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 with few surprises. 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 you be taking the test for from start to finish? This blog provides a detailed look at how long the MCAT is, including a thorough section-by-section breakdown.
Here's what you'll learn:
The MCAT is an interdisciplinary exam that contains 230 total 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 to the daily work of a physician. To ace the MCAT, you will need a solid knowledge base in these content areas, but the MCAT is about much more than just memorization. According to the AAMC, in addition to testing your content knowledge, the MCAT will also test your understanding of basic research methods, statistics, concepts, and will require you to demonstrate scientific inquiry and reasoning. Each section of the MCAT is passage-based and tests for a deep understanding of the mechanisms behind the facts you have learned, an understanding of the psychosocial complexities of your future patients, and your ability to pull relevant information from a list of data.
The 230 total questions on the MCAT are divided amongst four sections, with each section designed to have a certain ratio of questions on each academic discipline subtopic. For example, in each version of the MCAT, the CARS section is designed to contain 30 percent of its questions based on the foundations of comprehension. While the questions themselves vary from MCAT to MCAT, the ratio of questions per academic discipline does not change.
Here is a breakdown of the academic disciplines included in each MCAT section:
Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (CPBS)
The ratio of academic disciplines tested in this section include: 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 the first section on the MCAT and that in and of itself can be intimidating! Practice is your best friend here to ensure that you have the confidence needed to immediately focus and get to work on this first section. You will not have a calculator during the MCAT, so it is important to complete your MCAT preparations without a calculator so you can build up your speed in doing mental calculations.
Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)
The ratio of academic disciplines tested in this section include: 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?).
The passages within the CARS section contain difficult texts that can really slow you down on test day if you do not prepare sufficiently. Have a look at our blog to find the answer to the common question "How hard is the MCAT?". It is important to read challenging texts throughout your MCAT preparation to build up your reading speed and your reading comprehension skills. Our comprehensive MCAT study schedule provides examples of challenging texts that you can read each week as you prepare for the MCAT.
Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (BBLS)
The ratio of academic disciplines tested in this section include: 65% introductory biology, 5% general chemistry, 5% organic chemistry, and 25% first-semester biochemistry.
Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (PSBB)
The ratio of academic disciplines tested in this section include: 65% introductory psychology, 30% introductory sociology, and 5% introductory biology.
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?
There is some overlap between the academic discipline subtopics found in the four MCAT sections. On test day you can expect approximately 15 physics questions, 30 biochemistry questions, 45 biology questions, 20 general chemistry, and 11 organic chemistry questions, 38 psychology questions, 18 sociology questions, and 53 CARS questions.
There is a lot of mystery surrounding the MCAT, so what is the best way to get a feel for each MCAT section and to understand the type of content covered in each section? Take a full-length MCAT diagnostic test before diving into your MCAT preparations. This is the best way to see what you are up against and to learn where to focus your time in the review-heavy phase of your studying. In addition, have a look at our blog to learn when to start studying for the MCAT. As you get into the practice phase of your MCAT preparations, take several full-length practice MCAT exams 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 exam.
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Out of the 230 total questions on the MCAT, each 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-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:
Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (CPBS) – 59 questions, 44 of which are passage-based and 15 of which are discrete questions.
Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) – 53 questions, all of which are passage-based. 50% of the passages will have humanities content, while the other 50% will refer to social sciences. While there are fewer questions in the CARS section, the passages within this section tend to be longer.
Check out our video below for an MCAT CARS practice passage:
Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (BBLS) – 59 questions, 44 of which are passage-based and 15 of which are discrete questions.
Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (PSBB) – 59 questions, 44 of which are passage-based and 15 of which are discrete questions.
Total MCAT – 230 questions, 185 of which are passage-based (80%), and 45 of which are discrete questions (20%).
The MCAT asks a lot of questions in a short amount of time and students can struggle to finish some sections of the exam. Which sections do students find the most challenging to complete in the allotted time? Time is a big factor on the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems 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 you need to make an educated guess.
Now that we have gone over exactly what sections are on the MCAT and what content is covered in each section, just how long will it take you to complete the MCAT on test day? The testing time for the MCAT is six hours and fifteen minutes. When you include 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 MCAT is taken in one day, unlike the multi-day exams you will take later in medical school. The grueling length of the MCAT makes it a challenge, and something that students dread.
Let’s break it down a bit further. On exam day, you will complete each section of the MCAT in the following order: Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems, Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS), Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems, and lastly Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior. Most sections are 95 minutes in duration, except CARS, which you will have 90 minutes to complete. 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 early, creating the possibility to complete 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, Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems, you will have an optional 10-minute break followed by the CARS section. Then you will have an optional 30-minute mid-exam break to regroup and to eat lunch. After lunch, you will complete the Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems section, followed by another optional 10-minute break, and the last section, Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior.
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!
Check out our video for a recap:
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 long. 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 in 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 to 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, to snack and rehydrate, and to 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, time 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 official AAMC practice tests as a part of your MCAT preparation, you are likely 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 but some passages or questions are easier and take less time and 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 just make you need to take more bathroom breaks. Ideally, try to bring food from home - this is not the time to take a chance with 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 things I can do during a section if I feel my attention wandering?
If you find it hard to stay focused during a section, start working on taking a brief break in 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 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 don’t get stuck on one question, as this leaves less time for the rest of the section. Put an educated guess down, flag that question, complete the rest of the section, and come back to that question at the end.
You are committed to pursuing a career in medicine and 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 to put you on the shortlist for an interview at your dream medical school. We have taken a look at what academic disciplines are covered in each section of the MCAT, how many total questions there are, how many questions you can expect from each content area, and we have answered the question how long is the MCAT? In understanding the length of the MCAT, and how your time will be divided up 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!
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To your success,
Your friends at BeMo