About the MCAT

I. BASICS

II. STUDYING FOR THE MCAT

III. THE COMPUTERIZED MCAT

IV. SCORING THE MCAT

I. BASICS

What is tested on the MCAT?

The MCAT or Medical College Admission Test consists of 4 sections: Physical Sciences (General Chemistry, Physics), Biological Sciences (Biology, Organic Chemistry), Writing Sample, and Verbal Reasoning. The Science sections test your knowledge of basic concepts with an emphasis on problem-solving, applications, and critical thinking. The Verbal Reasoning section tests your ability to understand, evaluate, and apply information presented in written form. And your writing skills are evaluated through two essay-style questions in the Writing Sample.

How important is the MCAT in the admissions process?

It varies. In the US, your MCAT score is typically given as much weight as your GPA. And if there is a large discrepancy between your MCAT score and GPA, the tendency is to give your MCAT score more weight. In Canada, the MCAT is not quite as important – although you still need stellar MCAT scores to be admitted to med school. Some schools – such as McMaster and Ottawa – do not require applicants to write the MCAT. Most schools, however, have “cut-offs” – minimum acceptable scores – used to screen out applicants.

In addition to your MCAT score, admission committees will consider some combination of:

  • undergraduate/graduate GPA;
  • scope and difficulty of undergraduate coursework;
  • letters of evaluation;
  • involvement in extracurricular activities;
  • involvement in health-related work and research;
  • participation in other activities demonstrating commendable character;
  • medical school interview results;
  • legal residence.

When should I take the MCAT?

Most schools require you to take the MCAT at least one year prior to when you plan to begin medical school. The best time to write the MCAT, however, is probably late in the summer after your second year of undergraduate studies. Some students even take it after first year if they have completed the requisite Science courses. This is when MCAT concepts – those covered in introductory courses – are fresh in your mind. MCAT passages may discuss advanced topics but the questions do not test your knowledge of these topics.

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What is the test day like?

Section Questions Question Style Weighting Time
Tutorial (optional) 5 minutes
Physical Sciences 52 Passage-based and stand-alone 50% Chemistry
50% Physics
70 minutes
Break (optional) 10 minutes
Verbal Reasoning 40 Passage-based 60 minutes
Break (optional) 10 minutes
Biological Sciences 52 Passage-based and stand-alone 60-70% Biology
30-40% Organic
70 minutes
Survey 5 minutes
Total 5½ hours

What is the format of the Science sections?

There are 52 multiple-choice questions in each Science section. Most are based on passages of approximately 250 words but there are also a few stand-alone questions.

MCAT questions do not directly test your knowledge of basic concepts or your ability to make simple calculations; instead, the questions require you to apply your knowledge and interpret information to find the correct answer.

There are four types of passages and each will have an approximately equal number of questions:

  1. Information passages test your ability to understand and evaluate journal passages.
  2. Problem solving passages test your ability to identify probable causes of and solutions to scientific problems.
  3. Research study passages test your understanding of rationales, methods, and results of research projects.
  4. Persuasive passages test your ability to understand and evaluate the validity of viewpoints.

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What is the weighting within the Science sections?

In Physical Sciences, general chemistry and physics are weighted equally. But Biological Sciences is skewed so 60-70% of questions are from biology and 30-40% of questions are from organic chemistry.

What is the format of the Verbal Reasoning section?

Verbal Reasoning consists of 40 multiple choice questions based on seven passages – each 500-600 words – from humanities, social sciences and science topics not tested in other MCAT sections. There are no independent questions in Verbal Reasoning.

Sets of questions in Verbal Reasoning are presented in order of difficulty – that is, from easiest to hardest. This order is based on the average difficulty of the questions in each set. However, a given set of questions contains both easier and more difficult questions.

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II. STUDYING FOR THE MCAT

How should I study for the MCAT?

You can’t cram for the MCAT. So get started early – at least 2 months before test day – and stay disciplined by sticking to a regular study schedule. Whatever study methods served you well in the past should also help you prepare for the MCAT: read study guides, make study sheets and cue cards, form a study group, etc.

For more focussed review, consider buying a study guide customized to the MCAT. But do some research first as some MCAT study guides are much better than others.

Most importantly, take lots of timed practice MCATs to improve your problem-solving skills and time management. Practice MCATs are available from the AAMC http://www.AAMC.org/students/MCAT/practicetests.htm – and in bookstores, or through prep courses. And check out Free Study Aids.

And, lastly, you may consider taking a prep course.

What mathematical concepts do I need to know?

Some MCAT problems will require that you understand the basic mathematical concepts below:

  1. Calculations involving proportion, ratio, percentage, and determination of square root.
  2. Exponentials and logarithms (natural and base ten); scientific notation; quadratic and simultaneous equations; graphic representations of data and functions including terminology (abscissa, ordinate), slope or rate of change, reciprocals, and various scales (arithmetic, semi-log, and log-log).
  3. Trigonometric functions (sine, cosine, tangent); values of sines and cosines of 0º, 90º, and 180º; relationships between lengths of sides of right triangles containing angles of 30º, 45º, and 60º; inverse trigonometric functions (sin-1, cos-1, tan-1)
  4. The students should be able to use the metric units and able to balance equations containing these physical units. If required, the conversion factors between metric and British systems will be provided.
  5. Relative magnitude of experimental error, effect of propagation of error and an understanding of reasonable estimates and the significant digits of a measurement.
  6. Elementary calculations of the mathematical probability of an event.
  7. Vector addition, vector subtraction, and right-hand rule (an understanding of dot and cross products not required).
  8. Arithmetic mean (average) and range of a set of numerical data; standard deviation as a measure of variability; general concepts of statistical association and correlation (calculation of standard deviations and correlation coefficients not required.
  9. An understanding of calculus is not required.

What science topics do I need to know?

See our Free Study Lists.

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Would courses in physiology, genetics, etc. help me?

Not really. Such courses are unnecessary for the MCAT. They may be somewhat helpful if they help you understand a few questions more quickly. But such slight benefits do not justify taking these courses unless they are of personal interest and/or useful for your degree.

What problem-solving skills should I practice?

MCAT questions test the following problem-solving skills:

  1. Recall of basic scientific information – Some questions will require you to recall basic science concepts through cues in passages, tables, or graphs.
  2. Comprehension of new information – Some passages will contain information you have not studied previously and will test your ability to comprehend and apply new information.
  3. Interpretation of data – Some questions will require you to interpret graphs, tables, figures, and diagrams.
  4. Application of concepts – Some questions will require you to apply your knowledge of basic concepts to find the correct answer.
  5. Evaluation – Some questions will require you to evaluate the validity of methods, evidence, conclusions, and arguments.

How should I study for Verbal Reasoning?

Avid readers generally score higher on verbal reasoning. The more you read, the better you get at reading. So read a lot and, more specifically, read short articles that express a point of view – such as editorials and opinion pieces in newspapers. And, as always, take lots of practice timed MCATs.

Would a speed reading course help me prepare for Verbal Reasoning?

Probably not. Most speed reading courses teach you how to skim – not how to read. Reading requires comprehension; skimming does not. While skimming may help you “cherry-pick” easier questions to answer first on the MCAT, you don’t need a speed reading course for this.

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Should I buy an MCAT Study Guide?

Yes. Studying exclusively from university textbooks is not recommended because the focus on the MCAT is primarily on concepts considered essential for the study of medicine. Some topics covered in your undergraduate textbooks are not relevant to the study of medicine so they are omitted from the MCAT. And the emphasis may be different – that is, some topics are not given prominence in textbooks but are very important on the MCAT.

Should I take a prep course?

One practical way to make this decision is to take a full-length timed practice MCAT at least 6 months before you plan to write the real MCAT. If you score three 10s or better on the practice MCAT, you should consider saving your money and studying on your own.

If you score less than 10 in one or more subjects, you should consider taking a prep course. If you decide to take prep course, there are plenty out there, each with their own philosophy and methods. However, there are three key things to look for when choosing a prep course:

  1. Top-quality instructors
  2. Comprehensive study materials
  3. A well-designed course.

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III. THE COMPUTERIZED MCAT

How is the computerized MCAT different than the paper-and-pencil MCAT?

MCAT Prior to 2007 2007
Format Paper-and-pencil Computerized
Number of Questions 77 Physical Sciences
60 Verbal Reasoning
77 Biological Sciences
2 Essays
52 Physical Sciences
40 Verbal Reasoning
52 Biological Sciences
2 Essays
Length of Test day 8 hours 5½ hours
Breaks Two 10-minute breaks
1-hour lunch break
Three optional 10-minute breaks
No lunch break
Tests per year 2 22
Number of times in one year you are allowed to take MCAT 2 3
Numbers of times overall you are allowed to take MCAT 4 (5 requires written request) 5 (6 requires written request)
Registration Up to one month before test day Up to week of test (but 60 days in advance recommended)
Score Delivery 60 days 30 days in 2007, 14 days thereafter
Security Photo ID Manual fingerprint Photo ID Biometric fingerprint and signature verification
Testing Venues Lecture halls Computer labs

Why switch from a paper-and-pencil MCAT to a computerized MCAT?

According the AAMC, the computerized MCAT provides:

  • more opportunities to take the MCAT (22 instead of 2);
  • shorter test day (5 ½ hours instead of 8 hours);
  • quicker score release process (30 days instead of 60 days);
  • standardized testing environment (computer labs instead of lecture halls);
  • enhanced testing security; and
  • smaller groups.

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Has the content changed?

No.

Will the role of the MCAT in admissions change?

No.

Is the computerized MCAT an adaptive test (CAT)?

No. The computerized MCAT uses “fixed forms,” constructed in advance.

What do I need to bring to the testing center?

One valid and current – that is, not expired – form of government-issued identification with a photo and a signature such as a driver’s license or passport.

Will special computer skills be needed to take the computerized MCAT?

No. You are only expected to be familiar with the use of a keyboard and a mouse.

Will I be able take notes and eliminate answer choices on screen?

You can highlight text and cross out answer choices on the screen but you can’t write notes on the screen. For this, you will be given scratch paper at the testing center.

Will I be able to go back and change my answers?

Yes but only within the time allotted for the MCAT section you are working on. Once time expires, you can’t go back to a section.

Can I use scratch paper at the test site?

Scratch paper will be provided on site and will be collected at the completion of the test so that it can be discarded. You will not be allowed to remove the scratch paper from the room.

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Will earplugs be available?

Yes.

Can I bring my own earplugs?

No.

Will the computerized MCAT be available in languages other than English?

No.

Will the computerized MCAT be scored differently?

No.

Will my computerized test be compared to past paper and pencil tests?

Yes.

Can I still void my test?

Yes. That option is available up until the end of the test, but not after your testing session has finished.

When will my score be ready?

30 days after completion of the exam in 2007 and 14 days thereafter.

How will I get my score?

Scores will be distributed through the THx system.

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Will there be rescoring of the computerized MCAT?

Yes. You can ask for a rescoring of the three multiple-choice sections, the Writing Sample, or both. The multiple-choice sections will be rescored by hand. Essays will be graded by a human reader external to the original scoring process.

You must write to the AAMC within four months after the test date. Address your letter to:

Attention: MCAT CBT Rescoring Service
MCAT Operations Manager
Association of American Medical Colleges
2450 N St., NW,
Washington, DC 20037-1127

In your letter, explain why you feel rescoring is warranted and identify yourself by name, Social Security Number (SSN/SIN) or the ID number assigned to you by the CBT Program Office, mailing address, and telephone number. Specify the date of the test and the sections you wish rescored.

There are fees: $50 to rescore the multiple-choice sections, $50 to rescore Writing Sample essays, or $100 to rescore both. You can enclose payment by check, money order, or credit card information (MasterCard or VISA 16-digit card number, expiration date, amount, and signature of cardholder).

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IV. SCORING THE MCAT

How is the MCAT scored?

In Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, and Biological Sciences your raw score is based on the number of questions answered correctly. Raw scores are converted to a scale ranging from 1 (lowest) to 15 (highest).

The Writing Sample is scored by one human grader and one computer grader using a 6-point scale. The combined score from the two essays (2 to 12 out of 12) are then converted to an alphebetic scale ranging from J (lowest) to T (highest):

J K L M N O P Q R S T
2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Your total score – the sum of your scores in individual sections – is also reported. For example, if you scored 36 in the multiple-choice sections and S in the writing section, your reported score will be 36S. The highest possible score is 45T.

What is a good MCAT score?

For most med schools, a composite score of 30 and a GPA of 3.5/4 or higher will be very competitive. Also, “balanced” scores (e.g. 10, 10, 10) are viewed more favourably than “lopsided” scores (e.g. 12, 12, 6).

Are different sections of the MCAT more important than other sections?

Yes. The Writing Sample is much less important than the other sections – although the trend is that it is slowly gaining more importance. A very high score (S or T) is helpful and a very low score (J or K) is detrimental. Anything in between is unlikely to have much impact on your prospects. Some schools practically ignore the Writing Sample and, instead, assess your writing skills on your personal statement. A number of Canadian schools have Writing Sample cut-offs, below which you are rejected, and the University of Manitoba assigns a numerical value to your Writing Sample score and includes this in the calculation of your average score. The University of Western Ontario attaches more value to Verbal Reasoning than to the other MCAT sections.

Are there any questions that are not scored?

Yes. Every MCAT includes a few questions used to calibrate the exam or are later deemed too ambiguous or too difficult to be counted. So if you encounter a confusing or impossible question, don’t panic as it could turn out to be one of the discarded questions.

How long are MCAT scores valid?

The oldest MCAT score that a school will consider varies from school to school but 5 years is typically as far back as most schools will look.

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Can I decide not to release my score but change my mind after I get my score?

Yes. But medical schools will be informed that you originally opted not to release your scores and later decided to release them. This is a new rule so it is not yet known how medical schools will interpret this information.

Should I apply with my current MCAT score or should I take the test again?

As a general rule, go ahead and apply if you scored above 27. If, however, you scored lower than 24, consider taking the MCAT again and study even harder. Scores in the 24- 27 range are in a grey zone: whether to take the test again depends on the strength of the rest of your application and which schools you are applying to.

How do medical schools interpret multiple MCAT attempts?

Most schools consider your highest overall MCAT score in evaluating your final application. If you take the test more than once, medical school will expect some improvement because you now have “test familiarity.”

Is it easier to score higher in the winter when “weaker” students supposedly write the MCAT?

This is a myth. The AAMC goes to great lengths to ensure that the date when you take the MCAT will have no effect on your final scores. Performances on each test date are compared with performances on other test dates using classical equating theory from the field of psychometrics.

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