MCAT score plateaus: why they happen, and what to do about them

medical school admissions MCAT
By Katelyn

MCAT-10One of the most common frustrations that I’ve seen students run into during their MCAT studying is the dreaded score plateau. A student’s studying is going well, they are improving on their practice exam scores and feel confident in their content mastery, but then several exams in a row show the same score. It can feel demoralizing, but remember, it happens to nearly all students, even students who end up with 520+ scores, and it is a normal part of the MCAT studying process.

Plateaus occur because a student has rounded out all of their most prominent content gaps, familiarized themselves with the basics of MCAT strategy and reasoning skills, and addressed any glaring problems with time management. In other words, plateaus occur when we have fixed our most obvious weaknesses, and now the mistakes that we’re making, while fewer in number, are subtler, more systemic, and harder to address. When we reach this stage of the studying process, the appropriate prescription is detailed exam review.

Look at what you missed on your last few practice exams. Were there certain content areas where you kept missing questions? That can be a sign that you are misunderstanding some key aspect of that field, even if you know the basic science behind it. Did you do better or worse in certain sections? That can be an insight to guide your drilling. Are you scoring better or worse on easy vs. medium or hard questions? A stronger performance on questions classified as easy often means that you are approaching the exam too shallowly. Go back to the hard questions you got wrong, and really dig into your thought process: Why did you choose answer choice A? Why was A wrong? Why was answer choice B correct? Why did you rule out B? Focus on understanding and changing your thought process, rather than passively reviewing your mistakes. On the flip side, you may see that you actually did better on medium and hard questions, and struggled on questions classified as easy. Don’t feel embarrassed; this is actually quite common! It is typically a sign that you are overthinking questions, looking for reasons that are too subtle and too complex. When this happens, review the explanations for those “easier” questions that you missed, and try to find ways to streamline and simplify your thought process. Remember Occam’s Razor: the simplest reasoning process is likely to be the correct one.

Score plateaus can be scary, especially if you plateau at a point below your target score, but overcoming a score plateau is not an insurmountable task. Expect that it will happen when you begin studying, don’t panic when it finally does happen, and focus on detailed test review to solve it. Remember that while content weaknesses can play a part in score plateaus, a plateau is typically more deeply rooted in our reasoning skills and how we approach questions. This is especially true for score plateaus above the 505 score range. However, with these study approaches, you’ll be better equipped to bypass your plateau wherever it may occur.

The road to medical school is long, and the MCAT is one of its most formidable challenges. You will be relieved to know that what you learned in your premedical courses is actually on the test. But studying for the MCAT is more about taking that knowledge stored way back there in the nooks and crannies of your mind, bringing it to the fore, and then learning to twist and stretch it in the ways the MCAT tests. In reality, studying for the MCAT is no more (or less) difficult than spending late hours on a physics problem set or an entire weekend on an organic chemistry lab report. Just like these other tasks, the MCAT requires endurance and follow-through, but it becomes significantly more manageable when you work with a Cambridge Coaching MCAT tutor, like Katelyn, to apply a structured, systematic, and strategic approach to your studying.

Learn more about MCAT tutoring

Taking the MCAT this year? Check out some of our other helpful blog posts below!

5 Ways To Improve Your MCAT Studying Without Studying For The MCAT

One tutor’s thoughts on MCAT materials

A comprehensive guide to MCAT resources