MCAT Periodic Table & Trends: What You Need to Know

December 4, 2023
8 min read


Reviewed by:

Jonathan Preminger

Former Admissions Committee Member, Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine

Reviewed: 12/4/23

Familiar with the MCAT periodic table? Read on to learn everything you need to know.

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a crucial gateway for aspiring medical students that assesses their knowledge and aptitude across various scientific disciplines. The periodic table is among the fundamental concepts tested on the MCAT, which lays the foundation for understanding chemical elements and their properties. 

While some schools do not require the MCAT, for most students, this exam is a crucial step in their future careers. Whether you're a prospective medical student or simply seeking a deeper understanding of chemistry, this guide will equip you with the essential knowledge to confidently tackle the MCAT.

We’ll delve into and explore the significance of this foundational knowledge and provide the necessary insights to excel in this vital examination aspect.

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The MCAT Periodic Table

Periodic table of the elements

Source: AAMC

The periodic table in the MCAT is not just a chart filled with elements and their symbols; it is a fundamental tool that holds the key to understanding the behavior and properties of chemical elements. 

Gaining a comprehensive grasp of the periodic table is essential for aspiring medical students. The MCAT extensively tests your knowledge of this table and its trends, as it serves as the foundation for understanding various concepts in chemistry, biochemistry, and even biology. 

In this section, we will explore the importance of the MCAT periodic table and how a mastery of its structure and trends can enhance your performance on the exam.

Organization and Structure

The periodic table on the MCAT organizes all known elements based on their atomic number, representing the number of protons in an atom's nucleus. Elements are arranged in periods and groups, each providing valuable information about their characteristics. 

The MCAT requires you to be familiar with the periodic table's structure and understand how elements are grouped and organized.

Chemical Properties and Trends

One of the key aspects tested on the MCAT is your ability to recognize and analyze patterns in the chemical properties of elements. The periodic table allows you to identify trends, such as atomic radius, ionization energy, electronegativity, and electron affinity. 

By understanding trends in valence electrons on the periodic table, you can predict an element's behavior, reactivity, and interactions with other elements. This knowledge is vital for answering MCAT questions related to chemical reactions, bonding, and molecular structure.

Periodic Trends and Biological Relevance

While the periodic table is primarily associated with chemistry, its significance also extends into biology. Many elements play critical roles in biological systems, and understanding their properties can help you comprehend various biochemical processes. 

For instance, knowing the trends in electronegativity and ionization energy can aid in knowing how atoms form bonds and interact in biological molecules like proteins, nucleic acids, and enzymes

This knowledge becomes especially relevant when studying topics like biochemistry and molecular biology, which are integral to the MCAT curriculum.

Predicting Reactivity and Redox Reactions

The periodic table's trends allow you to predict the reactivity of elements and their likelihood to undergo redox (reduction-oxidation) reactions. This knowledge is valuable when tackling questions related to electrochemistry and grasping the behavior of elements in various biochemical reactions. 

By understanding the periodic trends, you can determine which elements are more likely to gain or lose electrons, facilitating a deeper comprehension of chemical reactions.

Periodic Table Groups

The MCAT periodic table is divided into several groups with distinctive properties and characteristics. These groups play a crucial role in understanding chemical elements and their behavior. 

For test-takers, having a solid grasp of the groups within the periodic table is of utmost importance, as it enables them to navigate various topics and questions related to chemistry, biochemistry, and biology. This section will explore the significance of the different periodic table groups and their relevance to the MCAT.

Student studying for MCAT

Group 1: Alkali Metals

The alkali metals, comprising elements such as lithium (Li), sodium (Na), and potassium (K), are located in Group 1 of the periodic table. These elements have a single electron in their outermost shell, making them highly reactive and prone to forming positive ions. Alkali metals are known for their vigorous reactions with water and oxygen. 

Understanding the properties and reactivity of alkali metals is vital for answering MCAT questions related to chemical reactions, ionization energy, and redox reactions.

Group 2: Alkaline Earth Metals

Group 2 consists of alkaline earth metals, including elements such as beryllium (Be), magnesium (Mg), and calcium (Ca). These elements have two valence electrons and display characteristics similar to alkali metals, albeit with slightly lower reactivity. 

Alkaline earth metals are crucial in biochemical processes, such as the formation of bone structure, and understanding their properties is important when studying topics related to biochemistry and physiology for the MCAT. 

Mastering electron configuration for MCAT is also important because you’ll need to know the arrangement of an atom's electrons within its shells, subshells, and orbitals.

Groups 3-12: Transition Metals

The transition metals occupy Groups 3 to 12 of the periodic table and are known for their variable valence states and complex chemistry. Elements like iron (Fe), copper (Cu), and zinc (Zn) are part of this group. 

Transition metals exhibit a wide range of properties, including high conductivity, catalytic activity, and the ability to form colored compounds. Knowledge of transition metals is crucial when studying coordination chemistry, electron transfer reactions, and enzymatic reactions, frequently tested on the MCAT.

Group 17: Halogens

Group 17 consists of halogens, including elements such as fluorine (F), chlorine (Cl), and iodine (I). Halogens have seven valence electrons and are highly reactive nonmetals. They readily form negative ions and exhibit strong oxidizing properties. 

Understanding the properties and reactivity of halogens is essential for answering questions related to redox reactions, electron transfer, and the behavior of elements in biological systems.

Group 18: Noble Gases

The noble gases, including helium (He), neon (Ne), and argon (Ar), are located in Group 18 of the periodic table. These elements have a full complement of valence electrons and are chemically inert. Noble gases are known for their stability and lack of reactivity. However, they find applications in gas chromatography and lighting technology. 

While noble gases have limited direct relevance to biochemistry and biology, understanding their properties is important for comprehending periodic trends and the behavior of other elements on the MCAT.

Periodic Trends on MCAT

Over the years, the MCAT has consistently emphasized the importance of the periodic table in assessing candidates' knowledge of chemistry and related subjects. 

Aspiring medical students should know the trends and patterns observed in past MCATs to better prepare for the examination and focus their studies on the key areas that have been emphasized historically. 

In the following sections, we’ll take a look at common aspects of the periodic table that appear on the MCATs, highlighting the topics and concepts that are often tested.

Students writing exam in classroom

Periodic Trends

MCAT questions have frequently focused on periodic trends and their applications. Grasping topics such as atomic radius, ionization energy, electronegativity, and electron affinity is crucial for comprehending elements' behavior and reactions. 

Test-takers should be prepared to analyze patterns in these trends and make predictions based on the positioning of elements in the periodic table.

Reactivity and Redox Reactions

MCAT questions often assess candidates' understanding of the reactivity of different elements and their propensity for undergoing redox (reduction-oxidation) reactions. 

Test-takers should be familiar with the properties of alkali metals, alkaline earth metals, halogens, and other groups to predict their behavior in chemical reactions. This knowledge is particularly relevant when considering electrochemistry, acid-base chemistry, and biological processes involving redox reactions.

Bonding and Molecular Structure

Questions related to bonding and molecular structure frequently draw upon the periodic table. Candidates should understand the relationship between atomic properties, such as electronegativity and ionization energy, and the types of bonds formed between elements.

Additionally, knowledge of the periodic table aids in determining molecular geometry and predicting the polarity of molecules, which are essential concepts in understanding chemical interactions.

Biological Relevance

The MCAT often includes questions that bridge the gap between chemistry and biology, emphasizing the biological relevance of elements and their properties. For example, candidates may encounter questions about the importance of transition metals in biological systems, the role of specific elements in enzyme activity, or the function of certain ions in cellular processes. 

Understanding the biological significance of elements and their behavior enhances one's ability to answer these questions accurately.

Periodic Table Placement

Test-takers should be comfortable with the structure and placement of elements in the periodic table. Questions may require knowledge of element groupings, periods, and the arrangement of elements based on increasing atomic numbers. 

Understanding the layout of the periodic table on the MCAT is vital for quickly accessing information and making connections between elements and their properties.

Periodic Table & Trends: Questions and Answers

Here are three MCAT sample questions and answers regarding the periodic table, which Khan Academy provided.

Question 1

Which of the following does NOT depend on the attraction of the bonding pair towards the nucleus?

  1. The repulsion by the electrons in the same valence shell
  2. The amount of shielding by inner shell electrons
  3. The distance from the nucleus
  4. The number of protons in the nucleus

Answer: A) The repulsion by the electrons in the same valence shell.

Question 2

Which of the following statements accurately describes the different classifications of elements? 

  1. The noble metals like gold, silver, and platinum are resistant to corrosion due to their fully-filled d-bands.
  2. The alkali metals react with water to form hydrogen gas as well as the metal oxides in aqueous solution.
  3. The alkali metals have distinctive flame colors because of their easily excited d electrons.
  4. All the halogens react with hydrogen to form hydrogen halides, which, when mixed with water, form strong acids.

Answer: A) Noble metals like gold, silver, and platinum are resistant to corrosion due to their fully-filled d-bands.

Question 3

Which of the following statements most accurately describes the characteristics of the transition metals? 

  1. The transition metals have little variability in their ionization energies and electronegativities due to their similar valence electron shells.
  2. Transition metals are characterized by the formation of many diamagnetic compounds due to the presence of unpaired d electrons.
  3. One difference between transition metals and main group metals is the latter’s ability to form coordination complexes.
  4. Transition metals are characterized by many oxidation states due to the high reactivity of the unpaired d electrons.

Answer: A) The transition metals have little variability in their ionization energies and electronegativities due to their similar valence electron shells.


Here are a few common questions about what we’ve covered in this article. 

1. Is the Periodic Table Given on the MCAT?

Yes, the periodic table is provided to test-takers. The AAMC administers the MCAT and acknowledges the importance of the periodic table as a foundational tool in chemistry and related disciplines. 

If you visit the Associate of American Medical Colleges website, you can see a copy of the periodic table provided during the exam. 

A periodic table appears in the official MCAT exam booklet to ensure a level playing field for all test-takers. Students can reference the table when answering questions requiring knowledge of element properties, trends, and interactions. 

While a solid understanding of the periodic table beforehand is important, having a physical copy available during the exam can assist test-takers in quickly accessing relevant information and making accurate assessments.

2. How Do I Memorize the Periodic Table for the MCAT?

Rather than trying to memorize the table as a whole, focusing on key patterns, trends, and properties of elements is more beneficial. 

Start by familiarizing yourself with the organization of the periodic table, including the arrangement of elements into periods and groups. Pay attention to the position of elements concerning their atomic numbers and relationships within groups. 

Understanding periodic trends, such as atomic radius, ionization energy, and electronegativity, can help you make predictions and connections between elements. Create mnemonics, flashcards, or other memory aids to remember the symbols and atomic numbers of elements in each group. 

Additionally, practice using the table as a reference during your studies to solve sample questions and analyze the behavior of elements in various contexts. 

Consistent review, active learning techniques, and problem-solving will reinforce your understanding of the periodic table, enabling you to recall essential information more easily on the MCAT.

3. How Much of the MCAT Is Chemistry? 

Of the 230 questions on the MCAT, 59 of them are dedicated to the Chemistry and Physical Foundations section. While the MCAT covers a broad range of subjects, including biology, physics, psychology, and sociology, chemistry does hold a significant portion of the test. 

To further break down this section, of those 59 questions, 25% of them are usually dedicated to first-semester biochemistry, 30% to general chemistry, and 15% to organic chemistry. The exact number of questions per topic may fluctuate per year. 

It is crucial for aspiring medical students to have a solid understanding of foundational chemistry concepts, such as atomic structure, chemical reactions, stoichiometry, and properties of elements. 

Mastery of these topics will not only contribute to success in the chemistry-specific section of the MCAT but will also provide a strong foundation for understanding various biological processes and interactions. Therefore, a solid grasp of chemistry is essential for achieving a competitive score on the MCAT.

Final Thoughts

The periodic table is a foundational tool of immense significance for the MCAT. Its organization, trends, and properties serve as the building blocks for understanding chemistry, biochemistry, and biology concepts tested on the exam. 

A thorough understanding of the periodic table allows you to identify patterns, predict reactivity, and comprehend the behavior of elements in chemical and biological systems. By recognizing the trends observed in past MCATs, you can focus your studies on key areas and topics commonly tested. 

Remember, while the MCAT periodic table is provided during the exam, prior familiarity and mastery of its concepts will greatly enhance your ability to navigate questions with confidence and accuracy. 

Investing time in studying the periodic table is crucial for your success on the MCAT.  Instead of just considering it as a chart, recognize it as a powerful tool. By dedicating yourself to understanding the periodic table, you gain the ability to excel on the MCAT and establish a strong foundation for your medical journey ahead.

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