Spectroscopy on the MCAT: What You Need to Know

June 6, 2022


Reviewed by:

Akhil Katakam

Third-Year Medical Student, Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University

Reviewed: 3/6/22

The MCAT has a lot of components, and it’s hard to know how much you need to know about each topic. We cover what you need to know about spectroscopy on the MCAT and give you a few general tips for studying. 

You’re here because you’re wondering what you need to know about spectroscopy with regard to the MCAT. Whether you’re planning on going into a field where you’ll end up using this information or just need to know what specifically to study for the MCAT, you’ll find what you need to know in our guide. 

First, we’ll talk about the different types of spectroscopy. We’ll also include sample questions (with answers included) for you to look at and analyze. Then we’ll give you a few of our best tips to prepare for the MCAT. Keep reading to learn more. 

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IR and NMR Spectroscopy: What You Need to Know

There are two primary techniques in spectroscopy: infrared (IR) spectroscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. Here, we’ll discuss what each technique is used for and how these techniques are presented on the MCAT.

IR Spectroscopy 

Infrared (IR) spectroscopy “deals with the infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum, that is light with a longer wavelength and lower frequency than visible light. It covers a range of techniques, mostly based on absorption spectroscopy.”

Infrared spectroscopy, commonly used in research and industry practice, is considered “a simple and reliable technique used for a variety of measurements and in quality control.”

NMR Spectroscopy

Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, or NMR spectroscopy, is an analytical technique used in chemistry. More accurately, NMR spectroscopy is a tool used to “chart the complex molecular structures of matter.” 

Japan Electron Optics Laboratory (JEOL) describes NMR: 

“An NMR instrument allows the molecular structure of a material to be analyzed by observing and measuring the interaction of nuclear spins when placed in a powerful magnetic field."
"For the analysis of molecular structure at the atomic level, electron microscopes and X-ray diffraction instruments can also be used, but the advantages of NMR are that sample measurements are non-destructive and there is less sample preparation required.”

What You Need to Know for the MCAT

You’ve probably already learned more than you need to know about IR and NMR spectroscopy on the MCAT in your undergraduate chemistry classes. In your undergraduate course, you were required to recall certain knowledge for exams and coursework.

The MCAT will not require you to freely recall and produce information – all questions are multiple-choice. You just need to have a general idea of what IR and NMR spectroscopy is used for and the basic features of each one. 

Sample MCAT Spectroscopy Questions

There are many resources and practice tests that you can use to answer practice questions similar to real MCAT questions. Here are a few sample questions that can help you gauge how well you know the topic of spectroscopy on the MCAT. A practice test with these questions and more can be found here.

Sample Spectroscopy Question #1

Question: IR spectroscopy is most useful for distinguishing _______"

Possible answers:

  1. Double and triple bonds
  2. C–H bonds
  3. Chirality of molecules
  4. Composition of racemic mixtures

Correct Answer: A

Explanation: Infrared spectroscopy is most useful for distinguishing double and triple bonds. C-H bonds (2) are present in almost all organic compounds, so such absorptions from IR spectroscopy would not be useful in most cases. IR spectroscopy cannot reveal much about the optical properties of compounds, such as chirality (3) and composition of racemic mixtures (4)

Sample Spectroscopy Question #2

Question: The IR spectrum of a fully protonated amino acid would likely contain which of the following peaks?"
I. A sharp peak at 1750 cm–1
II. A sharp peak at 3300 cm–1
III. A broad peak at 3300 cm–1

Possible answers

  1. I only
  2. I and II only
  3. II and III only
  4. I, II, and III

Correct Answer: B

Explanation: The IR spectrum of a fully protonated amino acid contains three peaks: C–O, N–H, and O–H. You should memorize the values of each of these peaks for the MCAT.

Statement I is correct because it correctly corresponds to the peak of the C=O bond of the carboxylic acid, and statement II is correct because it correctly corresponds to the peak of the N-H bond. However, the value in statement III is not the same as the peak of the O-H bond, which is actually around 3000 cm-1. The C=O bond shifts down the absorption frequency of the O-H bond by withdrawing electron density away from it.

Tips for Preparing for the MCAT 

There are a few things you can do to help yourself prepare for the MCAT. The best way to get a good score on the MCAT is by making a plan. 

Establish a Study Plan

In general, studying for the MCAT is rigorous, and it can be beneficial to give some structure to the process. You should have a plan well in advance that includes how often you’ll study, how many hours you’ll study at a time (and in total), and what topics to study at what times. 

How well you understand spectroscopy will dictate the amount of time you should spend on it. For example, if you’re really comfortable with spectroscopy, it would probably be sufficient to spend under 5% of your time on it. This amount of time allows you to test your knowledge and make sure you have a good handle on the topic.

Conversely, if you’re not comfortable with spectroscopy, consider spending closer to 10% of your time on it until you have a better grasp of the subject.

Add practice tests to your plan as well – include dates or timeframes for when you’ll take them.

Take Practice Tests

Take a practice test before you start studying so you can figure out your baseline score. Your baseline score refers to the score you would get if you were to take the MCAT today – with the knowledge you currently have. It allows you to assess what your strengths and weaknesses are and specific areas where you need to study harder. 

Aside from the test you should take before you start studying, you should also take at least one in the middle of your study plan so you can get another assessment of your knowledge after studying it. Then, take one close to the date of your actual MCAT, so you can get a final assessment and determine what you need to focus on in the last week or two of your study plan.

Make Flashcards

One of the best ways to test yourself on what you’ve studied is by using flashcards. Write the problem, question, or term on one side with the corresponding solution, answer, or definition on the other. 

The exact flashcards you should make are dependent on how well versed you are in spectroscopy. Your flashcards are meant to help you figure out your weak spots and learn more about any specific topic. Generally, the flashcards you make for spectroscopy on the MCAT should include sample questions and terms you don’t fully understand yet.

Build Stamina

The MCAT is a 7.5-hour long test. It can be hard to maintain concentration for that long, so you should practice. Prepare for the MCAT by studying for long hours at a time. Build up to 7.5 hours with fewer and fewer breaks by using a tiered study plan. 

For example, you could start studying for 2 hours at a time for 2-3 weeks, then 4 hours at a time for 2-3 weeks, then 6 hours at a time, and finally 7.5 hours at a time. Slowly decrease your breaks throughout your study plan, too. When it’s time to take the real test, you’ll be more prepared to keep your focus for the entire day. 

Consider a Tutor for Additional Help

The MCAT is hard, and there is no shame in needing extra help. In fact, hiring a tutor to help you with the MCAT can make you feel more confident about taking the test. Extra tutoring sessions can even increase your score.

General MCAT & Spectroscopy FAQs

Many students want to know about spectroscopy on the MCAT and how to prepare. We’ve compiled some of the most commonly asked questions for you as you plan for the MCAT.

1. How Much Do I Need to Know About Spectroscopy on the MCAT?

You need to know basic information about both IR and NMR spectroscopy. You won’t need to freely recall information as you did in your undergraduate classes. Instead, the MCAT will ask questions with multiple-choice answers. As long as you understand what IR and NMR spectroscopy is used for and the basic features of each one, that will be sufficient.

2. How Long Should I Spend Studying for Spectroscopy on the MCAT?

The amount of time you spend studying spectroscopy is dependent on how well you understand the topic; you should incorporate it into your study plan based on how well you know it. After you take an initial practice test to gauge your overall knowledge of MCAT material, you can look at how well you know spectroscopy and then add it to your plan accordingly.

3. How Do I Prepare for Such a Long Test?

You can prepare for the 7.5-hour long test by making a study plan that works up to a 7.5-hour long session. Start out by studying for just two hours, then work up to four, then six, and eventually 7.5. Be sure to shorten your breaks as you get closer to the actual test because there are only three short breaks during the MCAT.

4. How Many Practice Tests Should I Take?

You should take at least three throughout your study plan. You can find free practice tests online so that you don’t have to spend money to practice. 

Take your first practice test before you even start studying to gauge what you already know and what you need to study. 

5. Can I Retake the MCAT if I Don’t Like My Score?

Yes, you can. However, there are limits on how many times you can take the test. Here are the general MCAT guidelines:

  • You can take the MCAT up to three times in one single year.
  • The MCAT can be taken up to four times in a two-year consecutive period. 
  • The MCAT can be taken up to seven times in total.

Note that voided tests and no-shows also count as MCATs that were taken. 

6. Where Can I Take the MCAT Exam?

There are hundreds of locations in the United States and Canada where you can take the MCAT. To find a location near you, visit the AAMC’s test center finder.

Final Thoughts 

Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of what you need to know (and do) in order to successfully answer spectroscopy questions on the MCAT. Make sure you take a practice test to gauge your knowledge of spectroscopy and then use that to make flashcards to help you grasp the information you don’t know well enough yet. 

Make a strong study plan and use our tips as a guide, and you’ll be well on your way to acing spectroscopy on the MCAT. Good luck! 

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