What is the MCAT? All About the MCAT

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The MCAT (an acronym for Medical College Admissions Test) is a 7.5-hour exam that tests your knowledge of scientific concepts (and reasoning skills) in a variety of areas:

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

Read on to get your questions answered about what is the MCAT, what’s on the MCAT, and more!


Table of Contents


What is the MCAT and why does it matter?

The main purpose of the MCAT is to test your understanding of scientific content and critical thinking. In other words, it’s to test your readiness for medical education (and not, as some test-takers might think, to make pre-medical students miserable!).

Role in Admissions

According to the president of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the MCAT serves to “[help] medical schools identify not only the students who are the most academically prepared to become physicians, but also those who have the potential to become the best doctors.” In short, the MCAT is used by medical school admissions in the United States and Canada to evaluate medical school applicants to see if you’re ready for the study of medicine.

More specifically, the MCAT is one way that schools attempt to level the playing field for applicants. Pre-medical students attend colleges and universities from all the states in the country. In addition, some medical students are international and come from other counties. There has to be a fair way for medical school admission committees to evaluate the academic potential of students from all backgrounds.

It’s tough to compare students using only GPAs. Pre-medical students often take different classes because they have different majors. Even if they take the same class, there is variation in the difficulty and grade distribution of the courses between different universities. Furthermore, sometimes the rigor of the courses may differ within an academic institution if different professors teach the same class.

The MCAT resolves this issue as a standardized exam. All pre-medical students have to take the MCAT and the AAMC puts in a considerable amount of effort to make the test fair for all test takers.

The Caveat

But is the MCAT a perfect tool? No! This is why the medical school application process requires more than just the MCAT. The test is just one part of med school admissions in the US and Canada. Other factors definitely affect your admission, too!

Medical schools look at each applicant holistically, reviewing not just the numbers but also the personal statement, description of activities and awards, letters of recommendation, and any additional essays required by the school. Students are evaluated based on their reasons for pursuing medicine as well as the quality and depth of their clinical, volunteer, research, and other extracurricular experiences.

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About the MCAT

What’s on the MCAT?

You’ll see four sections on the exam, in this order:

  1. Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  2. Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
  3. Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  4. Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior

Looking at these a little bit closer, you can expect to see the following topics in each section. Note that this is just a general list; you can find more detailed info in our MCAT Topics post!

  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems tests general chemistry, biochemistry, physics, organic chemistry, and biology.
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) tests verbal reasoning and critical analysis, as the name implies. You can think of this as an amped-up version of SAT Reading.
  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems tests biology, biochemistry, general chemistry, and organic chemistry.
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior tests psychology, sociology, and a little bit of bio.

To get a more complete sense of what each section tests, including how many semesters you need of courses like introductory biology, introductory physics, introductory psychology, introductory sociology, biochem, phys, and other areas, check out the Complete List of MCAT Topics PDF. This will give you a good understanding of the grounding you need in both the physical sciences and the biological sciences, as well as other areas, to succeed on the exam.

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What is the hardest section on the MCAT?

So what’s the hardest section on the MCAT? It depends almost entirely on your background. If you struggle with biology or biochemistry, you’re likely to find Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems tough. Struggle with chem? The Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems section is likely to be toughest. On the other hand, if social science concepts and psych are your Achilles’ heel, Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior may be more challenging.

With that said, MCAT test-takers do tend to struggle with CARS slightly more often than with other subjects. This is partly because the section is unique to the MCAT and tests different kinds of materials (namely, verbal reasoning) in ways the rest of the test doesn’t. The critical thinking and problem solving required here can be tricky the first time you encounter it. However, solid and regular practice can help you master it!

To learn more about what makes the MCAT challenging, check out our post on How Hard is the MCAT?

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How are MCAT sections scored?

In terms of MCAT scoring, you’ll get four section scores and an overall (composite) score.

The MCAT score range for each section is from 118 to 132. So if you’re wondering “what is the MCAT scored out of,” the short answer is 528. The average MCAT score overall is 500.

(Note: If you’re comparing scores with friends who took the test prior to 2015, know that the scoring changed that year—the “new MCAT exam,” which is no longer so new, uses the 528-point scale!)

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How much time do I have for each section (and overall)?

The sections aren’t quite evenly split when it comes to MCAT timing. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems: 59 questions in 95 minutes
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills: 53 questions in 90 minutes
  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems: 59 questions in 95 minutes
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior: 59 questions in 95 minutes

This isn’t quite as complicated as it seems, however. You have the same number of questions (59) in all of the science-based sections and the same amount of time in which to answer them (95 minutes). On the other hand, CARS asks you fewer questions (53) in less time (90 minutes).

On test day, however, you’ll also have breaks, surveys, and instructions to get through, so expect your total MCAT time at the test center to be around 7.5 hours overall.

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What else do I need to know about the MCAT?

Keep a couple of things in mind as you prepare for the MCAT exam. First of all, it’s only offered from January to September of any single testing year. As soon as you pick your MCAT test date, it’s a good idea to get your MCAT registration taken care of right away! If you register early, that’s one less task on your plate.

Secondly, the MCAT can be prohibitively expensive for some test-takers. If you’re worried about costs associated with taking the test, check out the AAMC fee assistance program for resources, including financial assistance.

Finally, keep in mind that you’ll need top-notch resources to help you prepare for the test. Magoosh offers free MCAT study schedules to help you prep, no matter how much (or little) time you have left. You can also check out our free flashcards for MCAT prep on the go, as well as a list of MCAT practice tests you can use for full-length exam practice. Full-length practice tests are a key component of mastering the exam experience before test day!

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A Final Word on the MCAT

When it comes to getting into the med school of your dreams, the MCAT will definitely help (particularly if you have a lower-than-average GPA)—but it is also not everything! Get your test prep in, do the best you can, and then focus on polishing your application materials. You’ve got this!

Get a free MCAT practice test!

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