Student studying for medical school by learning what is on the MCAT.

What Is On The MCAT? A Test-Takers Guide

July 5, 2021
Part 1. IntroductionPart 2. What is on the MCAT: Overview of the MCAT SectionsPart 3. How is the MCAT Structured?Part 4. Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living SystemsPart 5. Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems Part 6. Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of BehaviorPart 7. Critical Analysis and ReasoningPart 8. FAQsPart 9. Conclusion

Introduction 

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a multiple choice and computer-based exam that medical schools require for admission. This test can either make or break your chances of getting into the school of your choice. While the application process is becoming more holistic, many schools do have minimum MCAT requirements that must be met for further consideration. To be well prepared, you must have a grasp on all four test sections, as well as their format. This article will describe what is on the MCAT, 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 the qualifications of each applicant thoroughly. Admissions committees look at your academic record, MCAT score, and extracurricular activities to understand your preparedness and dedication to medicine. 

What is on the MCAT: Overview of the MCAT Sections

The MCAT measures your knowledge of organic chemistry, physics, sociology, psychology, general biology, and biochemistry. The exam will also test your critical analysis and reasoning skills. To do well on the MCAT, you must have a firm grasp of each topic. The best way to set a strong foundation before the MCAT is to take the associated courses for each section. 

These courses will typically reflect the prerequisite courses required by medical schools. It is not enough to know your subjects inside and out - you must train yourself to think critically through complex passages and nuanced questions. Knowing how to interpret and understand difficult material is your best way to test well on the MCAT, so practice is key. 

How is the MCAT Structured?

The exam has four sections: 

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 that students should learn to prepare for medical school. The test emphasizes deep knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts. 

Three out of four of the sections 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 to be just as important to your medical school success as your knowledge of the 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. On the test, you will need to have the ability to recall facts and combine them with your analysis skills to delve deeper into passages and ascertain which details are relevant to answering the accompanying questions.

You will mainly encounter passage-based questions. There are several passages in each section covering various topics. In addition to the passages, there will be standalone questions. These questions are known as “discrete” questions to those familiar with the MCAT. 

The discrete questions are considered easy points by many test takers because they are straightforward and do not require you to read a passage to answer correctly. If you feel strong in your science knowledge, you may find it easier to answer these questions rather than sort through intricate passages to figure out how you need to answer them properly.

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 will include questions and passages that will test your skills in analyzing what you read. During the CARS section of your exam, you will read passages from social sciences and humanities. The passages will be 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 for the various passage types will be your best path to success. 


Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (Bio)

This section of the MCAT presents questions that require an understanding of the processes that foster life (reproduction, homeostasis, adaptation, etc.). To perform well in this section, you must understand the impact of various 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: 

You will have 95 minutes to complete this section, and the score range is between 118 and 132. The name of this section 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 tested 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. Undergraduate courses related to the Bio section of the MCAT are General Chemistry (5%), Organic Chemistry (5%), Biology (65%), and 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 the types of questions that you might get asked can be found on the AAMC website. Taking a look at the AAMC’s example passages and reviewing them is a great way to start familiarizing yourself with the format of the test questions before choosing your study method. Some people focus on Q-banks, 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: 

Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (CHEM/PHYS)

The Chem/Phys section of the MCAT combines knowledge of the physical sciences with your understanding of the biological sciences. Gibbs free energy, amino acid properties, electron configuration, and kinetics are examples of topics you may encounter during this section. 

It’s important to note that this section goes beyond physics and chemistry. Only planning for chemistry and physics in this section will not be enough to do well. In this section, physical sciences combine with biological sciences. Biochemistry also appears a good deal in this section. It is important to have a sound understanding of Biochemistry for both Bio and Chem/Phys. 

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 you with a Periodic Table, but calculators are not permitted. You will need to remember most equations on your own. Examples of equations you should know from memory include kinetics equations, energy equations, and gas law equations. More complex, uncommon equations are typically provided within the passage. 

Section Breakdown: 

This section requires you 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: 

To prepare for test day, you should make sure you’re mentally, intellectually, and physically prepared. You will need to take time to relax and get good rest before your test. Entering your test with excessive anxiety or drowsiness will only hinder your ability to score as high as possible. Try not to stay up worrying all night.

Make sure you arrive at the test center 30 minutes early and bring your government-issued ID. Don’t forget to bring a light lunch. Test day will be long. You don’t want a growling stomach to break your focus. 

The Chem/Phys section of the test is both content and quantitative skill-driven, making it one of the more demanding sections of the exam. Other sections of the exam will not require as many calculations as this exam, 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)

This section asks you to solve and analyze problems by combining your knowledge of reasoning skills and foundational concepts of science. It tests your understanding of biological, psychological, and social factors about perceptions and reactions in the world. This section emphasizes concepts that doctors need to know to help the world's diverse population. It prepares future physicians to deal with human and social issues of medicine. 

Section Breakdown: 

The Psych/Soc section includes the newest subjects tested on the MCAT. They were added because they are becoming increasingly important as society continues to evolve. 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. 

This section is designed to test the following:

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 does not test any prior content knowledge. This section aims to determine how well you analyze arguments and your ability to find underlying assumptions. Unlike the other three sections of the MCAT, CARS assesses your ability to interpret information without background knowledge. 

You will have 90 minutes to complete 53 passage-based questions. There are a total of nine passages for the CARS section. While complex, these passages are normally short, only 500 to 600 words long.

CARS can be a difficult section because the way you approach the questions will largely depend on the subject matter and how it fits into overarching categories. There is no specific content to study, but there are ways to handle the passages presented in this section. 

Additionally, your approach to each question in this section will vary depending on what it is asking. Some questions will require you to make inferences based on information provided in the passage, while others will require you to understand the author’s perspective and draw a conclusion about the main idea of a passage. 

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 of passages based on qualities such as tone, relative subjectivity, and diction.

2. Do not get hung up on details of complex passages.

Remember, CARS is not expecting you to have studied the information in each passage previously. Focus on tone and argument changes to understand the author's voice and their sentiments about the topics discussed in the passage. 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, then presents information that conflicts with that stance, pay close attention. In some cases, the information is meant to throw you off track. In other cases, it is meant to convey his or her true stance. It is essential to practice as much as possible to pick up on these trickier instances.  

Usually, the passages will be either in the 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, Theatre, Philosophy, and Religion. Social Science passages draw from various disciplines, including Archaeology, Economics, Education, History, Geography, Psychology, and Sociology.

FAQs 

1. How long is the MCAT? 

You should expect to sit down for 7.5 hours. There will be optional breaks that we recommend you take to prevent fatigue. 

2. How much does it cost to take the MCAT? 

It costs around $300 to take the MCAT during the normal registration window. This cost increases if you register late or reschedule. You also may be subject to pay cancellation fees after a certain period. Be sure to choose an MCAT test date that is good for you. 

3. When should I take the MCAT? 

The best possible time to take the test is when you feel thoroughly prepared. The only way to know if you are prepared is by taking practice tests. The ideal time to take your MCAT exam is when you can achieve your desired score on a practice test. Be realistic when setting your goal score to prevent never feeling ready and perpetually postponing your test. A good way to come up with a target score is to research the matriculant scores of schools you are interested in attending. 

4. How often can I take the MCAT exam? 

Single testing year: The MCAT can be taken three times, 

Two consecutive year period: The MCAT can be taken up to four times,

Lifetime: The MCAT can be taken up to seven times during your life. 

5. How long should I study for the MCAT?

The AAMC shared that students reported studying for an average of three months, 20 hours per week. This equates to about 240 hours of dedicated MCAT studying.  

6. Am I required to take courses or prerequisites before taking the MCAT exam?

No, you are not required to take any courses to take the exam, but you will have a hard time completing the test with a sufficient score without taking your medical school prerequisite courses first. 

The content on the MCAT is covered by introductory courses at most colleges and universities. You should reach out to your pre-health advisor, who can help you determine the best way to fulfill the prerequisite courses for your selected medical schools. Generally, course requirements will be pretty similar, but variations do occur.

Conclusion

To be well prepared, you must have a firm grasp of the content covered in all four test sections and the format of the MCAT. The best way to do this is by taking the associated prerequisite courses before taking the MCAT. By studying what is on the MCAT, reviewing the four test sections often with the help of practice tests, and using AAMC’s practice questions regularly, you will increase your chances of producing a competitive MCAT score.

A competitive score is important to help you enter medical school. Make sure that you are taking care of yourself mentally and physically before taking the MCAT. It is a long test. You should be training your mind and body for the seven and a half hour testing marathon you will endure on test day. It 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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