MCAT Exam Overview
The MCAT is perhaps the most grueling entrance exam in the US—but never fear. We provide all the info you'll need, from test section breakdowns to the best prep courses.
By Douglas Eddings, Certified Learning & Development Professional
So What Is The MCAT?
The MCAT, or Medical College Admission Test as it's formally known, is the standardized med school entrance exam administered by the AAMC, or Association of American Medical Colleges. The MCAT is a required component of the admissions process for nearly every major medical school in the US. The intent of the MCAT is to test a student's knowledge of natural, behavioral, and social sciences, and their ability to problem solve, think critically, and draw reasoned conclusions from information — skills and knowledge that are invaluable to success in med school and as a physician.
MCAT Test Structure
Not to mince words, the MCAT is a grueling exam that takes 7.5 hours to complete, and you'll only want to take it once. It is multiple-choice, computer-based, and will try you mentally and physically. Following an overhaul and expansion of the MCAT in 2015 by test administrator AAMC, the exam is now comprised of four overarching sections:
Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)
Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
The Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems section of the MCAT consists of 59 multiple-choice questions, which the test taker is given 95 minutes to complete. Of those 59 questions, approximately 44 are related to passages and 15 are not. This section tests a student's knowledge in the following areas, broken down by approximate rate of appearance:
General Chemistry (30%)
Organic Chemistry (15%)
In the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section, the student is allocated 90 minutes to complete 53 multiple-choice questions related to passages. This section of the MCAT is not so unlike other verbal reasoning and reading comprehension sections in other major entrance exams. The test taker need not have any prior substantive knowledge before taking this section of the test. The CARS section is generally meant to examine the student's critical reading skills, ability to interpret layered meanings and assumptions, and analyze the strength of claims. The passages themselves come from a wide range of humanities and social science areas.
The Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems section is made up of 59 multiple-choice questions, and the test taker is granted 95 minutes to complete the section. Breaking down those 59 questions, 44 are passage related and 15 are non-passage related. The Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems section is intended to measure the test taker's knowledge of the following subjects, with accompanying percentages of questions:
General Chemistry (5%)
Organic Chemistry (5%)
Finally, the newest section of the MCAT, the Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior section, similar to the other sections, consists of 59 multiple-choice questions which the test taker has 95 minutes to finish. This new section is intended primarily to test the subjects of psychology, sociology, and biology as they relate to human behavior. Specifically, the section will require the test taker to showcase their ability to identify, evaluate and apply these concepts in the context of human behaviors and relationships.
MCAT Test Times and Locations
The MCAT is administered approximately 25 times per year at test centers around the world between the months of January and September. Students can take the MCAT up to 3 times in a single year, 4 times during any two consecutive-year period and 7 times in their life — though it goes without saying that you don't want to take this exam nearly that many times. MCAT scores are generally only good for three years, and med schools will usually reject any score older than that.
Scores are released online roughly one month after the test date. It's a long month of waiting, but it's still quicker than other graduate exam wait periods. Click here to find a test center near you: MCAT Dates and Locations.
How Much Does the MCAT Cost?
The standard fee to take the MCAT is $315, but that is increased to $370 for late registration, and there can be additional fees for rescheduling or cancelling. This fee includes the cost of AAMC distributing your MCAT score to med schools upon request. There is also a Fee Assistance Program to help out lower income individuals, but check the requirements for this special program as restrictions are tight.
The MCAT is scored on a scale and the test taker is provided an overall score between 472 and 528, depending on the student's performance across all four sections. Each section is graded and a scaled score given for the section in the range of 118 to 132. The average score per section is 125 and the overall average score is 500. As such, the scoring ranges are narrow, so every point is crucially important and can be the difference between a student getting into the school of their choice and missing out.
Here is a scoring percentile chart for reference:
How to Study for the MCAT
As you have likely gathered by this point, the MCAT is not an exam to be taken lightly. It is knowledge intensive and complex. As such, we strongly encourage students to get studying early for the MCAT. Shoot to get at least three to five months of solid prep time in before sitting for the real thing. Unlike some other entrance exams that require no substantive knowledge, the MCAT will require you to re-learn and memorize heaps of scientific knowledge you may have forgotten since your undergraduate courses. In addition, it takes significant time to learn the techniques required to apply that information to questions and efficiently and correctly respond to MCAT problems. To make sure you get the most out of your study plan, we have provided some study strategies below:
Stay calm and continue on. At some point during the course of your studies you are bound to feel overwhelmed and as if there is no way you'll be able to learn all of this information. Never fear! Many students feel this way early on and go on to get incredible scores. If you start to feel overwhelmed and distressed, step away from your desk for a breather and meditate on it. There are people that have been much less prepared and are far less smart than you that have received good scores on the MCAT. So imagine what you'll do with months of dedicated study time under your belt and a positive attitude. Trust the process and stay the course! Prep course companies know what they're doing and have this down to a science.
Realistic and actionable study plan. At the outset of your studies, create an actionable and realistic study plan. Don't set a goal of studying 12 hours per day, 6 days a week if you know you can't keep that schedule up. It will only cause you to fall behind, panic, and set you up for mental failure. Set realistic, objective goals and stick to them. This will help keep you on track and sane.
Mix it up. Vary your study methods. Don't sit for two days straight watching lessons or memorizing flashcards. Studies have shown that varied study schedules help to stimulate creative thought and aid in memory retention. Mix your study schedule up daily between lessons, practice problems, flashcards, books and whatever other study methods you are going to employ. This will also help to keep things interesting and prevent you from burning out.
Practice test, practice test, practice test. There's no better way to prepare for the MCAT than taking a full length practice test. It will help set the expectation and condition your mind for the taxing nature of the real exam day. But don't just take a practice test and move on. Study the problems you got incorrect. Why did you miss the problem? Nail down the basis for the error and take it away as a learning lesson — often there is no better form of learning than from our mistakes. The more practice tests you can get in before the big day, the better.
Visualize success. Before you go to bed at night, visualize yourself sitting at the computer on exam day, efficiently and effectively reading passages, answering questions and commanding the clock. Think through each section of the test, and imagine yourself staying mentally and physically strong. A recent study of free throws in basketball showed participants who visualized their success before shooting were 33% more likely to make the shot than those that didn't. Though this study was in the context of sports, the principles are the same and absolutely applicable here — visualize your success and you'll score better.
MCAT Prep Courses
When it comes to MCAT prep courses, there are a wide range of options to choose from. From self-study budget courses, to all encompassing in-person classes with extra one-on-one tutoring, there is something for everyone's needs. Choosing the right course can be difficult given all the choices, but given the importance of MCAT scores to med school admissions, our suggestion is not to skimp based on price. Like wine and toilet paper and most everything else in this world, some things just cost more because they are better. The higher-end prep courses are richer in resources and generally better quality than the budget options. A student's learning style will dictate which type of course to purchase, but whatever your preferred method of learning is, we suggest going with a reputable MCAT prep course company, such as Kaplan or Princeton Review. Both companies have been around for seemingly forever and have mastered the art of preparing for the MCAT.
MCAT Prep Books
The MCAT prep books you find on Amazon and other online retail sites are excellent sources of information and study material for the MCAT; however, if you're planning on relying on these books alone, you may be in for a difficult time. MCAT prep books simply don't have the resources, depth or quality of instruction as you will find in a prep course. That said, if you're on a very tight budget, or perhaps getting a top tier MCAT score is not a top priority, then books may be your only option. More practically, we suggest using MCAT prep books to supplement your prep course-based studies. MCAT prep books range in price and scope, from $15 basic books covering general topics, to detailed book sets that cost north of $200 and focus in on specific subjects. There is a wide range of MCAT prep books out there, and we suggest using them on an ad hoc basis to supplement your studies.