The MCAT: Part I – Exam Basics & Preparation Strategies

Updated: January 1, 2021

The first step in the medical school application process is the Medical College Admission Test, better known as the MCAT. Virtually all U.S. and Canadian medical schools require the test for admission, and it can be used for admission at many other types of health professions programs as well. This three-part BeMo blog series will help you succeed before, during, and after the exam.

Understanding the Exam

The MCAT is designed to test your knowledge of four basic subject areas critical to the practice of medicine: Chemistry and Physics (59 questions, 95 minutes), Biology and Biochemistry (59 questions, 95 minutes), Psychology and Sociology (59 questions, 95 minutes), and Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (53 questions, 90 minutes). The Psychology and Sociology section was added to the exam in 2015, and the previous writing portion of the test was discontinued. The questions are asked in multiple-choice format, and there is no penalty for guessing. Each section is scored from 118-132 points, and the scores are combined to reach a total ranging from 472-528 points. To account for slight differences in test difficulty, exams are scaled to an average score of 500. The entire test length is 6 hours and 15 minutes; with breaks between blocks, you should expect to be testing for approximately 7 hours and 30 minutes. This may seem like a long time, but with proper preparation, you will be able to sit for the test with confidence.

Most students take the exam during their junior or senior years of college, and the exam score is generally considered valid for three years after the test date (though some medical schools will accept scores older than this). It is best to wait until you have taken introductory biology, organic chemistry, general chemistry, biochemistry, physics, psychology, and sociology courses before registering to take the exam.

All students preparing to take the exam must download and read the official MCAT Essentials guide from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) – on test day, you will be asked to certify that you understand everything contained within the guide.

How to Study

You have hopefully had exposure to all of the subjects covered on the exam in your college and university courses, but it is still necessary to study specifically for the test. There are two major study strategies: First, you can enroll in a dedicated MCAT preparation course. Generally, these are lecture-based courses taught in a small classroom setting by an instructor who recently performed very well on the test. Many courses also offer practice exams, online components, or individualized lesson plans. Consider this strategy if you prefer learning through lectures in a group setting, or if you feel you need a full review of the major subject areas (however, it is not a substitute for taking the relevant university classes). The clear drawback to this strategy is cost: comprehensive courses start around $2000, and personalized intensive courses can easily reach over $6000. However, if you are willing to invest the money in yourself, a prep course is a great way to ensure that you are getting a thorough review of every topic covered on the MCAT.

The second main preparation strategy is self-directed study. Using this approach, you are in charge of your own learning, but you will still need to obtain test preparation materials, which may include review books, subject-specific books, flash cards, and practice questions. The seemingly endless offering of test preparation materials at the bookstore can be overwhelming, but rest assured that you can prepare thoroughly for the MCAT with a single comprehensive review book. Note that the exam content and format went through major changes in 2015, so it is important to make sure your review book is up-to-date. Once you have your materials, draw up a study schedule that allows a few extra days to review difficult topics, making sure your schedule ends at least a day or two before the exam (on these days, it is important to rest and relax: we’ll talk about this more in Part II). The benefits to designing your own MCAT review are many. You can spend more time focusing on areas of weakness, and speed through subjects you already know well, which allows for more efficient and effective test preparation. You can study anywhere and at any time, modifying your schedule as life events change. However, this strategy is not for everyone: it is best for those who are self-motivated, organized, and disciplined.

If you’re having trouble with just a few key topics (or don’t have the cash for a full MCAT prep course!), you can use a private tutor or partial course to supplement your self-study. Consider hiring a professional tutor (which will usually run somewhere around $100-200 per hour) for just a few sessions to get individualized help grasping some of the concepts you find challenging. Asking for help from a friend who has performed well on the test can also be a less expensive alternative to a professional tutor. If your practice exam scores in one subject area are consistently lower than the rest, you can sometimes purchase an MCAT review course in just one major subject area, which can save considerable money.

Finally, whether you take a preparation course or study on your own, we cannot overemphasize the importance of taking full-length practice tests. These tests are offered online through the AAMC using similar software to the actual exam. The MCAT is likely the longest exam you will have taken to this point, and no matter how much you have studied, it is easy to become fatigued a few hours into the test. Runners train for marathons by running progressively longer distances; in the same way, you must build up your mental endurance by training your brain to focus for a long testing session. The optimal number of practice exams is up for debate, but we recommend at least two: one early in your course of study, to establish a starting score and help understand your strengths and weaknesses, and one later on to assess your progress and to build your testing endurance. (But ideally you must do as many practice tests as necessary until you consistently score high in each category, in fact you should cancel your scheduled test if you are not scoring high in practice test on a consistent basis) During your practice exams, make sure you simulate the test environment: take the test in a quiet room where you will be free from interruptions. Allow yourself short breaks between blocks, but no longer than 10 minutes, the amount allotted during the actual test. Do not allow yourself to eat, drink, or leave the room during the question blocks, as you will not be allowed to do so on test day. Some testing centers offer simulated exams so that you can practice getting to the test center, navigating the computer systems, and taking the test in a realistic environment. Call your local testing center to see if this is an option for you.

The MCAT is a major source of stress for many medical school applicants, but having a good understanding of the exam format, forming a comprehensive review plan, and taking practice exams in a simulated testing environment will help you approach the test with confidence. Strategies for success do not end at test preparation; our next post The MCAT: Part II will provide proven test-day strategies to help you do your best.

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About the author:

Dr. Kathleen Montgomery is currently a medical resident at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, pursuing specialty training in the areas of anatomic and clinical pathology. Her ultimate career aspiration is improve the lives of both patients and medical professionals as a physician educator.

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