Nov 6, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

If you are an aspiring doctor with hopes of attending medical school, acing your MCATs is probably one of your goals. However, the reality is that not everyone gets the scores they need to impress med school admissions committees. The good news is there are paths to physician careers that don’t involve high MCAT scores. Here’s a closer look at why this test matters so much, along with three options to consider if your score is low -- or if you have no score at all.

The MCAT Imperative

“The Medical College Admission Test® (MCAT®) is a standardized, multiple-choice, computer-based test that has been a part of the medical school admissions process for more than 90 years. Each year, more than 85,000 students sit for the exam. [...] The MCAT exam tests examinees on the skills and knowledge that medical educators, physicians, medical students, and residents have identified as key prerequisites for success in medical school and practicing medicine,” says the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

Wondering just how much it matters? Ask any pre-med student about the MCAT, and they are likely to tell you it is critical. They have a point. As the only standardized part of the medical school application process, medical schools rely on it as a key metric to compare applicants with very different backgrounds. It’s also one of the three most important factors used in vetting candidates, alongside cumulative science GPA and cumulative GPA, according to a 2011 survey of more than 100 medical school admissions officers by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

But MCAT scores are not just about predicting how well students will perform in medical school and as a doctor. They also factor into US News & World Report’s medical school rankings. In other words, schools looking to boost their standing can do so by admitting candidates with better MCAT scores, according to Savvy Pre-Med.

Three Ways Around the MCAT

1. Strengthen other aspects of your application.

While MCAT scores are important, so are other aspects of your application. If your scores are not where you want them to be and you will not have another opportunity to take the test, focus on enriching your candidate profile in other ways. High grades, strong extracurricular, and experience -- such as shadowing working physicians -- can all help you stand out. But “stand out” is the operating word.

“While [a low MCAT score] doesn't make it impossible to get in, it does mean you have to have a compelling reason that you would benefit the school in other areas.  You might be someone who will be a part of the school's pet primary care program, for example. Or maybe you have a perfect 4.0 that helps raise the school's average GPA. Whatever the reason, you will have to be a standout applicant in all other respects in order to get into a school while being too far below their average MCAT,” continues Savvy Pre-Med.

2. Apply to schools that don’t require the MCAT.

While the majority of medical schools require the MCAT, some don’t. Some programs offer high school students early admission to medical school through eight-year combined BS/MD programs. While this means bypassing the MCAT, it also means exceptional performance will be required in other areas, such as class rank and GPS. Other schools may accept ACT scores instead of MCAT scores.

Independent college counselor and founder Kristen Moon says, “If taking the MCAT has you worried about your prospects of getting into medical school, the good news is that there are a number of programs, that allow you to skip the MCAT altogether and have the assurance that you’ll be accepted into medical school.”

3. Consider the Caribbean or DO programs.

While you may have always envisioned attending a top-ranked medical school in the US, low or absent MCAT scores may mean re-evaluating your prospects -- even if you have still got another opportunity to take the test ahead of you.

“You also can consider applying to lower-tier DO and Caribbean medical programs as part of a larger backup, ‘Plan B strategy.’ While you are preparing to retake the MCAT, you can apply to these schools as part of a two-pronged strategy for admissions. Just because you apply to a Caribbean or osteopathic medical school, doesn’t mean that you have to attend one of those programs, but it can be very, very reassuring to have an acceptance from a medical school in your back pocket as you pursue retaking the MCAT,” suggests graduate school admissions consulting company Inquarta.

Did you struggle with low or no MCAT scores and still fulfill your dream of attending medical school and/or becoming a doctor? If so, please share your experiences in the comments section.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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