How hard is the MCAT? Most students will know that the MCAT is an important medical school prerequisite. And you have also probably heard many students wondering how to get into medical school with a low MCAT! This question and many others are not uncommon, which is why 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 from our expert panel of current MDs. Understanding these aspects of the MCAT will help you to craft an effective approach to preparing for the exam. 

Disclaimer: MCAT is a registered trademark of AAMC. BeMo and AAMC do not endorse or affiliate with one another.

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Article Contents
10 min read

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

How Hard Is the MCAT? The Facts

According to the AAMC, during the last application cycle, 52,577 students applied to medical schools and 22,981 students matriculated. The mean total MCAT score for applicants was 506.3, while the mean total MCAT score for matriculating students was higher, at 511.7. This means that, on average, last year’s medical school matriculants achieved a percentile rank of around 80%. You can gauge that the difficulty of the MCAT has not, and does not change between cycles since the average accepted MCAT score has not changed in single cycle. You can also infer that the study strategies and tips that have worked for past test-takers are still effective in helping people get above 511. 

What about the individual MCAT sections? Here is a breakdown of the data for matriculants:

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? You will, of course, need to review MCAT psychology practice passages, MCAT physics practice passages, MCAT chemistry practice passages, and MCAT biology practice passages, which is by no means a simple task, but there are other reasons:

Reason #1 – The MCAT is Long

“Just the mental game of staying focused and continuing to push forward was the hardest part.” - Dr. Monica Taneja, MD, graduate of the University of Maryland School of Medicine on the most challenging part of preparing for and taking 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 who take the optional breaks between sections. The grueling length of the MCAT makes it a challenge and something that students fear because you will likely not have taken such a long exam 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.

“It helps [to] develop the mental stamina required to sit through a 7.5-hour test without letting it drastically affect your performance.” - Dr. Neel Mistry, MD, graduate of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine on why MCAT practice tests are good training for the actual test. 

Reason #2 – The MCAT Includes Many Questions, Covering 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 CARS section is the only MCAT section that does not relate to specific prerequisite coursework, which can generate test-day nerves. 

“CARS is seen as one of the most challenging sections in the MCAT exam and being prepared to tackle those questions can be difficult without tutoring.” - Anonymous, BeMo student, on one of the hardest parts of the MCAT, the CARS section. 

What types of questions are in the CARS section? Check out our blog that goes over an 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.

“CARS is a difficult section to predict. You can do your best to learn strategies but at the end of the day how you do on exam day will really depend on the difficulty of the passages for that day. I had CARS days where I did very well and where I did very poorly. Learning the best strategies and moving quickly as it can often be a section where you are pressed for time will help you do well.” - Dr. Monica Taneja, MD, graduate of the University of Maryland School of Medicine 


Learn how to increase your MCAT score fast!

Reason #3 – The MCAT is Passage-Based

“Noah has been so helpful for my CARS sessions! He truly takes the time to help explain difficult passages and questions. I'm so thankful for BeMo (and Noah!) on this MCAT journey!” - Hannah Melton, BeMo student 

To get a strong 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.

“Summarizing each paragraph into my own words and using that to guide the main idea of the passage was most helpful. In terms of study habits, doing minimum 1 passage a day throughout the study period was most helpful as it helped me to become familiar with the type of questions, and concentration needed, to excel at CARS.” - Dr. Neel Mistry, MD, a graduate of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine


Reason #4 – The MCAT Has a Time Limit

Students often struggle to finish some sections of the MCAT, which means their scores on those sections are not as high as they could have been with more time. In which sections do students typically run out of time? Time tends to cause more trouble in 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.

How Can I Do Well on the MCAT?

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

1. Work on Your Timing

“There were days when I felt extremely burned out, resulting in poor performance. My advice for upcoming test takers is to pace yourself and take time out for your well-being while studying for the exam.” - Dr. Neel Mistry, MD, graduate of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine

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.

“I feel like specific questions were quickly answered, I learned more than I anticipated and I left feeling hopeful I could improve my section score if I master the information for this session. In addition, the tutor was willing to go over the allotted time and he supplied me with additional exercises based on the areas where I struggled.” - Anonymous, BeMo student, on how they felt after getting help for the Chem/Physics MCAT section.

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, understand how test anxiety may affect you, and 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 in pacing yourself during the MCAT.

2. Cover Subjects Adequately

“Dr. Alexandre Benoit has been very helpful during sessions. I have had him twice now and he goes through material efficiently but also explains difficult concepts well. I appreciate his time and help with biochemistry and biology sessions.” - Sonya Mall, BeMo student on the most difficult MCAT sections for her. 

Our recommendation for tackling the MCAT’s expansive knowledge base: divide your MCAT preparation 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 MCAT topics 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 rote learning of information.

“Doing a combination of content review and passage questions was most helpful. This helped ensure that I was staying up to date with the required textbook knowledge while applying it to passage-based questions on a regular basis.” - Dr. Neel Mistry, MD, a graduate of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine 


3. Focus on Understanding, Rather than Memorization

“Practice was perhaps the most important habit I had to instill. It was important I became accustomed to reading long passages and be able to answer the questions afterwards. With repetition, I became better and better at reading, understanding, and ultimately extracting relevant information in a short period of time.” - Dr. Tony Huynh, DO, a graduate of the Touro University College of Medicine

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, you will need to increase your MCAT reading comprehension! It is important to understand that the MCAT is testing for this deeper understanding, which 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 – this is your chance to demonstrate that you will understand the psychosocial complexities of your future patients. Dr. Taneja took this to heart during her MCAT prep, as she was a non-science major and had to figure out how to get into medical school without a science background. Still, Dr. Taneja “knew the two science sections required my biggest focus.” Ultimately, Dr. Taneja says that “I think it's important not to ignore your strengths as half the exam is not scientific so you do not need to be a science major to do well.” 

So, remember to 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.

“I promised myself when I started preparing for the exam that every day (regardless of my commitments), I would read 1 CARs passage and try to struggle through it. It took several months to see this payoff, but slowly, my score started to bump up, and I started recognizing the patterns.” - Dr. Shaughnelene Smith, DO, graduate of the Kansas City University College of Osteopathic Medicine


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. For example, you could consider the easiest medical schools to get into. You can always take the test next year and prepare differently, perhaps using an MCAT private tutoring service. Look at medical school acceptance rates and find schools that might be more strategically optimal for you to apply to. 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, graduate of the Kansas City University College of Osteopathic Medicine

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.


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, graduate of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine


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 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, graduate of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine


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 use our comprehensive six-month MCAT study schedule as a guide. 

3. When should I 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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