What is On the MCAT? - The Ultimate Guide to the MCAT Exam

April 25, 2024
8 min read


Reviewed by:

Akhil Katakam

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

Reviewed: 4/25/24

The MCAT is a lengthy test you must take to gain entry to medical school. Read on if you want to know what is on the MCAT. 

Infographic outlining the MCAT sections

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a multiple-choice, computer-based exam that medical schools require for admission. This test can make or break your chances of getting into your dream school. While the application process is becoming more holistic, many schools have minimum MCAT requirements.

To be well prepared, you must have a grasp of all four test sections, as well as the test format. We’ll describe what the MCAT subjects are, the exam’s format, and the content it covers. 

The MCAT was developed by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) to provide medical schools with an efficient way to measure and compare each applicant. Admissions committees look at your academic record, MCAT score, and extracurricular activities to gauge your preparedness and dedication to medicine. 

Let’s get into our complete MCAT breakdown!

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What is Tested on the MCAT?

So, what topics are on the MCAT? The MCAT is made up of: 

  • Organic Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Sociology
  • Psychology
  • General Biology
  • Biochemistry 

The exam tests your critical analysis and reasoning skills. To do well, you must have a firm grasp of the topics tested on the MCAT. The best way to set a strong foundation before the MCAT is to take the associated courses for each section. 

These courses typically are the prerequisite courses required by medical schools. Knowing your subjects is not enough - you must train yourself to think critically through complex passages and nuanced questions. Knowing how to interpret and understand difficult material is essential for the MCAT, so practice is key. 

MCAT Sections Overview

Now that we’ve discussed what subjects are on the MCAT, let’s go over how these topics are divided and the MCAT structure. It’s important to understand there are four MCAT sections in order you should be prepared for: 

  • Section 1 - Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (Bio)
  • Section 2 - Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (Chem/Phys)
  • Section 3 - Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (Psych/Soc)
  • Section 4 - Critical Analysis and Reasoning (CARS)

The MCAT revolves around the most important ideas and concepts found in the sciences, called “the big ideas.” These concepts reflect the most up-to-date knowledge students should know for medical school. The test emphasizes deep knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts. 

Three out of four MCAT categories focus solely on the sciences and their big ideas. The fourth section, CARS, focuses on your critical analysis and reasoning skills. The AAMC deems CARS as important to your medical school success as your knowledge of basic sciences.  

To score well in the science-focused sections, you should, at minimum, take your first semester of courses for the associated science topics. You must recall facts and combine them with your analysis skills to delve deeper into passages and ascertain relevant details.

You will mainly encounter passage-based questions. There are several passages in each section covering various topics. 

Additionally, there will be standalone questions called “discrete” questions. Many test-takers consider these questions easy points because they are straightforward and don’t require reading a passage to answer correctly.

If you’re confident in your science knowledge, you may find it easier to answer the “discrete” questions first.

MCAT Section # of Questions Time Allotted Score Range
Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (Bio) 59 (44 passage-based, 15 discrete) 95 min 118-132
Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (Chem/Phys) 59 (44 passage-based, 15 discrete) 95 mins 118-132
Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (Psych/Soc) 59 (44 passage-based, 15 discrete) 95 mins 118-132
Critical Analysis and Reasoning (CARS) 53 (all passage-based) 90 mins 118-132
Total: 4 sections 375 minutes testing time, 453 minutes seated time with breaks 472-528

The AAMC defines four critical reasoning skills that you should develop and refine while studying for each section: 

  1. Knowledge of scientific concepts and principles 
  2. Scientific reasoning and problem-solving
  3. Reasoning about the design and execution of research 
  4. Data-based and statistical reasoning 

The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section includes questions and passages that test your analysis skills. In the CARS section of your exam, you will read social sciences and humanities passages. The passages are followed by questions that will lead you through a process of analyzing and reasoning through unfamiliar topics. 

This section is important because it measures your overall reasoning skills. There is no specific topic to study to prepare for this section. Doing practice questions that help you become familiar with the proper analysis methods is your best path to success.

Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (Bio)

The MCAT biochem section presents questions that require an understanding of the processes that foster life (reproduction, homeostasis, adaptation, etc.). To ace this section, you must understand the impact of variables on organisms and their systems. 

Variables include but are not limited to temperature changes, acidity alterations, and solubility changes. You will encounter graphs and charts. Your ability to follow trends and read research material is vital. 

Section Breakdown

  • 44 passage-based questions 
  • 15 discrete, non-passage questions
  • 59 total questions 
  • 95 minutes to complete
  • 118 to 132 score range

This section’s name might lead you to believe you will only be tested on the biological sciences. However, this is not the case. There will also be organic chemistry and general chemistry concepts in this section. Biochemistry is a high-yield topic for the Bio section of the MCAT. 

This topic studies the chemical processes of living organisms. So, how much of the MCAT is biochemistry? The undergraduate courses related to the Bio section of the MCAT are: 

  • General Chemistry (5%)
  • Organic Chemistry (5%)
  • Biology (65%)
  • Biochemistry (25%)

You may also find Anatomy and Genetics to be helpful courses, but they are not as integral to your success on the exam as the listed courses. 

Examples of MCAT biochem questions can be found on the AAMC website. Examining the AAMC’s example passages is a great way to familiarize yourself with the format before choosing your study method. 

Some people focus on Q-banks, as practice questions can help prepare you for what is on the MCAT, while others rely on prep courses to conquer the MCAT. There are even MCAT tutors for those who thrive best with one-on-one guidance.  

Overall, this section is designed to test the following: 

  • Biochemistry concepts 
  • Biology, organic chemistry, and inorganic chemistry 
  • Knowledge of basic research methods and statistics 
  • Ability to understand and use scientific inquiry and reasoning, statistics, and research methods 
  • Cellular and molecular biology topics 

Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (Chem/Phys)

The Chem/Physics section of the MCAT combines knowledge of the physical sciences with the biological sciences. Some topics you may encounter here include Gibbs free energy, amino acid properties, electron configuration, and kinetics. 

It’s important to note that this section goes beyond physics and chemistry. Only planning for chemistry and physics will not be enough to do well; rather, it involves physical sciences combined with biological sciences. It is important to have a sound understanding of Biochemistry for both Bio and Chem/Phys for the test.

Undergraduate courses related to this section of the MCAT are: 

  • General Chemistry (30%)
  • Intro to Physics (25%)
  • Organic Chemistry (15%)
  • Biochemistry (25%) 
  • Intro to Biology (5%)

The Chem/Phys section provides a Periodic Table, but calculators are not permitted. You will need to remember most equations on your own. Examples of MCAT Physics equations you should know from memory include kinetics equations, energy equations, and gas law equations. More uncommon equations are typically provided.

Section Breakdown

  • 44 passage-based questions 
  • 15 discrete questions, non-passage questions
  • 59 questions
  • 95 minutes to complete
  • Score Range: 118 to 132 

You’ll need to answer questions using your knowledge of physical and chemical science concepts along with your reasoning skills. It tests your knowledge of chemical and physical principles used in the body's systems and the mechanisms that govern proper function. The section was designed to: 

  • Test molecular biology topics that are taught in universities and colleges
  • Test biochemistry concepts 
  • Test intro-level biology, inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics concepts
  • Test basic research methods and statistic concepts 
  • Demonstration of scientific inquiry and reasoning

The Chem/Phys section is content and quantitative skill-driven, making it one of the more demanding exam sections. Other sections don’t require as many calculations, nor will they be as heavy on the necessary equations. Familiarize yourself with the potential questions you will answer here

Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (Psych/Soc)

The MCAT Psychology and Sociology section asks you to solve and analyze problems by combining your reasoning skills and foundational science concepts. It tests your understanding of biological, psychological, and social factors about perceptions and reactions in the world. 

Psych/Soc emphasizes concepts doctors need to know to interact with the world's diverse population. It prepares future physicians to deal with human and social issues of medicine. 

Section Breakdown

  • 44 passage-based questions
  • 15 discrete, non-passage questions
  • 59 total questions 
  • 95 minutes to complete
  • 118-132 score range

The Psych/Soc section includes the newest subjects tested on the MCAT. It is important that in your undergraduate studies, you take introductory courses in both Sociology and Psychology. This section integrates the psychological, sociological, and biological foundations of behaviors. 

Here’s what to know for this MCAT section:

  • Knowledge of basic research methods and statistics concepts
  • Knowledge of biology concepts that correlate to mental processes and behavior
  • Knowledge of concepts taken in universities' first-semester psychology and sociology courses
  • Your scientific knowledge and reasoning abilities

You can start studying for this section with practice questions from the AAMC here.

Critical Analysis and Reasoning (CARS)

The CARS section is unique because it doesn’t test any prior knowledge. This section determines how well you analyze arguments and your ability to find underlying assumptions. Unlike other MCAT sections, CARS assesses your ability to interpret information without background knowledge. 

Section Breakdown

  • 53 passage-based questions (500-600 words)
  • 9 passages 
  • 90 minutes to complete 
  • 118-132 score range

CARS can be a difficult section because the way you approach the questions largely depends on the MCAT subjects you’re addressing and how they fit into overarching categories. There is no specific content to study, but there are ways to handle the passages presented.

Your approach to each question will also vary depending on what is asked. Some questions require you to infer based on the information provided, while others require understanding the author’s perspective and drawing a conclusion about the passage’s main idea. 

Here are some tips to help you perform well in the CARS section: 

  1. Know how to look for changes in the various aspects of passages. You can pick up on important alterations to the meaning and direction based on qualities such as tone, relative subjectivity, and diction.
  2. Don’t get hung up on details of complex passages. Remember, CARS is not expecting you to have studied the information presented previously. Focus on tone and argument changes to understand the author's voice and arguments. This will help you have the proper perspective when answering questions. 
  3. Understand the text’s main idea. If an author takes one stance for the majority of a passage and then presents information that conflicts with that stance, pay close attention. The information may be designed to throw you off. It is essential to practice as much as possible to pick up on these trickier instances.  

Passages are usually about social sciences or humanities. Social science passages tend to be scientific and factual, whereas humanities focus on relationships between ideas and opinions. 

Humanity passages draw from a wide range of topics, including: 

  • Art
  • Dance
  • Ethics
  • Music
  • Pop Culture
  • Theater
  • Philosophy
  • Religion

Social Science passages draw from various disciplines, including: 

  • Archeology
  • Economics
  • Education
  • History
  • Geography
  • Psychology
  • Sociology

FAQs: What Are the MCAT Topics?

If you still have questions about the MCAT’s content, these answers to frequently asked questions will help. 

1. How Much Physics Is on the MCAT? 

Physics questions make up about 25% of the Chem/Phys section of the MCAT. 

2. What Are the MCAT Physics Topics? 

MCAT physics topics can include work and energy, circuits, kinematics, fluids, thermodynamics, and other select topics. To perform well in this section, you should thoroughly understand these concepts and more. What to know for the MCAT Chem/Phys section should be covered in related undergraduate courses. 

3. How Much Organic Chemistry Is on the MCAT? 

Organic chemistry makes up about 15% of the Chem/Phys section questions and 5% of the Bio section. We can estimate that how much o-chem is on the MCAT in total is approximately 5%. 

If you’re wondering how much chemistry is on the MCAT in total, general chemistry accounts for approximately 8-10% of the exam.

4. How Much Biology Is on the MCAT?

Biology makes up 65% of the Bio section and 5% of the Chem/Phys section. 

5. What Are the Most Challenging MCAT Test Subjects? 

The hardest topics on the MCAT depend on your strengths and weaknesses. The first three MCAT sections test your foundation in science’s big ideas. The CARS section is more difficult to prepare for: some people may find this the toughest test “subject” because it requires practical application without studying prior content. 

6. How Do I Best Prepare for the CARS Section? 

It’s hard to identify what you should know for the MCAT CARS section. Honing your critical analysis and reasoning skills through practice before the test can help familiarize you with what you’ll see on test day. 

7. Am I Required to Take Courses or Prerequisites Before the MCAT?

No, you are not required to take any courses to take the exam, but you will have a harder time without taking medical school prerequisite courses first. The MCAT’s content is covered by introductory courses at most colleges and universities. 

8. Is There Math on the MCAT?

Math is one of the key MCAT topics you should prepare for. You’ll need to brush up on basic algebra, conversions, exponents & exponentials, trigonometry, coordinate geometry, and statistics before test day.

9. Is The MCAT Multiple-Choice?

Yes, the MCAT is a multiple-choice test. However, the nature of the questions differs depending on the section.

10. Is There Anatomy on the MCAT?

While certain questions may include basic anatomy in their prompts, you will not have to study anatomy in depth for the exam. Any biology-related prompts will be at a general biology level. 

11. How Many Questions Are On The MCAT? 

The MCAT has 230 questions in total. Each section has 59 questions except for CARS, which has 53. 

What is on the MCAT? You’re All Over It

To be well prepared, you must have a firm grasp of the content covered in all MCAT test topics. The best way to do this is by taking prerequisite courses before the test. Take time to study content, take practice tests, and do the AAMC’s practice questions regularly. 

A competitive score is crucial for your medical school applications. Ensure you take care of yourself mentally and physically before taking the MCAT. We hope that our full breakdown of the MCAT has helped you learn what is on the MCAT and the MCAT format so that you feel ready for test day.

The MCAT is a rigorous exam, but with proper preparation, you can dominate the MCAT and get the score you need to attend the medical school of your dreams!

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