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What is the MCAT?

What is the MCAT? Everything You Need to Know

January 10, 2023
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What Is the MCAT? How Important Is the MCAT?MCAT SectionsHow is the MCAT Scored?MCAT RegistrationHow to Prepare for the MCATTop Tips for Success in the MCAT MCAT FAQs

”Rohan

Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Chief Resident in Anesthesiology, Weill Cornell Medicine, & Admissions Officer, Columbia University

Reviewed: 11/23/22

Want to know how many MCAT sections there are or how to prepare for the exam? Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about the MCAT!

what is the mcat?


Taking the MCAT can be daunting – but what’s the MCAT, and what’s on it? Officially, the MCAT is the Medical College Admissions Test. If you do well on the MCAT, it will make your journey to medical school easier. We’re here to give you a leg up on the test. 

We’ll explore everything you need to know about the MCAT below. 

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What Is the MCAT? 

The MCAT is a four-section test. The sections are:

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

The soundness of your knowledge of prerequisite medical school courses will be tested. You don’t have to complete these prerequisites to be eligible to take the MCAT, but your success depends on how well you know each topic. 

Your seated testing time is approximately seven hours and 30 minutes. The timed content amounts to six hours and 15 minutes. There are three optional breaks: two 10-minute breaks and one 30-minute break. 

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How Important Is the MCAT?

The MCAT is crucial to your medical school application’s success. For many schools, the MCAT’s purpose is to indicate how well you will handle medical school’s rigor. With that said, your performance is not a proven indicator of how well you will do once in school. 

It’s worth noting that some schools take a more holistic approach, which may place less emphasis on your MCAT. A holistic approach to application review considers every aspect of your application, including your extracurricular activities, clinical experience, and interview performance

For example, if you have stellar clinical experience along with a high GPA and a profound motivation for becoming a physician, a holistic approach will allow more wiggle room for a lower MCAT score. In short, MCAT scores allow admissions committees to compare applicants across the board. 


MCAT Sections

As stated above, the MCAT consists of four sections: Chem/Phys, CARS, Bio, and Psych. You can receive a maximum score of 132 in each section, making the perfect score 528. Each section has several passages that test your comprehension and understanding of the presented information. 

You’ll also encounter standalone questions in each section, except for CARS. These questions test your knowledge of facts regarding the section’s subject matter. These standalone questions are formally called “discrete” questions. 

Image outlining the 4 sections of the mcat


Passages provide the information needed to answer the accompanying questions. You’ll need to know how different components of the passage are connected. This is where your science knowledge comes into play.

Let’s take an in-depth look at what is on the MCAT.

Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems

The Chem/Phys section has 59 questions. You will have 95 minutes to complete these questions. Abundant practice is particularly valuable for this section to do computations. You aren’t permitted to use a calculator, so you need to be comfortable quickly making accurate calculations. Be mindful of your units. 

Passages: 10

Discrete Questions: 15

Total Questions: 59

Associated prerequisite courses:

To do well in this section, you’ll need to connect your understanding of chemical and physical concepts and apply them to your reasoning process. Chem/Phys requires you to understand research methods and information presented in graphs. You’ll encounter passage-based questions and discrete questions.

Remember that you won’t be permitted to use an equation sheet or calculator. You’ll need to know equations related to physics and general chemistry by heart. Helpful equations to remember are those regarding kinetics, gasses, and Gibbs free energy. 

Math Concepts:

Topics listed by the AAMC:

Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)

The CARS section of the MCAT has 53 passage-based questions. CARS is the only section of the MCAT that will not contain discrete questions. Losing those more straightforward points makes it particularly difficult. Discrete questions are based on your knowledge of facts and are considered easy points by students well-versed in their material.

Passages: 9

Discrete Questions: 0

Total Questions: 53

There is no particular material or prerequisite courses to be familiar with for the CARS section. The passages come from various subjects, from arts and humanities to social sciences. Passages typically range from 500 to 600 words.

Your analysis process can change from passage to passage. The key to doing well in this section is practice, practice, practice. It’s necessary to determine facts from opinions and make sound inferences and conclusions. 

CARS tends to be the most difficult section for students. Though the texts may be complex, be comforted by the fact that all you need to know is presented in each passage. You don’t need outside knowledge to do well in CARS.

Topics listed by the AAMC: 

CARS Concepts:

Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems

To succeed in the Bio section, you’ll need to combine your understanding of biological and biochemical concepts. You will be tested on various processes of living organisms, including but not limited to reproduction, homeostasis, and adaptation. 

Passages: 10

Discrete Questions: 15

Total Questions: 59

Associated prerequisite courses:

You’ll complete 59 questions over 95 minutes and navigate passage-based and discrete questions. A strong understanding of your prerequisite course material and various research methods will help you succeed. 

Many students enjoy this section. If a love of science drew them to medicine, biology is likely the science that sparked their journey. The passages are less computation-heavy than Chem/Phys and rely on your reasoning and ability to understand information and trends presented in graphs. 

Even if biology is your favorite subject, passages on the MCAT are designed to be fairly nuanced. You’ll need to rely on your ability to determine what pieces of presented information are vital to do well. 

Math Concepts:

Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior

The Psych section of the MCAT will require you to combine your scientific inquiry and reasoning skills to solve problems and draw conclusions. This section will consist of both passage-based questions and discrete questions. 

Passages: 10

Discrete Questions: 15

Total Questions: 59

Associated prerequisite courses:

You will have 95 minutes to complete this final quarter of the MCAT. This section’s question style is similar to the Bio section. It focuses on your knowledge of facts and concepts more than your ability to calculate quickly. To prepare for this section, brush up on your psychology terminology and graph analysis, and understand the conduction of studies.

Topics listed by the AAMC:

How is the MCAT Scored?

The MCAT has a score range of 472 to 528. Your score is based on how many questions you answer correctly. Incorrect answers don’t count against your overall score, so ensure you answer every question on the test, even if you’re unsure. An unanswered question is automatically wrong, but you just might guess correctly!

Image outlining the maximum mcat score in each section, and the perfect mcat score in total.

The number of questions you answer correctly in a section is converted into a section score. For instance, if you answer 48 questions correctly, you may have a converted section score of 128. If you answer 37 questions correctly, your score may be around 123. Raw scores are converted because exams may vary slightly in difficulty and are equated during the conversion. 

The MCAT doesn’t score on a curve. The equating of scores means scores will have the same meaning at all times of the year. Your exam will be the same difficulty as everyone else’s, no matter when you take it. 

It takes 30 to 35 days to get your MCAT score back. The long turnaround for scores is in part due to the equating process. During this time, you can submit concerns about questions or test-day conditions. 

On May 1, percentile ranks are provided for the exam season. The percentiles help you see where your MCAT performance falls compared to your fellow examinees. The AAMC offers percentiles for both cumulative scores and section scores. 

MCAT Registration

The MCAT is administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Be aware that it costs $320 per attempt. The first part of your registration requires you to go online and sign up for a date. 

At the time of signup, you’ll pay the registration fee. Under normal circumstances, the rule of thumb is the sooner you register for your MCAT, the better. The AAMC tiers registration timeframes as Bronze, Silver, and Gold Zones. 

Be sure to schedule your test within a timeframe that allows you flexibility; you may have to reschedule if you feel you’re not ready or unable to test for any reason. Some dates may fill up more quickly than others, so it’s also essential to consider this.

There is a fee assistance program that lowers your MCAT registration fee substantially, gives you free access to the AAMC’s medical school admissions requirements (MSAR) resource, and waives your AMCAS fees for one application for up to 20 schools. This program is reserved for those who are in financial need. 

Test Day Registration 

On test day, you’ll complete MCAT registration in person to verify you’re the appropriate test-taker. You will need to bring a photo ID and undergo fingerprinting. These fingerprints are used when you leave the testing area for breaks. Upon returning from a break, your fingerprints will be required before reentry. 

How to Prepare for the MCAT

There are several ways to tackle studying for the MCAT. These are some of the ways you can better prepare yourself for test day. 

Prep Course 

Prep courses are useful if you like schedules and want a way to be held accountable. An instructor will lecture on various topics and walk you through why answers are correct/incorrect. You’ll also likely receive homework and complete assignments. 

Prep courses typically come with abundant resources. The resources include graded practice tests, textbooks for each subject, and workbooks full of questions. Having an instructor is helpful when you are stumped on a passage or topic. However, these courses don’t allow much room for one-on-one/personalized instruction. 

Tutor

A tutor is ideal for students who want individual attention and customized study plans/strategies. 

Tutors go at your pace and answer your questions while helping you understand the material. Tutors are ideal for students who want a personalized prep experience focused on their needs, goals, and preferences.

If you’re wondering how to start studying for the MCAT, an experienced tutor can help point you in the right direction. 

Independent Prep

Independent prep is suitable for students who are comfortable with the MCAT material and can stick to a schedule on their own. If you’re especially organized, independent prep may be doable. 

The resources you purchase are completely up to you if you stick to this route. 

Ensure you read reviews about where you’re getting your prep materials from. You don’t want to practice with tests that are significantly easier than the real exam.

Top Tips for Success in the MCAT 

Are you ready to ace the test? These MCAT tips can help. 

Prepare Early 

You want to start preparing early to give yourself enough time to learn the material and test prep strategies. Preparing too late may cause you not to be ready for exam day. You want to avoid rescheduling your exam if possible! 

Take a Diagnostic Exam and Several Sample Tests

You won’t know which areas you need to improve in until you take a diagnostic exam. The MCAT’s multiple passage types, in particular, can hinder your performance if you’re not aware of the differences between them. 

For example, some science-based passages will be graph-heavy, while CARS has passages covering many subjects. You should be comfortable moving from a passage about art to one about linguistics to one about a culture unfamiliar to you. Thus, it would help if you encountered a wide range of passage types before the test. 

Taking regular practice tests can help you gauge your progress and alter your strategies if needed. 

Work on Your Timing

The best way to improve time management is by doing timed, full-length tests. We recommend spending one minute on discrete questions, eight minutes on science passages, and ten minutes on CARS passages. 

Build Up Your Endurance

Test fatigue can cause you not to be as alert as needed to do well on your exam. Consistently practicing by doing practice exams builds endurance. Just be sure you give yourself enough time to review your exams effectively. If you don’t understand where you made mistakes, you may continue to make the same mistakes. 

Take the Breaks During Your Practice Exam 

Take the breaks during your practice exam as you would during exam day. You may feel you’re on a roll and don’t want to take breaks, but it’s important to get comfortable taking them. 

You don’t know how the stress of the actual test day will affect you until the day comes. Don’t overexert yourself! This MCAT tip for test day helps you get a feel for the real thing. 

Plan Your Snacks and Lunch

Planning your meal options allows you to feel changes in your body based on what you choose to eat. If the lunch you chose makes you too sleepy for the second half of your test, you’ll notice and be able to alter it rather than be negatively affected on test day. 

Figure Out Your Route

Determine your route to the test center well in advance. Even if you’re driving, try going to the test center on a different day to see how long it takes. If you’re flying in, determine how far you are from the test site. Knowing this information will ensure you order your ride at an appropriate time. 

MCAT FAQs

We’ve outlined several common questions below to help you understand the MCAT better.

1. How Many Times Can I Take the MCAT? 

You can take the MCAT three times in one calendar year. Over two years, you’re allowed to take it four times. The MCAT has a lifetime limit of seven attempts.

2. How Long Should I Study for the MCAT? 

According to data gathered by the AAMC, most test-takers studied for more than 16 weeks and more than 30 hours per week. The amount of time you need to study depends on your strengths and weaknesses. 

3. How Many Questions Are on the MCAT? 

There are 230 questions in total on the MCAT. 

4. How Many Sections Are on the MCAT?

The MCAT has four sections:

  1. Chem/Phys
  2. Bio
  3. Psych
  4. CARS

5. Can You Use a Calculator on the MCAT? 

Unfortunately, you can’t use a calculator on the MCAT. 

6. Can You Guess on the MCAT? 

If you don’t know the answer, taking an educated guess is fine on the MCAT – there is no guessing penalty. 

7. How Long Is the MCAT? 

Excluding breaks, the MCAT is seven hours and 30 minutes long.

What Is the MCAT? The Key to Your Future

While the MCAT is a challenging exam, you can conquer it with proper preparation. First, you need to choose a study method. Second, make a schedule and stick to it. Remember, practice tests are your best resource while studying for the MCAT. Be sure to simulate test conditions and review practice tests thoroughly. Section tests are a good way to strengthen your target areas. 

Don’t let the MCAT stand between you and your goals. We wish you success, and are here to help you ace your exam if you’re looking for personalized, compassionate MCAT tutoring



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