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How to Study for the MCAT

An Introduction to Preparing for the MCAT

If you’ve decided to apply to medical school in the United States or Canada, you’ll likely need to take the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT for short. The MCAT is a multiple choice, computer-based exam that’s designed to test your critical thinking and problem solving skills.

The MCAT is administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges, or AAMC, and their overall goal is to make sure that you have a good foundational understanding of both the scientific and cultural complexities of medicine.

What are the MCAT sections?

Okay – so the MCAT itself has four sections: Chemical and Physical Foundations of BiologicalLiving Systems or Chem/Phys for short, Critical analysis and Reasoning Skills or CARS for short, Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems or Bio/Biochem for short, and lastly Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior or Psych/Soc for short. The first, third, and fourth sections have 59 questions each with a time limit of  95 minutes per section. Each section has 10 passages with 4 to 6 questions per passage. There are also 15 independent questions that are not associated with a passage. In the second section, the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section, or CARS section, there are 53 questions that you have to answer in 90 minutes. This section has 9 passages with 5 to 7 questions per passage. In total, the exam lasts about seven and a half hours, if you include the time for breaks.

So let’s go section by section. Let’s start with the chem/phys section which consists of 30% general chemistry, 25% biochemistry, 25% physics, 15% organic chemistry, and 5% biology.

What are the topics are test in each MCAT section?

Topics in this section include Newtonian mechanics, electrostatics and electrodynamics, waves and optics, atomic structure, molecular structure and interactions, solutions and acid/base chemistry, electrochemistry, separation and purification techniques, thermodynamics and kinetics, and the structure, function, and reactivity of biologically-relevant molecules.

Next, there’s the Bio/Biochem section which consists of 65% biology, 25% biochemistry, 5% general chemistry, and 5% organic chemistry. Topics in this section include the biological macromolecules like carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids, biochemical pathways for energy production, cell biology, microbiology, genetics, and physiology.

Then, there’s the Psych/Soc section which consists of 65% psychology, 30% sociology, and 5% biology. Topics in this section include cognition and consciousness, language development, emotion and motivation, learning and memory, sensation and perception, identity and personality, as well as major psychological disorders. Sociology topics focus on social structures, social thinking and attitudes, as well as societal stratification and inequality.  

What types of questions are on the MCAT?

There are four types of questions that you’ll get on these topics. The first type is a “knowledge of scientific concepts and principles” question, which might ask you to make connections between different scientific principles. For instance, a biology question might ask you to identify the structural similarities between cells in the heart and the liver. The second type is a “scientific reasoning and problem solving” question, which will ask you to apply scientific principles across disciplines or in new situations. So a physics question might ask you to use a formula about force to make predictions about the likelihood of a bone fractures if a certain force is applied to the arm.

The third type of question is a “design and execution of research” question, which might ask you to evaluate scientific research.  A psychology question might ask you to choose the best way to measure a stress response within a certain group of individuals. Finally, the fourth type of question is a “data-based and statistical reasoning” question, which might ask you to interpret data from figures, tables, or charts. A sociology question might ask you to find the correlation between socioeconomic level and heart disease from a table of data.

What is tested on the MCAT CARS section?

Now, there’s also the CARS section, which is a little different in that it does not test you on science-based topics, but instead it asks you to think critically about material from a really wide range of disciplines. About half of the questions will come from texts from the humanities, like literature, art, philosophy, and history. The other half will come from texts from the social sciences, like anthropology, political science, or economics. The questions will ask you to demonstrate the ability to understand the author’s message or main idea. It is also important to be able to find what is implied by the author through things like tone, metaphor, structure, style, and other literary devices. In some questions you’ll have to identify the logic behind the author’s argument, and figure out if the text supports a particular argument. Lastly, you’ll be asked to apply what you’ve read to an outside scenario. How might the author respond if they were given new or contradictory information? You can think of them as “what if” questions, that expect you to apply the text in new contexts and situations.

How is the MCAT Scored?

After completing all four sections, you will be given the option to void your MCAT exam. If you choose to void your exam, your exam will not be scored and medical schools will not be notified that you voided your exam. If you choose not to void your exam, your exam will be scored. It will take about 35 days for you to receive your scores. All of your MCAT scores will be sent to medical schools when you apply, unless you void your exam.

Each section of the MCAT is scored between 118 and 132, so multiplying by four, that gives us a total score that will be between 472 and 528 – a 56 point spread. And the average score for each section on the exam is 125 so the average student would get a 500. Now these numbers don’t mean a whole by themselves; it’s more important to know what percentile you fall into–how well you did compared to others who have taken the MCAT in the past three years. Say you scored in the 90th percentile. That means you did as well or better than 90 percent of MCAT-takers, which means you’re in the top 10 percent! Though the numerical score to percentile equivalent is not fixed, these days the top 10 percent are scoring above 513, or above about 128 in each section.

A high MCAT score will definitely get a medical school’s attention, but ultimately it’s one factor in your application – other ones include your GPA, your undergraduate coursework, your letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, and your personal statement. You can take the MCAT up to three times in a year, four times in two consecutive years, and 7 times in total.

How many hours should I study for the MCAT?

In terms of preparing for the MCAT, one interesting data point is that students in the top 80th percentile clock in at about 300 hours of consistent, regular study time. That could mean studying full-time for two months, or studying one hour a day for a year – it’s up to you. You should customize a study plan that fits into your time frame and you should try a few different ways of preparing to see what works best for you. Also, think about how and when you like to study best, and make sure that you’re able to do it without distractions. As you start, it’s really helpful to take a baseline test to identify your weak spots, so that you can focus on them, and to take several practice tests so that you can monitor for improvement.

For some, that may mean taking a deep dive on a topic that you don’t feel comfortable with, for others, it means simply practicing more questions so that you get used to answering the questions quickly. The MCAT requires you to not only understand the content but to be able to apply it to new unfamiliar situations, so memorization is important but understanding is crucial to success. If you’re still not feeling confident in your study approach you should consider getting help – one on one tutoring, the advice of a counselor, or taking prep courses, can be really helpful.

What is the best MCAT study plan?

There is no perfect road map to success for preparing to take the MCAT. There are many options available and the key is to discover what resource or combination works best for you to provide the structure needed to properly prepare. Ultimately, your commitment to preparation is more important than whether or not you choose any particular resource or tool.

If you’re looking for one-on-one MCAT tutoring help, check out our friends at MedSchoolCoach!

Author: Simone Taylor, MA, PGCert

Editors: Yifan Xiao, MD, Rishi Desai, MD, MPH, Ken Tao

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Sahil Mehta

Sahil Mehta M.D. is an attending physician in the Department of Radiology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the Founder of MedSchoolCoach. Dr Mehta is one of the world’s experts on medical school admissions having founded MedSchoolCoach in 2007. MedSchoolCoach provides admissions consulting to premedical students in the form of interview preparation, essay editing and general advising. In the past 10 years, he has had a hand in over a thousand acceptances to medical school.

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