Is a top MCAT score (515+) more due to luck instead of hardwork?

Feb 18, 2014
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I've been working very hard to take my MCAT soon, but lately SDN has been scaring me. People here make it seem like a top MCAT score is more due to luck and that it cannot be guaranteed. I am shooting for a 515+ on the exam, and let's say that by the time I take it, I will have:

1. understood the concepts so well that I can teach it to others (frequent review of flashcards)
2. taken 6-10 practice tests and gone over very carefully
3. done a ton of practice passages, FSQ's (~3 hrs. a day practice for 3 months and a practice test every week from different sources)

After doing all of this, isn't it reasonable to expect that I can reach my target score? Or is there a luck component that outweighs all my hard work?

I want to believe that the MCAT is beatable and doable for someone who has studied everything to the point that there is not much else left to study. But then I hear stories on SDN where people claim to have studied 6 months for 5 hrs/day and get a 491!!! How is that possible??

So I don't get it. Is the MCAT really that unpredictable? Do you really have to get lucky with the tests and curve to score well?

Sometimes SDN leaves me feeling like I have no hope to beat this test, no matter how confident in my material I may feel :(
 

WedgeDawg

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You will most likely score within a couple percentiles (or points, depending on where you are in the spectrum) of your practice test average. There is some degree of chance, but most of the variability is how much you know, how well you can apply it, how good you are at test taking, and how well you perform on test day.
 

justadream

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Absolutely not. Luck matters to some very small extent.

People who believe "luck" is super important are just looking for an an excuse for their own poor preparation for the test, inability to understand all the concepts at a comprehensive level, and/or poor test taking skills (e.g., overly nervous, poor time management, etc.)


The variance is actually relatively low. If you can score 99 percentile on your practice tests (assuming you take under realistic conditions), you will almost assuredly score 90th percentile or higher on the real thing.
 
OP
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You will most likely score within a couple percentiles (or points, depending on where you are in the spectrum) of your practice test average. There is some degree of chance, but most of the variability is how much you know, how well you can apply it, how good you are at test taking, and how well you perform on test day.
Absolutely not luck.

The very top of the curve has more to do with luck, because getting one question wrong can change the actual score. But looking at the difference between a 510 and a 515 there is a definite skill gap.
Absolutely not. Luck matters to some very small extent.

People who believe "luck" is super important are just looking for an an excuse for their own poor preparation for the test, inability to understand all the concepts at a comprehensive level, and/or poor test taking skills (e.g., overly nervous, poor time management, etc.)


The variance is actually relatively low. If you can score 99 percentile on your practice tests (assuming you take under realistic conditions), you will almost assuredly score 90th percentile or higher on the real thing.
Thank you, this is reassuring!

BUT…there are no reliable practice tests for the 2015 MCAT except the one AAMC. In a situation like this, can I trust that my sound knowledge and practice regarding the material will help me get a 515+ even if my Kaplan test average is like a 506 (since its apparently not representative)? Or will AAMC screw me over with my score by giving me an absolutely different style test? I ask, because apparently this is what they have been doing for the past few administrations…
 
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Also, I am not a 'natural researcher,' so some of the experimental-based questions AAMC gives are difficult for me. But I've been doing a lot of reading on research design, lab techniques and articles. Can the type of intuitive ability the MCAT wants regarding these questions be learned this way?
 

akai1412

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It takes a little bit luck to be at the very top, because one wrong choice might take you off one MCAT point

But in the average range, it will takes more wrong choices to take you off one MCAT point, so there is less luck there but more knowledge.
 

neekzg

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As others have said, luck only matters to differentiate between maybe a 95th-99th percentile score. You will very very likely score around what you have been averaging on your practice tests.

It is very possible for people to spend many hours a day for several months studying for this test and still not perform well. (less than the matriculant average MCAT). This is a difficult test takes more than just your hours of hard work.
 
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GrapesofRath

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Historically the average of your AAMC practice tests(particularly 7-11) predicted your real MCAT within 2-3 points for a very high proportion of people.

I'll say a couple(or maybe a little more than that) things
a) Take the official AAMC test to get the best gauge for where you stand. Check out mcatjelly's posts, she has a chart wit hover 300 samples of people comparing their average AAMC test of 2015 to the real deal. Obviously SDN you'll get a somewhat skewed sample but by and large those scores did a very good job for predicting peoples scores, even for those who didn't get in the 90-100th percentile. EK is also very good practice and TBR has historically been good.
b) Aim to score a couple points better on your practice test than your goal. Ie if you are aiming for a 33 try and aim for a 36 average on your practice tests(or at least have several practice tests near your test date where you are getting in the 35-36 range). You are probably more likely to score below your average on the real thing than above it(although there are many cases of both)
c) Those who get far lower on the real deal than their practice test are far more likely to make it known and complain about that than those who get within their average or who do better. So the minority that talks alot about doing alot worse on the real deal than their practice test make themselves seem more abundant than they actually are because they are far more likely to talk about real scores vs practice scores.
d) The section that from my experience seems to have the most variance from the practice to the real deal is verbal/CARs. Just remember if you can get into the 8-9 range on Verbal(or equivalent on the new) that'll suffice for lower tiers especially for those with solid applications beyond that. 7 and below is where problems start arising.
e) Yes, there is luck involved in the MCAT. That's just the nature of the game. Not everyone can get a top score. Not everyone has the reasoning ability needed. That's why less than 10% of the testers will get a 514+.
f) I don't think you can "study" your way to a 517+ type score. You'll find a number of people who get those type of scores really didn't study that much. Natural ability counts on the MCAT whether we like to admit it. If everybody was capable of getting a 518+ type score, more than 2% of the population would do it(yes this is a flawed analogy I know the MCAT is curved but it still gets the general point across that only a select few get a top score for a reason and its not that they "worked harder").
g) There is alot you can study for on the MCAT. Everybody has an intrinsic limit in terms of max score they are capable of hitting. But many don't hit that max score. If you do everything in your power to hit your max score, you'll find there is a reasonable chance if you are smart enough to have a GPA that can be competitive for MD schools that you can get an MCAT score that is within range of being competitive for MD's as well.
h) If you are worried about any one section keep these numbers in hand. These are for the old MCAT but they provide perspective. You only need to do 38% of the testing population to get an 8 in verbal. 52 percent to get a 9. Beating 57 percent of the testing pop on the old exam would get you a 10 in bio. Beating 68% of the testing population would get you a 10 in physical sciences and 56 for a 9. While its dangerous to aim for the lowest percent for a certain score on each section, for one weak section of yours it helps provide perspective.
i) People always talk about how smart the sample of people testing is for the MCAT and that is definitely true at the top of the range. But it is not true at the lower range. You could estimate roughly that the average GPA of the person taking the MCAT might be around a 3.4-3.5. Many people at the bottom of the percentiles of the MCAT are mediocre students. Remember almost twice as many people take the MCAT as apply to medical school. There are definitely people who take the MCAT have no business taking it. Many people at the bottom also have a variety of things happen to them. There will always be some who are very sick who will let that affect them. Some will completely panic and have a nervous breakdown. Some will never take many FL's and wear down from the length of the test. Some will have other things affect them and simply not void the test. So when you consider those who prepare very poorly, are poor students or have things happen to them on test day they really don't expect it suddenly becomes alot more feasible to score better than 75-80 percent of people taking the test if you prepare thoroughly. Beyond that is, where luck comes into play but you can always tell there is a clear flaw in preparation or content knowledge of those in the low 20's and below on the MCAT.
k) There will always be some will just have problems on a test like this. For some it will play to all their weaknesses. That's just how it is. I think the vast majority who is able to get a decent GPA in college can get around the national average with sufficient prep on the MCAT. I don't think everybody can get a 28+, even those who are solid students. Many can but not all. For some the MCAT just plays to their weaknesses and puts them in tough spots.
l) There are no guarantees. The earlier you accept that the better off you'll be with this test.
m) Likewise, worrying about what you can't control(ie the intrinsic luck of the test and worrying about not having the natural abilities you think you might not have) the sooner you stop doing it the better off you'll be for this test.

All in all amidst this rant worry about what you can control. Maximize your own abilities. Take the AAMC practice test and see where you stand. Trust the fact that test has proven to be a very accurate predictor for many and have confidence in yourself. Doubt in yourself and worrying about things you can't control is one of the biggest things that kills people on test day.
 
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gothicfoxes

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If the exam were based on luck, the AMCAS guide to the MCAT would be a paragraph long and say: "Recommended prerequisites: science & luck. Suggest prep materials: PR, EK, Kaplan & luck." ;)

Sometimes SDN leaves me feeling like I have no hope to beat this test, no matter how confident in my material I may feel :(
SDN has this effect on a lot of us. There's always going to be someone with more ECs, an enviable GPA, and a coveted MCAT score. Don't compare yourself to others; uncertainty will kill your confidence. Go through your practice exams and find out what's causing the low performance. Is your weakness science content or critical reading? x
 
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Goro

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Luck? Hardly. The MCAT is not curved, either.



I've been working very hard to take my MCAT soon, but lately SDN has been scaring me. People here make it seem like a top MCAT score is more due to luck and that it cannot be guaranteed. I am shooting for a 515+ on the exam, and let's say that by the time I take it, I will have:

1. understood the concepts so well that I can teach it to others (frequent review of flashcards)
2. taken 6-10 practice tests and gone over very carefully
3. done a ton of practice passages, FSQ's (~3 hrs. a day practice for 3 months and a practice test every week from different sources)

After doing all of this, isn't it reasonable to expect that I can reach my target score? Or is there a luck component that outweighs all my hard work?

I want to believe that the MCAT is beatable and doable for someone who has studied everything to the point that there is not much else left to study. But then I hear stories on SDN where people claim to have studied 6 months for 5 hrs/day and get a 491!!! How is that possible??

So I don't get it. Is the MCAT really that unpredictable? Do you really have to get lucky with the tests and curve to score well?

Sometimes SDN leaves me feeling like I have no hope to beat this test, no matter how confident in my material I may feel :(
 

efle

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The MCAT is curved, just against the people who took it the year before you rather than those sitting beside you on test day.

There is a massive luck component to the MCAT - how lucky you got in the genetic lottery for sciencey brainpower, that is. The other big chunk is practice.
 

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I think the very high scores are due to luck, unless you see you're consistently scoring them in practice exams. The very high scores differ by getting just 1-2 extra questions wrong on the whole exam. And while a 42 looks a lot nicer than a 38 because it's a difference of 4 points, as a percentile rank, the difference between them is less than 1%. It's a good thing med schools will be looking more at percentile ranks than at raw scores, with the new MCAT. It helps remove the false mystique around top scores.
 

GrapesofRath

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The MCAT is curved, just against the people who took it the year before you rather than those sitting beside you on test day.

There is a massive luck component to the MCAT - how lucky you got in the genetic lottery for sciencey brainpower, that is. The other big chunk is practice.
The part that throws people off more often than science honestly is the verbal and now in this case psych/soc. I don't really buy its that much of a "sciency brainpower" test past a point.

Physical sciences really does not require that pure "sciencey brainpower"; rather its a test of how well you understand basic principles and how much practice you've done. You simply can't make AP level chem(gen chem) and algebra based physics conceptual and a test of brainpower past a certain point when those subjects are so watered down and simplified for the MCAT. Repetition and memorization count here. In many cases, not getting a satisfactory score can speak to a lack of preparation or to not preparing the right way. The Bio does get at science brainpower more than the PS but I think this is another section where studying helps alot and there are alot of learnable tricks. The thing with bio is you can speed up your comprehension speed and ability tremendously by being very familiar with a subject. Part of what throws people off for verbal is they don't explicitly give you a list of topics to study(ie impact of Piccasso, Reconstruction period through the lens of philosophers etc). Well you get that topic list for Bio.

Overall its definitely more common to have your 12/8/12 type breakdowns than your 8/12/9 breakdowns on the old scale. Getting a 11/11/12 or 12/11/12 would give you a 34 or 35 on the old scale which would be high scores competitive even for some top tiers. But maintaining that same kind of performance on verbal is what's difficult; that's why you get alot of 12/8/11 and 11/9/11 type showings which are 31's and mostly only really competitive for lower tiers. Past a certain point, what you are saying of natural ability and luck does come into play for getting a 13+ on a section of any kind. But the verbal was the limiting factor and I think the introduction of psych/soc adds another section with similarities to CARs.

The one thing you gotta remember is that for the old test over 40% of people on the old test got a 10+ in bio and 1/3 a 10+ on the PS). While I don't think everyone is capable of hitting a 10 or double digits on the sciences for the old MCAT; I think many pre-meds capable of getting half decent grades are with the right preparation. It's the CARs and now the psych/soc that I feel throws more people off and where it is hard to improve past a certain point and natural ability really comes into play. That's why I think not all pre-meds are capable of getting beyond a score of say 28 which would be a 10/8/10 type score but until that point of 28 I think there are a large number that are, even amongst the ones that don't.
 

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The MCAT is curved, just against the people who took it the year before you rather than those sitting beside you on test day.

There is a massive luck component to the MCAT - how lucky you got in the genetic lottery for sciencey brainpower, that is. The other big chunk is practice.
I wouldn't say it's luck, but there isn't a 1:1 correlation with intelligence either. Brain power is not always genetic, people can improve their "intelligence" through hard work and practice. I think it's called "neuro-plasticity."
 

efle

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Perhaps I shouldn't say sciencey since really nothing on the MCAT is anything like real science coursework. MCATty brain power instead!

A very large component of brain power is genetic , of course practice still helps in many ways and a bad environment can hinder you a lot even if you start with lucky genes
 

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I wouldn't say it's luck, but there isn't a 1:1 correlation with intelligence either. Brain power is not always genetic, people can improve their "intelligence" through hard work and practice. I think it's called "neuro-plasticity."
I have written once, will write again.

I have never met a National Merit Finalist who was rejected from medical school because of MCAT scores.

If you are good at standardized tests, you are good at standardized tests. Whether or not the MCAT per se is necessary is another discussion.
 

mimelim

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The part that throws people off more often than science honestly is the verbal and now in this case psych/soc. I don't really buy its that much of a "sciency brainpower" test past a point.

Physical sciences really does not require that pure "sciencey brainpower"; rather its a test of how well you understand basic principles and how much practice you've done. You simply can't make AP level chem(gen chem) and algebra based physics conceptual and a test of brainpower past a certain point when those subjects are so watered down and simplified for the MCAT. Repetition and memorization count here. In many cases, not getting a satisfactory score can speak to a lack of preparation or to not preparing the right way. The Bio does get at science brainpower more than the PS but I think this is another section where studying helps alot and there are alot of learnable tricks. The thing with bio is you can speed up your comprehension speed and ability tremendously by being very familiar with a subject. Part of what throws people off for verbal is they don't explicitly give you a list of topics to study(ie impact of Piccasso, Reconstruction period through the lens of philosophers etc). Well you get that topic list for Bio.

Overall its definitely more common to have your 12/8/12 type breakdowns than your 8/12/9 breakdowns on the old scale. Getting a 11/11/12 or 12/11/12 would give you a 34 or 35 on the old scale which would be high scores competitive even for some top tiers. But maintaining that same kind of performance on verbal is what's difficult; that's why you get alot of 12/8/11 and 11/9/11 type showings which are 31's and mostly only really competitive for lower tiers. Past a certain point, what you are saying of natural ability and luck does come into play for getting a 13+ on a section of any kind. But the verbal was the limiting factor and I think the introduction of psych/soc adds another section with similarities to CARs.

The one thing you gotta remember is that for the old test over 40% of people on the old test got a 10+ in bio and 1/3 a 10+ on the PS). While I don't think everyone is capable of hitting a 10 or double digits on the sciences for the old MCAT; I think many pre-meds capable of getting half decent grades are with the right preparation. It's the CARs and now the psych/soc that I feel throws more people off and where it is hard to improve past a certain point and natural ability really comes into play. That's why I think not all pre-meds are capable of getting beyond a score of say 28 which would be a 10/8/10 type score but until that point of 28 I think there are a large number that are, even amongst the ones that don't.
For the record... I'd rather take the 9/13/9 over the 13/9/9 or 9/9/13.

It isn't 'natural ability' that allows some people to do better on the non-science portions of the MCAT. It is preparation for things like the MCAT that happen years before. ie how much reading, writing, logical and critical analysis you are doing from kindergarten on.
 
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efle

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For the record... I'd rather take the 9/13/9 over the 13/9/9 or 9/9/13.

It isn't 'natural ability' that allows some people to do better on the non-science portions of the MCAT. It is preparation for things like the MCAT that happen years before. ie how much reading, writing, logical and critical analysis you are doing from kindergarten on.
Really, even with all the studies showing verbal correlates worst with pre clinical grades and step score?
 

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A 515+ translates to a 33+. While difficult to get for most people, the reasons for that are not due to only luck, but in conjunction with other factors like test taking skills.

For the record... I'd rather take the 9/13/9 over the 13/9/9 or 9/9/13.

It isn't 'natural ability' that allows some people to do better on the non-science portions of the MCAT. It is preparation for things like the MCAT that happen years before. ie how much reading, writing, logical and critical analysis you are doing from kindergarten on.
Pretty sure that assessment breaks down for anyone scoring beyond a 10 in verbal.

Really, even with all the studies showing verbal correlates worst with pre clinical grades and step score?
mimelim is likely talking about long term trends here.
 

mimelim

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Really, even with all the studies showing verbal correlates worst with pre clinical grades and step score?
A 515+ translates to a 33+. While difficult to get for most people, the reasons for that are not due to only luck, but in conjunction with other factors like test taking skills.



Pretty sure that assessment breaks down for anyone scoring beyond a 10 in verbal.



mimelim is likely talking about long term trends here.
Pre-clinical grades are completely meaningless. I don't think our faculty ever look at them other than if you failed something. Step score while useful for stratifying doesn't make you a good resident or really physician for that matter. Above a certain threshold, it also becomes largely meaningless except for pissing contests.
 

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Pre-clinical grades are completely meaningless. I don't think our faculty ever look at them other than if you failed something. Step score while useful for stratifying doesn't make you a good resident or really physician for that matter. Above a certain threshold, it also becomes largely meaningless except for pissing contests.
Truth!
 

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The only "luck" I see coming on the MCAT is whether or not I get the MCAT with tons of ORGO (in which I will scream that I am unlucky - I kid!!! ) or the one with tons of physics and math calc....

That's the only thing I can see being described as "luck" and even those at top end can do any one of the MCAT exams given that day without any issue. They simply know the material and know how to take the MCAT (that is a learned skill).
 

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The MCAT has a +/- 2 confidence band, so there is a small amount of luck at the 33 range (rough equivalent to 515) but certainly not enough that a true 28 would ever score a 33.

AMCAS will never say it publicly but the confidence band obviously breaks down for the top scores. It becomes much more likely for a true 38 to score a 43 or vice versa -- and yes, this is mostly luck since the difference here is usually only a few questions which can easily be attributed to poor wording, testing room variance, and to some degree the number of "low yield" questions.

However, it should be noted that every year there are students that crush Step 1 (95th+ percentile) that also did relatively poorly on the MCAT (50-60th percentile). I know one person in this group, who honestly should have been at a Top 10 MD but went DO due to MCAT, and they attribute it entirely to test anxiety that they eventually sought help for.
 

efle

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The MCAT has a +/- 2 confidence band, so there is a small amount of luck at the 33 range (rough equivalent to 515) but certainly not enough that a true 28 would ever score a 33.

AMCAS will never say it publicly but the confidence band obviously breaks down for the top scores. It becomes much more likely for a true 38 to score a 43 or vice versa -- and yes, this is mostly luck since the difference here is usually only a few questions which can easily be attributed to poor wording, testing room variance, and to some degree the number of "low yield" questions.

However, it should be noted that every year there are students that crush Step 1 (95th+ percentile) that also did relatively poorly on the MCAT (50-60th percentile). I know one person in this group, who honestly should have been at a Top 10 MD but went DO due to MCAT, and they attribute it entirely to test anxiety that they eventually sought help for.
Gyngyn has said 37+ is all statistically identical according to AAMC communications with his adcom
Whether that is identical with regards to retesting interval or to graduating MD or what I do not know
 
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I've been working very hard to take my MCAT soon, but lately SDN has been scaring me. People here make it seem like a top MCAT score is more due to luck and that it cannot be guaranteed. I am shooting for a 515+ on the exam, and let's say that by the time I take it, I will have:

1. understood the concepts so well that I can teach it to others (frequent review of flashcards)
2. taken 6-10 practice tests and gone over very carefully
3. done a ton of practice passages, FSQ's (~3 hrs. a day practice for 3 months and a practice test every week from different sources)

After doing all of this, isn't it reasonable to expect that I can reach my target score? Or is there a luck component that outweighs all my hard work?

I want to believe that the MCAT is beatable and doable for someone who has studied everything to the point that there is not much else left to study. But then I hear stories on SDN where people claim to have studied 6 months for 5 hrs/day and get a 491!!! How is that possible??

So I don't get it. Is the MCAT really that unpredictable? Do you really have to get lucky with the tests and curve to score well?

Sometimes SDN leaves me feeling like I have no hope to beat this test, no matter how confident in my material I may feel :(
When people mention luck on the mcat I think they mean what material actually shows up on your exam. When taking the exam you should have a decent understanding of all testable topics. That way, no matter what you get tested on you can reason through the problem with correct premises to come to a conclusion. In my opinion the mcat is ability and hard work in some combination
 

Munty

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Thank you, this is reassuring!

BUT…there are no reliable practice tests for the 2015 MCAT except the one AAMC. In a situation like this, can I trust that my sound knowledge and practice regarding the material will help me get a 515+ even if my Kaplan test average is like a 506 (since its apparently not representative)? Or will AAMC screw me over with my score by giving me an absolutely different style test? I ask, because apparently this is what they have been doing for the past few administrations…
While the majority of the posts in this thread are right, I thought I would just throw in my personal experience. I took the MCAT a few months ago and had a similar study strategy as you and took multiple Kaplan practice tests. I averaged maybe 502-503 on them which was really disappointing at the time, but I ended up making a 517. So I think you are on the right track and will do just fine. I know all the work I put into it made a lot more difference than any luck I had.
 

gonnif

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Rule 1: Take a Breath
Rule 7: The MCAT is your friend

While there is a little luck in anything we do, for the MCAT, much of it is mental attitude. That is something beyond content, beyond knowing how to take the exam, beyond practice questions, even beyond a game day attitude. The only thing I ever really tutored for MCAT was the old VR (now CARS sort of). What I found from most people was fear and nervousness , expressed in many different ways. This could be so mentally consumed with worry the week of the exam, you dont sleep well and therefore not as sharp. Fear that this is the exam that may determine your life. Worry while taking the exam of that last question, of the questions coming up, not focusing on the question in front of you. Most students never get into absolute, comfortable mental and test taking process. They don't discipline themselves nor create, practice and perform a process that should be repeated for every practice test, every practice exam, every step of the way that it is so internalized you have "become one with the exam." For those who play sports or a musical instrument understand this perfectly. You have trained and practice to be totally focused when playing or performing.

My point to this is students need to spend as much time on developing their own process for taking the exam parallel as they do with simply content. The development of discipline and focus is as important, if not more so, then anything else
 
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I think there's definitely a "luck" factor to a certain extent. For example, I had consistently been hitting 10s and 11s in verbal on all practice exams because there would always be one passage per exam that I would mess up on (usually the majorly philosophical ones, lol). On my real exam, I didn't have any that messed me up like that and so I ended up scoring in the 100th percentile for that section. It's not like I was any smarter on test day, it was just that I got "lucky" with my passages.
 
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I think there's definitely a "luck" factor to a certain extent. For example, I had consistently been hitting 10s and 11s in verbal on all practice exams because there would always be one passage per exam that I would mess up on (usually the majorly philosophical ones, lol). On my real exam, I didn't have any that messed me up like that and so I ended up scoring in the 100th percentile for that section. It's not like I was any smarter on test day, it was just that I got "lucky" with my passages.
Haha....that is some NICE luck.
 

Silence in ER

5+ Year Member
Apr 30, 2013
473
406
in northeast pennsylvania
Status
Medical Student (Accepted)
I took the mcat 2015 and scored a 515. I am going to deviate from most others here, I would say luck is a significant factor. While hard work conquers all, i think it would be silly not to realize that being tested on things you like ( biochemistry for me) as opposed to things you don't (physics) also helps. It can also come down to how you were feeling that day. My first mcat, I took cold, for fun ( it was a very stupid decision, someone should have shaken me or something), I got a 12 in verbal. I have no idea how it happened, I was just pretty relaxed that day and had fun with the passages which I sort of liked. So yes, luck helps.

That never happened again though.
 
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