In addition to making up the majority of the MCAT Chemistry and Physics section, chemistry also makes up 35% of the section, making it the second-most tested subject on the MCAT after biology. As such, you need a sturdy grasp on the concepts and categories of chemistry knowledge tested throughout the MCAT in order to score well. In our guide, we’ll cover the full range of chemistry concepts tested on the MCAT, as well as strategies and study tips to ensure you crush all the chemistry that the AAMC can throw at you.
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Chemistry is of course the central component of the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (CPBS) section, often simply referred to as the Chemistry and Physics section. In fact, chemistry comprises well over 70% of this section:
This section of the MCAT assesses your ability to solve problems using both knowledge of foundational concepts, scientific inquiry, and reasoning skills. The CPBS section is the first you’ll tackle when taking the MCAT, so it’s vital to make this section go as smoothly as possible. Like each other science-based section of the MCAT —i.e., all except CARS—CPBS is comprised of 59 questions which will vary between discrete or 1-off questions and passage-based questions. Like the other science portions of the MCAT, you will have 95 minutes to complete this section.
Chemistry also factors heavily into the Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (BBLS) section:
So, with nearly ¾ of the CPBS section and 1/3 of the BBLS section covering chemistry, it’s hard to underestimate the importance of these various modalities of chemistry when it comes to studying. Our primary focus in this guide is the CPBS section, and so biochemistry will only be addressed occasionally. Regardless, with 10% of BBLS questions being rooted in general and organic chemistry, much of what we discuss here will apply to the in both sections.
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The array of chemistry knowledge on the MCAT can make designing a study program feel overwhelmingly complicated. Fortunately, there are some basic best practices that will allow you to organize your energy and time effectively.
The first step is always to take a full-length . There’s simply no way to have a concrete sense of your baseline knowledge until you’ve simulated the testing experience and actually forced yourself to think under pressure. This means taking your diagnostic with a strict time limit, and in conditions that mimic the actual testing environment—a quiet room, with only a copy of the periodic table and some blank paper to accompany you. The AAMC’s practice exams are best for this—while other prep companies and question banks offer an array of tests, the best option for your initial diagnostic is one that comes straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.
As you review your results, go very slowly through each incorrect answer and note which of the above categories it relates to. Patterns should emerge as you do this, as incorrect answers often rest within a topic such as:
From there you can begin outlining in earnest. We recommend no more than 6 months ahead of your ideal , as spreading things out beyond this window usually results in losing material you studied at the start before the big day.
Once you’ve committed to an , you can begin fine-tuning your study sessions to include MCAT chemistry questions, , and MCAT biology questions in varying amounts depending on your needs. Question banks like can be very helpful for this as well, allowing you to focus on specific subtopics and examine explanations and rationales following incorrect responses. And although we recommend against using them for an initial diagnostic test, the practice exams offered by companies like UWorld can indeed be helpful if you need to build or rebuild subject-specific muscles in biochemistry, organic chemistry, and so on. Nevertheless, we recommend using another of the AAMC’s practice MCAT exams at the midway point in your preparation period in order to provide an updated diagnostic baseline. As always, the more feedback you have the better, so consider a consultation with an or prep service to see if you might benefit from having additional expert feedback and guidance. It’s best to seek this help out before the midway point in your schedule, but if things seem especially difficult at the midway point, you’ll still have enough time to benefit from employing such additional help before your big day.
As your study schedule approaches final months of preparation, you’ll want to wind down lengthy review periods and work on more practice questions, elongating your sessions to begin approximating the grueling duration of . This can be difficult with regard to the other responsibilities you’ll have in relation to your undergraduate coursework, so try to minimize additional stress and schedule complexity as best you can during the final month or so of your plan. You don’t need to live like a monk to get a good , but you will need to temporarily forego or at least restrict your social engagements to maximize your studying.
Part of that confidence boost will come from having your hypotheses confirmed at least most of the time—that is, when you approach a discrete question, always take a moment to come up with a general hypothesis about the correct answer after carefully reading the question. This will help you excise answers that are absolutely incorrect faster, and give you more time to decide between the likely correct ones.
Are you wondering how long the MCAT is?
The AAMC structures the MCAT around 10 Foundational Concepts which are distributed among the 4 sections of the exam. The Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems section is designed around two of these foundational concepts. It’s important to note at the outset that these foundational concepts are defined in somewhat lengthy terms, so it’s crucial to both understand them as presented by the AAMC, and be able to paraphrase them in your own words. The MCAT is often referred to as being “a mile wide and an inch deep,” meaning that the breadth of topics and concepts is vast, but the depth into which any question will go is consistently limited. As indicated in the charts above, the vast majority of chemistry knowledge tested on the MCAT will come from introductory and general chemistry, as well as first-year organic and biochemistry. You don’t have to worry about advanced molecular spectroscopy, but you will need to know the basics of mass spectroscopy very well. For a full outline of the MCAT chemistry topics you’ll need to know, let’s dive—well, more like wade—into the shallow but wide pool of Foundational Concepts 4 and 5.
Foundational Concept 4
Physical principles govern the processes used by complex organisms—like the human body—to transport materials, sense and process environmental data and internal signals, and respond to changes. Because these intra-organism processes operate according to the laws of physics, they can be represented and quantified using equations and behavioral models. The AAMC definition gives the example that “the principles of electromagnetic radiation, and its interactions with matter, can be exploited to generate structural information about molecules or to generate images of the human body.” Therefore, atomic structures can similarly be used to predict or model the physical and chemical properties of atoms, which for this example would extend to calculating processes like ionization based on electromagnetic energy.
This may all feel like a real mouthful, but this kind of foundational connectivity between physics and chemistry is a key part of understanding the nature of the CPBS section. You will have a handful of discrete questions that demand simply calculating things like molar mass etc., but for passage-based problems you will need to understand the synergistic nature of physical and chemical laws in order to determine your approach to answering.
Medicine relies on this fundamental knowledge to shape diagnosis and treatment of often complex/systemic disease pathologies. Therefore, questions in this section will regularly utilize problems referring to the physiological functions of the neurological, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems in human health.
Foundational Concept 4 is further subdivided into 5 Content Categories:
Foundational Concept 5
FC5 is all about the way the micro affects the macro. Chemical principles at the atomic and subatomic level form the basis for the scientific understanding of “the molecular dynamics of living systems.” Moreover, this will demand understanding the role of chemical processes in shaping various frameworks including thermodynamics, intermolecular interactions, molecular dynamics and reactivity, and, of course, molecular structure. Using the categories elaborated below, the MCAT will ask students to utilize these core principles to answer questions relating to molecular and cellular functions in human health and disease.
The categories included in this foundational concept form the central pillar of chemistry knowledge tested on the MCAT, and makes up the majority of questions in the CPBS section. In reviewing these categories, make note of their presence in whatever study materials you have so far. Although much of it is general chemistry, and so should at least be familiar, some of the biochemistry-focused subcategories may require seeking out more specialized study materials to offset any gaps in your prior coursework.
Like Foundational Concept 4, FC5 is organized into 5 content categories.
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1. What kind of chemistry questions are on the MCAT?
The three general categories of chemistry knowledge tested on the MCAT are general chemistry, biochemistry, and organic chemistry. There’s a lot of specific subtopics within those general categories, but the vast majority of chemistry questions will pull from general and biochemistry, so making sure you have a firm grasp of the foundations in these subfields will be very important as you study.
2. What is a good MCAT score?
Our answer to this is always “the best score your can achieve.” If you have your heart set on a specific school with a specific MCAT cutoff, then that certainly gives you a more concrete number to aim for, but you shouldn’t focus your studying on that specific number, no matter how much you may want to attend that particular medical school. Remember, there are at all, so in the very worst case scenario of totally bombing the mcat in multiple retests, you can still get into a stellar MD program without the MCAT.
3. How do I get faster with passage-based questions?
Oddly enough, aspects of can be of great help in this regard, even with chemistry passages. Active reading for any passage-based question is crucial—you should be able to approach a passage with questions in mind such as “what is the topic of this passage?” as well as summarizing more unwieldy sentences for better comprehension. Similarly, reading challenging material throughout your test preparation will sharpen and quicken your analytical abilities, even on scientific passages. Basically, the better you are at reading and thinking while reading, the better you’ll do on all passage-based questions on test day.
4. Is it better to use difficult practice questions and tests?
Yes and no. There’s a place for really challenging practice questions and subject exams, but for diagnostic purposes, it’s always preferable to use practice exams that match the actual MCAT as closely as possible. You want as accurate a gauge of your abilities as possible at the outset and at the midway point, so attempting material that’s designed to exceed the difficulty of the actual exam will likely only result in discouragement. Certainly include intentionally difficult calculations and passages throughout your study sessions, but in moderation. You’re taking the MCAT, after all, not the USMLE Step-2.
5. How long is the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems section of the MCAT?
Like the 3 other science-based sections of the MCAT, the CPBS section is comprised of 59 questions, for which you’ll be given 95 minutes to complete. The vast majority of the questions in this section will be passage-based, so a fair bit of your time will be spent reading and analyzing text. Improving your reading skills and speed—without rushing!—is key to performing well on this section.
6. I haven’t had any coursework in organic chemistry. How can I study for this section?
In short, you’ll simply need more time. The good news is that the MCAT is “a mile wide and an inch deep,” so you can focus on developing a breadth of general or foundational knowledge without getting too granular about any one aspect of organic chemistry. Ideally, if you have time, take a summer course in whatever prerequisites you haven’t completed, but barring that you can always seek out the textbooks from these classes and very carefully work through them. In this case, though, reaching out to an MCAT tutor or prep service will likely be the most effective and time-efficient option since they will be able to tailor a study plan for your very specific needs.
7. How hard is the MCAT?
The simple truth is that if the wasn’t challenging there’d be a lot more schools with 525 MCAT cutoffs. It’s hard! Just because it’s only an inch deep doesn’t mean you can’t drown in it. But this is exactly why MCAT study plans recommend an ideal 6-month prep period, and this number isn’t arrived at arbitrarily. Students have been taking the MCAT for decades now, and the strategies and best practices that good study guides and services recommend will help you improve your score if followed faithfully. No one, even the AAMC, wants to see students fail. If you invest significant time and energy into a well thought-out plan, you’ll do well. Don’t let the MCAT’s marathon-like nature scare you: in the end, it’s just one question after another, and if you’ve prepared well you’ll be fine.
8. How many times can I retake the MCAT if I do poorly?
The first thing to consider is whether or not that initial “poor” score is really the wet blanket it seems like. Again, if you need a specific score for a specific school, and you refuse to consider another, then you may want to . Retesting is a serious and potentially disastrous decision though—unless you can guarantee a better score in a retest, it’s almost assuredly better to accept what you have and augment your plans to fit it. If you absolutely must retest though, you can retake the MCAT up to 3 times in a given testing year, 4 times in a 2-year period, and up to 7 times total in your lifetime.