which AdComs use to evaluate applications:
A friend of mine interviewed at Oregon Health Sciences University last year, and its AdCom told interviewees exactly what their admission process was like. First, the school screens applicants based on cutoff scores. Then, they look at writing and extracurriculars (along with stats) to determine whether or not to give an interview. Lastly, they then look at the interview results, along with the other application materials, to make the final judgment call.
The OHSU AdCom stated that they assign points to writing, extracurriculars, and interview performances. They integrate these scores with GPA and MCAT to give applicants a composite score. OHSU accepts applicants with the highest composite scores first, then works their way down.
OHSU outright told interviewees that, after interviews, they assign points the following ways:
With this system in place, it is possible for excellent stats to carry someone all the way to an acceptance. However, someone with lower stats but strengths in other areas would likely get washed out by an overwhelmingly large application pool.
Again, there are too many applicants per seats available in an incoming medical school class. AdComs account for this by cutting down the applicant pool, and the MCAT is the most powerful tool to do this.
While the AdComs’ processes vary from school to school, a strong MCAT performance is a major key for successful application. Based on what I read on admissions sites, if I had to assign a percent of the application for which the MCAT accounts, it would be 25%.
However, because the medical school application process is indeed a process, with multiple steps (see flowchart above), assigning a specific percentage that the MCAT accounts for is a bit naive.
I know that this sounds stressful, but the best way to ensure a successful med school admissions experience is to “Leslie Knope” it and complete every criterion AdComs state they are looking for (and do each of them well). While the lists of expectations for med school applicants are long (and it feels like they are getting longer each year), meeting (and surpassing) these expectations is the best way to maximize your chances for a medical school acceptance.