The MCAT is probably the most challenging test that you will have taken up to this point in your education. The MCAT is designed to find test takers that have certain unique skills that are directly correlated with success in medical education. The MCAT is not meant to be a barrier to entry to the field of medicine; rather, it is meant to identify those who will succeed and even thrive in the challenging environment of medical school and medical practice.
Because of this, the MCAT will ask you to demonstrate unique skills in a test format that is demanding, difficult, and completely learnable. You are required to use critical analysis and reasoning skills in all parts of the MCAT; in fact, one section of the test is actually named “Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills,” more commonly known as CARS. However, you’ll need to use those skills in all parts of the test, including the science sections. If you’d like more information specifically about the CARS section of the test, click here.
The Format of the MCAT
On test day, the MCAT will present a physically, mentally and emotionally challenging schedule that lasts almost seven and a half hours. You will want to know what to expect, and have a plan to help you make it through a long and demanding day.
|Section||Number of Questions||Time Allowed||Subjects Tested||Score Range|
|Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems||59 total10 passages44 passage based questions
15 discrete questions
|95 minutes||Biochemistry (25%)Biology (5%)General Chemistry (30%)
Organic Chemistry (15%)
|Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)||53 total9 passages||90 minutes||Foundations of Comprehension(30%)Reasoning Within the Text (30%)Reasoning Beyond the Text (40%)||118-132|
|Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems||59 total10 passages44 passage based questions15 discrete questions||95 minutes||Biochemistry (25%)Biology (65%)General Chemistry (5%)
Organic Chemistry (5%)
|Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior||59 total10 passages44 passage based questions
15 discrete questions
|95 minutes||Biology (5%)Psychology (65%)Sociology (30%)||118-132|
|4 sections total||375 minutes testing time,453 minutes seated time with breaks||472-528|
For more information on the test day environment itself, click here. To learn more about scoring on the MCAT, click here.
Science and the MCAT
The MCAT is not a science test. Instead, you should think of it as a critical reasoning test that involves scientific knowledge. The AAMC has identified four specific Scientific Inquiry and Reasoning Skills (SIRS) that are necessary to do well on the MCAT.
1) Knowledge of Scientific Concepts and Principles (35%)
2) Scientific Reasoning and Problem Solving (45%)
3) Reasoning About the Design and Execution of Research (10%)
4) Data-Based and Statistical Reasoning (10%)
Although knowledge of science is necessary to do well on the MCAT, science content alone will not generate a competitive score on the test. Instead, you are expected to use the information from introductory college-level science classes, and to go beyond the basic facts to draw inferences and come to conclusions.
That means that most of the information on the test may be on familiar subjects, but will be presented in novel ways. In most cases, you’ll be presented with a short passage on a science subject that you may or may not know much about. However, the combination of your science knowledge and your critical reasoning skills will allow you to address the questions related to the passage.
MCAT Skill One: Knowledge of Scientific Concepts and Principles
This skill is closest to what is considered “science content” on the MCAT. You need to be familiar with scientific theories, formulas, relationships and calculations to handle these types of MCAT questions. These make up the majority of “discrete” questions: the 15 problems in each science section that are not associated with a passage. They are also found within passage-based questions. However, since these make up only 35% of all science-based questions, this level of knowledge won’t be enough to secure a competitive score on the MCAT.
Click on any of these topics to learn more specifics about the science content that you need to know for the MCAT: Biology, Biochemistry, General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Physics, Psychology, and Sociology.
MCAT Skill Two: Scientific Reasoning and Problem Solving
Skill Two questions are all about your critical thinking skills. These questions combine your science knowledge with deeper inquiry into the basis of scientific principles and theories. You might be asked for an extrapolation of theory, observations and evidence to draw conclusions, to evaluate arguments about causes and consequences, or to recognize scientific findings that confirm or challenge a scientific hypothesis. These questions can require integration of multiple facts from a passage, combination of multiple science content areas, or predictions of the results and conclusions from an experiment. Skill Two questions may require you to have science knowledge, but memorization of facts and formulas will not be sufficient to handle these types of problems. Since these make up 45% of questions in the science sections on the test, they become the differentiators in getting a truly competitive score on the MCAT.
MCAT Skill Three: Reasoning About the Design and Execution of Research
The MCAT is interested in your ability to appraise and analyze research, as this is an important day-to-day task for a physician. Skill Three questions ask you to identify viable hypotheses, well-designed experiments, and reasonable conclusions for a given experiment; you may also be asked to identify when and why an experiment is poorly designed or a conclusion is not supported. You might be asked to identify how standard theories or past findings relate to the observations in an experiment, and to define the implications of results for real-world applications.
MCAT Skill Four: Data-Based and Statistical Reasoning
Finally, the MCAT will test your ability to analyze the visual and numerical results of experiments and studies. You’ll be asked to analyze and interpret data in graphs, tables and figures and use data to explain relationships between variables and draw conclusions. You are expected to be familiar with basic statistics such as mean, median, mode, standard deviation and inter-quartile range, and to understand sources of error, levels of significance, and measures of uncertainty. These skills are based on a physician’s need to make legitimate conclusions and sound judgements about the data presented to them.