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MCAT Biology: 5 Must Know Biology Concepts & How to Study

The MCAT is designed to test a candidate’s fitness for medical school. As such, much of the science material is geared towards living systems, biology, and the human body. The Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems is the most biology-heavy section, with 59 questions devoted to cellular biology, molecular biology, physiology, biochemistry, and organic chemistry. Here, we describe 5 must know biology concepts for the MCAT, and will discuss how to effectively study for MCAT Biology.

Must Know MCAT Biology Concepts

What is tested in MCAT biology?

The AAMC releases information on the approximate breakdown of content for the MCAT.  For the Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems section, roughly 65% will be introductory biology, and 25% will be first-semester biochemistry. This breakdown corresponds well with the course requirements for medical school admission. The remainder in this section contains 5% general chemistry and 5% organic chemistry. The way they test these topics will be broken up into different “skills” that vary from basic understanding of formulas, to problem-solving, to applications in research, to data and statistical analysis.

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In addition to the Biological and Biochemical section, biology will also be assessed in the Chemical and Physical Foundations section and the Psychological Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior section. In Chem/Phys, the test will ask about how chemical and physical factors interact with biology. In Psych/Social, the test will look at how biological factors can impact behavior. Neither of these sections is focused on biology, but it absolutely comes up!

5 Must Know Biology Concepts

The most tested subject on the MCAT is biology. That’s no surprise, as medicine involves more biology than any other scientific discipline. Five concepts are certainly not enough to tackle all the biology questions on the MCAT. So here, we’ve provided instead five broad areas of focus for MCAT biology.

  1. Cell Biology. Biology is the study of living organisms and all living organisms are made of cells. For the MCAT, you need to be familiar with organelles, cellular transport, cell division, and cell signaling.
  2. Microbiology. Humans consist of eukaryotic cells that interact with a variety of microorganisms, including bacteria and viruses. These two can be pathogenic and are the source of many illnesses. You will need to know about the structure of these microorganisms, how they replicate, and how they can cause disease.
  3. Genetics. Genetics is a topic that many students are introduced to at an early age. You may have heard about DNA as early as elementary or middle school. As you continued onto high school and then college, you delved deeper into the material, learning more advanced genetics concepts. The good news is that you do not need to know genetics to the same depth as a college genetics class. However, there is still quite a number of genetics concepts on the MCAT, which is why we’ve written a whole entire post on what you need to know about genetics for the MCAT.
  4. Physiology. Human physiology is the study of the organ systems within the body and is more relevant to medicine than any other topic on the exam. It’s a lot of material but developing a good foundation of the basics will help you in medical school. For the MCAT, you will need to know all the organ systems, including the nervous, endocrine, circulatory, hematologic, respiratory, lymphatic, immune, renal, gastrointestinal, muscular, skeletal, integumentary, and reproductive systems.
  5. Hormones. From studying physiology, you will learn about the important role of hormones in regulating all the organ systems. It takes a lot of effort to memorize all of the hormones but you will have to do it for the MCAT. As another major topic on the MCAT, we also have a dedicated post on what to know for MCAT hormones.

Additional MCAT Biology Topics

The five topics that we’ve described above are not all guaranteed to show up on your exam. They are must-know biology concepts because they have appeared the most frequently over many administrations of the exam. On average, students do see these concepts more often than the others. However, your test may not be like the average exam. You might get unlucky and end up with questions on less common topics. To best prepare yourself for the exam, you will want to make sure to review all of the topics described in the AAMC Content Outlines. This document contains a list of all the concepts that can be tested on the MCAT. If you are in a time crunch though, those 5 must-know biology topics above should definitely be your priority!

How to Study MCAT Biology

Now that you understand what topics should be your main priority, here are some principles of studying for the MCAT that apply to all sections. One is to start early and come up with a study plan. The earlier you start, the more time you will have to identify weaknesses and improve on them. Another is to study hard in the prerequisite classes for medical school—in this case, cellular and molecular biology and biochemistry. No MCAT prep course or tutor will go into as much depth as a college level course in these subjects. Review courses and prep courses are meant as review for concepts you have already learned. The better you do in your basic science courses and the better you learn the topics taught in them, the better you will do in both your MCAT and your medical school application.

Beyond that, it’s important to think about how the MCAT assesses biology compared to other parts of the test. In general, the biology questions on the MCAT emphasize memorization of different functions and facts. You’ll want to make sure that you’ve got a solid understanding of biological systems and foundations for the MCAT.

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MCAT Biology Resources

Some specific resources to use when studying include the AAMC Content Outlines. The AAMC, who designs the MCAT questions, use this outline when creating tests. This can serve as a road map for topics that you need to know. AAMC also releases two sets of questions specific to biology content. They are $15 each, but worth the investment to expose yourself to true MCAT chemistry question types. It won’t be enough for thorough MCAT studying, but should be supplemented with other types of question banks. Magoosh’s MCAT prep can also help you achieve your MCAT goals. Finally, a full-length MCAT from the AAMC will not only help you get a good feel for the MCAT chemistry topics, but also what a simulated exam feels like. This costs $35, but is again worth the investment. AAMC practice exams were perhaps the single best practice and predictor for me when I took the MCAT.

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2 Responses to MCAT Biology: 5 Must Know Biology Concepts & How to Study

  1. Mai August 15, 2016 at 9:33 am #

    Hey there! Oh my! Someone who did history too! I have a degree in History but somehow came across MCAT and I’m thinking of giving it a shot. What say you to this? My last biology, chemistry and physics lessons took place in fall 2006 :/

  2. Burton
    Burton August 27, 2016 at 9:52 am #

    Hi Mai!

    I think the best thing to determine this would be to spend some time shadowing some doctors. I love the ties to medicine and history: for every patient, you take a medical HISTORY and learn about their past and how it influences their present and future. Spend some time with physicians and see if you love it. If you do, then absolutely give the MCAT a shot!


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