Despite our best-laid plans, sometimes things don’t turn out the way we intend. I often get emails from students telling me that their test is in a week or in a month asking what they should do. The following is my best advice if you find yourself in such a situation.

Emergency #1 – My Test is in a Week:

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So your test is in a week and your score still isn’t where you’d like it to be. What do you do? If you aren’t close to your target score, my first recommendation would be to push your date back. I know this costs money and time, and it is not what you hoped for nor expected, as it may well throw off your plans/ schedule for applying to medical school. But the MCAT is the single most important factor in your application. It is not the only factor, but it is hands down the most important factor. The rest of your application may be great, but a poor MCAT score will hurt even the strongest of applicants. Some schools are rumored to not even look at your application if you don’t make their “cut” score. It is unfortunate that one day’s test scores can undo years of research, volunteering, and all the hard work that goes into a strong GPA, but the truth is that your MCAT score very much can. It is not something to play with. This is the single biggest mistake many pre-meds make when it comes to their medical school application, and it costs many of them a shot at their dream career. If your test is in a week and you haven’t scored within a scaled point of the lowest score you’d be pleased with on the CARS section, my recommendation would be to delay the test for at least six weeks. Even if it means having to take a year off. Once you have a poor MCAT score attached to your name, every score after that score, no matter how high, will have your lower score sitting right next to it casting a shadow on all future attempts or hard work. Don’t do that to yourself, unless you absolutely have to take the risk. While one low MCAT attempt is not a game over on your application, it puts a great deal of pressure on your second attempt, as having a third attempt on your application is a rather large obstacle to overcome, especially considering roughly half of the people who apply to medical school do not get in anywhere. In 2013, according to AAMC data there were 48,014 applicants while only 20,005 matriculated. I do not say this to scare you but to make sure you’re aware of all the possible outcomes. Many students don’t realize how difficult and competitive getting accepted anywhere really is. Most medical schools are looking for a reason to throw your application out. Don’t give them one needlessly by taking the MCAT when you are not prepared.

With that said, the only situation in which I could possibly recommend you taking such a risk would be when 1) You absolutely have to take the MCAT at this particular time, 2) You’d be happy/ overjoyed with attending a lower-mid to lower-tier school, 3) Your other three sections are strong (127+) and you can reasonably trust that your other sections will be able to carry some of the weight if your CARS score doesn’t, and 4) you would be ok with a 125 on the CARS. As for your school selections, if you do have to retake because of a bad score, your initial low score will not have as significant of an impact on your application if you’re applying to a lower-mid to lower-tier school. If you have your heart set on Harvard, Stanford, or some other top tier school, or even some mid-tier schools, you simply cannot take the risk of having a low MCAT score on your application. Top twenty schools simply have too many good applicants to choose from. While it isn’t an instant “application in the trash” stamp it will make the whole process that much harder on you.

If you’re ok with a 125 on the CARS, your situation isn’t too gloomy, as most test takers already have the reasoning capacity to score a 125 on the CARS if given enough time. The issue for most people is timing. It is possible to improve your timing in a short period of time, so for many MCATers, it is possible to get from say a 122 to a 124 or maybe even 125 in a week if you work hard and take the correct approach. But don’t expect to raise your score more than 4 or 5 scaled points in less than a month, especially if we’re talking about picking up those points in the 123 to 125 range.

Ok, with all of my warnings out of the way, what do I recommend you do when your test date is a week out?

  1. Every day for the next five days, find 9 of the hardest passages you can and do each passage timed individually with the appropriate time interval per number of questions per passage (9 minutes for a 5 question passage, 10.5 minutes for a 6 question passage, and 12 minutes for a 7 question passage). Do each of the 9 passages individually setting the timer for the respective time for just that passage, but do all 9 passages consecutively, one right after the other; resetting the time after each passage. This will build your stamina but will also require you to do each passage at the correct CARS pace. Your timing will improve if you do this. When the timer goes off for the passage, do not finish the remaining questions. Move on to the next passage, and reset the timer. The pain of having to see those empty question bubbles one or two times will motivate you to get your timing under control and to speed up.
  2. Read through the passage once, shooting for a total time of 3 minutes, but be sure to take no longer than 4 minutes. Once you’ve finished reading the passage, do not go back to reread the passage under any circumstances until you’ve answered every question on the test. You cannot allow yourself to go back to look for details. Mark the question, guess, and keep moving.
  3. Be sure not to spend more than two minutes on any given question. If you are stuck, mark the question, guess, and move on. You can come back to it later if you have time. The most likely reason you’re struggling with the CARS section is because of your timing. Letting go of hard questions and limiting yourself to only two minutes per question is the easiest way to quickly improve your timing and thus CARS score. Almost anyone can score a 125 if given enough time. If you were to get your timing under control, right now as you read these words, you’re very likely able to score in the 125 range on the CARS without any other improvements. Timing is key!
  4. If you’re still unable to get your timing under control after five days of 9 passages a day, the final option you have is what I call the “big gamble.” I am hesitant to recommend it except to those who are in the most extreme of cases and who are ok with an average or slightly below average score on the CARS section. This strategy would only be advisable for those who aren’t able to get their scores above the 122 mark and have to take the MCAT within the next few days.

Here’s what you do. With the first 5 question passage you come to, you mark “C” for every question and then simply keep going. You don’t read the passage, you don’t read the questions. You basically take the hit and turn the 9 passage CARS test into an 8 passage CARS test.

Let me explain the reasoning behind this so you can decide if this option would ever be a wise move for you and your particular goals. This is not a good idea for anyone looking to score higher than a 125 on the CARS, so keep this in mind. Simply because of the odds of it, you will likely get 1 out of the 5 questions correct you guessed on. You may even get lucky and get 2 correct, but let’s be conservative and say you just get one question correct. Thus, you start the CARS test with a possible score of 49 out of 53 (you’ve already missed 4 questions from your first skipped passage.) Now let’s assume that with the extra 9 minutes you gain by skipping the 5 question passage, you’re able to score a percentage correct of the remaining 49 questions at around 75%. This would have you getting roughly 36 or 37 questions correct, which leaves you solidly in the 125 range, plus or minus 1 question. If you get lucky or are able to score higher than 75% correct with the extra time, you could reasonably be looking at the 126 range.

This may be a good option for you if you’re currently scoring in the 121 to 123 range and your other sections are strong. For example, assume that you score 127, 128 and 128 on the other three sections. With a 125 on the CARS you end up with a 508 which isn’t that bad of a score for many lower tier and mid to low tier schools. Instead of having to take the test again because of a 121 on the CARS, you’ll end up with a reasonably strong composite score. If the rest of your application is strong, you’ll be competitive at lower/mid-tier medical schools. Like I said, I would only think about this strategy if you meet all four of the earlier qualifications I mentioned above. If you decide to go this route, take at least one practice test before your test day using this strategy to make sure that the extra time pops you up into the 75% correct range. If it doesn’t, push your test day back. I’ll just say this one more time. USER BEWARE on this one!

Emergency #2 – My Test is in a Month:

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This is a much better situation to be in than the “My Test is in a Week” person. I’ve seen people make significant gains in a month, so there’s no reason you can’t too. It is possible, but you will have to work hard. Here are the keys.

Don’t waste your time reviewing your practice tests until you are consistently in the 127 to 128 range. Use the time you would have been reviewing passages to do more passages. The truth is that reviewing the rationale behind correct answers benefits you very little if your timing is still off which is almost always the case for someone scoring under a 127. Once you are no longer losing easy points to the clock, then you can start to review.

My prescription for your first two weeks is to do 5 to 6 passages each day. Set the timer for one passage and finish the passage and question set. When the time is up, reset the timer for the next passage, and move on, even if you haven’t completed the questions for the previous passage.

Be sure to finish reading the passage in 3 to 4 minutes, and don’t go back to reread the passage for anything while answering the questions.

After doing two weeks of the above, for the next five days, take a practice CARS test each day. Take one break day, and then repeat the five day cycle, taking a practice CARS test each day. Don’t waste your time reviewing your practice tests until you’re in the golden 127 to 128 range. This will put you 3 days out from your test. Take another break day, and then take one final practice test two days before your test day. I’d recommend not even grading this one, as an aberrant low score might shoot your confidence.

If you’ve done the above, you’ll have given yourself the best chance of improving your score in such a short period of time. If you find yourself no longer struggling to finish the test on time, then you can begin to review the passages even if you haven’t reached the 127 range. But don’t start reviewing passages and questions beyond taking a peek at the ones you got wrong until then. I know this is uncomfortable for some of you, but trust me on this one. Timing is the foundation of every ultra-high score on the CARS. If you don’t have timing, you have nothing.

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