Ask the Dean: Premed Questions Answered

Dr. Scott Wright and Dr. Ryan Gray answer our Mappd Members' Questions

14 Premed Questions Answered: MCAT Cutoff Scores, When to Retake Cs, and More

This week, we take questions about MCAT cutoff scores, the downsides of taking the MCAT early, when to retake Cs in prerequisites, whether you can have a life in med school, and more!

For an app that is changing the landscape for premed students, check out Mappd at! It's a technology platform that's going to help premeds understand the process of getting into medical school. 

Joining me are Mappd co-founder Rachel Grubbs and Dr. Scott Wright, our VP of Academic Advising. More than 1,400 students are using it to track their progress to medical school. If this is something you're interested in, check it all out for a free two-week trial. Also, check out

Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

[00:55] Can the MCAT Predict How Good of a Physician You Are?

Q: How much do you think the MCAT predicts a person's ability to be a good physician?

A: It does test critical thinking and problem-solving. And that's something that most American colleges and universities don't teach as well as they could. And sometimes it's not even specific to the school, it's specific to major.

For example, engineering students are often outstanding problem solvers because that's so much of how they work. It can vary from physics program to physics program, but a lot of physics majors are great problem solvers.

“One of the challenges with many biology curriculums in America is that it focuses on memorization.”

It's very important that our physicians are able to evaluate and synthesize information, which is sort of the highest level of learning. And sometimes college programs don't put much focus on that. So what I like about the MCAT is because it's heavy-reading, it helps you shift your brain to do that. Because a lot of what you're going to do as a doctor is actually listening and talking, 

Moreover, it's important that our future doctors can keep cool in high-stake situations. But with the MCAT, Rachel doesn't actually think it's getting at the right kind of high stakes since these are very subjective opinions.

And the biggest issue that comes into play is when the more money you have, the better you are able to overcome those hurdles. 

[9:09]​ Required Clinical Hours

Q: Should medical schools require a certain number of clinical hours?

A: There are some medical schools going outside of the standard prereq list of courses. And they're going towards a more competency-based approach to what they are looking for in an applicant. But that's only a minority of schools. It's a big pill to swallow for schools to invest that much in the process. That being said, when you get into that checkbox mentality of getting thousands of hours, you're not really paying attention to anything except that checkbox.

[13:20​] Taking the MCAT Too Early

Q: Is there harm in taking the MCAT too early?

A: A March 2021 MCAT date is fine if you're applying the following year. For the students saying potentially, I'm working, trying to balance everything, obviously MCAT prep, taking the MCAT, and applications all at the same time, it can get very overwhelming. 

“Being out of school gives you a lot of flexibility to be working on a lot of the application stuff now so that you can divvy up a lot of things. It all comes down to time management.”

Now, in terms of taking the MCAT too early, the MCAT has an expiration date for most medical schools of three years. And so, there's a potential issue if the student takes it in 2021, but doesn't apply until 2022. 

[16:23]​ Clinical Experience with Optometry Patients?

Q: Does interacting with optometry patients count as clinical experience?

A: There are several things you're looking for in a clinical setting. What does the patient-caregiver relationship look like? How does that work? What are the needs of the patient? You're looking at communication skills and everything. So yes, that counts as clinical experience. 

Just be careful in this particular situation. If that's all you've got, that's going to be a real problem. But if that is supplementing experience in hospitals with physicians and in clinics where you're shadowing or doing clinical work then that would count as clinical.

[18:26]​ Retaking Courses with Cs

Q: Should you retake all Cs in prereqs, even if you have limited funding?

A: This depends on how many C's you have. If, for instance, you got a C in gen chem 2and everything else looked okay, then that's not a problem. 

Now, if you have a lot of Cs then you think you got more issues than just the grades you got, you've got to ask yourself why you're getting those scores. 

Another scenario is if you've got, let's say two C's, but everything else is Bs and very limited A's, that's a problem too. Because that GPA is going to be just around a 3 o above a 3. And that's a tough GPA to apply with particularly in the sciences.

That being said, students who have the funding to retake all their classes where they didn't do as well as they wanted to are going to have a better chance than someone who doesn't retake one or two of those C's because of funding limitations. But that’s assuming they do better in those courses. 

[21:15]​ Sociology Course for MCAT Prep

Q: Sociology is not a required course. But it's tested on the MCAT. Should I take it? Or should I focus on studying for the MCAT instead? 

A: There are prereqs for medical school and then there are prereqs for the MCAT. The MCAT does have a psycho section which has been there for around five years now. And the feedback we get from a lot of students is that the courses aren't necessary for the prep. So if you're tight on time or tight on funding, the kind of stuff that's in the psych is a mix of memorization, which you can get from the AAMC.

Now, the flip side is if you need that kind of humanity, or social science to fulfill a prereq at your school. This is also great if you're very science-oriented, and you don't feel like you've got the strongest critical reading skills. 

“A sociology course is a chance to work on those reading and thinking skills in a safer and cheaper environment.”

Think about this as an opportunity that if you know you're going to do the worst in CARS. Or you know you can do well on a straight-up science exam about facts, but you don't do as well with passage-based. Then a sociology course is a chance to work on those reading and thinking skills in a safer and cheaper environment. So it's another way to build your critical reading skills. But if you're just asking about MCAT prep, then you can skip it.

Moreover, a lot of undergraduate institutions are creating classes that integrate psychology, sociology, public health, and others that meet the social science elective required at their institution. And it's a good thing for the undergraduate institutions that have done that to address the needs of the premed students. 

At the end of the day, it's not just about taking the class and getting an A. We've all taken classes and gotten an A and not learned a whole lot in that class. It's about you committing as a student to say you're not only going to make an A in this class, but you're going to learn and really integrate the skills.

If you're looking to using a third-party test prep, check out Blueprint MCAT. They particularly nail down the sections you need help with based on AAMC's content list.

[27:29]​ Withdrawing App Due to Low MCAT Score

Q: Should I withdraw my app after a low MCAT score late in the cycle?

A: What's a low MCAT score? Because there are a lot of misconceptions around what a low MCAT score is. And the answer to your question also depends a little bit on where you're applying and how broadly you're applying. But let's say you've got a 500 on the MCAT with a strong GPA. Then you have a solid clinical experience and a solid upward trend and postbac credits, all sciences ni 3.8+. So the trend is key here.

Having said that, we don't think you should withdraw the application. Because if you've already paid the money and you've already done everything, just let it ride. You're going to be considered a reapplicant regardless – which is not a bad thing.

"Let it ride and see what happens… There’s no magical rainbow on the other end of withdrawing an application."

[31:10]​ Old MCAT Scores on Record

Q: Do old MCAT scores stay on your record forever?

A: Your MCAT score stays on your record forever. Several years ago, they implemented new rules where if your score was from the 90s, or very early on, it might have dropped off. So if you happen to be somebody who has an MCAT from 2002, then maybe that's not on record. But you've got seven tries. And they're going to see them all, even if they only accept the ones from the last couple of years. 

And so, it doesn't matter how far back now whether or not they're going to look at it or consider it. That's a whole different story. But once this stuff is in a database somewhere, it's going to stay there. 

“If a medical school has your MCAT score in their database, it is there.”

[33:12]​ Typical MCAT Cutoff

Q: What's the typical MCAT cutoff compared to a med school's median?

A: If you think of the normal curve, statistically, you're thinking about not the median, but the mean, and the standard deviation. And when you get two standard deviations away from that mean, then that's starting to get far enough out in the tail. And the schools are going to drop off unless there's some other really super amazing stuff in your application. 

When you get out to that tail of that curve, it gets pretty limited in terms of the time they're going to spend with that application.

That being said, my general recommendation is don't look at that stuff. Let the medical school decide based on what they're looking at their processes. Because you may have something that is just outstanding in your application that the school has been talking about forever. But your MCAT score is way lower than where they normally take it. But they're willing to overlook that because of other things in your application. Let the medical schools say no to you.

“Far too many students limit the medical school's ability to see amazing applications because the student is saying no to the school before the school ever gets a chance to say yes.”

[35:22​] Dental Shadowing

Q: Should I include dental shadowing on my application, if I have it?

A: It depends on the entirety of the application and stuff. But Scott's first reaction is to just leave that. If it was a clinical experience, and you were like a dental tech or a dental assistant, you might put it on there. 

If all you're doing is just standing there watching or following the dentist around from room to room, it's not a bad thing. But it's not going to benefit you either. Again, you don't necessarily have to add it. Shadowing a dentist doesn't really add anything. If you have room to squeeze it into a shadowing activity, and you have lots of other shadowing experience, great. 

[37:35​] Unpaid Shadowing

Q: Does working for a group of ophthalmologists count as shadowing? Or would it need to be during unpaid or nonworking hours?

A: The question is what are you doing with the work? Are you an administrator? Are you checking patients? In that case, it is probably not shadowing. Are you actually in the room with the ophthalmologists with the patients like working in some way? 

A lot of schools consider scribing as good as shadowing and so that would work as well. The question always comes back to what are you doing? Scribing, interpreting, and also working with the patients are clinical. It doesn't matter if it's paid or unpaid – it's clinical. 

[39:36​] A 6-Month Gap Before Medical School

Q: What should I do with a 6-month gap right before medical school?

A: If you have the funds, go backpacking across Europe, or if not, just do something that gets you excited. 

"There is basically nothing you can do to prepare you for medical school. You just have to go in, jump into the deep end and start swimming as best you can."

If you've never taken an anatomy course, buy an anatomy coloring book, and just have fun with that. Again, go enjoy your life because it's the last time you have that sort of freedom. 

[43:07]​ Life in Medical School

Q: Can you have a life in medical school?

A: This comes down to time management. If you manage your time well, you can do a lot during medical school and get plenty of sleep. You can actually watch TV and go to movies and have a real life. If you manage your time well, you're going to still be able to have a significant other and social life and maybe work out sometimes. But if you don't manage your time well, it's going to eat you up. 

[45:16]​ Getting Letters of Recommendation

Q: Can you get a letter of recommendation from an online prof who doesn't really know you?

A: To be honest, that letter is going to be worthless. It's not going to be helpful. It would be better to have letters from nonscience professors that can really talk about your intellectual level and your academic commitment, your work ethic, and your personality than to have a letter from an online professor that you don't know.

For schools that require that science letter, you could probably reach out to a couple of the med schools. Ask them for their advice and see what they tell you to do. 

"Schools are willing to bend things a lot more now under these COVID conditions than they were in the past."

Think about reaching out and asking if this is something that's going to be a real problem for your application if you can't get a letter from a science professor. And just see what they say.



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