Let's Master the MCAT
Note: This is a modified version of the MCAT guide Magoosh gives to its instructors and tutors. There is a lot of information here that MCAT students will find useful.
(Original guide written by Kathryn Tucker)
Table of Contents
Click on the headings in the Table of Contents to jump to that spot in the article.
- What is the MCAT?
- Changes to the MCAT in 2018 (interface change)
- Changes to the MCAT in 2015 (content change
- Overview of test sections and content
- Duration and timing
- Testing Limits
- Registration Process
- Fees and rescheduling
- Fee Assistance
- When should a student register for the test?
- Testing Accommodations
- Identification and test-center protocols
- Voiding your test
- Score Releases Dates
- Score Reporting
- Retaking the Exam
- Rescoring the Exam
- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
- Studying for the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems Section
- Critical Analysis and Reading Skills (CARS)
- Studying for the Critical Analysis and Reading Skills (CARS) Section
Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems Section
Studying for the Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems Section
- Psychological, Social and Behavioral Foundations of Behavior Section
- Studying for the Psychological, Social and Behavioral Foundations of Behavior Section
- CARS Pacing
Ask Your Questions here
What is the MCAT?
The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a standardized multiple-choice exam that is used to assess applicants for medical medical doctoral programs in the US and many schools in Canada*. This includes programs for MD (Medical Doctor), DO (Doctor of Osteopathy), DPM (Podiatric Physician), and DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine). Other health professional degrees may also accept the MCAT as a standardized test for admission.
The MCAT is created by the AAMC (American Association of Medical Colleges) and, starting in 2018, Pearson Vue will administer the test. The test is conducted on specific testing dates. Until 2017, the MCAT was held 25 times per year. Starting in 2018, the MCAT will be held 30 times per year. The website for the MCAT, which includes information and registration, can be found here: https://students-residents.aamc.org/applying-medical-school/taking-mcat-exam/
* MCAT requirements for Canadian medical schools vary. It is not required in francophone medical schools (e.g. those in Quebec), and some schools only look at certain parts of the MCAT (e.g. the CARS section to determine admission rank) or just use a certain MCAT score as a cutoff for admission. Other schools use the MCAT to determine admission in the same way that American medical schools do. Applicants to Canadian medical schools will have to do their due diligence and research the requirements for their target schools.
Changes in 2018
In 2018, the MCAT interface will change. This will not affect the content of the test, only the look, feel and function of the testing interface. AAMC plans to release free tools to show the new interface in December 2017: https://students-residents.aamc.org/applying-medical-school/taking-mcat-exam/
Changes in 2015
In 2015, AAMC released the first MCAT content update since 1991. The change was meant to mirror the increasing emphasis on critical thinking and social and behavioral sciences in the medical field. You can read about the change and what it means for the MCAT here. AAMC provides some research and other resources regarding this change here.
Structure of the MCAT
Overview of test sections and content
The MCAT has four test sections:
- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
- Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
- Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
- Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)
The MCAT tests your knowledge of concepts as well as your analytical and scientific reasoning skills. The first three sections are centered around 10 foundational scientific concepts. An in-depth look the 10 foundational concepts and skills tested in each section of the MCAT can be found here: AAMC: What’s on the MCAT?
The concepts tested in the MCAT are drawn from information that should be learned in year-long college-level introductory science courses (the pre-med track) in biology, organic chemistry, general chemistry, and physics, and from first-semester introductory courses in biochemistry, psychology, and sociology. These are considered prerequisites for medical school and for the MCAT exam.
Test-takers will need to be comfortable with mathematical concepts and techniques related to analyzing and manipulating scientific data. A list of concepts can be found here. There is NO calculator allowed on the exam.
Duration and Timing:
The MCAT is truly a marathon! The test takes approximately 7.5 hours, and is broken down in the following way (taken from the MCAT Essentials eBook from AAMC)
Each MCAT section is scored from a low of 118 to a high of 132. The total score is the sum of each section’s score, and ranges from 472 to 528. The 50th percentile score is around a 500. AAMC converts the raw score to a scaled score that takes difficulty and test differences into account. The percentiles are updated on May 1st of each year, and in early 2018 AAMC will update the percentiles based on the scores from tests in the last 3 years (since the 2015 change in the MCAT).
There is no penalty for guessing on the MCAT.
AAMC has resources that describe the scoring process and score report here: MCAT Scores.
The Magoosh MCAT Blog also has some useful resources for understanding MCAT scores:
In order to register for the MCAT, the test-taker must sign a statement affirming that they are taking the exam solely for the purpose of applying to and attending a health professions program. If a person is taking the MCAT for any other reason (e.g. as a current medical student who wants to change schools, as a test prep company representative, or just for the thrill of it), they must apply for special permissions.
According to the 2017-2018 MCAT Essentials eBook:
- To apply for special permission, please ensure you have an AAMC ID and have completed the “Personal Information” tab within the MCAT Registration System. Then, please send an email explaining the reason(s) you are requesting special permissions to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will attempt to review and respond to your request within five business days.
There are no additional requirements for international test-takers. International test-takers who hold or are currently enrolled in a Bachelor of Medicine or Bachelor of Surgery degree can enroll without special permission. However, people who take the test internationally will have to pay an additional fee (see the Fees and Rescheduling section).
According to AAMC, a person can take the MCAT up to three times in one year, up to four times in a consecutive two-year period, and up to seven times in a lifetime. Voided and no-show exams count towards annual and lifetime limits.
A student must use the online MCAT Registration System to create an AAMC account, search for testing locations and dates, and schedule an appointment. The name on the registration must exactly match the name on the identification a test-taker will use at the testing center. The registrant can change their name until 8 days before the testing date.
The MCAT is offered 30 times per year between January and September. Our blog will have a post with test dates for the upcoming year. Here is the list for 2018.
Fees and Rescheduling
The fees and rescheduling process for the MCAT depend on how close the testing date is. This handy graphic from page 19 of the MCAT essentials book provides a breakdown:
Note that students who take the MCAT outside of the US must pay an additional $105 International Fee in order to take the MCAT on top of the registration fee. Even those who are eligible for fee assistance must pay the international fee.
We have some resources to help students make the decision of whether to retake or cancel an exam:
AAMC provides fee assistance to help test-takers who would otherwise not be able to afford to take the MCAT and apply for medical school. Fee assistance is available for applicants whose total family income in the previous year is 300 percent or less of the US Federal Poverty Level for their family size. Fee assistance is only available for the following groups: U.S. citizen or U.S. national, lawful Permanent Residents (LPR) of the United States ("Green Card" holder), or individuals who have been granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), refugee, or asylum status by the U.S. government. AAMC is piloting a fee assistant programs for Canadian citizens in 2018.
Information about the fee assistance program and how to apply can be found here: AAMC: Fee Assistance.
When should a student register for the test?
Seats fill up quickly for the MCAT, so test-takers will want to register early in order to get their preferred test date and location. Sometimes seats open up closer to the exam date as students change or cancel their exam, but students shouldn’t count on this! AAMC opens up registration in two phases throughout the year: registration for January-May test dates opens in October of the previous year, and registration for July-September begins in February. The MCAT Twitter feed will announce when the registration will open for each phase. The rescheduling and cancellation fees are pretty steep, so before signing up for the MCAT, the student should consider their study timeline and make sure that there is enough time for adequate preparation!
The student should also consider the application timeline: it takes a month for the test-taker to receive the MCAT scores, so the test-taker must be sure to have plenty of time to apply to medical school after taking the MCAT.
See more compelte details about testing accommodations here: MCAT Exam with Accommodations. Students must apply for accommodation with the appropriate supporting evidence through the MCAT Accommodations Online system.
Those who plan to request for accommodations should do so far in advance. Applications must be APPROVED before the “Silver Zone” for scheduling (more than 15 days before the test), and AAMC says that is provides a ruling on most requests for accommodations within 60 days of receiving the complete application. This means that students should submit their application at least 75 days before their planned test--if they do not receive the ruling before the Silver Zone, they must either take the test without accommodations or pay to reschedule.
Students don’t have to wait to register for the test, and should still register early in order to get their preferred location and date, but they should also be aware of how long requests for accommodation can take!
Test Day Details
Identification and test center protocol
Test-takers should report to the testing center at least 30 minutes before the test time, and prepare ahead so that they know the route, location and parking situation. Testing fees will not be refunded if you are delayed or unable to get to the testing center. Test-takers must present a qualifying form of ID to the testing center, and the first and last name must exactly match the name provided during registration.
When the test-taker registers at the testing center, a palm vein scan will be taken for identification purposes. The test-taker will have to scan their palm vein and possibly be scanned with a metal detector whenever they enter or exit the exam room.
The test-taker can only bring their ID and foam ear plugs provided by Pearson Vue into the testing room. The testing center will also provide a storage locker for personal items, a noteboard and fine-tip wet-erase pen (see Noteboards, below). No food or drinks are allowed in the testing room. More details can be found on page 26 of the MCAT Essentials book.
The test-taker will be provided with a noteboard and fine-tip marker that can be used while at the workstation. The noteboard booklet is wet-erase so that the test-taker cannot erase notes during the test. The noteboard includes 9 single-sided note pages (8 inches by 14 inches), shown here. If the test-taker runs out of space, they can raise their hand and the testing administrator will provide them with a new one.
There are 2 optional 10-minute breaks and 1 optional 30-minute mid-exam break during the MCAT. If a test-taker doesn’t take the break, they will move directly to the next section (the break time won’t be added to the sections.) The test-taker should pay close attention to the directions provided by the testing center so that they know what they’re allowed to do and where they’re allowed to go during the break. The test-taker cannot access any books or notes during the breaks.
The breaks are optional, but we highly recommend that the test-takers plan to take as many breaks as possible! The MCAT is a long test, and the brain needs some time to rest and recover. Test-takers should bring plenty to eat and drink.
Receiving and Sending Scores
Voiding your test
After taking the test, the test-taker will have one chance to void the test and prevent it from being scored. Information from voided tests will not be included on MCAT reports to medical schools. The test-taker will not receive a refund for a voided test, and voided tests count towards testing limits. See Page 25 of the MCAT Essentials Book for more information.
Score Release Dates
MCAT Scores are released approximately one month after each testing date. The score release date for each test is available on the AAMC website. Test-takers should use their AAMC account to log into the score reporting system to view scores.
Score reports will automatically be sent to the schools that you apply to through the AMCAS application service, which is used by most US medical schools. The score report will include a full report of all of the MCAT tests an individual has taken since 2003. Medical schools want to see the entire testing history, so applicants cannot withhold any scores on the AMCAS application. See this blog post for more information on how to send scores: How do I send MCAT score reports?
Applicants can also use the MCAT Score Reporting System to print official score reports and release scores to institutions. The scores will be available to the institutions for one year.
There is no cost for using the MCAT Score Reporting System or sending scores to institutions.
Retaking the exam
Test-takers can retake the test if they are not happy with their score. Note that test-takers can only be registered for one test at a time. See the “testing limits” section for information on how many tests an individual can take.
We have resources on our blog to help students figure out if and when to retake the MCAT:
- Is it bad to retake the MCAT?
- How Many Times Should I Take the MCAT?
- How Often Can I Retake the MCAT?
Rescoring the exam
Test-takers can request that their scores be re-scored by hand if they think that there was an issue with the score. The cost for a re-score is $60, and the request must be submitted to the MCAT Registration Portal within 30 days of the score release date.
All about MCAT Content
MCAT students will need to take several years worth of university-level science classes in order to prepare for the MCAT. The test covers topics that a student will learn in introductory college courses in chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, biochemistry, physics, and social sciences like psychology and sociology. To top it all of, the MCAT also requires strong reading comprehension skills a la GRE/GMAT.
Studying for the MCAT takes a lot of time; most people recommend between 200-450 hours of studying, and Magoosh’s 6-month study plan includes over 500 hours of study time. Even more than other standardized tests, studying for the MCAT is at least a part-time job: test-takers should expect to devote at least 15-20 hours per week to studying over 2-6 months.
Memorization is an important element of studying for the MCAT, and students will want flashcards in bulk to cover all of the topics. They will need to be familiar with many scientific concepts and definitions in order to understand and analyze the questions they will see in the MCAT. However, the MCAT also tests analytical and scientific reasoning skills, so mere memorization isn’t enough to guarantee a competitive score. The best way to prepare for the MCAT is to study over a long period of time (ideally, 6 months) and constantly reinforce concepts and strategies.
Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
This 95-minute section covers concepts from biology, organic chemistry, general chemistry and physics. There will be 59 questions in this section broken down in the following way:
- 44 questions will be based on descriptive passages. There will be 10 passage-based sets of questions with 4-5 questions each. Example Passage from Magoosh: Rust Passage
- Note: the passages may be completely text such as the Rust Passage example above, or they may include drawing, charts and diagrams like this question.
- 15 questions will be independent (not based on passages.) Here is an example from Magoosh.
Studying for the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems Section
The content in this section is approximately broken up in the following way:
- 30% general chemistry
- 15% organic chemistry
- 25% biochemistry
- 5% biology
- 25% physics.
Studying for the MCAT requires extensive knowledge of these subjects, and students should make sure that they are comfortable with knowledge of topics found in this section. Flashcards are an important tool to help students learn and remember these concepts, and studying for this section requires constant reinforcement. This blog has some good tips and resources for studying for the Chemical and Physical Foundations section: How to Study MCAT Chemistry.
Critical Analysis and Reading Skills (CARS)
This 90-minute section will be familiar to tutors who have experience in the GRE and GMAT. The CARS section tests reading comprehension and critical reasoning skills. No specific content knowledge is required for these questions, and the passages will come from a wide range of disciplines including the social sciences and humanities. Here’s an example from Magoosh.
The CARS section has a total of 53 questions based on 9 passages (5-7 questions per passage).
Studying for the MCAT CARS section
The passages in this section are what we would consider long passages in the GRE and GMAT: they are around 600 words in length. This is a section that is often overlooked as students study for other parts of the MCAT, and many MCAT students find this section to be particularly daunting, especially if they skipped English class to hang out in the lab.
The study strategies for improvement in the CARS section are the same as the strategies that recommend for other reading tests: read every day, understand what the MCAT is testing you on, read the entire passage first (no skimming!), and practice a few CARS questions each day. In our study schedule, we recommend that students complete at least one CARS passage per day. Even though the bulk of the study time for the MCAT involves reviewing content for the other three sections, it’s important for students to keep up a consistent CARS practice.
Like the GRE and GMAT verbal sections, the CARS section assesses broad critical analysis and reasoning skills. According to AAMC, “questions in this section will ask you to determine the overall meaning of the text, to summarize, evaluate, and critique the “big picture,” and to synthesize, adapt, and reinterpret concepts you processed and analyzed. The questions following Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills passages lead you through this complex mental exercise of finding meaning within each text and then reasoning beyond the text to expand the initial meaning. The analysis and reasoning skills on which you will be tested mirror those that mature test takers use to make sense of complex materials.”
Even tutors who are not well-versed in the MCAT or comfortable with scientific concepts can use knowledge of the GRE and GMAT Reading Comprehension section to answer questions related to CARS.
Here are some useful blog posts about studying for the CARS section:
- MCAT CARS Tips for Doing Well
- How to Study for MCAT CARS
- MCAT CARS: Importance of Reading Comprehension
Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems Section
This 95-minute section contains 59 questions relating to concepts taught in introductory biology, organic chemistry, chemistry and biochemistry classes. The questions in this section are broken down in the following way:
- 44 questions based on descriptive passages (10 passages, 4-6 questions per passage set). Here an example of a passage-based question from Magoosh.
- 15 independent questions that are not based on passages. Here is an example of an independent question from Magoosh.
Studying for the Biological and Biochemical Foundations Sections:
The content in this section is approximately broken up in the following way:
- 65% biology
- 25% biochemistry
- 5% general chemistry
- 5% organic chemistry
Like all MCAT sections, the key to success for the Biological and Biochem Foundations section is to start early and study consistently. The biological and biochem foundations section emphasizes the memorization of functions and facts, so flashcards are a student’s best friend! Study tips and additional resources can be found in this blog post.
Psychological, Social and Behavioral Foundations of Behavior Section
This 95-minute section contains 59 questions related to introductory biology, psychology and sociology classes. The questions are broken up in the following way:
- 44 questions based on descriptive passages (10 passages, 4-6 questions per set). Here’s an example from Magoosh.
- 15 independent questions that are not based on passages. Here’s an example from Magoosh.
Studying for the Psychological, Social and Behavioral Foundations of Behavior Section
The content for this section is distributed in the following way:
- 65% psychology
- 30% sociology
- 5% biology
In 2015, the MCAT was redesigned to emphasize these social science concepts more explicitly, reflecting the need for medical doctors to be well versed in social and psychological topics. Not all schools require these courses as part of the pre-med curriculum, however, so not all students will have taken these courses. This means that some students may need to go more into depth on some of these concepts, as opposed to just reviewing concepts from classes. Understanding and memorizing the concepts and terms that will show up on the MCAT is essential (see our advice and additional resources for this section here). Note that the content in the MCAT is based on the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders). The DSM is updated periodically with the latest information and classifications, and the DSM-5 was published in 2013. AAMCAS has some guidance about how the most recent changes in the DSM affect the MCAT.
Pacing on the MCAT
This information is taken from our blog post Pacing on the MCAT:
- Watch the time. This is pretty self-explanatory. When you take the exam, there is a timer that counts down how much time you have remaining for the section. While taking full-length MCAT practice tests in preparation for the actual exam, you should establish checkpoints for yourself. Here are some sample checkpoints for a 95-minute science section:
- Passage 3: ~1 hour remaining
- Passage 5: ~42-43 minutes remaining
- Passage 8: ~15-16 minutes remaining
- When taking the MCAT, the student should check how much time they have left after completing passage 3, 5, and 8. If the student notices that they have less time than allotted at the checkpoint, then the student knows to speed up their pacing. In contrast, students that find that they have too much time should slow down to improve their accuracy.
- Do the freestanding questions first. On the science sections, there are passage-based questions and freestanding questions (questions not associated with a passage). Freestanding questions are typically easier and take less time to complete than passage-based questions. As all questions on the MCAT are worth the same amount of points, students can choose to do all of the freestanding questions first. For students that struggle to finish the test, this can be a great option.
- Do the easy passages first. The passages and questions on the MCAT vary in difficulty. In addition, pre-medical students often have their own strengths and weaknesses so they find certain passages harder and others easier. For example, a student that is very strong in chemistry can strategize by completing all of the chemistry passages first and then focus on the rest of the passages. On top of helping with pacing, this approach can give students a great confidence boost!
The test-taker should take about 9 minutes on each CARS passage. This breaks down the pacing in roughly the following way:
~ 9 minutes for an entire CARS passage
~ 3 minutes to read the passage
~ 1 minute for each question in the passage
Studying for the MCAT with Magoosh
MCAT test prep is not ‘self-contained’--it requires a lot of outside materials and knowledge of concepts in chemistry, biology, biochemistry, organic chemistry, physics, psychology and sociology. All of the students who have taken the MCAT will have completed introductory courses in most (if not all) of these subjects, and they are expected to have a wide breadth of knowledge. Because of this, Magoosh MCAT has a long list of essential study materials. See the Study Schedules for more information:
One thing to keep in mind is that the content tested on the MCAT and what professors teach in introductory college courses is not always the same. Students may have to learn some new concept, and some of the information taught in these courses could be irrelevant to the test. Our program at Magoosh focuses on the concepts identified by AAMC as the essential information and concepts from each test. This website provides an overview of the content tested by the MCAT, and AAMC also has a PDF with complete exam content description. Students should stick to content that is listed in AAMC resources.
The videos in Magoosh are meant to provide an overview of the concepts tested on the MCAT, but as mentioned above, they are not “stand alone.” Students will need to use their textbooks and class notes from college classes to review the content along with the videos. Boundless publishers has free open-source textbooks that cover the information on the MCAT (these are mentioned a lot in the study schedule). Khan Academy also offers free content and practice questions online for MCAT prep. We expect that students supplement the information from the videos with textbooks and other resources.
Under the Resources Tab in your Magoosh MCAT Premium Account, you will also see the following resources to help students get the most out of Magoosh test prep:
- Magoosh MCAT flashcards help students to memorize the scientific concepts and terms they will need for the exam.
- The Magoosh MCAT Lecture Notes are meant to be a companion to the Magoosh video lessons. They allow students to take notes along with some of the lectures and capture important information. Caveat: the lecture notes were created by two of the original MCAT course instructors and do not include all of the videos. Some of the videos have been changed or updated, so the workbook may not follow the videos exactly, but they still provide useful notes!