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What is on the MCAT?
Sections & Topics Guide

William Cohen
Published by William Cohen
Last Updated On: November 19, 2021

If you’re a medical student or looking to enroll in medical school, there’s a high probability you know all about the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Most US and Canadian medical schools require students to take this multiple-choice, standardized test.

If you have an MCAT exam in the future, you’ll need to know exactly what you’re facing. With 4 separate categories and 230 questions to cover, having a good idea about its contents will help prepare you for this exam.

We have searched far and wide to bring you everything you need to know about the MCAT, from an in-depth look into each section, to a few frequently asked questions.

MCAT Breakdown Summary

  • The MCAT is a multiple choice exam that’s made up of four sections.
  • It tests your basic medical knowledge and other skills as well.
  • The MCAT is over 7 hours long, and it has 230 questions.
  • You can score between 472 to 528 on the MCAT, and the results are scaled.

MCAT: an Overview

Student erasing his answers on the answer sheet

The Medical College Admission Test, also known as the MCAT, is a multiple-choice exam.

The MCAT exam is designed to not only test your basic knowledge but critical analysis, writing, and problem-solving skills as well.

This standardized exam is required for most medical schools in the USA and Canada.

Your MCAT score, as well as supporting materials and academic record, will be analyzed by the medical school admissions.

The way medical schools use your MCAT scores can vary.

Some schools may take an average MCAT score, whereas others may look at the 4 separate categories and decide from there.

If you’re unsure of your school’s specific admissions process, it would be a good idea to contact them directly.

In America and Canada, over 80,000 applicants annually submit their MCAT scores to their chosen medical school [1].

This means that a good MCAT score, along with recommendations and supporting materials, will greatly help your application to American medical colleges.

Read More: What Is The MCAT Exam?

What Gets Tested on the MCAT?

Top view of person shading answer sheet

The MCAT is approximately 7 - 8 hours long, with 230 questions over four sections.

This time includes a short tutorial given before the exam begins as well as two 10-minute breaks and one 30-minute break.

All questions are multiple-choice - some passage-based, and others direct questions. The MCAT exam is designed to test sociology, chemistry, psychology, physics, and biology [2].

The last section will test your reasoning skills and critical thinking, which doesn’t require any previous knowledge.

It is simply there to test your ability to comprehend and analyze the text given to you.

Therefore, the MCAT is much more than just an understanding of textbook information.

Related Article: What’s the Best MCAT Prep Book of All Time?

4 MCAT Sections

4 divided sections of answer sheet

The MCAT exam contains subjects that overlap. It means that not all subjects are tested individually but will be integrated into sections - just like you would encounter when in medical school.

In April 2015, an updated version of the MCAT was released with updated MCAT scoring. This is comprised of four sections:

  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior

Test takers can score 118 - 132 within each of the four sections of the MCAT. The average of each of these categories is 125. For the entire exam, there are 472 - 528 points up for grabs.

1. Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems

The Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems section (Chem/Phys) comes first on the MCAT exam.

This section combines your knowledge of biological sciences with basic physical sciences and basic chemical principles. This includes living systems as well as mechanisms operating in the human body.

The ratio of academic disciplines tested on the Chem/Phys section includes general chemistry (30%), introductory physics (25%), biochemistry (25%), introductory chemistry (15%), introductory biology (5%).

You will not be provided with a calculator during the MCAT, so it is important to do MCAT preparation and practice tests without the use of a calculator.

You will, however, be given a periodic table during the actual exam.

This portion of the test is made up of 59 questions, 44 of these being passage-related and the other 15 being standalone. The Chem/Phys section should take around 95 minutes, and you can score a total of 118 - 132.

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2. Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)

A woman thinking while holding a notebook

Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) is known as being one of the most difficult sections on the MCAT. Unlike the other 3 sections on the exam, the MCAT CARS section requires no prior knowledge.

All the information you will need for this section of the exam will be included within the passage presented to you.

If you’re having trouble picturing the CARS section of the test, you can take a look at a practice test to get a better idea.

Throughout the CARS section, you will be tested on your critical thinking skills, how you analyze arguments, as well as reading and comprehension skills.

This will also include ethics, philosophy, population health, humanities, cultural studies, social sciences, and humanities.

There are 53 passage-related questions on the CARS portion of the MCAT test. This section will take you 90 minutes.

The CARS MCAT section takes a lot of time and patience, so it’s a good idea to take some full-length practice exams to best prepare you.

3. Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems

The Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (Bio/Biochem) is the third MCAT section.

This section will test you on the basic process of life: reproducing, growing, energy, etc. It will also test your organic chemistry knowledge, such as organ systems and cells.

The ratio of academic disciplines tested on the Bio/Biochem section includes biology (65%), biochemistry (25%), organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry (10%), and basic research and statistical skills.

This MCAT section is made up of 59 questions, 44 of these being passage-related and the other 15 being standalone. The Bio/Biochem section should take around 95 minutes, and you can score a total of 118 - 132.

4. Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior

Woman holding her head with both hands

Last but not least, the Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (Psych/Soc).

This MCAT section is put in place to test your knowledge of sociology and psychology in relation to biological sciences.

It is the newest addition to the MCAT sections, introduced due to the growing importance of medical education.

Your selected medical school may not require the Psych/Soc to be a part of your coursework. However, it is a requirement for the MCAT.

Test takers will be assessed on their ability to implement statistical principles and research concerning socio-cultural and behavioral health outcomes.

The ratio of academic disciplines tested on the Psych/Soc section includes introductory psychology (60%), sociology (30%), biology (10%) as well as basic research methods and statistics.

This MCAT section is made up of 59 questions, 44 of these being passage-related and the other 15 being standalone. The Psych/Soc section should take around 95 minutes, and you can score a total of 118 - 132.

Related Article: Achievement Motivation Guide (MCAT Psychology)

How Long Does the MCAT Take?

Answer sheet with alarm clock, student answering his paper

When test day arrives, you will find the actual MCAT process will take around 7.5 hours, including optional breaks and introductory tutorials. This doesn't include the entire time you will spend at the MCAT program office or testing center.

Your test day schedule will look something like this:

MCAT Subjects Time
MCAT Test Day Certification 8 mins
Optional Tutorial 10 mins
Chemical And Physical Section 95 mins (1.5 hrs)
Optional Break 10 mins
Critical Reasoning Skills 90 mins (1.5hrs)
Option Break 30 mins
Biological and Biochem Section 95 mins (1.5 hrs)
Optional Break 10 mins
Psychological And Biological Section 95 mins (1.5 hrs)
Void Question 5 mins
Optional Survey 5 mins
Total MCAT Test Time 6 hrs, 15 mins
Total Seated Time Around 7 hrs, 30 mins

How Much Does the MCAT Cost?

The flat cost for MCAT registration is $310 during the regular registration window. However, if you decide to reschedule your MCAT test date or you register late, you will be charged an extra fee. Therefore, it is important you choose MCAT test dates you can adhere to.

Keep in mind that you will also have to pay for MCAT prep and full-length practice tests. These are optional expenses, but to achieve a good MCAT score, you will need to put just as much time and effort into test prep and practice questions.

When Can I Take the MCAT?

You can register for the MCAT between January and September. During these months, there are 25 available dates to sign up to. MCAT scoring is typically released a month after taking the exam.

Register for your MCAT early so you can have the first choice of date, time, and location. Ensure you’ve crammed in a lot of MCAT prep beforehand and give yourself enough time to study.

Recommended Article: When Should I Take the MCAT ?

What is a Good MCAT Score?

A student writing answers on his written examination

It’s always a good idea to have a score goal in mind before your MCAT preparation. What is a good score usually depends on the school you are applying for and their specific requirements.

Each of the MCAT subjects is scored from 118 - 132, with an average of 125 per MCAT section. This means you can score 472 - 528 on full-length exams, with an average of 500.

“How you score on the MCAT exam is not reflective of the particular form you took or the group of examinees you tested with since any difference in difficulty level is accounted for when calculating your scaled scores.” - AAMC

Why is the MCAT scored that way? Well, according to the AAMC, it is to highlight how important central score distribution is.

If you want to know the average MCAT score to compare to your own, check out this table:

Percent Average MCAT Score
Top 10% 514 - 528
Top 25% 508 - 513
Top 50% 500 - 507
Below 50% 499 and under

Is the MCAT Exam Hard?

The MCAT can be a difficult exam to face, especially if you don’t come prepared. With 230 MCAT questions, you’ll be sat down for a good 6 and a half hours, covering 4 intensive sections.

However, if you are dead set on studying in a medical college, this is something you will have to face.

The best advice we can give you is to study - go over practice passages, read old MCAT questions, cover all subjects (social sciences, population health, general chemistry, physical principles, organic chemistry, and more).


References:

  1. https://www.mcat-prep.com/what-is-the-mcat/
  2. https://students-residents.aamc.org/prepare-mcat-exam/whats-mcat-exam

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