How hard is the MCAT? Very hard! Most students will know that the MCAT is an important medical school requirement. In this blog, I'll share what I found most challenging about the MCAT, and tips to prepare for this tough test. Understanding how hard the MCAT is will help you to craft an effective study schedule and approach. 

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Article Contents
8 min read

How Hard Is the MCAT? The Facts What Makes the MCAT Challenging? How Hard Is the MCAT? The Data How Can I Do Well on the MCAT? Conclusion FAQs

How Hard Is the MCAT? The Facts

The MCAT is a notoriously difficult entrance exam quite possibly the hardest entrance exam out there. The MCAT in my opinion was designed to be difficult in the sense of requiring large amounts of information to be comprehended and regurgitated within a set time-frame. The information itself is relatively not difficult, however, the comprehensive nature of the exam attached to the time restraints, allows for a difficult exam that requires meticulous preparation.

The MCAT was by far the most comprehensive test that I have taken prior to medical school. Therefore, the first challenge was un-learning my prior test prepping methods and learning new and more efficient methods that complimented my learning style. Below are my reasons that make the MCAT difficult. 

What Makes the MCAT Challenging?

Achieving a competitive MCAT score is certainly within reach with diligent preparation. So why is the MCAT viewed as such a difficult test?

Reason #1 – The MCAT is Long

The MCAT is a long standardized exam, in fact, the exam length is 7.5 hours including breaks. Therefore, stamina is a baseline requirement for optimal performance. The length of the exam makes the exam challenging due to the potential of mental fatigue. The length of this standardized exam is also what makes the exam unique when compared to other standardized exams including the SAT, ACT, DAT, NAPLEX and others. Meaning, the MCAT is longer than all of the aforementioned exams and most students are not prepared to take such a long exam.

Personally, after four practice tests, I started to develop the endurance to complete a full-length test without feeling exhausted mid-way through the exam. Contrary to my first MCAT diagnostic test, where I felt exhausted less than mid-way through. This exhaustion creates a feeling where you may just want to make educated guesses on questions instead of giving a deep thought effort. Therefore, to gain stamina for optimal preparation, it is advantageous to take plenty of full-length practice tests frequently under timed conditions.

Reason #2 – The MCAT Includes Many Questions, Covering Many Different Subjects

The MCAT is unique in that it tests you on various subjects and skills such as general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, reading comprehension, biology, biochemistry, psychology and sociology. This allows for the test to be a vast comprehensive exam that covers a lot of material. The level of material that is covered allows for challenging preparation. For success, it takes retention and recall of the various principles that will be covered. Optimal preparation will include utilizing credible resource content and understanding how to apply the content to MCAT style questions and passages. 

Learn how to increase your MCAT score fast!

Reason #3 – The MCAT is Passage-Based

To get a strong MCAT score, you will need to know how to review MCAT CARS. For starters, you will not just be regurgitating facts and information that you previously memorized. 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. For these types of questions, you may want to consider an MCAT CARS prep course or an MCAT coach. If you aren’t interested in these types of services, you can also look into MCAT prep books.

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 critical analysis skills needed to be a successful physician.

Reason #4 – The MCAT Has a Time Limit

The first challenge is performing under timed conditions. Three out of the four sections have 59 questions with the allotted time of 95 minutes to complete. This essentially means that in order to be successful you will have less than 1.5 minutes to read multiple passages and answer each question. The CARS section has 53 questions with the allotted time of 90 minutes to complete. This essentially means that in order to be successful you will have less than 1 minute to answer each question. 

Therefore, to become successful at completing the test in an efficient manner, I had to complete scores of practice tests under timed conditions. This allowed me to begin to build time-management skills along with efficient test-taking strategies.

The true challenge is developing the skills required to read MCAT graphs, tables, passages and articles within the allotted time while answering the questions efficiently. Again, practice questions helped me to build the skills necessary to accomplish this daunting task. 

How Hard Is the MCAT? The Data

Here is a breakdown of the mean MCAT score data for successful matriculants to medical school:

What does all this data tell you? Well, according to the latest score data from the AAMC, only around 20% of MCAT test-takers score a 509 or above on the test. And only around 10% of test-takers score better than a 515. Considering the average MCAT score of successful matriculants to medical schools sits around 511.7, earning a competitive MCAT score IS hard.

How Can I Do Well on the MCAT?

In retrospect, the MCAT prep process was a good indicator of the preparation required for the intermittent comprehensive medical school exams that you will encounter once medical school commences. Throughout medical school, there were high stake exams that I had to prepare for and I had to perform well on these exams in order to progress within the curriculum.

My success on preparing for these exams and ultimately doing well on these exams was attributed to my study habits and understanding how I learn best. Therefore, my MCAT preparatory process allowed me to develop disciplined study habits and an understanding of the most efficient way to comprehend and retain large amounts of material. Here's how I recommend preparing for the MCAT:

1. Use the Right MCAT Prep

Initially, I approached the MCAT exam in terms of preparation, how I approached any other exam. Meaning, I read the recommended didactic material and attempted MCAT style questions after reading. This method did not last long as I quickly realized that I was not performing well while attempting the questions. I had trouble retaining the material and applying the material to MCAT style questions. Therefore, I realized that I had to make a change in my methods.

Hence, I sought professional help to guide my studies. I consulted my colleagues for recommended resources and purchased material which included content material and practice tests. It was also recommended by my colleagues to establish a study schedule and become disciplined to this schedule. This was new to me as I previously had cram study habits prior to this revelation. In addition, learning how to strategically approach questions was also new to my repertoire. Lastly, I became conditioned to learn that my learning style was reading material, contrary to my once belief of listening to lectures. Therefore, adjusting my preparation to reading scores of material was challenging.  

All said, my preparation started with my understanding of my inefficiencies. This understanding progressed to a cry for help. I embraced the advice of my colleagues and sought professional help. I utilized a reputable source and resources to complement a disciplined study plan while reading MCAT content vigorously. I implemented my newly realized learning style for an optimal outcome.

Once I changed my study habits, I started to notice an improvement in my score, however, I found it initially more stressful to adjust to my study habits. Therefore, I realized that I had to get more sleep in order to have the stamina to maintain my new study habits. This actually reduced my stress levels and helped me to be more engaged. 

2. Cover Your Weakest Subjects

Dating back to the years in undergraduate education; physics was not my strongest subject. Therefore, this weakness showed in my preparation. Hence, my most difficult section was chemistry/physics. This weakness showed within my diagnostic practice test results. The multitude of equations and the various methods to apply these equations in a passage format was largely what made this section difficult for me.

Overcoming these challenges took consistent practice. I developed a well-organized study schedule and plan while becoming highly disciplined to my plan. Also, the professional help really benefitted me with resources such as prep questions and practice tests, which made a difference in my exposure to quality MCAT material.  

3. Don't Neglect Your Mental Wellness

High stake exams naturally bring about stress that seems to be unavoidable at baseline. Personally, I felt an overwhelming amount of pressure to get a high score because I knew that this one test would impact my medical school decisions. Therefore, the key is to be aware of modifiable stress factors and avoiding this type of stress at all cost.

I focused on my immediate family and disassociated temporarily with surface friends. I also maintained a healthy work-out schedule and good eating habits. I find it helpful to shrink your social circle to only a select few of people that will only bring peace to your environment. In addition, avoiding unnecessary consumption of social media, unhealthy foods and habits are paramount. Lastly, avoiding preventable illness will also reduce your stress. Therefore, taking vitamins and exercising will be wise. 

Conclusion 

It’s important to acknowledge that while there’s a lot of stress associated with taking the MCAT, and the pressure to perform is immense, there are ways to recover if you don’t receive the desired score. You can always retake the MCAT next year and prepare differently. You can identify areas to improve and apply better preparation methods to increase your MCAT reading comprehension, for example. So, try your best to approach the test with the right mindset.

“Be realistic, and don't compare yourself to others. This is probably advice more for those who are still currently in undergrad, and it feels like everyone else around you in the pre-med game is living and breathing these elements - but taking the time to learn and prepare for the exam with a schedule that is realistic and fits your learning style is way better! If you are someone who needs more than one summer to study for the MCAT, that is okay!” - Dr. Shaughnelene Smith, DO


Yes, it is difficult, and yes, you should prepare accordingly. But try not to think about how you’ll score until it’s over. You can always seek help from professionals who know what it takes to get into medical school, even when scores aren’t optimal.

FAQs

1. What is a good MCAT score?

“I got 97th percentile on the MCAT. Getting a high score broadened the number of schools I could apply to and increased my chances of admission to medical school.” - Dr. Neel Mistry, MD

 

If you’re asking what a good MCAT score is, you’re focusing on the wrong thing. Aiming for a “good” score that will just get you into medical school is not the best strategy. Our advice: go for the best score you can achieve. With that said, in general, you want to score in the 90th percentile. 

2. What can I do if I need help organizing my study time?

“My main advice is ensuring you study all the sections regularly, with an emphasis on the section you are weakest in. It is also important to take time off in the week to ensure you are not burned out as studying for the MCAT can be mentally exhausting.” - Dr. Neel Mistry, MD

 

The sheer number of hours that you will need to study for the MCAT can make it pretty daunting. If you need help creating a study schedule that progresses from in-depth content review to intensive MCAT practice, you can always look at hiring an MCAT tutor or enrolling in a prep course.

3. When should I take the MCAT?

Not sure when you should take the MCAT? When you consistently score in the 90th percentile or above on each section, at least 3 times in a row, you can feel confident that you are ready for the real thing. 

4. How can I approach MCAT passages effectively?

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 it 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.

5. Does the MCAT require knowledge from 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. 

6. Is the CARS section really that hard?

Compared to the other MCAT sections, CARS comes with an additional mental hurdle in that there are no prerequisite courses that help to guarantee success on this section. In other words, disciplinary expertise is not required to do well on CARS. Therefore, adequate preparation will require reading complex texts daily, practicing the interpretation of 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. 

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

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 an MCAT tutor who is an expert in that subject. 

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

Be patient and ensure you are doing reading AND passage-based practice. This means that you cannot simply practice with MCAT CARS passages alone. You need to be reading challenging materials regularly. Improvements will take time, and small improvements are steps in the right direction. 

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting


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