The MCAT is an undeniably monumental hurdle to overcome along the path to becoming an MD. It’s an exam that traditionally has covered all of the pre-med science courses, with a projected pathway to include more humanities subject areas as well in the near future. It’s an exam that takes up your entire morning on the day of test day, but it’s also an exam that has [probably] taken up all of your time and thoughts for the months immediately preceding that day.

However, it’s also an exam that could very well determine your chance of getting accepted or rejected from medical school. Despite having an excellent GPA, hours of shadowing experience, and volunteer activities galore, applicants who have a less than ideal MCAT score can easily be completely overlooked (and consequently rejected) during the application process. However, if you happen to be one of those pre-med students who has done poorly on his MCAT the first time around, all hope is not necessarily lost. Although it might mean having to take off a year (or more) in between the end of undergrad and the beginning of medical school, choosing to retake the MCAT is generally your best plan of action. Doing so will not only drastically improve your chances of getting into medical school, but it will greatly reduce the chance of you being completely overlooked altogether. At the same time, taking a tactical approach to your second MCAT is definitely an advisable plan.

Focus your studies

The MCAT is currently mostly broken down into several sections (physical sciences, biological sciences, and verbal reasoning), and the new MCAT (starting in 2015) will have a stronger focus on the humanities as well. However, within these sections (including the current MCAT design), smaller categories make up the larger overall sections. For instance, your “physical sciences” score is actually made up of physics-based questions and general chemistry-based questions. For your second stab at the MCAT, work to focus your studies on the sections (or subsections) that were your weakest. Obviously you should still spend some time studying your stronger sections as well, but your score will probably see the most improvement if you work to strengthen your weaker sections.

Alter your approach (if necessary)

There are many reasons that a brilliant premed student might get a lousy MCAT score. If possible, try to address a few of the issues that might have unwantedly contributed to your lousy score. If you felt that you knew the materials but were just too stressed to comprehend the questions on the day of the exam, practice regular de-stressing exercises to calm your mind. If you felt that you weren’t familiar enough with the format of the exam or the wording of the questions (or if you felt that you couldn’t pace yourself properly), then work through more official practice exams while preparing for your next chance at the exam. If you think that you study better alone than in a prep course (or vice versa), then spend more time studying in that environment. Basically, make the most of your new chance at the MCAT and choose to avoid any exam-prep mistakes that you might have had to learn the hard way during your first MCAT.

Plan ahead

Finally, not only is the MCAT an exhaustingly long exam, but it’s also an exam that does not offer its test-takers any immediate results (unlike the GRE). There is typically over a month between the time that you take your MCAT and the time that you can view your scores online. This means that if your score still isn’t where it needs to be after your second MCAT, it is probably already too late to sign up for the next immediate MCAT test date. (It will most likely be full by that time.) If you haven’t planned for this “just-in-case” incident, then your poor score could put you back yet another year in the application cycle. Save yourself the frustration and plan to retake your exam on a date that still leaves you with time to retake it within the same application cycle, if at all possible.

The idea of having to retake the MCAT is understandably a daunting and frustrating one. However, spending several months studying (and several hundred dollars on exam fees) is really a small price to pay for working towards your dreams. If you let a lousy MCAT score stand between you and your goal of being a physician, there is a good chance that you’ll regret it someday in your future. Take it from someone who knows (namely, this writer), retaking the MCAT in order to get accepted into medical school is well worth it in the long run.