How long is the MCAT? This notorious test keeps many aspiring medical school students up at night. Fortunately, the length and structure of the MCAT is consistent, allowing you to prepare your MCAT study schedule and use full-length practice tests to get used to the format.
You’ve heard about the challenging length of the exam, but how long is each MCAT section, how much time can you afford to spend on each question, and how long will it take you to complete the test from start to finish? This article provides a detailed look at how long the MCAT is, including a thorough section-by-section breakdown.
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What Content Does the MCAT Cover?
The MCAT is an interdisciplinary exam that contains a total of 230 questions covering varied subjects over the span of four sections. The main subjects tested include general and organic chemistry, physics, biology, biochemistry, psychology, sociology, and critical reasoning skills important for the daily work of a physician.
What Does It Take to Get a Good Score?
To get a good MCAT score, you will need a solid knowledge base in these content areas, but remember that the key to succeeding on the MCAT is not memorization. According to the AAMC, in addition to testing your content knowledge, the MCAT will also test your understanding of basic research methods, statistics, and concepts and will require you to demonstrate scientific inquiry and reasoning skills. Each section of the MCAT is passage-based and tests for a deep understanding of the mechanisms behind the content you have learned and the psychosocial complexities of your future patients, as well as your ability to pull relevant information from a list of data.
What are the MCAT Sections?
The 230 questions on the MCAT are divided among four sections, with each section designed to have a certain ratio of questions on each academic discipline or subtopic. For example, in each version of the MCAT, the CARS section bases 30% of its questions on the foundations of comprehension. While the questions themselves vary from test to test, the ratio of questions per academic discipline does not change.
Here is a breakdown of the academic disciplines included in each MCAT section:
Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (BBLS)
The ratio of academic disciplines tested in this section is as follows: 65% introductory biology, 5% general chemistry, 5% organic chemistry, and 25% first-semester biochemistry.
Here’s what this section is designed to test:
- First-semester biochemistry concepts
- Introductory level biology and organic/inorganic chemistry
- Basic research methods and statistics
- Scientific inquiry and reason applied to the natural sciences
For this section, you will need to review MCAT biology questions, MCAT biology practice passages, and MCAT chemistry practice passages, among others.
Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (CPBS)
The ratio of academic disciplines tested in this section is: 25% first-semester biochemistry, 5% introductory biology, 30% general chemistry, 15% organic chemistry, and 25% introductory physics.
Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems is one that many students find particularly intimidating! Practice is your best friend – ensure that you have the confidence needed to immediately focus on the test and get to work on this first section. You will not have a calculator during the MCAT, so it is important to prepare for the MCAT without a calculator. This way, you will build up your skill and speed in doing mental calculations for the actual test. Here’s what this section is designed to test:
- Introductory biology, organic/inorganic chemistry, and physics concepts
- Molecular biology and biology concepts
- Basic research methods and statistics
- Scientific inquiry and reason
For this section, you will need to know how to use various MCAT physics equations; you can also read MCAT physics practice passages to prepare. Note that you will have access to the periodic table during the actual exam, so it will benefit you to have it handy when you’re doing content review and answering MCAT prep questions.
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Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (PSBB)
The ratio of academic disciplines tested in this section is: 65% introductory psychology, 30% introductory sociology, and 5% introductory biology.
Here’s what this section is designed to test:
- Foundations for learning in medical school about the behavioral and sociocultural determinants of health
- First-semester psychology and sociology
- Biology concepts that relate to mental processes
- Basic research and statistics
- Scientific inquiry and reason
Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)
The ratio of academic disciplines tested in this section is: 30% foundations of comprehension (Do you understand the main ideas in the passage?), 30% reasoning within the text (Do you understand the relationship between ideas within the passage?), and 40% reasoning beyond the text (Can you relate ideas in the passage to new pieces of information?).
Here’s what this section is designed to test:
- Comprehension, analysis, and reasoning skills
- Understanding and ability to use content from ethics, philosophy, studies of diverse cultures, population health, and a wide range of social sciences and humanities disciplines
- Passage content contains 50% humanities and 50% social sciences
Preparing for MCAT CARS? Try these HARDEST MCAT CARS passages for practice:
If the CARS Section is So Difficult, What Can I Do to Improve My Chances of Doing Well?
CARS passages are infamously difficult. This MCAT section can really slow you down on test day if you do not prepare for it sufficiently. Oftentimes, students asking “How hard is the MCAT?” are really asking “How hard is the CARS section?”. While content review truly helps you prep for other MCAT sections, going over your notes and textbooks will not help you get ready for CARS.
Nevertheless, strategies for this section do exist, and by implementing certain practices, you can do well on the CARS material. Here are several important boxes you need to check during your prep:
- It is important to read challenging texts throughout your MCAT preparation to build up your reading speed and comprehension skills.
- You must develop a strong MCAT CARS strategy when you go over practice passages. To get you started, make sure to review our MCAT CARS practice passages with expert answers. You can always consider an MCAT CARS tutor or an MCAT CARS prep course to help you with this preparation component.
- Keep in mind that CARS prep takes a lot of time and patience, so start reading challenging materials and going over practice questions as early as you can.
- For a comprehensive look at the academic disciplines covered within each section of the MCAT, refer to the AAMC’s guide, What’s on the MCAT Exam?
How Often Will I Encounter Each Subject On Test Day?
As you can see in our breakdown, there is some overlap between the academic disciplines covered in the four MCAT sections. On test day, you can expect approximately 15 physics questions, 30 biochemistry questions, 45 biology questions, 20 general chemistry, 11 organic chemistry questions, 38 psychology questions, 18 sociology questions, and 53 CARS questions.
What Is The Best Way to Get Familiar With The Test Format?
There is a lot of mystery surrounding the MCAT, so you might be wondering how you can get a feel for each MCAT section and understand the type of content covered in each section. The best way to do this is to take a full-length MCAT diagnostic test before diving into your MCAT preparation. This way, you get to see what you are up against and learn where to focus your time in the review-heavy phase of your studying. Additionally, have a look at our blog to learn when to start studying for the MCAT.
How Can I Improve My Endurance?
As you get into the practice phase of your MCAT preparations, take several full-length practice tests to ensure that you are well-versed with the format by test day. Gradually build up your test-taking endurance to guarantee that you are mentally prepared for the duration of the MCAT. Keep in mind that the length of the exam will affect how to study for the MCAT, as well as when you take the exam. During the MCAT, you will be able to take breaks. Though optional, you should take the opportunity to have something to eat and drink; you can simulate this during practice exams to fully immerse yourself in the exam day schedule and process.
Do I Need Extra Help to Get a Good Score?
Every student is different. Their needs and learning styles will benefit from different methods of study, which means if you’re struggling or even if you just prefer to work with someone who knows what they’re talking about, you have a few options. The best MCAT private tutoring, should you choose to pursue it, is provided by a credible company with strong reviews so that you know they’re reliable. You can even consider regional services, such as the best MCAT prep course in Canada. If you’re trying to figure out how to improve your MCAT CARS score, look at CARS-specific tutoring options.
In summary, consider your basic needs, strengths, and weaknesses throughout your prep and decide if seeking extra help is worth it. You can certainly earn a good score without it, but some students like to have the assurance that they’re using the best preparation strategies to give them the best chance of scoring in the highest percentile.
How Many Questions Are in Each MCAT Section?
Each MCAT section has 53-59 questions. The average value of each question is around two points. Most questions on the MCAT are passage-based, while some are discrete questions. Passage-based questions follow a passage describing a scientific situation, while discrete questions do not relate to a passage and directly test your scientific knowledge. Sections with both types of questions will have clusters of two or three passages with corresponding passage-based questions, followed by three to four discrete questions.
Here is a breakdown of the number and type of questions in each MCAT section:
The MCAT asks a lot of questions in a short amount of time, resulting in students struggling to finish some sections of the exam. Which sections do students find the most challenging to complete in the allotted time? Most test-takers find the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems section and the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section most challenging to complete in time. If you find yourself running out of time, remember that wrong answers will not count against your score, so aim to fill in an answer for every question – even if you need to make an educated guess.
Here's a quick recap of the MCAT section questions:
MCAT Test Day Timeline
For those wondering “how long is the MCAT?”, let's review how long will it take you to complete the MCAT on test day. Knowing how each section is divided and timed will help you work on your MCAT timing. The MCAT is taken in one day, unlike the multi-day exams you will take later in medical school. The testing time for the MCAT is six hours and fifteen minutes. The total seated time for the MCAT is just over seven and a half hours for students who use the optional breaks between sections. Undeniably, the grueling length of the MCAT makes it a challenge.
Let’s break it down a bit further. On exam day, you will complete each section of the MCAT in the following order: Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems; Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems; Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior; and lastly Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS). Most sections are 95 minutes in duration, except CARS, which is 90 minutes long. Because the MCAT is a computer-based test, and the computer keeps track of your time, you do have the option to submit a section before the time runs out, creating the possibility of completing the test in less time. Submitting a section early does not mean that you can take a longer break before the next section; it just allows you to move on to the next section sooner.
What about the breaks? After the first section, Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems, you will have an optional 10-minute break followed by the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems section. Then, you will have an optional 30-minute mid-exam break to regroup and eat lunch. After lunch, you will complete the Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior section, followed by another optional 10-minute break, and the last section, CARS.
Are There Other Variables Missing From This Breakdown That Affect The Schedule?
The time breakdown above does not account for your entire day. Your MCAT day, from the moment you wake up to when you walk out of the testing center, can easily be nine or ten hours long, depending on how far you live from the test center and how long your morning routine is. Before you leave your house in the morning, take the time to pack your government-issued identification and enough snacks and water for your breaks to provide the energy and focus you will need to test for over seven hours. Test-takers will generally begin their MCAT between 7:45 am and 8:15 am.
Once you arrive at the testing center, you will spend about 30 minutes getting checked in and putting your belongings in a locker. You will then be escorted to a cubicle and provided with noise-canceling headphones if you wish to use them; then it’s off to the races!
How to Prepare for the Length of the Test Day
You must prepare and train yourself for the MCAT’s length. Your test-taking strategies will be designed based on how long and tiring the exam is, so let’s review some of the tactics you can use to increase endurance.
1. Try scheduling practice exams around the same time as the MCAT
First of all, when you take the full-length practice exams, try scheduling them around the same time as your allotted slot for the MCAT. So, if your MCAT test date is scheduled for 7:30 am, make sure to start your practice exams at 7:30 am. If your MCAT is scheduled for 3 pm, then start your practice tests at 3 pm. Make sure to follow the MCAT test day breakdown and time all the sections and breaks. Simply put, recreate the timeline and the environment of the actual exam.
2. Be aware of how your energy changes
Pay attention to how you feel while you are taking the practice exams. Notice when you get tired and when you need a snack. The more full-length tests you take, the more your stamina will grow. Additionally, you will habituate yourself to forestall fatigue and hunger until your allotted breaks. Remember, in the second phase of your MCAT prep, that is, the practice phase, most of your MCAT prep will involve practice questions and full-length tests. Take advantage of this time to sync your personal test-taking schedule with the test day schedule.
3. Take care of your sleep hygiene
Additionally, a few weeks before your MCAT test date, start going to bed at the same time you would on the day before you take the actual MCAT and waking up at the same time you would on test day. This way, your sleeping pattern and eating schedule will not be out of the ordinary on the day you take the exam. Your body and mind will endure the MCAT day much better with practice because practice will allow you to get used to this timeline.
4. Don’t neglect your mental and physical health
While you are preparing for the MCAT, do not forget about your physical and mental health. Make sure to exercise regularly and eat healthy meals.
Tip: the day before the exam and the morning of, do not eat anything unusual for your diet. Stick to what you know and make sure to eat a good, healthy breakfast/lunch.
5. Personalize your schedule
One last tip: you know your routine and schedule best. While most students tend to schedule their MCAT for the morning, plan your test for the time that is most fitting for you. Perhaps you are not a morning person? Or it takes you hours to get up? Or you know that your test-taking potential is better later in the day. Every person is unique. Make sure to take into account your own strengths when scheduling the exam.
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If you are committed to pursuing a career in medicine, it is time to start taking the necessary steps to make that dream a reality. While there are some medical schools that don't require the MCAT, most do. A competitive MCAT score will help put you on the shortlist for an interview at your dream medical school.
In this blog, we have explored how long the MCAT is, what content is covered in each of the MCAT sections, and how you can tackle the challenging length of this exam. In understanding the length of the MCAT and how your time will be divided on test day, you have taken the first step in ensuring that you walk into your MCAT comfortable with the format and ready to ace the test!
1. How can I build up my endurance for the MCAT?
The MCAT is a lengthy exam, and you likely do not have a lot of experience taking exams that are longer than about three to four hours. So, how can you build up your endurance to remain focused for over seven hours of testing?
As a part of your MCAT preparation, you will need to deliberately work on building up your test-taking endurance. This is a gradual process that will happen over the course of your months of MCAT preparation. Use your study time to build up endurance sitting in one place and focusing on challenging material for a long period of time.
Each MCAT section is 90–95 minutes long. As you study, start to get comfortable sitting and studying for 95 minutes straight. Sure, you are not taking a test for those 95 minutes, but you are practicing functioning at a high mental level for 95 minutes. Take note of when you start to get distracted or experience burnout. Over time, work up to being able to study for four 95-minute periods in a row with short breaks in between.
You can model the length of your breaks on the amount of time you will have on test day. Use this opportunity to try out different snack foods that can provide the energy you need to make it through these stretches of focused study. As you get into the practice-heavy phase of your MCAT preparation, start to swap out 95-minute study periods with practice MCAT sections.
2. Should I use the optional breaks during the MCAT?
Yes! You can skip the optional breaks if you desire, and this is definitely tempting, but keep in mind that the MCAT is a marathon of an exam, not a sprint. We recommend taking the optional breaks and actually using the time to decompress as much as possible. Keeping your brain focused on a challenging exam for over six hours is not feasible without some downtime. You will need the periodic breaks to refresh, snack and rehydrate, and gather your energy for the next section.
3. Can you eat during MCAT breaks?
Absolutely! You can definitely eat snacks and drink water during the optional breaks. It is crucial to pack nutritious snacks that will provide enough energy for you to make it through the entire exam.
Remember, your brain functions better when your body is hydrated, so bring plenty of water too! If you have to go to the bathroom, try to do so during one of your breaks. If you must go to the bathroom during one of the four timed MCAT sections, the timer will continue to run, and you will have less time to answer the remaining questions in that section.
4. How can I keep track of my time during the MCAT?
The MCAT is a computer-based test. The amount of time you have remaining on any given section is shown directly on your screen as you are taking the exam.
During your MCAT preparation, use a countdown timer as you complete practice MCAT passages to get used to managing your time in this way.
5. Besides skipping breaks, are there any other ways to save time on test day?
If you have taken the official AAMC practice tests as part of your MCAT preparation, you are already familiar with the computer interface that you will be using on test day. This means that you may feel comfortable skipping the tutorial on the morning of the test.
Official AAMC practice tests will also allow you to get an early look at the examinee agreement at the beginning of the MCAT and the void question that appears at the end of the exam. If you familiarize yourself with the contents of these sections prior to test day, you can spend less time on these sections and save your energy for the test itself.
6. How long should I spend per question or per passage?
This depends on the section of the test. 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. Keep in mind that this is the average time you should aim to spend on each question or passage – some passages and questions are easier and take less time, while some take longer.
7. What would you recommend for snacks?
Bring nutritious food that is light and stick to water. Avoid bringing caffeinated beverages, as they can increase anxiety or make you need more bathroom breaks. Ideally, try to bring food from home – this is not the time to take chances trying to run to a cafeteria or a takeout place.
8. When I am practicing, how can I simulate the testing environment?
The best way to simulate the testing environment is to ensure that you take the test in a private area with no distractions. Don't use your phone or headphones and do the passages or full-length exams as you would during the real thing – in one sitting.
9. What are some strategies for when I feel my attention wandering?
If you find it hard to stay focused during a section, start working on taking a brief break between passages. For example, close your eyes, count to 10, and take a few deep breaths in and out. Ensure you clear your mind of completed passages. Limit these types of breaks to just 1 or 2 per section to about 10 seconds in total. This will allow you to refresh and reset your mind and move on to the rest of the section.
10. What if a question is really tough and I get stuck on it?
Remember, you want to finish all the questions so that don’t get stuck on one question, as this leaves less time for the rest of the section. Make an educated guess, flag that question, complete the rest of the section, and come back to that question at the end.
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