How Hard Is the MCAT? Everything You Need to Know

November 20, 2023
6 min read


Reviewed by:

Luke Hartstein

Former Admissions Committee Member, NYU Grossman School of Medicine

Reviewed: 11/20/23

How hard is the MCAT? How many questions are on the exam? Below, we’ll break down the answers to these frequently asked questions and more!

The Medical College Admission Test, commonly known as the MCAT, stands as a formidable hurdle for aspiring medical professionals. It is widely regarded as one of the most challenging tests in the world as it assesses a multitude of skills and knowledge that are essential for success in the field of medicine. 

As students brace themselves for the MCAT, they must confront the combination of science, critical thinking, and stamina required to conquer this intellectual marathon. In this article, we’ll explore the various factors that make this exam so challenging and answer common questions about the exam’s difficulty. Let’s get started!

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How Hard Is the MCAT?

So, just how difficult is the MCAT? The short answer: it’s quite challenging. The MCAT offers a comprehensive assessment of a wide range of subjects, including biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, and sociology, coupled with its emphasis on critical thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills. 

The MCAT is not just about rote memorization; it demands a deep understanding of scientific concepts and the ability to apply them to complex real-world scenarios. Moreover, the sheer length of the test, which spans over seven hours, not only assesses student's knowledge but also their endurance and mental resilience. 

Your MCAT score is a crucial factor in the competitive medical school admissions process, which makes this test's difficulty a significant source of stress and challenge for many students.

Doctor with arms crossed

Factors That Make the MCAT Difficult

Answering the question “is the MCAT hard?” often leaves aspiring medical students grappling with its complexity. While it is important for assessing future physicians, the test's reputation as challenging is well-earned. 

In this section, we will dissect the various factors that contribute to the daunting nature of the MCAT. Understanding these challenges is the first step in preparing effectively and developing strategies to conquer this rigorous exam.

Comprehensive Content

One of the primary reasons that the MCAT is widely regarded as a challenging test lies in its comprehensive content. It delves into a vast array of subjects, from biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, and sociology. 

The MCAT's questions are designed to test student’s depth of understanding in these disciplines and their capability to synthesize knowledge across a broad spectrum. This means that test-takers must be well-versed in multiple scientific areas, which can be a daunting prospect for even the most dedicated students. 

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking plays a pivotal role in determining the difficulty of the MCAT. It goes beyond merely assessing your knowledge of scientific facts by placing a heavy emphasis on the ability to think critically, analyze complex information, and solve problems in unfamiliar contexts. 

MCAT questions assess a student's ability to apply knowledge creatively, draw logical conclusions, and synthesize information from various sources to arrive at well-reasoned solutions. Test-takers encounter intricate scenarios that demand the synthesis of information and the ability to make connections.

Success on the MCAT depends on a test-taker's ability to adapt knowledge to challenging, multifaceted problems. The integration of critical thinking skills is a major factor contributing to its difficulty and distinguishing it as a rigorous assessment for aspiring medical professionals.

Length and Timing

The length and timing of the MCAT undoubtedly add to its level of difficulty. The test spans over seven hours, including both the multiple-choice and optional writing sections, making it a physically and mentally taxing experience. This prolonged duration challenges not only a test-taker's knowledge but also their stamina and concentration. 

Additionally, the MCAT is divided into several sections, each with strict time limits. Managing time effectively is crucial, as the clock relentlessly ticks down while navigating complex questions. Test-takers must learn to balance between spending too much time on a single question and ensuring they answer all questions within the allotted time. 

This time pressure can create anxiety and affect decision-making, adding an extra layer of complexity to the already demanding content. The length and timing of the MCAT, therefore, require not only comprehensive knowledge and analytical skills but also exceptional time management and mental endurance, contributing significantly to its reputation as a challenging examination.

Challenging Terminology

The MCAT's challenging terminology is another factor that contributes to its difficulty level. The medical field is replete with specialized vocabulary that can be intimidating to students. The MCAT does not shy away from testing a student's familiarity with these terms, which can range from intricate anatomical names to complex biochemical processes. 

Understanding and correctly interpreting this terminology is not only a matter of memorization but also demands a deep comprehension of the underlying scientific principles. 

This challenge can be particularly daunting for those who are just beginning their academic journey in the medical field, as it means not only gaining new knowledge but also integrating it seamlessly into their understanding. 

Test Anxiety

Test anxiety can also affect how challenging the MCAT is for many aspiring medical students. The MCAT plays a pivotal role in medical school admissions and these high stakes can lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety. 

The fear of failure, coupled with the extensive content and rigorous time constraints, can further exacerbate these anxieties. Test anxiety can impair a student's cognitive performance, hindering their ability to think clearly and logically and impacting their problem-solving skills. 

It can lead to difficulties in time management, panic, burnout, and decreased overall performance. Thus, the psychological pressure imposed by test anxiety can be an additional layer of difficulty that test-takers must grapple with when facing the MCAT.

Female student stressed while studying

How Many Sections Does MCAT Have?

The MCAT is composed of four major sections that assess different facets of a student's aptitude and readiness for medical school. Each of these sections plays a crucial role in evaluating a test-taker's preparedness for a career in medicine. In the following sections, we’ll go on a deep dive into the different sections of the MCAT. 

Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems

The Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems section of the MCAT is renowned for its challenging nature, testing aspiring medical students on their fundamental understanding of the intricate web of life. 

This section delves into the intricacies of biology, ranging from the molecular level to complex biological systems. It assesses one's comprehension of essential biological principles, cell biology, genetics, physiology, and biochemistry

Candidates are expected to apply their knowledge to solve complex problems and draw connections between biological concepts. With its emphasis on biochemistry, the section explores the chemical foundations of life, scrutinizing topics such as metabolism, enzyme kinetics, and molecular biology. 

Chemical and Physical Foundation of Biological Systems

The Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems section of the MCAT represents a formidable challenge for prospective medical students. This section delves into the fundamental principles of chemistry and physics as they relate to living organisms. 

It assesses candidates' grasp of concepts like thermodynamics, chemical kinetics, and electrostatics, and how these principles apply to biological systems. Additionally, it explores the physical forces at play within living organisms, such as fluid dynamics and biophysics. 

This section demands not only a deep understanding of the foundational principles but also the ability to apply this knowledge to real-world biological scenarios. To do well, you’ll need to take a multidisciplinary approach to seamlessly bridge the gap between the physical and biological sciences and demonstrate your readiness for medical school.

Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behaviour

The Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior section of the MCAT is a comprehensive examination of the multifaceted factors that influence human behavior and mental processes. 

This section delves into the intricate interplay between biology, psychology, and sociology to assess aspiring medical students' understanding of the complex underpinnings of human health and well-being. It explores topics such as the nervous system, cognition, social behavior, cultural influences, and their connections to health and disease. 

Success in this section requires not only a strong knowledge of the biological and psychological sciences but also an ability to integrate these with an understanding of the societal and cultural contexts in which individuals live. 

Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section of the MCAT is a unique and demanding component designed to assess a candidate's ability to think critically, analyze complex texts, and draw reasoned conclusions. 

This section presents students with a series of passages from various disciplines, including literature, philosophy, and the social sciences, and challenges them to comprehend, evaluate, and synthesize the presented information. 

Success in CARS relies on a student's capacity to identify the main ideas, draw inferences, and distinguish between fact and opinion. Furthermore, it demands strong reading comprehension skills and the ability to discern the author's argument and perspective. 

While distinct from the science-focused sections of the MCAT, the CARS section underscores the importance of well-rounded, analytical thinking, a skill that is vital not only for success in medical school but also for the practice of medicine itself.

How Many Questions Are on the MCAT?

The MCAT consists of a varying number of questions in each of its sections, totaling 230 questions in all. 

The specific distribution includes 59 questions in the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems section, 59 questions in the Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems section, 53 questions in the Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior section, and finally, 59 questions in the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section. 

The MCAT's question formats include multiple-choice questions and task-based simulations, which test not only a student's knowledge but also their ability to apply critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The breadth and diversity of these questions, spanning various scientific disciplines and analytical skills, contribute to the MCAT's reputation as a rigorous and challenging assessment for aspiring medical professionals.

How Long Is the MCAT?

The MCAT is a lengthy standardized examination, spanning a total duration of approximately seven hours and 33 minutes, including breaks. The test is divided into four main sections, each with its allotted time, and it also includes a tutorial and optional breaks. 

The distribution of time includes 95 minutes for the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems section, 95 minutes for the Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems section, 90 minutes for the Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior section, and 90 minutes for the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section. 

The exam’s strict time constraints place added pressure on test-takers to manage their time effectively, making the MCAT not only a test of knowledge and analytical skills but also a measure of their endurance and ability to perform consistently over an extended period.

Female student smiling in hallway working on computer


Here are a few common questions on how hard is the MCAT.

1. Is It Hard to Score a 510 on the MCAT?

Scoring a 510 on the MCAT is indeed a challenging endeavor. A score of 510 represents the 80th percentile, indicating that 80% of test-takers score below this mark. Achieving a 510 requires a strong grasp of the multifaceted content covered in the exam, exceptional critical thinking abilities, and effective time management skills. 

The MCAT is designed to be a rigorous assessment of a student's readiness for medical school, covering diverse scientific subjects and demanding high-level problem-solving. Moreover, the test's extensive length, strict time constraints, and the presence of challenging terminology and complex questions add to its difficulty. 

To reach a 510, rigorous preparation, dedication, and a comprehensive understanding of the material are crucial. While it's not an insurmountable goal, it remains a formidable benchmark for those seeking to excel on the MCAT.

2. How Hard Is the MCAT Compared to the GRE?

Comparing the difficulty of the MCAT to the GRE is somewhat akin to comparing apples and oranges, as these two standardized tests serve vastly different purposes and evaluate distinct skill sets. 

The MCAT is specifically designed to assess a student's readiness for medical school and focuses on knowledge in the natural sciences, psychology, and sociology, along with critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. In contrast, the GRE is a more general test used for graduate school admissions, assessing verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing skills. 

The MCAT is renowned for its challenging content and depth of scientific knowledge required, making it particularly demanding for aspiring medical students. On the other hand, the GRE, while not easy, is generally considered less content-intensive and can be more manageable for a broader range of graduate programs. 

The perceived difficulty of these exams largely depends on an individual's strengths and academic background, as well as their chosen field of study.

3. What Score is Considered Good for the MCAT?

What constitutes a "good" MCAT score largely depends on an individual's specific goals and the medical schools to which they are applying. In general, a competitive MCAT score falls within the range of 510 to 515, which is roughly the 80th to 90th percentile. 

However, it's important to note that medical school admissions are highly competitive, and acceptance depends on a variety of factors, including GPA, extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation. 

Some top-tier medical schools may have higher average MCAT score expectations, while others with different selection criteria may consider scores slightly below the average if the rest of the application is strong. 

Ultimately, a "good" MCAT score is one that aligns with a student's academic and career goals and meets the requirements of the medical schools to which they are applying. It's essential to research specific schools and their admission statistics to determine a target score that increases the likelihood of acceptance.

Final Thoughts

The MCAT's reputation as a formidable academic challenge is well-earned, given its comprehensive content, focus on critical thinking, and stringent time constraints. Aspiring medical professionals face not only the demanding breadth of knowledge but also the psychological pressure of a high-stakes examination. 

However, the question of “how hard is the MCAT” should not deter prospective medical students but rather inspire them to approach their preparation with determination, resilience, and effective strategies. Success on this rigorous test is a testament to one's readiness for the rigorous path of medicine and the unwavering commitment to making a difference in the world of healthcare. 

The journey of conquering the MCAT is a challenging but essential step toward realizing the dream of becoming a physician, and it is one that ultimately prepares individuals to thrive in the demanding world of medical education and practice.

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