How Hard is the MCAT? - The Truth in October 2020

Updated: September 14, 2020

How hard is the MCAT? Well, a competitive score on the MCAT will help to get you noticed with admissions committees at your programs of choice. In a grueling seven and a half hours, the MCAT tests nearly everything you learned during your undergraduate studies. Sounds hard right? You’ve undoubtedly heard horror stories about the MCAT. But you may be wondering, just how hard is the MCAT and how hard is it to achieve a competitive score?

There is a lot of mystery surrounding the MCAT and even myths about its difficulty. This blog sets the record straight with an honest look at the difficulty of the MCAT. Of course, the MCAT is a challenging exam, but it is not impossible – especially with adequate preparation. If all of the horror stories you have heard about the MCAT were true, there would not be thousands of applicants accepted into medical school each year. So, what can you expect when you sit down to take the MCAT? This blog includes an overview of how the MCAT is scored, what students find most challenging about the MCAT, and tips to address each of those challenges. Understanding these aspects of the MCAT will help you to craft an effective approach in preparing for the exam. 

Here's what you'll learn:

How is the MCAT scored?

How hard is the MCAT? The Facts

What makes the MCAT challenging?

How can I do well on the MCAT?

Frequently Asked Questions

How is the MCAT scored?

Before discussing how hard the MCAT is, it is important to understand how the MCAT is scored. There are many factors that go into calculating your MCAT score; by understanding how the MCAT is scored, you will be better prepared to do well on test day.

Students are trained to think about test scores in terms of how many questions they answered correctly. For example, if you take a 100-question test, and you answered 97 questions correctly, then you are confident that you did well and will likely walk away from the test feeling like it was easy. However, the MCAT is not scored in this way: the MCAT is a standardized test in which your score is scaled relative to the performance of other test-takers. You are taking the MCAT alongside motivated, high-achieving peers. Imaging on that same 100-question test, that the other students taking it answered 98, 99, or 100 questions correct. Now, in comparison, your score of 97 does not look as strong. You hardly missed any questions, but when taking a test like the MCAT, it is not about how many questions you answer correctly, but rather it all boils down to your percentile rank compared to other test-takers.

To score your MCAT, the number of questions you answer correctly is first counted for each section. Then, the number of correct answers is converted to a scaled score. Scores from each of the four MCAT sections are converted to a scaled score ranging from 118 (lowest) to 132 (highest), with a midpoint of 125. These scaled scores for each section will add up to a total MCAT score range of 472 (lowest) to 528 (highest). On average, each question is worth 2 points and wrong answers, or blank answers, will not hurt your score. This means that it is best to answer every question on the test and to make an educated guess when necessary.

For the total MCAT score of 528, the new scoring system places a score of 500 at the midpoint, or at the 50th percentile. The scaled score is compared to scores of test-takers over the past three years and is given as a percentile ranking. Your percentile rank shows the percentage of test-takers who received the same score, or lower, on the MCAT than you did; essentially, your percentile rank shows how your score compares to the scores of other test-takers. For example, if you score in the 80th percentile, then your MCAT score was better than 80% of MCAT test-takers in the past three years. Percentile ranks will not change drastically from one year to the next; however, in May of each year, the MCAT percentile ranks are updated using data from the most recent three years to ensure current and stable scoring information. This means that changes in percentile ranks from one year to the next reflect meaningful changes in your score, rather than just year-to-year fluctuations.

Why are MCAT scores scaled? This is simply because not every MCAT exam is identical. Scaling equates MCAT scores from tests on different days and different years. The conversion of the number of correct scores to scaled scores compensates for small variations in difficulty between tests and serves as a more stable, and accurate, assessment of a student’s performance. Two students with equal preparation, who took the MCAT on different days, are expected to earn the same scaled score despite slight differences in the number of correct scores each student obtained on their MCAT.

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How hard is the MCAT? The Facts

During the last application cycle, 53,371 students applied to medical schools and 21,869 students matriculated. The mean total MCAT score for applicants was 506.1, while the mean total MCAT score for matriculating students was higher, at 511.5. This means that, on average, last year’s medical school matriculants achieved a percentile rank of around 85%. Additionally, a higher score can mean the difference between just applying and actually being accepted to medical school. What about the individual MCAT sections? Here is a breakdown of the data:

Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (CPBS)

  • mean score: 127.8
  • percentile rank: 85%

Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)

  • mean score: 127.1
  • percentile rank: 82%

Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (BBLS)

  • mean score: 128.1
  • percentile rank: 83%

Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (PSBB)

  • mean score: 128.5
  • percentile rank: 83%

Total MCAT

  • mean score: 511.5
  • percentile rank: 85%

Does this mean that you need to score in the 85th percentile or better on the MCAT to get into medical school? Not necessarily. Although this number represents the mean for matriculating students, there are students accepted each year with a lower MCAT score. On the other hand, there are students that achieve a near-perfect score that are not accepted. What does this tell you? The MCAT, while an important part of your medical school application, is not the only factor considered by admissions committees. A number on a piece of paper will only get you so far. A competitive MCAT score is a fundamental part of your application, which will help to get your foot in the door. After that, you still need to demonstrate to the admissions committee who you are as a person, beyond a number on a piece of paper. This is where knowing how to prepare for your medical school interview, will set you apart and secure your spot in next year’s medical school class.

What makes the MCAT challenging?

Ok, you’ve seen the data – achieving a competitive MCAT score is certainly within reach with diligent preparation. So why is the MCAT viewed as such a difficult test? There are many reasons:

Reason #1 – The length of the MCAT.

How long is the MCAT? The testing time for the MCAT is six hours and fifteen minutes. Including introductory steps and breaks, the total seated time for the MCAT is just over seven and a half hours for students that use the optional breaks between sections. The grueling length of the MCAT makes it a challenge, and something that students fear, because you have likely not taken an exam that long before. College exams, and other lengthy standardized tests, are generally between three and four hours long and do not even measure up to the length of the MCAT.

Reason #2 – Many questions, and many different subjects.

The MCAT is an interdisciplinary exam that contains 230 total questions covering many different subjects over the span of four sections. It can be compared to a cumulative exam testing multiple years of college courses. The main subjects tested include your medical school prerequisites such as general and organic chemistry, physics, biology, biochemistry, psychology, and sociology. These are challenging topics, but ones you’ve covered in your introductory-level college courses. In addition, you will be tested on your critical analysis and reasoning skills in the CARS section of the MCAT. The CARS section is the only MCAT section that does not relate to specific prerequisite course work, which can generate test-day nerves. What types of questions are in the CARS section? Check out our blog that goes over a MCAT CARS practice passage with questions and expert feedback. Simply having an excellent knowledge base in each of these subjects is not enough to ace the MCAT. You will need to apply your knowledge to passages and multifaceted questions that you have not seen before.

Reason #3 – The MCAT is passage-based.

During the MCAT, you will not just be regurgitating facts and information that you previously memorized. The MCAT is passage-based: you will first read a six to seven paragraph passage, then you will be asked questions about the passage that require you to apply your knowledge of specific topics, such as biology or sociology. This makes the MCAT challenging because you cannot just memorize information. You will need to read each passage critically, pull together several pieces of information from the passage to fully understand it, then answer questions that combine details from the passage with your knowledge base. A passage-based exam requires you to use many skills at once: reading comprehension, critical reasoning, data analysis, and more. 

The MCAT assesses analysis and problem solving for a reason. The exam is designed to reveal whether applicants have strong critical thinking skills. After all, being a physician is not just about remembering facts. A physician’s job often involves assessing a patient that presents with several symptoms and making a diagnosis that may not be straightforward. On the MCAT, medical school applicants are asked to demonstrate their ability to connect several pieces of information, identify extraneous facts, recognize patterns, and think critically to determine the best answer. The MCAT will bombard you with a large amount of data to simulate diagnostic scenarios and will include questions and formatting intended to trick test takers. This is done to assess your capacity to ascertain which details are important and whether you have the knowledge, and the critical analysis skills needed, to be a successful physician.

Reason #4 – time to answer each question

How much time do you have to answer each question on the MCAT? The truth is that the MCAT asks a lot of questions in a short amount of time. Often, students struggle to finish some sections of the MCAT, which means their scores on those sections are not as high as they could have achieved with more time. On which sections do students typically run out of time? Time tends to be a struggle on the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (CPBS) section and the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section. If you find yourself running out of time, remember that wrong answers will not count against you, so aim to fill in an answer for every question – even if it is just an educated guess.

Have a look at our video below for a recap:

How can I do well on the MCAT?

The data outlined in this blog shows that the MCAT is not an impossible exam, but there are understandably many reasons that students find the MCAT to be more challenging than any exam they have ever taken. Let’s address each reason that students find the MCAT challenging and discuss tips to overcome each hurdle.

The length of the MCAT is something that you cannot change; however, you can prepare for this aspect of the test. The MCAT is a marathon, not a sprint. Your success will require training and endurance. Have a look at our blog to find out when to start studying for the MCAT. In general, you don’t want the first time that you take a full-length MCAT exam to be on test-day when nerves are running on high. We recommend that you take 8-10 full-length practice exams throughout your MCAT preparation to provide sufficient practice. This will help you to prepare for many aspects of the MCAT, but importantly will allow you to get used to the length of the test and how to power through it.

Yes, there are many questions, and many different subjects, covered on the MCAT. Our recommendation for tackling such an expansive knowledge base: divide your MCAT preparations into two stages:

In the first stage, at least 70% of your study time should be spent reviewing content. Remember, studying content must come before in-depth practice that tests how well you are applying your knowledge. Take note of concepts that have interdisciplinary relevance – concepts that you have seen in multiple science courses – as these concepts will likely be addressed on the MCAT. Focus your studying on high-yield information for each subject area: strengthening your understanding of big ideas is more important than small details since the MCAT emphasizes analysis and application of knowledge rather than a regurgitation of information. Medical schools are not looking for students who can memorize complex information, but do not understand the mechanisms behind the facts they have memorized. If you cannot explain the why behind a concept, study it until you can! Deeper understanding is crucial to the practice of medicine. It is important that you understand the MCAT is testing for this deeper understanding. This deep understanding is what separates a mediocre score from a competitive score. Lastly, do not ignore the social science aspects of the MCAT. Be sure to allow time to prepare for the Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (PSBB) section of the MCAT – this is your chance to demonstrate that you will understand the psychosocial complexities of your future patients.

Once you complete the content-heavy phase of your studying, focus on the practice phase of your MCAT preparation. Switch gears so at least 70% of your study time is now devoted to completing MCAT practice questions and full-length practice exams. As you practice, focus your content review on topics you find yourself missing during your practice. A knowledge gap in a particular area will not only impact your ability to answer questions on that subject, but it can also limit your capacity to answer an interdisciplinary question. It is not enough to simply review practice sections and skim answer explanations. It is essential to learn from your mistakes! Ensure that you are taking ample time to understand why you missed a question, so you can approach each round of MCAT practice with new knowledge. Continuing to expand your knowledge base is essential for improving your MCAT score. 

The sheer number of hours that you will need to study for the MCAT can make it pretty daunting. Need help creating a study schedule that progresses from in-depth content review to intensive MCAT practice? Use our comprehensive six-month MCAT study schedule as a guide to creating a schedule that suits your needs.

To ace the MCAT, you will need to have a solid knowledge base in the content areas that the MCAT covers; however, the MCAT is about more than just memorization because the MCAT is passage-based. To do well on the MCAT, you will also need to think critically and learn how to apply information to novel questions. Beyond studying content, how can you approach MCAT passages effectively?

The first step: understand how the MCAT is written. On a passage-based exam, you need to understand where, or how, to find the answer for each question. For some questions, the answer will be within the passage; for other questions, you will need to apply your outside knowledge to determine the answer. Some questions will require a combination of these approaches to deduce the answer. Knowing that these three question types exist is important in starting to understand how to approach a passage-based exam. If you cannot figure out the answer to a question, it is likely that you have missed an important detail hidden within the passage. These tips work well for all MCAT sections except CARS. Why is CARS different? The CARS section does not rely on outside information; the answer to every question in this section can be found within the passages.

Now that you understand how the MCAT is written, what is the second step? The second step is practice, practice, practice! Obtain as much practice material as you can. You will need practice passages for each MCAT section as well as several full-length practice MCAT exams. A great source of practice materials can be found on the AAMC website as their materials most closely resemble the difficulty and format of the actual MCAT.

The MCAT is timed. Again, this is something that you cannot change, but you can prepare for the time crunch. When completing MCAT practice sections or full-length exams, try to mimic test-day conditions as much as possible. Complete your practice in one sitting and under the appropriate time constraints. This is the best way to learn how to use your time effectively, to understand how test anxiety may affect you, and to determine any weaknesses you need to address. For CARS, aim to spend ten minutes per passage on the nine passages. For all other MCAT sections, aim to spend eight minutes per passage-based question and one minute per stand-alone question. If you complete your MCAT practice with these guidelines in mind, by the time test-day rolls around, you will be proficient at how to pace yourself through the MCAT.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is a good MCAT score?

Asking this question means you are focusing on an ineffective MCAT study strategy. Focusing on a “good” score that will just get you into medical school is not advised. Our advice: aim for the best score that you can achieve – don't settle for a "good" score when you can strive for a great score. With that said, in general, you want to aim to score in the 90th percentile. Maximize your medical school options by maximizing your score. If you would like an in-depth look at this question, we have an entire blog dedicated to this topic! Check out our What is a Good MCAT Score? blog. After taking the MCAT, set aside some time to research medical schools and determine the median MCAT scores for previous admissions cycles at your programs of interest. When constructing your school list, including several programs where your MCAT score gives you a reasonable chance of acceptance.

Check out our video for more information:

2. Is the MCAT scored on a curve?

Students often wonder if obtaining a higher score on the MCAT is easier or harder at different times of the testing year, or if the exam is scored on a curve. MCAT scoring is not curved, but it is standardized to account for variations in difficulty from exam to exam. The scaled scoring system aims to equate scores so that MCAT scores have the same meaning from test to test, and from year to year. Every MCAT version has different questions, so a scoring process is needed that can account for possible differences in difficulty. If you take an MCAT version that is slightly more difficult, this means you will be able to miss a few more questions and still achieve the same scaled score as students that tested on a different day with a slightly easier version of the MCAT. The scaling and equating process is one of the reasons that it takes a month to receive your MCAT results after testing.

3. When should I take the MCAT?

The simple answer is that you should take the MCAT when you feel 100% ready to do so. How can you gauge if you are ready? Aim to consistently score in the 90th percentile or above on each section type during your last several MCAT practice tests. Another metric is to continue to study as long as your scores continue to improve. If your MCAT score stabilizes, it is a good idea to take the exam, as long as that score range is acceptable to you. Do plan ahead and leave time within your college career to re-take the MCAT if needed. However, avoid letting the option of re-taking the MCAT distract you from making your best effort to prepare. The most successful applicants are those who set out to take the MCAT only once, whenever that may be. As you study, take note of how you are scoring on full-length practice tests. When you consistently score in the 90th percentile or above, at least 3 times in a row, you can feel confident that you are ready for the real thing! Have a look at our MCAT test dates blog so you can register for your test in advance.

4. What is the best way to study a content area that has given you trouble in the past?

We all have our favorite subjects, as well as certain topics that we find particularly challenging. Maybe you struggled with physics early in your academic career and now you are feeling nervous about facing this section of the MCAT. Look at your MCAT preparation as an opportunity to demonstrate how far you have come since first encountering this subject. It is likely that several years have passed since you took your introductory courses. You are a different, and more advanced, student now. You have a better understanding of your learning style and what study techniques are effective for you – use this to your advantage! Rather than shying away from a subject area that you may have had trouble with in the past, use your MCAT preparation to look at those subjects with a fresh eye and to seek out those lightbulb moments.

5. Does the MCAT require knowledge from upper-level science courses?

It is a myth that performing well on the MCAT requires knowledge of upper-level science courses. According to the AAMC, you only need an introductory level of knowledge in each of the main content areas, such as physics, organic chemistry, and sociology. Some passages may describe upper-level topics, but correctly answering the questions will not require upper-level knowledge.

6. Is the CARS section really that hard?

The CARS section requires engaged thinking and critical reasoning, skills that are not typically a part of the science coursework you completed in college. The mistake that students make with CARS is not dedicating enough time to adequately prepare for this section of the MCAT. Like every other MCAT section, practice is key. Compared to the other MCAT sections, CARS comes with an additional mental hurdle in that there are no pre-requisite courses that help to guarantee success on this section. In other words, disciplinary expertise is not required in order to do well on CARS. Therefore, adequate preparation will require daily reading of complex texts, practice interpreting CARS passages, and answering as many practice questions as you can get your hands on. The good news: as you prepare for the CARS section of the MCAT, you will also be refining the skills needed to do well on the other sections of the MCAT. If you prepare for CARS effectively, your reading speed will increase, your reading comprehension will improve, and you will be training your brain to pick out patterns and relationships between key ideas in difficult texts. Your capacity to see relationships within each content area of the MCAT will significantly increase the effectiveness of your studying across the board.

7. Will I find the MCAT hard if I have not completed the recommended introductory science courses? 

You may find it a bit more challenging than students who have completed those courses, but you can still attempt the MCAT. Ensure that the part of your preparation that is content-focused has enough time built up to learn the material that you have not completed in a course. You can do this by reading a textbook, looking for online materials, or getting a tutor who is an expert in that subject. Do note that this is possible if you are deficient in 1 or 2 courses, but it’s going to be extremely challenging if you are missing more courses than that, as teaching yourself introductory college-level science material is quite difficult.

8. I am just not improving on CARS. What do I do? 

Be patient and ensure you are doing reading AND passage-based practice. So this means that you cannot simply practice with just MCAT CARS passages. You need to be reading challenging materials regularly. Improvements will take time, and small improvements are steps in the right direction. Scoring a 125 compared with a 124 is an improvement to be proud of! Keep in mind that this is a very challenging area of the MCAT and it can take 3-4 months to adequately prepare and achieve a score you're happy with.

9. My exam seems like it was much harder than my friend’s MCAT last year, as they said theirs was easy. What do I do? 

Remember, the MCAT is scaled so your score is as meaningful as last year’s MCAT. There are also individual variations in what students find easy or difficult, so there is naturally variation amongst individuals. Some students are strong in certain subject areas and weaker in others. Do not worry if your exam seemed more difficult than anyone else’s, your score is your individual score and you should only focus on doing as well as you can.

10. What if I do terribly on one full-length practice exam? 

This can be discouraging, but don’t panic! This is why we recommend students do several full-lengths. Not doing well on one could be a fluke or be pointing out a particular area of weakness to you. Do not base your progress off of one question, one passage, or even one full-length. You should look for overall progress over a longer period of time as you work on becoming a better MCAT-taker.

Conclusion

Yes, the MCAT will be challenging. Is it impossible to do well – absolutely not! By reading this blog, you have gained insight into the main reasons the MCAT is considered difficult, which is your first step to successfully navigating the MCAT. Now that you know what to expect, engineer your MCAT preparation to tackle each of these MCAT difficulties. Always keep in mind the why behind what you are studying, so you can get the most out of your MCAT preparation. If you need help along the way, we will be here to support you! Like being a physician, acing the MCAT will require hard work and discipline. Building these habits now will help you to become an exceptional physician in the future!

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