MCAT Psychology and Sociology: What You Need To Know

October 5, 2023
12 min read


Reviewed by:

Jonathan Preminger

Former Admissions Committee Member, Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine

Reviewed: 10/5/23

This article outlines what you need to know to be prepared to ace the MCAT psychology and sociology section. 

Student on laptop with stethoscope next to computer

The Medical College Admissions Test, better known as the MCAT, is a four-section test that is a prerequisite for admission into med school. 

Just like pre-law students dread the LSAT, aspiring med students have the MCAT to worry about. The MCAT is a notoriously stressful exam to write. 

But don’t stress out just yet - we are here to help! Continue reading for useful information, study tips, and sample questions for the MCAT psychology and sociology section. 

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MCAT Psychology and Sociology Section Breakdown

The MCAT is broken down into four sections, with psychology and sociology being the third section. 

The MCAT psychology and sociology section tests you on introductory psychology and sociology. The section is made up of 44 passage-based questions and 15 discrete, non-passage-based questions. In total, the section has 59 questions. 

MCAT Psychology and Sociology Section Format

The MCAT Psychology and Sociology section consists of 10 passages covering topics in psychology, sociology, and related biology subjects. Each passage is followed by 4-7 questions. 

Additionally, there are 15 discrete questions not associated with any passage. These questions test various skills, including science knowledge and application, with a focus on the four SIRS skills.

This section is scored on a scale from 118 to 132, with the median score set at 125. The scaled score does not correspond directly to the number of correct or incorrect answers. The MCAT exam is not graded on a curve; it's scaled and equated to ensure consistent meaning across different test dates and test-takers. 

The score from this section is combined with the scores from the other three sections to provide an overall MCAT score ranging from 472 to 528.

The MCAT Psychology and Sociology section lasts for 95 minutes and includes 59 questions. It comprises ten passages with 44 passage-based questions and 15 discrete (non-passage-based) questions.

The topics covered in this section include:

  • Introductory Psychology: 65%
  • Introductory Sociology: 30%
  • Introductory Biology: 5%

The AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges) has further categorized the content into Foundational Concepts with sub-categories. These concepts include:

Factors That Influence Perception, Thoughts, and Reactions

  • Sensing the environment
  • Making sense of the environment
  • Responding to the world

Factors That Influence Behavior and Behavior Change

  • Individual influences on behavior
  • Social processes that influence human behavior
  • Attitude and behavior change

Factors That Influence Perceptions and Interactions

  • Self-identity
  • Social thinking
  • Social interactions

Cultural and Social Factors That Influence Well-Being

  • Understanding social structure
  • Demographic characteristics and processes

This section serves as a critical component of the MCAT exam, assessing your understanding of psychological, sociological, and biological foundations of behavior. It's essential to prepare thoroughly and develop a strong grasp of these topics to perform well on the MCAT.

What Is Tested on the MCAT Psychology and Sociology Section?

The MCAT psychology and sociology section tests your understanding of how biological, psychological, and sociological factors influence people’s behavior, perception of the world and their self, and overall well-being. 

Female student studying from textbook

Psychology and Sociology Content to Study for the MCAT

The psychology and sociology content is weighted like this: 

  • Introductory Psychology (65%) 
  • Introductory Sociology (30%) 
  • Introductory Biology (5%)

One of the best ways to boost your MCAT Psychology and Sociology score is to familiarize yourself with the content. Fortunately, Kaplan lists the psychology and sociology topics that appear on the MCAT. They highlight the topics to be aware of before you take the MCAT: 

  • Cognition and Consciousness
  • Identity and Personality
  • Language Development
  • Learning and Memory
  • Motivation and Emotion
  • Neurobiology
  • Psychological Disorders
  • Sensation and Perception
  • Social Interaction
  • Social Processes and Behavior
  • Social Structure and Stratification
  • Social Thinking and Attitudes

As a physician, you will encounter a wide range of people who have specific health care needs. The MCAT tests your knowledge of and ability to understand how psychological and sociological factors influence and affect people’s health and behavior.

MCAT Psychology and Sociology Foundational Concepts

The MCAT Psychology and Sociology section focuses on Foundational Topics that are essential to understanding the psychological, sociocultural, and biological aspects of human behavior and interaction. Here's a breakdown of these foundational topics.

Factors That Influence Perception, Thoughts, and Reactions

This topic explores the various biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors that shape how individuals perceive, think about, and react to the world around them.

It delves into the processes of sensing the environment, making sense of that sensory input, and how individuals respond to external stimuli. In essence, it examines the cognitive and emotional aspects of perception and reaction.

Factors That Influence Behavior and Behavior Change

This topic delves into the intricate web of influences that shape human behavior and the potential for behavior change. It encompasses biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors that impact why people act the way they do. 

It further explores individual factors that affect behavior, social processes that guide human behavior, and how attitudes can lead to behavior change. This section provides insights into the complex interplay between nature and nurture in determining behavior.

Factors That Influence Perceptions and Interactions

Here, the focus shifts to the factors that influence how individuals perceive themselves and others, as well as their interactions with others. Psychological, sociocultural, and biological factors come into play in shaping self-identity, social thinking, and the dynamics of social interactions. 

This topic offers a deeper understanding of the intricate processes that govern human relationships and social behavior.

Cultural and Social Factors That Influence Well-Being

This topic highlights the significance of cultural and social factors in shaping individual well-being. It explores how cultural and societal differences can impact a person's overall health and quality of life. 

Understanding social structures, demographic characteristics, and the processes that underlie these factors is crucial to comprehending the broader context in which individuals live and experience well-being.

Social Inequality

This additional topic delves into social stratification and the unequal distribution of resources that can significantly influence well-being. It examines the disparities in access to opportunities and resources based on various factors such as socioeconomic status, race, and other dimensions of social identity.

Understanding social inequality is essential for addressing broader issues related to justice and equity in society.

These foundational topics collectively provide a comprehensive view of the factors that shape human behavior, interactions, and well-being. Mastering these concepts is vital for success in the MCAT Psychology and Sociology section, as it assesses your knowledge and application of these principles in various scenarios and questions.

Female student sitting on couch studying on laptop

Study Strategies for MCAT Psychology and Sociology Section

Your preparation and plan for the MCAT Psychology and Sociology section should be well-thought-out. It requires a comprehensive study schedule and a combination of active learning strategies. Here's a breakdown of study strategies to excel in this section.

Take a Diagnostic Test

Start by taking an MCAT diagnostic test, preferably from the AAMC website. This test serves as a baseline to identify your strengths and areas that need improvement. Don't aim for a perfect score; the goal is to understand where you stand in your MCAT preparations.

Create a Study Schedule

Develop a detailed study schedule that breaks down each foundational concept into manageable subjects. Use the AAMC's list of subtopics as a guide to ensure comprehensive coverage. 

For example, for the topic of how cultural and social differences influence well-being, focus on specific content categories like social structures and human interactions or demographic characteristics. Gather the best study resources, such as textbooks, guides, and flashcards.

Use Active Study Strategies

Engage in active learning by explaining concepts out loud without relying on study materials. Create quizzes to test your knowledge, try teaching the topics to a friend, and use self-made flashcards for active recall. This approach enhances your understanding and retention of information.

Take Regular Practice Tests

Periodically assess your progress by taking full-length MCAT practice tests. Analyze your performance and identify areas that require further attention. Be aware of MCAT test dates and releases that align with your preparation timeline.

Keep Practicing

In the final months of your preparation, prioritize practicing with MCAT practice questions. Allocate at least 70% of your study time to this phase. Take timed practice tests to improve your pacing and timing skills. Make sure to read through each question carefully to strengthen your reading comprehension skills. 

Strengthen Time Management and Test Stamina

Recognize that the MCAT Psychology section is the last one you'll face on test day, which requires endurance. Gradually build your stamina by studying for extended periods, mirroring test day conditions. Aim to study for four 95-minute periods in a row, with short breaks in between, to simulate the test's length and intensity.

Remember that while these strategies focus on the MCAT Psychology and Sociology section, they are beneficial for preparing for all four sections of the MCAT. Skills developed for one section, such as critical analysis and reasoning, can transfer to other sections. Consistent practice and a structured study plan will help you perform at your best on test day.

Study Sheet

There is a long list of Psychology and Sociology Terminology to study for the MCAT Psychology and Sociology section. Keep reading to familiarize yourself with the main ones. 

  • Social desirability bias: Survey respondents tend to provide answers that reflect positively on themselves, leading to over-reporting of favorable responses and under-reporting of unfavorable ones.
  • Selection bias: The bias introduced when individuals, groups, or data are chosen for analysis without achieving randomization, resulting in a non-representative sample.
  • Causation bias: The tendency to assume a cause-and-effect relationship.
  • Projection bias: Assuming that others share the same beliefs as oneself.
  • False consensus bias: Believing that others agree with one's own views, even when they do not.
  • Subject bias: When a subject intentionally or unintentionally reports distorted measurements.
  • Observer bias: When an observer intentionally or unintentionally reports distorted measurements.
  • Primacy bias: Giving more importance to information that reinforces one's initial impression.
  • Recency bias: Placing emphasis on recent actions or performances.
  • Past in present discrimination: Even if past discrimination is no longer allowed, it can still affect people in the present.
  • Homophily: The tendency to form relationships with individuals who share similar attributes.
  • Kin group: People related by blood or marriage.
  • Exogamy: Marrying outside of one's community.
  • Endogamy: Marrying within a specific group.
  • Matrilineal descent: Preference for maternal relations within a kin group.
  • Motion parallax: Objects farther away appear to move slowly, while closer objects appear to move faster.
  • Social potency trait: The degree to which someone takes on leadership roles in social situations.
  • Intersectionality: The interconnected nature of social categorizations, such as race, gender, and class, leading to overlapping systems of discrimination and disadvantage.
  • Labeling theory: Describes how labeling people can influence and shape their self-identity and behavior, often associated with the self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Craving: A strong desire to ingest a drug or consume a substance.
  • Dependency ratio: The portion of dependents in a population, including those under 15 or over 65. Calculated as (age 14 and lower + age 64 and higher) / people aged 15-65.
  • Disengagement theory: Suggests that it's natural for older adults to withdraw from society, leading to decreased interaction between the aging individual and society.
  • Life course perspective: A multidisciplinary approach to understanding an individual's mental, physical, and social health by analyzing their life within social, structural, and cultural contexts.
  • Life course theory: Views aging as a social, biological, and psychological process from birth to death.
  • Social selection hypothesis: States that people tend to select environments with people similar to themselves.
  • Social gradient in health: Refers to the connection between population health inequalities and individual social status.
  • Urban renewal: The revitalization of old city areas, potentially leading to gentrification.
  • Rural rebound: People leaving cities and returning to the countryside.
  • World systems theory: Divides the world into core (Western Europe, US), periphery (Latin America, Africa), and semi-periphery (India, Brazil) regions.
  • Dependency theory: Periphery countries exporting resources to core countries and lacking the means for self-development.
  • Hyperglobalist perspective: Believes in increasing interdependence between countries, marking a new era in human history.
  • Skeptical perspective: Argues that third-world countries aren't benefitting equally from integration into the global economy.
  • Transformationalist perspective: Suggests that national governments are changing as a new world order forms.
  • Mass society theory: Posits that isolated individuals are more susceptible to extreme movements.
  • Culture lag: The time it takes for culture to catch up with technological advancements, potentially causing social problems.
  • Gatekeeping: The process by which a few individuals or businesses control media content.
  • Shaping: A form of operant conditioning where successive approximations of desired behavior are reinforced to achieve the desired behavior gradually.
  • Sanctions: Rewards and punishments that align with or contradict societal norms.
  • Formal norms: Written rules with associated punishments, such as laws.
  • Informal norms: Generally understood rules without associated punishments if violated.
  • Mere exposure effect: People tend to prefer stimuli they've been exposed to repeatedly.
  • Frustration-aggression principle: Blocked goals can lead to frustration, which may result in anger and subsequent aggression.
  • Learning-performance distinction: Distinguishes between learning a skill and actually performing it.
  • Compliance: People engage in behavior to gain rewards or avoid punishment without questioning why.
  • Identification: People imitate the behavior or dress of someone they respect.
  • Cyclothymic disorder: Resembles bipolar disorder with less extreme mood swings.
  • Vicarious emotions: Experiencing the emotions of others as if they were one's own.
  • Linguistic relativity (Whorfian hypothesis): Suggests that language structure influences a speaker's worldview and cognition.
  • Place theory: Explains hearing perception, where the location of frequency vibrations along the basilar membrane affects our perception of sound.
  • Context effect: Describes how the context of a stimulus can influence its perception.
  • Moderation: A model where another variable influences the strength or direction of the relationship between an independent and dependent variable.
  • Mediation: A model where the independent variable affects a mediator variable, which, in turn, affects the dependent variable.
  • Emile Durkheim: Focused on functionalism, emphasizing the interdependence of social parts for societal stability and order.
  • George Herbert Mead: Pioneer of symbolic interactionism, which focuses on small-scale interactions between people.
  • George Herbert's "Me": Represents our social self, reflecting how society perceives us.
  • George Herbert's "I": Reflects our personal response to society's perceptions.
  • Ludwig Gumplowicz: Proposed that society is shaped by war, conquest, and conflicts between cultural and ethnic groups.
  • Solomon Asch: Conducted experiments on peer pressure and conformity using the three-line experiment.
  • Stanley Milgram: Conducted experiments on obedience using electric shock tests.
  • Ivan Pavlov: Developed classical conditioning and conducted the famous Pavlov dog experiments.
  • B.F. Skinner: Developed operant conditioning and conducted experiments with the Skinner box.
  • Philip Zimbardo: Conducted the famous prison experiments, highlighting the power of role-playing on behavior.
  • Albert Bandura: Focused on social learning theory and observational learning.
  • Carl Jung: Introduced the concept of the collective unconscious, introversion, and extroversion.
  • Collective unconscious: The part of the unconscious mind derived from ancestral memory and common to all humankind.
  • Erving Goffman: Developed the dramaturgical approach to social situations.
  • Gestalt psychology: Explains how we perceive things as a whole rather than individual parts, featuring top-down processing.
  • Gestalt principles: Include the law of similarity, closure, continuity, proximity, figure and ground, and Pragnanz.
  • Feature detection: The brain's ability to identify specific stimuli in an image, such as lines, edges, and movement.
  • Top-down processing: Using previous knowledge to interpret information and perceive the "whole picture."
  • Bottom-up processing: Perceiving individual pieces before forming a complete picture.
  • Actor-observer bias: Attributing others' behavior to individual traits and one's own behavior to external causes.
  • Generalized other: Represents societal expectations and attitudes toward actions and thoughts, coined by George Herbert Mead.
  • Kohlberg's stages of moral development: Preconventional, conventional, and post-conventional stages.
  • Gardner's theory of intelligence: Proposes multiple intelligences, including linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, body/kinesthetic, and interpersonal.
  • Game theory: Uses mathematical models to develop optimal strategies for various situations, considering the strategies of others.
  • Traditional authority: Based on tradition, custom, or accepted practices.
  • Spotlight model: Describes visual attention, emphasizing shifts in attention preceding eye movements.
  • Charismatic authority: Authority and power gained through persuasion.
  • Continuity theory: Suggests people strive to maintain a consistent life structure throughout their lives.
  • Malthusian theory: Predicts that population growth will lead to starvation.
  • Drive theory: Developed by Sigmund Freud, it explains psychological drives as instinctual needs influencing behavior.
  • Incentive theory: States that people are motivated by external rewards.
  • Cognitive theory: Proposes that behavior is based on predictions of desirable outcomes.
  • Need-based theory: Suggests that people are motivated to fulfill unmet needs.
  • Foot-in-the-door phenomenon: People are more likely to agree to larger requests after agreeing to smaller ones.
  • Counterconditioning: The process of replacing undesired responses to stimuli with desired responses.
  • Secure attachment: Easily seeks comfort from parents and is comforted by them.
  • Ambivalent attachment: Does not easily seek parental comfort and is not easily comforted.
  • Avoidant attachment: Does not seek parental comfort.
  • Anxious attachment: Not easily comforted by parents and may not return to play afterward.
  • Identification: The process where a subject assimilates aspects of another person, especially in gender identity formation.
  • Inclusive fitness: A measure of reproductive success considering offspring support and relationships.
  • General adaptation syndrome: Describes the body's response to stress in three stages: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.
  • Appraisal view of stress: Stress is determined by two appraisals, primary and secondary.
  • Signal detection theory: The ability to detect important stimuli among sensory input improves an organism's survival chances.
  • Sensitivity bias: An individual's tendency to accept or reject evidence of a signal.
  • Back region: A setting where a person feels relaxed and can act spontaneously without concern for others' perceptions.
  • Conjugal family: A family centered around the husband and wife rather than blood relationships.
  • Learning theory of language development: Language is learned through operant conditioning.
  • Nativist theory of language development: Language is an innate biological instinct.
  • Interactionist theory of language development: Language acquisition results from interaction between biology and environment.
  • Expressive aphasia: Inability to produce speech while understanding language.
  • Receptive aphasia: Inability to comprehend language despite hearing and producing it.
  • Fluid intelligence: Logical thinking without prior knowledge, peaking in young adulthood.
  • Crystallized intelligence: Logical thinking using previously acquired knowledge, remaining stable throughout life.
  • Retinal disparity: The brain processes depth by comparing images from each eye.
  • Proprioception: Awareness of body balance and position in space.
  • Gentrification: Upgrading of neighborhoods, attracting wealthier residents and raising property prices.
  • Behaviorist theory: Focuses on the role of reinforcement and punishment in shaping behavior.

Do your best to familiarize yourself with these concepts, as they form the foundation of psychology and sociology knowledge. However, remember, they’re just some of the terms to brush up on!

How To Prepare for MCAT Psychology

To prepare for the MCAT psychology section, the first thing you must do is understand what skills the AAMC is testing you on.

Having a good grasp of the skills and expectations of the test will allow you to design an effective study plan and identify your weaknesses before you take the test. 

Another important tip to prepare for the MCAT is to memorize and understand definitions. Both the psychology and sociology portion of the MCAT will require you to have an understanding of key definitions in the field. 

How To Prepare for MCAT Sociology

You can prepare for the MCAT sociology the same way you prepare for the MCAT psychology. 

To summarize, for both pieces, you should: 

  • Understand what the AAMC is testing you on 
  • Memorize and understand important concepts and definitions
  • Work on areas of weakness before taking the test

The sooner you start preparing, the less overwhelming it will be. Give yourself enough time to thoroughly review the materials without burning yourself out. 

MCAT Psychology and Sociology Questions 

Here’s an example of a multiple choice question for this section of the MCAT: 

Question. Which statement best represents a threat to social identity? A young woman with a rare disorder:
A) believes that others treat her as less capable, and then she starts to see herself as deficient.
B) becomes discouraged when she hears that others with rare disorders are treated as less capable.
C) hides her disorder from others in order to project more confidence in social situations.
D) reveals her disorder to friends, who mistakenly assume that it is a social limitation.

Correct Answer is B) becomes discouraged when she hears that others with rare disorders are treated as less capable.

Rationale: This Psychology question assesses the “Knowledge of Scientific Concepts and Principles” skill with a concept that is part of the content category of “Self-identity.” Social identity addresses the feelings that individuals derive from, or that are associated with, their membership in a group. Self-esteem can be undermined by threats to social identity, which is represented in the correct answer, Option B. The incorrect options do not clearly identify the connection between an individual’s sense of self and their perceived membership in a group.

Take a look at this example of a passage-based question:

The illness experience shapes the way that people use health information. For patients with a rare health disorder, which is defined as a medical condition that affects fewer than 200,000 individuals living in the United States, online sources of information tend to be particularly important.

An example of a rare disorder is Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” ALS results from the progressive loss of motor nerves and affects about 1 out of 100,000 people. About 10% of people with ALS have a familial form of the condition, which is caused by an inherited genetic mutation. Aside from the familial form, the cause of ALS is largely unknown, though it is believed that the disorder results from both genetic and environmental factors.

Having a rare medical condition, such as ALS, can make it difficult to meet and interact with others who have the same rare disorder. Despite great distances, online communication provides a form of social interaction for those facing an uncommon health problem. Virtual peer networks provide vital social support for those who are affected by a rare disorder.

Research has found that women with rare disorders are more likely to access online support networks than men with rare disorders. Relationships formed through online support networks often become a meaningful part of a person’s identity. Individuals with rare disorders report that relating to others who have the same condition is often easier than trying to relate to friends or family members who do not share their condition.

Question. Over the course of ten years, a rare disorder increases in prevalence such that it eventually affects more than 200,000 people in the United States. Based on the passage and this scenario, which prediction is most consistent with the sociological paradigm of symbolic interactionism?
A) As the number of affected individuals increases, government research funding increases.
B) Affected individuals are less likely to conceal their condition as it becomes less stigmatized.
C) As more people with the condition are treated, it receives less attention as a health concern.
D) Insurance coverage for the condition becomes more likely as more people require treatment.

Correct Answer is B) Affected individuals are less likely to conceal their condition as it becomes less stigmatized.

Rationale: This is a Sociology question that evaluates the skill of “Scientific Reasoning and Problem Solving” with a theoretical paradigm that is listed under the content category of “Understanding Social Structure.” Symbolic interactionism focuses on how meaning is constructed through small-scale social interactions. As a concept that is relevant to social interactions and the illness experience, social stigma is also closely associated with symbolic interactionism. Thus, the correct answer is option B, which rests in reasoning from the perspective of symbolic interactionism to make a prediction about social interaction and stigmatization. The incorrect options make predictions about large-scale social changes or about the disease itself, which are not consistent with the paradigm of social interactionism.

These examples can give you some idea of what to expect on the test. To set yourself up for success, make sure to run through as many sample questions for the MCAT Psychology and Sociology section as you can. 

FAQs: MCAT Psychology and Sociology

Still have questions about the MCAT psychology and sociology section? Here are the answers to your frequently asked questions. 

1. Is Sociology and Psychology on the MCAT?

Yes, both subjects are tested on the MCAT. However, psychology is weighted higher than sociology on the test. 

2. Is Sociology Useful for MCAT?

Yes, sociology is useful for the MCAT because it comprises a significant portion of the third section of the test. 

3. Should I Take Psychology Before the MCAT?

 The MCAT tests introductory psychology, so you don’t need to be a psychology major to do well on the test. 

You should, however, take at least one introductory course in psychology before the MCAT.

4. How Do I Study Psychology and Sociology for the MCAT?

 Here are the key pieces to get ready for the MCAT:

  • Understand what the AAMC wants
  • Take an MCAT diagnostic test to identify areas of weakness
  • Keeping your diagnostic test results in mind, create a thorough study plan 

The psychology and sociology section on the MCAT is worth a quarter of your final grade, so you’ll want to be prepared. Scoring well on the MCAT is your ticket into the med school of your dreams.

If you are worried about taking the test and would like some one-on-one support, consider working with an MCAT tutor

Final Thoughts

If you are worried or feel anxious about the psychology and sociology portion of the MCAT: that is okay, but there’s no need to stress yourself out more than you already are as a student. 

Just keep in mind that the psychology and sociology section of the exam is meant to test your understanding of how social determinants can affect people’s well-being. If you demonstrate this on the MCAT, you will do well. 

Taking a diagnostic test, understanding what skills the exam is testing, and having a strong study plan will prepare you to take on the MCAT.

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