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|
|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|
|Magnetism||Atomic and Nuclear Phenomena|
|Organic Chemistry subjects to study for the MCAT:|
|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.
Math on the MCAT can be challenging, especially if you’re not used to working without a calculator. For more information about what you need to know about MCAT math skills, 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:
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|
|44 passage-based questions|
|15 discrete (non-passage based) questions|
|Score||Between 118 and 132|
|Topics tested||General Chemistry: 30%|
|Organic Chemistry: 15%|
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.