Mastering the MCAT

When you prepare to take the Medical College Admission Test, you're joining a grand tradition that stretches back for over 75 years. Many aspects of medical training follow time-honored practices, and taking the MCAT exam is one of the first of many rituals that you will encounter. The test is required for medical school admissions in the United States and Canada, and over 75,000 students take it every year.

Students take this test when they are applying to medical school, osteopathic and podiatric medical training, and veterinary training programs.


The Purpose of the MCAT

The MCAT is created in order to test different skill sets: First, it evaluates how much you've absorbed from all those science classes you sat through. It measures your mastery of biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry and physics. Second, it checks on your fundamental reasoning skills: your ability to think critically and solve problems in both the scientific and verbal realms. You can only prep for this test to a certain degree; to a great extent, the MCAT evaluates the skills you've developed over the course of your entire education.


MCAT Sections

The exam is divided into four sections: Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, Biological Sciences, and an optional trial section. The "trial" section refers to the fact that the Association of American Medical Colleges, which produces the MCAT, is trying out some questions for a future version of the test. Taking the trial section is purely voluntary, and the scores from that section are not included in your records. This section is shorter than the others, consisting of 32 multiple-choice questions to be answered in 45 minutes. If you do decide to take the trial section, you will actually be given a $30 Amazon gift card as a reward for helping shape the future test.

Up until 2013, there used to be a writing portion of the MCAT, but that has now been removed to make room for the optional trial portion.


Physical Sciences

This section allows 70 minutes to cover 52 multiple-choice questions. It covers all aspects of physical chemistry, including stoichiometry, thermodynamics and thermochemistry, and chemical reactions. It also covers topics in physics including force, waves, energy, sound, fluids and solids, electromagnetism, circuits, optics, and atomic structure.


Biological Sciences

Since biology is at the base of medicine, the MCAT delves more deeply into biology than into any other science. All parts of biology are covered: molecular, genetics, microbiology, all anatomical systems (in great detail), evolution, and organic chemistry. Like the physical sciences section, this section also gives you 70 minutes to answer 52 multiple-choice questions.

In both science-related sections of the test, your reasoning will be evaluated along with your factual knowledge. You will read passages discussing research studies, and then answer questions regarding the hypotheses, variables, assumptions and conclusions. You will be asked to translate presented information into more easily understandable form, and identify background information that is relevant. You'll also be asked to design a research study and to form hypotheses and predict results.


Verbal Reasoning

This section provides passages in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and technology. Test-takers are required to glean meaning from the passages and focus on the relationship between ideas. You will have to identify unstated assumptions and judge the soundness of arguments. There are 40 multiple-choice questions in this section, and you will be allowed 60 minutes to answer them.



Each of the three sections is scored from 1 to 15. These three subscores are then added together to give you an overall total score. You will receive all four of these scores. Wrong answers are scored exactly the same as skipped questions, so there is no penalty for guessing.


Study Tips for the MCAT

Make a study plan and schedule certain weeks where you'll work on preparing for particular parts of the test. You'll want to allow between 3 and 6 months to prepare, but don't overdo the cramming on any one day. Two hours is enough time to absorb facts without overcooking your brain.

Practice tests are available from various sources, and there are online forums where you can get support and ideas from others who are also busy preparing. These are good resources to help you avoid feelings of isolation. Quiz yourself and others on the basic facts and formulas that you need to memorize. And don't forget healthy living, especially in the days leading up to the test!