The MCAT is designed to assess a student’s ability to problem solve and think critically, and to test their knowledge of natural behavior and social science concepts and principles. Almost all U.S. medical schools (and many Canadian schools) use a student’s MCAT scores as a major factor in the admissions decision.
When it comes to frequently asked questions about the MCAT, we know you are not interested in those lame basics like “What is the MCAT?” and “What is the exam schedule?” You can easily find those answers on the AAMC website. On the other hand, our Pros, many of whom work in medicine, healthcare-related industries, and/or have attended medical school themselves, are here to answer the meaty questions to which it is nigh impossible to get a straight answer.
1. When is the best time to take the MCAT?
There are three reasons why we hear this question frequently. The first is that a lot of people think there is an easier and a harder time to take the MCAT based on who takes it and at what point in the year it is taken. It really makes no difference. The scale for the exam is set in April for the whole year, so it does not matter who is taking it; you are not competing against other people, you are competing against the scale.
The second reason students ask this question is for purposes of preparation. Take the MCAT when you are prepared to take the MCAT and not a moment before. Make sure you have ALL your prerequisite classes completed before you start prepping, and give yourself three to four months to prepare. Once you set your date, don’t change it unless your practice test scores indicate you are not on the trajectory to reach your target score.
The third reason to wonder about timing is the application cycle. To be as competitive as possible, you want to take the MCAT in the spring (March or April) of your junior year in college (+1 year for each gap year you intend to take). Because medical school admissions is a rolling process, the best time to have your application complete is in May; that way you can simply click “submit” when the applications open for submission in June. In addition, if you don’t reach your target score the first time you take it, you have plenty of time to get a second or even third test in as necessary in order to reach that target score without missing out on the application cycle.
2. What score do I need on my MCAT?
The better question here is “What MCAT score do I need to target?”. The answer to this FAQ is usually “as high as you can get,” but that is a sure way to lead to frustration and failure. Do your research, and find out what you need for the schools and programs to which you want to apply. Change your approach from figuring out where your score can take you, to figuring out what score you need to get where you want to go. There are so many options out there, all the way from WUSTL to LECOM (MD to DO), that you need to investigate before you start down this path. Figure out where and in which programs you will be most happy. Once you have your list, call each of the programs and ask them what they think you should target for your MCAT; they will be happy to tell you. Regardless of the program you are interested in, each of your subscores needs to be above 125 with an overall score above 500 (50th percentile). Also, you should strive to have a balanced score, with each subscore within 1-2 points of the others.
3. How much time does it take to study for the MCAT?
The answer to this question is dependent upon whether you have already taken all your prerequisite courses (Biology, GChem, OChem, Physics) as well as a few others that are wise choices (Biochem, Micro, and Psychology). If you have completed at least the prerequisites, then you are ready to prepare!
Studying does not have to be an all-consuming process. A total of 300 hours is usually sufficient for most people to be ready to take MCAT. Let’s run the numbers.
- If you were to set aside 3 hours per day, 6 days a week for 16 weeks (~4 months) you would have 288 hours of study time. With 6 practice tests at 8 hours each, you would reach 336 hours of total preparation time.
- If you were to set aside 4 hours per day, 6 days a week for 12 weeks (~3 months) you would have 288 hours of study time. With 6 practice tests at 8 hours each, you would reach 336 hours of total preparation time.
- If you were to set aside 6 hours per day, 6 days a week for 8 weeks (~2 months) you would have 288 hours of study time. With 6 practice tests at 8 hours each, you would reach 336 hours of total preparation time.
Note, that it is NOT necessary to devote the equivalent of a full-time job to studying for the MCAT if you give yourself enough time (2-4 months) and you focus on practice over reading. Practice is active learning, and reading is passive learning. Active learning techniques have been proven time and time again to be far more effective for both learning and retention. It is important to note that study in only 2 months is coming close to a full-time job, and as such it is NOT advisable.
4. I found StudySchedule.org on SDN. Is this a good study schedule to use? Are there better study schedules out there?
This is always a loaded question. Any study schedules out there are a good start, but we would not say that any one study schedule you can find on the internet, or even from one of the test prep companies, is the exact study schedule you should use. Everybody has different needs. Most of the available study schedules assume you will need to cover all of the subjects equivalently to the quantity that they exist on the MCAT. The exception to this is there is usually more relative time for OChem and Physics, because there is far more content to prep in those subjects than the limited amount of questions you will see on the MCAT.
Our suggestion is that you take one of those study schedules and customize it to your own personal needs. Take a practice test, or better yet, a diagnostic test that some of the companies provide, to determine the content areas in which you are weak and strong. For content in which you are strong, decrease the number of hours you plan to spend studying, and vice versa for content in which you are weak. It is more effective to spend time reviewing the content you don’t know and doing practice problems for the content you do.
In addition, we would encourage you to schedule literally everything. Schedule your MCAT study time, your work time, your classes and school study time, your sleep time, your meal time, your bathroom time, your TV time, your game time…literally everything. Trust us when we say that it is going to be really easy to delay the MCAT study time because other things are getting in the way. But this delay will cause you to push back your test date, which will simply make it harder to perform well on the MCAT in the end.
5. My friend told me they took 20+ practice tests to prepare for the MCAT. How many practice tests do I really need to take?
There is a factor of diminishing returns when it comes to practice tests. Purchasing access to practice tests can become quite expensive, so taking more practice tests can get costly very quickly. Taking practice tests requires an eight-hour investment for each test, so taking more practices tests can take away from for the time you can spend doing practice passages. A solid number of practice tests is 8-10. Assuming you are purchasing the three AAMC practice tests (the sample test is not a good measure of performance since it only gives the percent correct rather than a scaled score), it is simplest to purchase one other company’s practice test (Berkeley Review, Kaplan, Next Step, Princeton Review, etc.) which will give you 5 or more practice tests to add to your pool. Taking more than 8-10 practice tests starts to take away from your ability to spend time with content and reading comprehension practice. Simply taking more practice tests does not lead to a higher score if you don’t have time to review them and use what you learn from the review to target your overall studying.
6. When it comes to doing practice problems and practice tests, should I time myself? Is it a good idea to take practice tests in chunks?
Let’s put it this way: the practice you do should mimic actual testing environment. It is important to have experienced the same routines several times before heading to the real MCAT. You want to be confident walking into the testing center knowing that there will be no surprises. That’s exactly what professional athletes do, so future professional doctors should be no different. This means you should use a timer, do passages in sets (small sets at first moving to large sets by test time), work in an environment with some background noise (like a library thoroughfare, not a coffee shop), and take tests all at once, with breaks, starting at 8 am, so you get used to how difficult it can be to get through an entire exam in one sitting.
You should note that starting in 2018, the MCAT will be administered by Pearson VUE rather than Thompson Prometric – for those who don’t know, Pearson’s procedures are different enough from Thompson’s so as to cause some confusion if you are not aware. So be careful of what you read and believe on SDN (or elsewhere on the internet) for the first part of 2018. It is likely going to be about the procedures at Thompson sites rather than Pearson sites. Your best guide is to contact your testing center and ask them about their procedures directly. Two pointers we can give you right now: Don’t wear jewelry, because you will need to take it off at Pearson sites, and know that you will be given laminated, legal paper sized cards and a Vis-à-Vis wet-erase marker for your scratch work— i.e., you can’t erase easily.
We could go on all day about little things that can make huge differences in your ability to do well on the MCAT (that could be another blog post of its own), so we will simply refer you to an excellent, well-referenced resource on the topic. Check on “How We Learn” by Benedict Carey. It is truly eye-opening how wrong a lot of the advice is that we get about study habits, and it is interesting to see the simple things you can do to become a more effective learner in a very short amount of time.
7. What kind of test is the MCAT anyway?
The MCAT is primarily a reading comprehension test. While there are those out there that will tell you that the MCAT is a science test, we will tell you that there are tests out there that ARE science tests and those are the DAT and OAT. The MCAT is not one of them (FYI, the PCAT is a bit of a hybrid between DAT/OAT and MCAT). While you do need to know the science coming into the test, brute force knowledge will not help you when it comes to the sheer quantity of questions that require you to read and understand the new information being conveyed to you in the passages. You would have to have an encyclopedic knowledge of science to be able to avoid the reading comprehension nature of this test.
So how do you prepare for this? Practice passages and more practice passages. Reading, outlining, note taking, flashcards, and watching Khan Academy videos to understand the science content of the exam are necessary, but will only get you so far. All too often students rely on their knowledge of the science, at the expense of their understanding of the passage. You need to work on your ability to get through a passage quickly, while at the same time be able to find and retain all of the details that will answer questions. The only way this is possible is by taking practice tests and doing practice passages.
8. Should I use the same approach on each of the sections?
The short answer is no. Each section of the MCAT has its own personality. The primary difference is between the CARS and Sciences sections; however, even among the science sections there are distinct differences.
For the Chem/Phys section, you should expect to have the highest content knowledge to passage knowledge ratios of all the sections. Often, the passage-based questions have little or nothing to do with the passage itself, and can be solved from your knowledge of the physical laws that govern the concept in the question. Spending more than 60-90 seconds evaluating the passage is not advisable, as your content knowledge will serve you better in most of the questions.
For the CARS section, you should expect to spend the most time reading and evaluating the passage. Previewing the questions is advisable so you can know which questions need you to pay most attention to before reading the passage.. Once you have previewed the questions, you can focus on the terms and concepts in the questions, rather than ALL the content that is covered in the passage.
For the Bio/Biochem section, you might expect that you know the content well, but because of the massive diversity of the content in this section, it can be difficult to identify what is important. Previewing the questions is not as crucial as spending time evaluating the passage— more time than you spent during in the Chem/Phys section. Spending 2-3 mins in the passage for Bio/Biochem is warranted to make sure that you are catching all of the details as well as all of the new information that is being provided.
For the Psych/Soc section, you can likely spend the least amount of time of all four sections with the passage. These passages tend to be very predictable, and primarily focused on experimental data, experimental design, and the connections of the passage to the theories of well-known scientists. Spending 30-60 seconds on the passage is usually sufficient. It may also be beneficial to preview the questions on these passages, even though previewing doesn’t pay off in Chem/Phys and Bio/Biochem passages.
9. I always get it down to two answer choices and never seem to pick the right one. What is going on?
As human beings, we have a tendency to hang on to things we like about something and become blind to its flaws. This feeling is what we call having a relationship to an answer choice you like the best. The problem is, that particular answer choice was written solely to make you fall into a relationship with it. This issue is fundamentally difficult to deal with, as it is in most everyone’s nature to do this. There are a couple of tactics that do see good results in this situation, however.
Using the first tactic, you must be focused ONLY on the flaws that you can find. Not only will this keep you from the tendency to fall for an answer choice, it is generally useful. It is often easier (and might not even require the passage) to eliminate answer choices because of their flaws, than to make sure that all the parts of the answer are factually correct as well as supported by the passage.
The second tactic is not as universally useful but can work for those individuals who find it difficult to let go of picking the answer (as opposed to eliminating all the wrong answers). Before looking at the answer choices, make a prediction in your own words on your scratch paper. Compare and contrast your answer to the available answer choices to find the best match. This is more limited, simply because if you don’t understand what the question is asking, you will be hard pressed to come up with a possible solution in your own words.
10. What’s the best way to use the noteboards?
This is a completely new answer starting in 2018. As we mentioned previously, with the change to Pearson VUE as the testing provider, you no longer get paper and pencil. You instead get four legal paper sized laminated sheets (noteboards) and a Vis-à-Vis wet-erase marker connected by a metal ring. You cannot easily erase the work that you put on these cards, nor can you fold them to create creases to help organize your work like you can do with paper and pencil. So how do you use this new style to produce effective and time-efficient scratch work?
- During the initial 10-minute tutorial, start the timer and produce an equation dump for the Chem/Phys section on the back of the last card. This puts it out of the way, but also provides you with your own “cheat sheet” for the first section of the test. Once you are done with the equation dump, end the tutorial and move on to the Chem/Phys section.
- Before you start each section, divide each side of each noteboard in half. Make sure you put your scratch work for one passage on one half of the noteboard. Do your passage notations on the left side of the half noteboard and represent EVERY problem in the passage with ABCD (labeled with the question number) on the right side of the half noteboard. Do your work for each problem in this space. You should mark all skipped questions and also circle your answers here in addition to selecting them on the exam itself, just in case you left something blank and you need to recall what you wanted to answer. This also helps you come back to problems at the review stage and know what you’ve already completed so you don’t have to reproduce work on a skipped problem.
- At the end of every section, request a new set of noteboards so that you are starting fresh. There is nothing on the previous section that you will need for the next section, so trade it in. Do the same for all the remaining sections unless you have the time. You also do not need to do another equation dump in any of the other sections.
Overall, the use of your noteboards is critical to your success. Effective use of the noteboards will keep you and your thinking organized and will maximize your accuracy.
11. I heard that a large vocabulary is important. Is this true?
Vocabulary is a BIG part of the MCAT (as well as many other standardized tests). For the science sections, it is so very important to know the content-specific vocabulary, as well as to have a familiarity with the scientific jargon that may be seen in published journal articles in those respective fields. To be best prepared for this scientific jargon vocabulary, make a concerted effort to visit the journal room at your local university library to just read the new articles in journals like Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) or the New England Journal of Medicine. You will be challenged with new vocabulary every time, and this will force you into learning more content-specific terminology.
For the CARS section, vocabulary is also very important. Try to learn at least one new word a day. There are many phone apps that help with this. A word-of-the-day calendar and/or vocabulary flash cards are powerful techniques for developing a larger vocabulary for the understanding of CARS passages. This is particularly important for people that do not natively speak English. Your vocabulary will not be as large as the average student that learned English all the way through their school careers. Overall, the more language in common you have with the MCAT, the more problems you will be able to solve.
12. I am really bad at math. How can I do well on the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biology Section without a calculator?
The first thing you can do is relax. There are very few actual calculations that you are expected to do, and most of them involve very simple arithmetic skills. Here are a handful of pointers that will help you get through most of the math on the MCAT.
- Set up the equation and isolate the variable BEFORE you put in the numbers. In most cases, you will find that one or more variables simply disappear before you even need to plug things in. You will often see this when it doesn’t seem like you have enough information to actually solve the question.
- Use scientific notation. When you get things into scientific notation, functions like square roots, cube roots, and logs become MUCH simpler. It can even help with simplifying multiplication and division by making the numbers easier to work with.
- Round a LOT! Being a multiple-choice test, you don’t need to find the answer, you only need to be close. The MCAT writers know you don’t have a calculator so they generally don’t put answers that require you to estimate 3 or four digits. It is usually good enough to know the order of magnitude and the first digit to find the best answer.
- Fractions are your friends. No, really! Turning decimal values into fractions helps you eliminate values above and below the fraction bar and can turn ugly numbers into happy numbers.
When you are doing calculation-based questions, your most powerful tool is to eliminate based on what you know as you set up the math and often, you don’t even need to do actual math.
13. I just never did well in my OChem and/or Physics class. Can I still do well on Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biology Section?
OChem can SEEM like it is a big part of this section, but more often there is only one OChem passage with a handful of free-standing questions. So why do so many students think they saw 2-3 OChem passages? That’s because OChem and Biochem can look an awful lot alike. The truth is that almost two thirds of the organic chemistry you learned in your two-semester OChem class is not covered on the MCAT (radical substitution, aromatic substitution, aromaticity, electrophilic addition, cycloadditions, and pretty much most of the named reactions like Diels-Alder). Strangely enough, the lab techniques you are expected to know mostly do not show up until classes that you most likely haven’t taken yet, so if there is something you may need to bulk up on, it is the many types of modern chromatographic techniques (HPLC, SEC, IEC, affinity chromatography, etc.). Long story short, you will see 10-11 OChem questions total across the entire test. The high yield topics are going to be stability/reactivity, isomers, lab techniques, and carbonyl reactions.
Physics does contribute more to the section, but you will only likely see 2 Physics passages with a handful of free-standing questions.
14. Somebody told me to start reading Henry David Thoreau to practice for the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section. Will outside reading help?
Yes. Yes. And yes again. The earlier you start to train yourself in reading the better. Read often and read more. Most people do not read enough in this day and age to be proficient readers. We are all getting far too used to reading distilled news bytes, which have done much of the interpretation for us. As a result, we have cumulatively become terrible at reading both literature and scientific journals. Read more, read often! Reading things that are difficult for you is good practice for staying focused when you don’t really care about the content. Try reading books that also have associated interpretations (Cliffs Notes, SparkNotes, etc.).
Before looking at the notes, do you your own paragraph-by-paragraph analysis as well as an overall main point, and see how that compares with what the associated interpretations say. If you are close to that interpretation, then you have the right idea. The reading that you need to be able to do on the CARS section is an active process, where you need to be looking for and recording (either mentally or better yet, on scratch paper) information that you can access once you begin to answer the questions.
15. Pacing in the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section is a big problem for me. How do I get through all 9 passages?
You don’t need to get through all 9 passages. Well, at least you don’t need to read all 9 and answer all the questions. For most of you, your target score is not a 523 or higher. If you are not going for the 523+, you absolutely do not need to actively complete all 9 passages. You can spend almost ALL of your time on 8 of the passages and leave the 9th and most difficult passage until the last; and, if necessary, you can simply record the same answer for all the questions (pick one – A, B, C, or D – don’t randomize, but pick one and go). Slow down and spend more time on each of the 8 passages you can do more easily, and you will see higher accuracy and therefore a higher overall score.
16. There is so much Biology content they could draw from in the Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems Section. How do I determine how deeply I should understand topics like metabolism, genetics, microbiology, anatomy, physiology?
This is indeed a concern. The breadth of Biology and Biochemistry content seems as vast as the Pacific Ocean, but luckily it is not nearly as deep as the Pacific. When studying any MCAT Biology & Biochemistry textbooks, it is important to not get drawn into all the nitty gritty details. For example, now that the MCAT explicitly covers metabolism of carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins, it is easy to assume you have to memorize all of the steps of glycolysis, gluconeogenesis, Krebs cycle, pentose phosphate pathway, beta oxidation, fatty acid synthesis, etc…
Wow! That is a lot of content. But you might be surprised to find out that they give diagrams of these metabolic pathways in the passages, either in skeletal or even complete form. Your job is not to recall each little substrate and enzyme, but rather to recognize common thematic elements, such as the production of CO2 every time an NADH is produced in Krebs, and what that means. Simply put, you need to be able to interpret, not regurgitate.
This applies across all the Biology and Biochemistry content. Places to avoid going into too great a depth are metabolism, anatomy, genetics, and of particular note, evolution theories and classification of species for which a cursory knowledge of both should suffice. There are a couple of content areas into which we would encourage a deeper dive: hormones (steroid vs. peptide, insulin vs. glucagon, calcitonin vs. parathyroid hormone, etc.), regulation systems (feedback mechanisms, inhibition mechanisms, reciprocal regulation, etc.), kidney function (it has a hand in almost everything in the body), and nervous system function (since it too has a hand in almost everything in the body).
It should also be noted that this applies to all the sciences covered on the MCAT. It is not necessary to know every detail, exception, and application of all concepts, since this is primarily a passage-based science test. You will be given most of the information you need, you just need to know how to interpret it.
17. In some of the Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems Section passages there are very detailed descriptions of experimental details and crazy looking graphs as well. What am I supposed to do with all that information?
These types of passages are simply there to scare you. They do a good job of it, particularly when they also include a freaky looking, difficult to interpret figure of some sort. It is exacerbated by the tendency to adapt published journal articles which include a lot of field specific jargon. This also overflows into the Chem/Phys section due to the Biochemistry passages you are likely to see. It is not as pronounced with the Chemistry, Physics, and Psych/Soc passages. The simplest answer to the question is to not get drawn into reading and understanding every single detail in the experimental description.
A good way to approach these dense experiments is to highlight keywords and abbreviations you see in each step, and then note the procedure and what it is being done on you scratch paper. You are not going to be asked about each and every step, and this map of the experiment will allow you to more easily figure out what step you are being asked about in the question. Head back to the appropriate step(s) at this point, and then do a more thorough read before answering the questions. If you run into a question that wants you to understand the experiment as a whole, skip it— at least temporarily. Make sure you answer all of the questions about individual steps first, and by that time you should have a better idea about the experiment as a whole.
18. I have a hard time remembering all the different theories and scientists we talked about in Psychology class. How much of that do I really need for the Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior Section?
Simply put, you need to know all those scientists and those theories. There is a silver lining, however. Your recollection need not be complete here. This is an excellent place to apply the flash card technique. Having various keywords from each theory, the name of the scientist, and the name of the theory, will provide you enough context to be able to answer those questions that involve this content. For example, if a question asks which scientist might have diagnosed this patient with an Oedipus complex, the answer would be Freud.
If it comes to going to a deeper level, due to the Biological emphasis of the MCAT, we would suggest you know the theories of cognition and sensation at a more functional level than simple keyword recognition. Cognition and sensation have a biological foundation that is associated with the function of the nervous system (CNS and PNS) that can be tied in with your knowledge of Biology. Conditioning is also a topic that receives additional attention on the MCAT. People always seem to forget that positive vs. negative is different than reinforcement vs. punishment. There are in fact FOUR different combinations. When Sheldon gave Penny a chocolate for talking in a lower register, it was positive reinforcement because it rewarded desired behavior. When he sprayed Leonard with water for disagreeing with him, it was positive punishment (NOT negative punishment) because it penalized undesired behavior. Positive means to provide something, negative means to take it away —and spraying somebody with water is providing rather than removing.
19. Do I really have to know experimental design for the Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior Section?
Yes, experimental design is a significant part of the Psych/Soc section of the test. However, it is almost as big a part of the other science sections as well. Even the AAMC official guide makes it seem like experimental design is solely a part of the Psych/Soc section, but tests from the last couple of years have shown that experimental design is a bigger part of the exam than generally predicted. Things like sample size, experimental controls, confounding variables, blind studies, and confidence values are all fair game.
The problem then becomes, where do you look to learn this information in the first place? It is commonplace for this type of information to be taught most explicitly in a Psychology 101 course, however that is not always the case. Theoretically, you are also learning these things in your pre-requisite classes as well, but again, that is not always the case. A good resource for information on experimental design in the biological sciences is “Experimental Design for Biologists” by David J. Glass. It’s a pretty easy read, and covers a lot of information that will help you pick apart those dense experimental passages and questions that creep up across the test. It also serves as an extension for the experimental design content taught in most psychology courses.
20. There are so many different options for prepping for the MCAT. How do I pick what books and what tests I should be using to study?
This is another loaded question. There is no easy answer to this question. There are essentially three distinct options available to you.
- There are comprehensive solutions from the big companies like Berkeley Review, Gold Standard, Kaplan, Next Step, Princeton Review, etc. They include content textbooks, practice passages, and practice tests. These are good to have, since they provide everything you need to prep and most (if not all) also provide access to the available official AAMC practice tests and practice passages. The limitation with this option is cost. These programs, be they self-prep, classes, or tutoring, cost several thousand to tens of thousands of dollars.
- There are comprehensive solutions from the AAMC/Khan Academy. They include online content (although no textbooks), practice passages, and practice tests. The major benefit with this option is you must only pay for the access to the AAMC materials (practice passages and practice tests) while the content is free on Khan Academy. The limitation is that the Khan Academy videos are sometimes repurposed academic content that can miss the level of the MCAT when it comes to depth. This also means you currently only get 3 practice tests that provide an estimated score.
- There are piecemeal solutions, many of which are found on SDN, that tell you which parts of which programs to purchase to create your own personalized prep program. The advantage of these is that you are usually being advised to obtain materials only, and those can be bought at the fraction of the cost of whole packages — although a bit of hunting through Amazon, eBay, Half-Price Books, etc. is required. However, if you use this approach, you still need to purchase access to practice tests, as this must be a primary component of your MCAT prep. In addition, if you are using disparate prep materials, they will not be designed to work together as a unit to prep you for the MCAT.
At the end of the day, this decision lies with you. It is usually a matter of available prep time and available funds to pay for materials. Whatever path you take, we would encourage you to discuss your options with family and friends, or an online MCAT tutor, to make sure you are making the best decision for your needs!