The MCAT: A Beginner’s Guide for Students Considering Medical School

Being prepared to pass the MCAT is your best route to success. Learn the essentials.

Perhaps you’re just starting to explore the option of applying to medical school, or maybe you’ve already chosen your testing date and are well on your way to learning how to study for the MCAT. Either way, it’s always helpful to have a guide to the MCAT exam and what you can expect of the testing experience. The MCAT is a pretty hefty test, but below are the essentials when you’re starting the medical school application journey.

So, What Is the MCAT?

MCAT logo image

MCAT stands for the Medical College Admission Test, and is a critical part of the medical school admissions process. It is required by nearly all medical schools in the United States as well as some in Canada. The test has been administered for over 80 years and is taken annually by over 85,000 students! Most graduate programs accept the MCAT in place of any other standardized test.

The MCAT is developed and administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), and, according to the AAMC’s official website, “is a standardized, multiple-choice examination created to help medical school admissions offices assess your problem solving, critical thinking, and knowledge of natural, behavioral, and social science concepts and principles prerequisite to the study of medicine.”

The MCAT includes prerequisite content for success in medical school, as identified and agreed upon by physicians, educators, medical students, and residents. This content is divided into four sections:

  1. Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  2. Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  3. Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
  4. Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

The MCAT is offered several times annually, from January through September, at many test sites throughout the U.S. and Canada (as well as at several international locations), and can be taken up to three times in a single testing year, four times during a two consecutive-year period, and seven times total.

The MCAT is an intensive exam, given over seven hours and thirty minutes (including two 10-minute breaks and one 30-minute lunch break). It is a computer-based test (CBT), during which the questions are presented on a computer screen and answered by clicking a mouse to select answers.

You can read a bit more on how the MCAT is scored, but, for now, let’s take a glance at each section of the exam.

MCAT Test Content

You can read lots more about what’s on the MCAT exam on the AAMC’s official page (which includes awesome guides and interactive tools for studying content), but here’s a brief overview of each section:

1. Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems

2. Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems

3. Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior

4. Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

MCAT Test Preparation

Because there is a lot of content on the MCAT, the key to mastering it is putting a study plan in place as early as possible. The sooner you start studying, the more time you’ll have to learn and retain information, and/or get additional help on areas of weakness. Avoid cramming for this exam at all costs, as is this is not an effective studying method.

A good way to study is to use a 3-month MCAT study plan, or if you have even more time, a 6-month MCAT study plan. Either way, set a start date for studying well in advance of your testing date and stick to it.

Taking MCAT practice tests is also a great way to prepare yourself for what it will actually be like to sit for the exam. Diagnostic practice tests help give you a sense of your predicted score (and the areas in most need of improvement), while full practice tests help you practice for time and stamina. Taking MCAT practice tests is obviously time consuming, but it is one of the most helpful things you can do to prepare for the exam.

MCAT Testing Day

Think of your MCAT testing day as a marathon rather than a sprint, and prepare for it that way.

The test is an intensive seven hours and 30 minutes with two (optional) 10-minute breaks after sections 1 and 3, and a 30-minute lunch break after section 2. This means that, bare minimum, you’ll actually be sitting for the exam for six hours and 40 minutes, which is quite a long time.

One of the best things you can do to be ready for testing day is to simulate MCAT test day to the best of your ability at least once before the exam. This will require a full day of your time, energy, and focus, as well as two full-length practice tests. While you obviously can’t simulate the exact experience of test-taking, try your best to reproduce a quiet, distraction-free environment.

It’s also a good idea to be familiar with the general MCAT testing day protocol, from check-in to post-testing. Be prepared, for example, to show a government-issued photo ID, to undergo any number of security procedures, to read and sign your MCAT examinee agreement, and to keep the contents of the exam 100% confidential after you’ve completed it.

So, there you have it. There is clearly an enormous amount of content on the MCAT, and you can read more about all things exam-related in the MCAT Essentials for Testing Year 2018 guidebook, but hopefully this is a helpful guide to one of the most exciting tests out there to take. Happy studying!

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