Some Statistics on the MCAT and Undergraduate Majors

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) put out some interesting data regarding MCAT scores relative to choice of undergraduate major.  The numbers are rather striking and show a pretty extreme disparity between the scores of the traditional pre-med undergraduate majors and the scores of those following the road less traveled.

A little disclaimer here – not all majors are shown on these plots, nor is it clear to me what ‘Premedical’ refers to either.  Since I’m not aware of any school which has a formal undergraduate major in that field, I’m going to ignore the results from that particular group and roll them into the biology majors in my discussion.

For those of you that don’t know, the PS section of the MCAT covers first-year physics and inorganic chemistry while the BS section tests organic chemistry and general biology.  The third section of the MCAT tests verbal reasoning, widely considered the hardest section of the exam by most undergrads.  A writing sample is also taken, but I haven’t included the results for that.  While medical schools are increasingly requiring calculus as an entrance requirement, no mathematics beyond algebra and trigonometry are tested on the MCAT.  Reports vary as to what the magical number is for consideration at most medical schools, but composite scores above 30 tend to be thought of as competitive (an ambiguous word that I’ve grown really tired of hearing).  With that out of the way, let’s check out the average PS scores.

Not surprisingly, my comrades from the physics department did the best in this category. In fact, if you check out the table of values which I’ve included down below, undergraduate physics majors were the only group to average above 11.0 on any section of the entire exam.  Physics education is highly repetitive – most of the material covered in first-year physics is repeated each year with added detail and more mathematics, so mastering the content from freshman physics is fairly automatic.  Have to give the EE and BE guys some credit too, as both groups there also did really well.  Nice to see the economists take home a bronze medal too.

Now check out the gruppetto.  Biology got absolutely shelled on this part of the exam.  Even english majors, the sole non-science major represented here, scored higher, by a half point!  Let’s check out the verbal reasoning section of the exam and see how the science types fared against our heroes from the college of liberal arts…

Wow – a monster showing from our friends in the english department!  The physics and engineering types that did so great on the PS section did passably well here, but got absolutely reamed by The English Patients who just ran away with first place on this part of the exam.  The difference between the top two scores (english and economics) was higher here than on any other section of the exam.  Note that the various flavors of biologists took a major beating here once again.  Surely they’ll redeem themselves in the final round….

Not what I’d expected.  The biomedical engineering cabal took home the honors on the BS section of the exam, but where were the biology majors?  Thankfully, at least they beat out the psychology majors but, once again, got showed up by The English Patients.  What are they teaching in that department?  You’d think that with a serious home-court advantage the biologists would be able to hold their own, but they got spanked by everyone!  Here are the composite scores for each major (I should add that this isn’t the average composite score – this is the sum of the averages, which isn’t the same thing)

Now that’s just embarrassing.  Since I’ve never known a biology major that wasn’t considering or planning on applying to medical school, I’m more than a little surprised at the poor showing by these guys.  It’s not as if the MCAT should have been a surprise – they’ve been preparing for it since they first hit college.  It’s shocking, but based on data publicly available from the AAMC, biology majors – students which account for the bulk of all medical school applicants – do the worst on the MCAT relative to all other science and engineering students by at least a point.

Of course, there are a lot of things unsaid here and it would be pretty illicit to say that the sole determining factor between these groups was their choice of major.  One could easily make the argument that a certain degree of selection bias exists here, but it’s difficult to quantify.  Personally, I suspect that the primary reason for the discrepancy between the biology and physics/engineering types is that the MCAT is designed to test problem-solving rather than rote-memorization.  It really shouldn’t surprise anyone that students that spent four years learning to solve problems out-perform students that  spent four years memorizing their lecture notes.

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34 Responses

  1. Wow. Why would premed majors average the lowest across the board? That’s interesting.

    • As I stated in my post, I don’t really know what a “pre-med” major is, since I’m not aware of any program in the US that offers this as an undergraduate major. I’m inclined to ignore that group since it may not represent a legitimate data point.

      The real shocker to me is how poorly the traditional pre-med majors do as a whole. If you consider the biochemistry, biology, and microbiology scores together you get an average MCAT score of 27.9 which is still slightly below average.

      Interesting fodder for discussion.

      • We should also consider the numbers, about 12000 biology majors took the exam while only 1000 students of the top scoring majors took it. If they consider the top 2000 biology students, think the numbers will be very different

  2. It would be interesting if those biology majors with lab experience (i.e. experience designing experiments, writing papers, etc.) did any better than the rote memorization types.

    • No doubt they would.

      I think that anything which brings a student out from the world of rote memorization would probably aid in the growth of their problem solving skills. Ostensibly, that’s the purpose of lab courses – to give students the opportunity to put their classroom knowledge into practice.

      One thing which I believe would really help undergrads is an early exposure to learning from journal articles. Biology probably lends itself better to this than something like physics or mathematics does, simply because current research in those subjects is basically inaccessible to the reader until they have learned a significant amount of material. While I’m sure that many topics in biology are similarly difficult to understand, my experience has been that a person with a year of general biology and some chemistry is probably well enough equipped to begin reading current research in his/her field. No doubt, there will be much that the student doesn’t understand and will beyond them, but this is where a good teacher-mentor can be a real aid.

      Of course, my advice on preparing for med school is rather non-credible, since I’ve yet to apply or even take the MCAT.

  3. I think one possible explanation is that (almost) every Biology major takes the MCAT, so while they have some amazing students, they also have a lot of crappy ones. While the English majors who take the MCAT are the above and beyond type people, generally the poor English students don’t take the MCAT. Also the MCAT, even the BS and PS sections do have a lot of reading, and if you can read that information faster and understand it better that puts you at a large advantage too.

    I saw a similar chart that showed art and humanities (humanity? by the way, I’m not an English major, if you didn’t catch on to that already) majors against science majors and the arts and humanities were more than a full point ahead of the science majors. While I don’t believe this is the case for those stellar English majors (I believe that English and Music Therapy are some very hard majors), my one explanation for that is simple. Arts and humanities are easier and far less time consuming than science majors (yes I can say that and don’t cream me, my husband and most of my friends belong to that section). I even know a few pre-meds who switched out of science majors to an easier humanities major so that they had more time to focus on preparing for the MCAT and med school, instead of spending hours on lab work for very little credit or studying for some of the intense upper division science course work.

  4. I stumbled across this blog and wanted, humbly, to add a few points of my own (as a former English major).

    Now, I’m the first one to admit that English is often seen as an easy degree choice (and I make fun of myself a lot on that point exactly)– but I think that it’s a fairly misleading portrayal. Truthfully, when you get into the upper-years of an English degree the state of things can become very abstract and metaphysical: you have to explore the fabric of language, the origin of thought, the relationship and pedigree of words: their history, their intent, their reception… it can really get quite convoluted, and it takes a keen mind to sift through all the cypher and formulate conclusions that are somewhat useful!

    I think what’s often over-looked is how abstract language really is (we use it every day without thinking about it); but in studying it, English students must work from assumptions, create theories, extrapolate from experience… many of the same things that are associated with physics degrees or engineering degrees. (Heck, Spend 20 minutes reading through Derrida, or Stanley Fish, or Foucault and your brain will feel like you’ve been doing crossword puzzles for hours!). And not only do we have to assimilate this information, but we also have to add to it, re-shape it, work it over, and also produce work that is extraordinary even by the standards of our peers (i.e. effectively stylized).

    And for the poster above, I have to refute the idea that degrees in the humanities are less time consuming than science degrees (at least, not English). I agree, absolutely, that it’s a different -kind- of work, but there’s still a heck of a lot of it! A single class in my second year had my reading 13 different books… and these were not small texts: three of them topped 1000 pages. And I must also add that no good student ever reads a text passively; there is a lot to be done, even when reading a novel or a story.

    [But we ‘English Patients’ are a strange bunch, and we often keep weird hours to compensate for the amount of reading we do ;)… although, to be fair, I can’t imagine obtaining any university degree without recourse to crazy sleeping patterns…]

    Finally, I would say that most English majors -love- what they do. We choose our degree because we’re passionate about our subject (even knowing full well that it might not be a conspicuous career move). A lot of biology/pre-med students may like the idea of become a doctor and helping people, eventually, but do they really like sitting through labs, writing lab reports, memorizing cell-cycles, etc? Or are they in biology because they view it more as a means to an end? If a man derives pleasure from his pursuits, is he then not more likely to expend more effort in their undertaking?; Is he not likely to persevere more stubbornly when confronted with a challenge? Is he not likely to retain more of the information?

    Anyway, I would have to agree with the conclusion drawn above: any degree that actively challenges your critical thinking abilities is a far better alternative for anyone who wants to pursue an ambitious career. Oh, and don’t forget to do what you love 🙂

  5. Okay, these results are rather easily explained. The people who are from non science majors also had to have all of the science classes in order to prepare for the MCAT and apply to medical school. They are good at arts and sciences therefore they are probably more well rounded intellectually and perhaps more intelligent. The biology majors are one trick ponies who didn’t have the ambition to take a hard major like BME (of course bio majors can have minors which bump them up in difficulty). The only outlier here is psychology…

  6. […] proceeded to blow way too much of my afternoon computing cumulative probability distributions.  My last post on MCAT statistics has been one of my most popular pages, so I figured I’d try it again.  Before I get into […]

  7. Or, a much simpler explanation. The MCAT is a test of a subset of the information taught in its prerequisite courses, and for BS these are: genetics, cell biology and organic chemistry. It only tests a narrow and idiosyncratic area of the subject: I knew literally nothing about organic chemistry and got a 15 on biological sciences, and I’m pretty sure I got all the orgo questions right. I believe that its coverage of physics is much more consistent with the topics covered in the very basic physics courses that it requires.

    Moreover, it is possible that physics majors, across the vast majority of areas and sub-fields, use a similar set of skills to those that are tested by the MCAT in their daily work. Namely, even if they do not use the formulae and principles in the MCAT “syllabus”, they are likely to use similar thought-patterns and reasoning techniques during their advanced course work. This may be less true for biology.

    Don’t ever forget: the MCAT is a test of how well you take the MCAT. It has bupkes to do with anything else. Learn its own idiosyncratic subject material very well (as per the various Kaplan/Princeton Review syllabi) and get really good at actually taking the MCAT and you will be fine, regardless of your major or previous “credentials”

  8. Apart from being very interesting this post is totally hilarious. I’m sitting in the computer lab at school and people have been looking my way each time I crack up. And I have to add, I myself am one of the “English Patients” you spoke of. (And I got a 35).

    • Nice work dude! Sometimes I go back and read over that and start laughing myself.

      Unfortunately, I don’t have a 35 under my belt, so I can’t get too carried away. Thanks for reading.

  9. The “premed” major can be explained quite easily. Some (very few) of the less competitive undergraduate institutions offer formal stand-alone premed majors. Many others offer premed programs along with a major, or even biology majors specifically for premeds, so I can see how some students would choose the premed option on the exam. As most of the schools that offer these specialized premed programs of study aren’t premier institutions and have lower admissions standards, it follows that their students would not fare as well as the average bio major at most other schools.

    • I’m not aware of any schools that offer a bachelors degree in pre-med, so if you can cite a few of the schools you’re referring that would be appreciated.

      As most of the schools that offer these specialized premed programs of study aren’t premier institutions and have lower admissions standards, it follows that their students would not fare as well as the average bio major at most other schools.

      But the average biology majors do far worse than all the rest!

      • maybe something along these lines: “http://www.utica.edu/academic/hhs/healthstudies/healthstudiesdesc.cfm”

  10. Another possibility explaining biology’s abysmal performance is that medicine is seen as a natural career option for biology majors, and so little selection goes on in who decides to take the exam. After all, it is natural for biologists to consider medicine, so why not give it a shot. As others have said, those coming from other majors probably are self-selected much more highly, the most extreme example probably coming from English majors. These are likely people who have made a very concrete decision to enter medicine rather than following the crowd.

    Also, we can’t emphasize enough how natural the poor performance of everyone except the physical science/engineering majors on quantitative topics is. I think this is a result of college major selection combined with training. People who are good at quantitative topics tend to pick physics or engineering as majors and then get even more training at quantitative topics. No wonder they do so well.

    Finally, it may be the case that a good proportion of the smartest biologists actually take a pass on the whole medical school enterprise. After all, graduate school in biology is well-funded, demand for good students is high, and the research right now in biology is viewed as quite exciting by the lay public. It would be natural that many of the more accomplished biologists might be interested in removing themselves from the MCAT pool altogether to focus on graduate school that pays them rather than requiring them to pay as well as a chance to participate in one of the U.S.’s more exciting research priorities.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      I think you’re probably right to some extent. There is definitely some degree of selection bias at work here, since most physicists, chemists, and mathematicians do not typically go on to medicine. The ones that choose to pursue a career in the medical field are probably much more deliberate along the way. My guess is that this probably leads them to take MCAT preparation much more seriously.

  11. […] guess is that you’re looking for this. review for MCAT in 2 […]

  12. This study is misleading and suspect. Hard to believe that bio majors, who have a very comprehensive collegiate program, get outperformed by nearly every other major, humanities included. The AIP should stick to what it’s best at – being geeks.

  13. This trend is believable. Biology is the major that most pretenders would declare so it is not surprising that a huge bulk of inept students who have No business in that field would drag down Yvette average scores.

  14. […] Some Statistics on the MCAT and Undergraduate Majors […]

  15. I have not taken the time to read through or even scan through the comments above, but speaking as pragmatically as possible, the reason for the skew in favor of physics and engineering majors is somewhat obvious. I hope another viewer has noticed as well. If one looks at the number of applicants in relation to the average MCAT score per major, it should be noted that more biology majors applied than any of the other majors COMBINED. Considering most pre-med students are biology majors, it is logical to infer that the high percentage of biology majors, in itself, aids in the lower overall MCAT score. Statistically speaking, a small population size is not very accurate, especially considering many engineering majors who took the MCAT deviated from their expected field of study; which means they most likely devoted tremendous amounts of time preparing for the MCAT. Now, look again at the table. How many physics and engineering majors applied? Also to be considered is that many biology majors believe their coursework is sufficient enough to give them a satisfactory score on the MCAT. Conversely, engineering majors KNOW they are not being taught what is necessary to score well on the biological sciences section, so it is likely that they spend many hours in preparation for the MCAT, even more so than many biology majors. In a sample group as small as 207 or 195, 20 students deciding to study rigorously for the MCAT can make an enormous impact on the overall MCAT scores. Biomedical engineering somewhat speaks for itself. Not only is the coursework highly related to biological sciences and physical sciences, but the sample size is 1,005, significantly smaller than 12,705. A more accurate test would be one comprised of random large samples of each major. Conduct an experiment in which each group takes the MCAT, then compare the results. I guarantee the results will be MUCH different. Biomedical engineering majors would still likely have the highest average MCAT score, but biology majors would fare much better in comparison to other majors.

    • Your observations were noted in the comments. Something that I hadn’t thought about until now is what the average scores actually are. A 27 on the MCAT is not a difficult score to get at all. Yet, that’s the average for biology majors. Ignoring the question of why physics, engineering, and other do better, I’m curious as to why the average score on the MCAT for biology majors is so crappy. The MCAT is a rough exam to be sure, but it isn’t so rough that after four years of college, the average premed isn’t able to do passably well on it.

    • That’s not true. As a BME, I didn’t have to learn anything extraneous to take the MCAT. However, I know that BMEs are far less likely to prep for the MCAT during the school year. They usually study and take it over the summer (ergo, have a one track mind about MCAT prep) because they simply do not have the time to devote to it during the year.

  16. Please be advised that the bar graphs are very misleading. By starting the vertical scale at a value other than 0, you are exaggerating the differences in the scores.

    • Couple of thoughts.

      First, you criticism would only be valid if I had left off the Y-axis, which I didn’t. It’s clear what is being shown, what the reference is, and what the scale is. Also, I used an 8 as the reference because that tends to be the average for a section, which most readers are aware of.

      Second, you might have a point if the scale of MCAT scores were linear. That is not the case. If memory serves, the lowest score that one can get is a 6. Referencing each section to zero would actually be misleading, since it would imply that the marginal difference between an 8 and a 9 is the same as a 13 and a 14, which is most definitely not true. That’s the reason that I didn’t reference them to zero.

      Thanks for the comment though. I would disagree that my plots are misleading. They would only be misleading for an individual that was unaware of the scale or had no idea what an average score on the exam was. Neither of those applies to any of my readers.

  17. I’m not sure how accurate this can be considering the differences in applicants. For instance, only 200 applicants for physics and 12,000 for Biology. It is likely, I think, that the 200 Physics students were probably very intelligent students. (Why else would a physics major take the MCAT?) The 12,000 Biology applicants; however, are an average of everyone that takes the test because most Biology majors do take the test.

  18. You’re so interesting! I don’t think I have read something like this before.
    So wonderful to find somebody with genuine thoughts on this topic.
    Really.. many thanks for starting this up. This site is something that is needed on the web, someone with some originality!

  19. Is there a correlation between your major and MCAT score?

    Now I know correlation doesn’t mean causation, but I found this site – and I’m very skeptical of its sources and study (I think it’s a blog?) – and it seems to suggest that physics/eng majors fare best/well on the MCAT. Based on your experiences, no…

  20. Have you tried the material at http://www.mcat-mvp.com

  21. Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an really long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t
    appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that
    over again. Anyway, just wanted to say wonderful blog!

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