The myth of the balanced score, continued

In my post The myth of the balanced score I pointed out that genuinely unbalanced subject scores (meaning a much higher score on one section of a test than on another section) are pretty rare. But scores like this, while rare, do occur; what does it mean for the test-taker whose score looks like this?

If your score on whatever test you’re practicing for really is unbalanced — not just by a little, but by a lot — it may not mean there’s anything to worry about. To some extent the same reasoning I talked about before applies, in two ways: first, an admission committee won’t necessarily see it as mattering much, because your unbalanced score represents strengths and weaknesses that balance out. Second, the imbalance probably does tell you how you should study for the exam, focusing more on your weaker area than your stronger not to “correct” the imbalance but because that’s probably the best way to improve the total score. But if your scores are far out of sync with each other, along the lines of my hypothetical 14/10/6 on the old MCAT or perhaps with math and verbal scores that are wildly different on one of the general exams like the SAT or GRE, then you also need to look hard for what’s causing the discrepancy between scores.

For example, that 14/10/6 (physical/verbal/biological) that I used as a hypothetical example in my previous post has probably almost never happened with an actual med school applicant, because that would describe someone who rocks at physics (top 1%) but is quite weak at biology (well below 50th percentile). People with that sort of skill set just don’t apply to medical school very often, not after they’ve taken their prerequisites (which include biology and organic chemistry, the subjects covered in that third section). But they might happen on an early practice test, to someone who hasn’t taken biology or o-chem yet; if that’s you, then you know exactly what the issue is and you don’t need to worry because you will be taking those classes before your official MCAT. And if you’re a returning student who took all the prereqs but long enough ago that you might have forgotten some stuff… well, it looks like we’ve identified what you need to refresh on.

On the other hand, something like 14/6/10 (again, physics/verbal/bio) would be a different issue. That is the score of someone who rocks at the sciences but has great difficulty on the verbal reasoning section. The reason might be serious difficulty not just with verbal reasoning passages, but with reading itself. Perhaps there’s a language barrier, because the student is a non-native English speaker; the solution would still be to work hard on reading comp but it’s also probably wise to consider addressing the issue in the application. Or maybe the issue is dyslexia; if that’s the case then I strongly suggest looking into an accommodation on the test. Or perhaps something else… but my point is that if your scores look really strange there’s probably a reason, a reason you should try to find and address.

There are as many reasons for scores as there are students, so I won’t try to enumerate them or go through example scores from other tests. I’ll just remind you that for almost everyone, an area of relative weakness is really just an opportunity to improve; if there’s more to it than that then you probably need to figure out what’s going on.


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