A Brief Guide on How to Study for the MCAT

To understand how to begin studying for a beast of an exam such as the MCAT, it’s important to address what’s on the MCAT first so you can be equipped with the knowledge necessary to score well.

What’s on the MCAT?

The MCAT is composed of 4 sections:

  • The first of the 4 is Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (Chem/Phys).
  • The second is Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS).
  • The third is the Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (Bio/Biochem).
  • The fourth and last section is the Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (Psych/Soc).

All the sections with the exception of CARS have 59 questions with a time limit of 95 minutes. The CARS section has 53 questions with a time limit of 90 minutes. All sections (excluding CARS) have 10 passages with 4-6 questions per passage. In addition, they have 15 “discrete” or independent questions that are answered solely on content knowledge rather than passage information. The CARS section has 9 passages with 5-7 questions per passage, with no independent or discrete questions.

When Should You Start Studying for the MCAT?

MCAT studying begins on the very first day you take a course that’s tested on the MCAT. You should work on understanding the content of your course thoroughly. In doing so, you’ll be effectively studying for your course as well as your MCAT in the future. Essentially, killing two birds with one stone.

Build Test Taking Stamina

The MCAT is an endurance-based exam. In total, the exam is 7 hours and 27 minutes if you include breaks. Without breaks, it’s 6 hours and 15 minutes. The long strenuous hours of the MCAT are doomed to fail you, so it’s imperative you become accustomed to sitting behind a screen focused for 6+ hours. To adequately become acclimated, it’s crucial you take multiple practice exams before your test day. This way, when your test date comes, the exam won’t feel arduous because you’ve practiced so much in set conditions.

Practice Questions, Practice Questions, and More MCAT Practice Questions.

The old proverb “practice makes perfect” couldn’t be more befitting for this exam. Practice questions are the absolute one thing that will increase your chances of reaching your goal score. 

“Why is that?” you might ask.

By doing practice questions you’ll be exposed to the types of questions the AAMC asks. The 4 types of questions you’ll see are:

  • Knowledge of scientific concepts and principle
  • Scientific reasoning and problem solving
  • Design and execution of research
  • Data-based and statistical reasoning

Now, let’s break down examples of each question. 

Know Your Scientific Concepts and Principles

These questions will test your scientific knowledge of various concepts and ask you to apply them in unique situations. For example, a question could present an individual sleeping with an abundance of a certain wave. And you’re asked to determine which stage of the sleep cycle he/she is in.

Understand “Scientific Reasoning and Problem Solving”

These questions could present findings from a study that demonstrate a particular theory. You’ll be required to recognize the theory at hand solely based on scientific findings.

Understand Design and Execution of Research”

These questions will test your ability to conduct research. An example could be, how does a scientist manipulate a variable to come to his/her scientific conclusion? What variables were kept constant, and which were the independent and dependent variables?

Understand “Data-based and Statistical Reasoning”

These questions will test your ability to interpret graphs, charts, tables, etc., and come up with conclusions. An example could be, determine if the correlation between age and Alzheimer’s prevalence is positive, negative, or no correlation.

Thoroughly Go Over the MCAT Content Online

The AAMC published an outline that dissects all the content you could be tested on. Print the outline out for each section and begin noting which concepts you feel strong or weak in. Tailor your study plan to emphasize topics you’re weak in. You should still review the material you’re strong in, but allocate less time to it.

Prepare for the Infamous and Dreaded CARS Section

The CARS section is notorious for causing premed students trouble. Premeds have been indoctrinated to memorize obscure scientific facts and regurgitate them for exams. Because of this, they struggle to grasp a section such as CARS which is so novel to them.

The CARS section is unique in that it is the only section on the MCAT that doesn’t require prior knowledge. This can be a blessing for those who dread memorizing, but also a curse. CARS prep begins from your early childhood. Being an avid reader in grade school pays of plenty when it comes to this section. Students who were avid readers growing up often attribute their success to reading diligently as children. 

You may be wondering.

“Did I have to be an avid reader growing up to score well on CARS?”

The answer is No.

The CARS section needs a systematic approach. First, you need to ask yourself “What is the author getting at?” or “What is the main idea?”. Which isn’t always implied. It takes digging through the text to find this out. Secondly, you need to understand the author’s purpose. Was the passage written to critique something? Is the author informing you on discovery or phenomena? or Is the author persuading you towards something? Understanding the purpose sets you up well when it comes to answering the questions because the questions stem from if you understood this or not. And lastly, visualize the structure of the passage you’re reading. Ask yourself, how is the opening paragraph presented? And the paragraph that follows, is it in favor of the author’s argument? Or does it present a different point?

Mapping out these key details will save you immense time on test day because you’ll be able to reference the passage quickly when answering questions.

Timing Your Studies

Not sure when you should be getting started? Here’s a quick guide to help you. This guide assumes a starting point of September, but if you’re reading this in the winter or spring, consider talking to a consultant or MCAT Tutor who can help you build a custom schedule for your timeline.

MCAT Study Schedule Examples


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