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What Is the MCAT?

What you need to know about the MCAT, MCAT scores, MCAT test dates, and the MCAT sections

About the MCAT

The Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, is more than just a formality for medical school admissions. It is a multiple-choice, computer-based, standardized exam that is required for admission to med schools in the United States and Canada.

The MCAT is developed and administered by testmaker Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) to provide med schools with common measures for comparing applicants’ qualifications and preparedness for med school. Med school admissions committees look at your MCAT score, along with your academic record and supporting materials, to assess your foundations to build a successful medical career.

What’s the takeaway? A high score on the MCAT will have a direct, positive impact on your med school application.

What is on the MCAT?

The MCAT exam not only measures your content knowledge in General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, General Biology, Biochemistry, Physics, Psychology, and Sociology—it also tests your critical analysis and reasoning skills.

This means that the MCAT requires more than just an understanding of prior content. The MCAT is a test of critical reasoning skills that rewards students on their ability to apply test content. Knowing how to interpret and solve complex problems is the key to a great MCAT score.

What are the MCAT sections?

The MCAT contains integrated sections, which means that subjects are not tested independently, but include overlapping areas of concentration, which is how you’ll encounter these subjects in medical school.

The integrated content on the MCAT is broken down into four test sections that comprise the exam:

  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior

Each of the four sections of the MCAT is scored from 118 to 132, with the mean and median at 125. This means the total score ranges from 472 to 528, with the mean and median at 500. See more on how the MCAT is scored below.

Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (Chem/Phys)

Number of questions on Chem/Phys Minutes to complete Chem/Phys Score range on Chem/Phys
44 passage-related questions
15 standalone, non-passage-related questions
59 total questions
95 minutes 118 to 132

The Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (Chem/Phys) section on the MCAT asks that you combine your knowledge of the basic physical sciences with that of the biological sciences. An understanding of the basic chemical and physical principles that underlie the mechanisms operating in the human body—and an ability to apply your understanding of these general principles to living systems—is essential.

While Chem/Phys may appear to be a section that tests the physical sciences, it goes beyond that. The physical sciences are tested in the context of the biological sciences, which is a departure from the traditional way we learn these sciences. A significant amount of biochemistry also appears in this section.

The undergraduate courses that are reflected in the Chem/Physics section of the MCAT include introductory General Chemistry (30%), introductory Physics (25%), introductory Organic Chemistry (15%), and first-semester Biochemistry (25%). Introductory Biology (5%) is also included in this section of the test.

A periodic table is available during the MCAT, but a calculator is not.

Of the 59 questions on the Chem/Phys section of the MCAT, 15 are standalone, non-passage-related, discrete questions. The rest of the section questions come from passages offered on the exam, and they require both information from the passage and outside content knowledge.

Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)

Number of questions on Chem/Phys Minutes to complete Chem/Phys Score range on Chem/Phys
53 passage-related questions 90 minutes 118 to 132

The formal name of this section is Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills. Since that’s a mouthful, we will just call it CARS. While there is a lot of content to learn for the other three sections, the CARS section doesn’t test any prior content knowledge. All information necessary to answer the questions is included in the passage. The CARS section is essentially testing you on how well you are able to analyze arguments and find the underlying assumptions and inferences. The section is 90 minutes in length, with 53 questions, all of which are connected to their respective passages.

Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (Bio/Biochem)

Number of questions on Chem/Phys Minutes to complete Chem/Phys Score range on Chem/Phys
44 passage-related questions
15 standalone, non-passage-related questions
59 total questions
95 minutes 118 to 132

The Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (Bio/Biochem) section on the MCAT requires an understanding of the basic processes that foster life, such as growing, reproducing, acquiring energy, and more. Equally important in the study of medicine is your knowledge of how cells and organ systems within an organism act both independently and in concert to accomplish these processes.

While Bio/Biochem may appear to be a section that’s testing the biological sciences, it goes beyond that. Biology and biochemistry comprise the majority of the Bio/Biochem section on the MCAT, but there is also some organic chemistry and general chemistry tested in this section, as those disciplines provide a background to the biochemistry..

The undergraduate courses that are reflected in the Bio/Biochem section of the MCAT are introductory Biology (65%), introductory General Chemistry (5%), introductory Organic Chemistry (5%), and first-semester Biochemistry (25%). Additional biology classes such as Cell Biology, Genetics, Anatomy and Physiology, or Microbiology can be helpful, but aren’t required.

Of the 59 questions on the Bio/Biochem section of the MCAT, 15 are standalone, non-passage-related, discrete questions. The rest of the section questions come from passages offered on the exam, and they require both information from the passage and outside content knowledge.

Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (Psych/Soc)

Number of questions on Chem/Phys Minutes to complete Chem/Phys Score range on Chem/Phys
44 passage-related questions
15 standalone, non-passage-related questions
59 total questions
95 minutes 118 to 132

The Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (Psych/Soc) section on the MCAT covers topics in Psychology and Sociology in the context of the biological sciences. These are the newest subjects tested on the MCAT, introduced because of their increasing importance in medical education. While most medical schools do not require psychology or sociology as part of their prerequisite coursework, the MCAT recommends one semester of introductory courses in each of these subjects.

This section is an essential addition to the MCAT since it assesses your ability to implement research and statistical principles within the realm of behavioral and sociocultural determinants of health and health outcomes. Basically, you are required to integrate psychological, sociological, and biological bases of behaviors and relationships.

Of the 59 questions on the Psych/Soc section of the exam, 15 are standalone, non-passage-related, discrete questions. The rest of the section questions come from passages offered on the exam, and they require both information from the passage and outside content knowledge.

What is a good MCAT score?

When considering your MCAT score goal, it’s always a good idea to look at the requirements—or minimums, if applicable—at the med schools to which you’re applying. In addition, here are some other details about MCAT scoring that can help you assess your target score

Each of the four sections of the MCAT is scored from 118 to 132, with the mean and median at 125. This means the total score ranges from 472 to 528, with the mean and median at 500.

Why such odd numbers? The AAMC stresses that this scale emphasizes the importance of the central portion of the score distribution, where most students score (around 125 per section, or 500 total), rather than putting undue focus on the high end of the scale.

The AAMC utilizes the whole scoring scale on the new exam. The AAMC has released an initial correlation between scaled score and percentile:

Percentile Scaled MCAT Total Score
Top 10% of all test takers 514 to 528
Top 25% of all test takers 508 to 513
Top 50% of all test takers 500 to 507
Below 50th percentile of all test takers 499 or below

How long is the MCAT?

On MCAT Test Day, you can expect to sit for the exam just over 7.5 hours with test-taking time and optional breaks—including one for lunch. Note that this time does not include your check-in time at the testing center. It is important to be on-time and fully prepared.

The AAMC lists the Test Day schedule as follows:

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MCAT Section Time
Examinee Agreement 8 minutes
Tutorial (optional) 10 minutes
Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems 95 minutes
Break (optional) 10 minutes
Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills 90 minutes
Mid-Exam Break (optional) 30 minutes
Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems 95 minutes
Break (optional) 10 minutes
Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior 95 minutes
Void Question 5 minutes
Satisfaction Survey (optional) 5 minutes
Total Content Time 6 hours, 15 minutes
Total Seated Time Approximately 7 hours, 33 minutes

When is the MCAT offered?

The MCAT is administered approximately 25 times per year between the months of January and September. Scores are usually released about a month or just over a month from each test date. You can see a full list of 2017 MCAT test dates and score release dates here.

It is highly recommended that you register for your MCAT test date early so you can select your first-choice location, date, and time. Seats tend to fill quickly.

You can register for the MCAT online via the AAMC. For MCAT registration, scheduling, or test location questions, contact the MCAT Program Office at 202-828-0690.

When to take the MCAT

The best time to take the MCAT is the year before you intend to start medical school. Additionally, it’s best to begin planning your test prep about three to five months before your MCAT test date. Kaplan recommends between 300 and 350 hours of total MCAT test prep.

How much does it cost to take the MCAT?

The cost to take the MCAT is $310 during AAMC’s regular registration window, but increases if you register late or if you reschedule. There are also cancellation and international fees that may pertain to some test takers. It’s important that you choose the right MCAT test date—and test prep—for you, so you don’t have to pay the fee a second time.