Guide to the MCAT
As part of the medical school admissions process students need to take the MCAT, which is a seven-and-a-half-hour exam (including breaks) with four sections. The MCAT is an intensive exam and students need to understand the content and formatting in order to prepare.
MCAT Content and Format
The MCAT has four sections:
- 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
Students have 95 minutes to complete each section, with the exception of the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section, which is 90 minutes long. Each section is scored on a scale of 118-132 and the section scores are added up to reflect a total score. The MCAT is computer-based and offered 25 times between January-September at designated testing centers. For a list of test dates and to find a testing center near you, visit the MCAT website here.
The exam is focused in that it tests specific, advanced knowledge about a subject, and it is broad, in that test takers must understand a wide range of material from seemingly disparate subjects. If anything, it’s more like a cumulative exam testing multiple years of college classes. That makes the test quite daunting, and I can tell you first-hand that the MCAT is a formidable step for any premedical student to overcome.
The interdisciplinary nature of the MCAT is one of its best attributes. Students taking the MCAT need to know that advanced knowledge of biology, social systems, statistics, analysis of experimental results, and pharmacology are all critical to medical education. An in-depth education in these areas isn’t just practical for obtaining the highest MCAT score, but is a long-term investment in developing as a future physician. The new MCAT takes that into consideration, and it asks premedical students to consider that medicine is a multidisciplinary, holistic field extending beyond simple pathophysiology. Medicine is more about understanding what sociological, cultural, and biological mechanisms of disease, treatment, and prevention, and it took decades for the MCAT to finally reflect what physicians had known for generations.
MCAT Prep Tips
Preparing for the MCAT is completely different than prepping for a college science test. For one thing, the MCAT is an entire-day exam. Students often prepare for months, taking multiple practice exams, reviewing material both old and new, using question banks to buff up their knowledge and speed in answering questions, and sitting in prep classes, all with the aim of getting the highest score.
Excelling in this interdisciplinary exam is not easy. If anything, the test has become more challenging because it asks students to exhibit knowledge in more areas. But students can take critical steps to optimize their performance on the exam.
First, choose your classes correctly. Work with your school’s premedical advising office and speak with upperclassmen to understand which courses are better than others in preparing premedical students.
Start early with practice problems using online question banks. These can be particularly effective if you tie in the questions with the material you are learning in your classes, so it won’t feel like you’re just preparing for the MCAT, but also mastering the college classes, as well.
One major issue I see is that STEM-focused students brush off or deprioritize the humanities and social science parts of the MCAT, often to their own detriment. When they get their MCAT scores back, the score distribution is lopsided as a result. Medical schools can see this lopsidedness in a heartbeat! Taking strong, challenging social science and writing classes and preparing ahead of time for these aspects of the MCAT can help buff up those sub scores, and in the process, help convince admissions committees that a biology or chemistry major is multifaceted and not one-dimensional, capable of understanding the psychosocial complexities of the patients they treat.
I’d also avoid the “gunner” mentality of some premedical students who are focused so much on their MCAT score, their grades, and oftentimes the scores and GPAs of their classmates. Keeping yourself as stress-free as possible will pay dividends in the end. It’s incredibly difficult balancing classes, research, after-class activities and leadership experiences, AND preparing for the MCAT, so try to take time to destress, relax, meditate, and sleep. In my opinion, that’s just as important as mastering the obscure aspects of organic chemistry that you’ll be tested on.
What’s a “Good” MCAT Score?
In many ways, the MCAT score can guide an applicant in putting together the list of medical schools to consider. Though one single metric isn’t going to make or break an applicant, the MCAT (along with GPA and completion of premedical requirements) has been identified as an academic metric with the highest importance rating in the American Association of Medical Colleges’ survey of admissions officers.
It can be very helpful to understand where your score is in relation to the students who were admitted to a medical school, which will allow you to determine whether your score is in a competitive range. The easiest way to do this is by using online, publicly available resources that link a medical school with the average MCAT score of their admitted students, but take these with a grain of salt, because the data may be out of date or incomplete. In general, if your MCAT score or practice score is close to or higher than the average MCAT score of accepted students to a medical school, that’s a good thing. It may mean that admissions officers at that school will be able to look beyond your score at the other, important contextual parts of your application.
If your score is lower than the average for that medical school, you risk being viewed as less competitive unless there are other important contextual aspects of your case. For example, AAMC data shows that students who use fee waivers for the MCAT may have lower average MCAT scores than their non-fee waiver colleagues by about five points, likely for myriad reasons. It’s important for these applicants to strategically use their medical school applications to highlight these contextual differences, particularly if there is any history of being disadvantaged. Though this won’t “explain away” a lower score, it does mean that you are advocating for yourself in a competitive process using the mechanisms these schools have provided you.
AAMC publishes in a wonderfully transparent manner data related to MCAT scores, GPAs, and medical school admissions. For example, this chart shows the acceptance rate of applicants given MCAT score and GPA. I think it’s worth looking at the data here to see how important the MCAT is in admission to medical schools. Using the most recent AAMC data from 2017-2018, 1 in 5 applicants with a score between 498 and 501 will be admitted to a medical school, though it’s worth noting how important GPA is for this group with regards to their admissibility. When you move up a bit to the 502-505 range, admission to medical school jumps up to 1 in 3, much better odds. In the 506-509 range, 1 in 2 students are admitted to medical schools, and 2 in 3 applicants with an MCAT score in the 510-513 range are admitted. The higher the score, the more solid the score, and the data bears that out nicely.
The MCAT is an important exam for students applying to medical school, and it takes time and practice to achieve your goal score. At IvyWise we work with students to help them maximize their performance on the MCAT and also compile the best medical school applications possible. Click here to learn more about our medical school admissions counseling and tutoring.