What's tested on the MCAT: Chemistry and Physics

The Chemical and Physical Foundations of Living Systems section of the MCAT, often abbreviated as the Chem/Physics section, requires you to solve problems based on knowledge of chemistry, physics, and organic chemistry. The content on this section of the test also includes biochemistry and a small amount of biology. In addition, you’ll need to be familiar with basic math, which must be managed without a calculator.
However, you should keep in mind that the MCAT requires more than just an understanding of science content. The MCAT is primarily a test of critical thinking, and you are required to use four specific Scientific Inquiry and Reasoning Skills. Knowing how to use chemistry and physics information to interpret and solve more difficult problems is the key to a great MCAT score. However, without a strong knowledge of foundational content in the sciences, it is just as difficult to do well on the MCAT.

Chemistry and Physics Subjects on the MCAT

The undergraduate courses that are reflected in the Chem/Physics section of the MCAT include introductory General Chemistry (30%), introductory Physics (25%),  introductory Organic Chemistry (15%) and first-semester Biochemistry (25%). Introductory Biology (5%) is also included in this section of the test. A periodic table is available during the MCAT, but a calculator is not.
In order to study effectively for the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Living Systems section, you should thoroughly understanding these topics:

General Chemistry subjects to study for the MCAT:
Atomic Structure The Periodic Table Bonding and Chemical Interactions
Stoichiometry Chemical Kinetics Equilibrium
Thermochemistry The Gas Phase Solutions
Acids and Bases RedOx Reactions Electrochemistry
Physics subjects to study for the MCAT:
Units and Dimensional Analysis Kinematics Work and Energy
Fluids Waves and Sound Light and Optics
Thermodynamics Electrostatics Circuits
Magnetism Atomic and Nuclear Phenomena
Organic Chemistry subjects to study for the MCAT:
Nomenclature Isomers Bonding
Alcohols and Ethers Aldehydes and Ketones Carboxylic Acids and Derivatives
Nucleophiles and Electrophiles RedOx reactions Nitrogen-Containing Compounds
Phosphorus-Containing Compounds Spectroscopy Laboratory Techniques and Separations
Biochemistry subjects to study for the MCAT:
Amino Acids, Peptides and Proteins Enzymes Nonenzymatic proteins
Carbohydrate structure Carbohydrate metabolism Lipids and lipid metabolism
DNA and RNA Biological Membranes Regulation of metabolism

You’ll also need to be familiar with the material taught in introductory biology courses. To learn more, click here.

MCAT Chemistry: Critical Reasoning

The AAMC has defined the four critical thinking skills required on the MCAT as Scientific Reasoning and Inquiry Skills, or SIRS. These four skills are tested in all of the science sections of the MCAT (Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems, Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems, and Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior). These four skills are:
  • 1. Knowledge of Scientific Concepts and Principles

    This skills asks, “Do you remember the science content?”

  • 2. Scientific Reasoning and Problem-Solving

    This skill asks, “Can you apply science content to a novel situation? Can you combine multiple content areas at one time?”

  • 3. Reasoning about the Design and Execution of Research

    This skill asks, “Can you explain or extrapolate on the experimental methods, results, and conclusions of a research study?”

  • 4. Data-Based and Statistical Reasoning

    This skill asks, “Can you read, interpret, and extrapolate from graphs, tables and figures? Can you draw conclusions from these figures?”

You can learn more about these four Scientific Reasoning and Inquiry skills here.

MCAT Chemistry: Structure of the Section

The MCAT will present you with ten passages based on chemistry and physics subjects, and then present four to seven questions about each passage. The questions will address the four Scientific and Reasoning Skills listed, although different passages will focus on different skills. You will also be asked 15 discrete questions that are completely separate from the ten passages. These discrete questions test both your science knowledge and application of that knowledge based on these four skills, although they tend more toward Skill 1. You can find more details on what you need to know about the overall structure of the MCAT here.
The chem/physics section of the MCAT is scored 118-132 on a curved scale, with the median score of all test takers set to be 125. A given scaled score does not correspond to any specific number of right or wrong questions. Instead, each test administration is curved according the performance of the test-takers on that day and the relative level of difficulty of that version of the test. The score for this section of the test is combined with the other three sections to provide your overall score which ranges from 472 to 528.
You should also be prepared by knowing the test day schedule. The chem/physics section of the MCAT is the first section, and is followed by an optional a ten-minute break.

Chemical and Physical Foundations of Living Systems section
Length 95 minutes
Format 59 questions
10 passages
44 passage-based questions
15 discrete (non-passage based) questions
Score Between 118 and 132
Topics tested General Chemistry: 30%
Physics: 25%
Organic Chemistry: 15%
Biochemistry: 25%
Biology: 5%

MCAT Chemistry and Physics: What the AAMC says

The AAMC provides specific descriptions of the topics covered within the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Living Systems section of the MCAT. These topics are subdivided into Foundational Concepts 4 and 5, each of which has several sub-categories.
To learn about Foundational Topics 1-3, covered in the Bio/Biochem section of the test, click here, and Foundational Topics 6-10, covered in the Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior Section, click here.
You can also visit the AAMC site to learn more about the MCAT Blueprint.
The Foundational Topics for the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Living Systems are:
4) Physical processes that allow complex organisms to transport materials, sense their environment, process signals, and respond to changes. This is further subdivided into five categories:

4A. Translational motion, forces, work, energy, and equilibrium in living systems

4B. Importance of fluids for the circulation of blood, gas movement, and gas exchange

4C. Electrochemistry and electrical circuits and their elements

4D. How light and sound interact with matter

4E. Atoms, nuclear decay, electronic structure, and atomic chemical behavior

5) Principles that govern chemical interactions and reactions which form the basis for a broader understanding of the molecular dynamics of living systems.  This is further subdivided into five categories:

5A. Unique nature of water and its solutions

5B. Nature of molecules and intermolecular interactions

5C. Separation and purification methods

5D. Structure, function, and reactivity of biologically-relevant molecules

5E. Principles of chemical thermodynamics and kinetics

The most important factor you should consider about the bio/biochem section of the MCAT is how well prepared you are for both the content and the critical reasoning required. To learn more about how to prepare for the test, click here.

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