What is the MCAT?

By Emily Millet

The Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) is an examination that one must take in order to gain entrance into medical school or health professions school such as veterinary* or podiatric school. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) is the governing body responsible for creating the MCAT exam as well as official content review for the examination.

The MCAT covers material from the prerequisite courses taken as an undergraduate student. The exam requires the use of both critical thinking skills and knowledge gained from these prerequisites. The suggested structure of study will be listed below, but can also be found in the MCAT Essentials for Testing Year 2018, a guidebook published by the AAMC.

*As a quick side note, some veterinary schools will accept either the MCAT or the GRE, and some only accept the GRE. See links at the end of the article for more detail.

When do I take the MCAT?

Most students who are planning on matriculating into medical school directly after college (“traditional” students) will take the exam during the summer of their junior year. If a student does not want to begin medical school immediately following college (“gap year” or “non-traditional” students), it is important to wait until the applicant is ready to apply because MCAT results can expire at some schools. Some schools will accept scores as old as 4 years, but the majority of schools will only accept an MCAT score within the last 3 years.

How many times can I take it?

Once is best. This test is quite expensive ($345) and is an emotionally taxing event to prepare for. It is best if you prepare right the first time, do your absolute best, and apply with your strongest application. There is a lifetime limit of 7 attempts for the MCAT. You are permitted to take the test 3 times in a calendar year and 4 times in a 2 consecutive year period.

How do I know what my goal score should be?

The new MCAT is scored from a low of 472 to a high of 528. Each of the four sections is scored from a low score of 118 to a perfect score of 132. By consulting the Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) publication ($28), one can also find the information for minimum and average MCAT scores for each school.


  • Courses recommended for MCAT preparation:
  • Introductory Biology (2 semesters, 3 quarters)
  • General/Inorganic Chemistry (2 semesters, 3 quarters)
  • Organic Chemistry (2 semesters, 3 quarters)
  • General Physics (Algebra or Calculus based) (2 semesters, 3 quarters)
  • Biochemistry (1 semester or equivalent)
  • Introductory Psychology (1 semester or equivalent)
  • Introductory Sociology (1 semester or equivalent)

Other courses that are often considered helpful by other SDN members (in order of helpfulness):

  • Research Intensive Courses (e.g. journal club courses that require the student to critically evaluate, interpret, and convey dense scientific information in a simplified manner)
  • Advanced courses in neuroscience, cellular biology, microbiology, or physiology.
  • Genetics
  • Cell Biology
  • Physiology

Subjects tested on the MCAT (in order that they appear on the exam):

  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (C/P- 59 questions | 95 minutes)
    • This section covers chemistry and physics in relation to biological systems. In this section, you will see questions that apply chemical and physical concepts to biological systems. For example, instead of a water pipe when referring to a question about pressure, the question will relate the concept to a vessel or a vein that is carrying blood in the human body.
  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (B/B- 59 questions | 95 minutes)
    • This section covers biology and biochemistry. This section heavily focuses on amino acids. (It is highly recommend that you memorize these and know them well!) This section pulls concepts from other sections as well into a fully-integrated section that tests your knowledge of biology, biochemistry, basic physiology, cellular mechanisms, and genetics.
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS- 53 questions | 90 minutes)
    • CARS is a section that focuses on your ability to quickly read, analyze, and interpret a large amount of information and then answer questions regarding the information presented. CARS is an important aspect of the MCAT because it lets the admissions committee know that you can think critically and pick out important information from a large amount of information (similar to knowing pertinent details during a history and physical exam).
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (P/S- 59 questions | 95 minutes)
    • The newest addition to the MCAT exam tests students over the “behavioral” sciences such as psychology, sociology, and other developmental courses. This section focuses on how the various psychological and sociological theories impact an individual and their development as a human being.

Study Resources

The MCAT is notorious for causing anxiety among premedical students and even those who are planning a career in medicine prior to college. This 6 hour and 15 minute, 230 question exam is one of many hurdles that stands between the transition from a premedical student into a medical student. Thankfully, there are resources for nearly everyone and every situation. Whether you are a freshman premedical student, a senior in college who has recently discovered medicine, or a career-changer, there are plenty of resources available to ensure that you can perform your best.

Student Doctor Network (SDN) has a wealth of resources to assist with preparation for this exam. One resource that I highly recommend if you are not sure where to start is the StudySchedule generator. This allows for a personalized study plan to be built based on the following:

  • Confirmed/projected exam date
  • When you plan to begin studying
  • Desired pace/speed moving through the material
  • Maximum number of study hours per day
  • Desired break days (very helpful for non-traditional students or those who have work or other regular commitments)
  • Ability to choose study materials from various companies:
    • ExamKrackers
    • Kaplan
    • The Princeton Review
    • NextStep
    • The Berkeley Review
    • AAMC Official Content
    • Khan Academy
    • Barron’s
    • Altius
    • UWorld

How long should I study?

Most people feel that three months of full-time studying is adequate in order to achieve their MCAT score goal. Others prefer 6, 9, or even 12 months to prepare for the exam. While there are benefits of studying for longer periods, burnout and forgetfulness of content covered earlier on begins to become a bigger issue. The StudySchedule tool is helpful for determining the amount of time you need based on your study habits, goals, and time available to devote to the exam.

AAMC Official Content (You can purchase the items listed below here)

AAMC Official Content is the most helpful examination preparation material that one can use, because it is written by the people who write the exam! AAMC has many different materials available (some for free and some for purchase). All of these resources are valuable and highly recommended.

AAMC Official Guide– ($35) This outlines the content of the exam and each topic that is tested. This guide also includes a total of 120 questions (30 per section).

MCAT Question Pack Bundle– ($72) This bundle is comprised of a total of 720 questions in a total of six packets. Previous MCAT questions are utilized to form these question packs.

AAMC MCAT Practice Exams 1, 2, and 3 ($35 each) 230 question, full-length exam. These practice tests are the most similar to what you will see on the day of the exam. You will receive results indicating how you performed similar to the results you will receive following the actual exam. They are also the most helpful for determining where to make improvements prior to test day. Side note about full-length (FL) exams: Make sure to take these under “testing conditions.” At the end of the article will be linked information regarding the things that you will be permitted to do/have while at the testing center. It is even important that you wake up each day that you take a FL exam at the time that you will wake up for the actual MCAT.

AAMC Official MCAT Sample Test ($25) 230 question, full-length exam. Most similar to what you will see on the day of the exam. You do not receive a scaled score, but you do receive feedback on your performance. Also helpful for determining where to make improvements prior to test day.

MCAT Section Bank ($45) 300 questions (100 per section- C/P, B/B, P/S). Considered to be the most difficult material provided by AAMC. Very helpful for reviewing content and practicing critical thinking for AAMC-style questions.

MCAT Flashcards ($10) 150 practice questions comprise this deck of flashcards that provide content review in all sections except CARS.

Khan Academy (FREE!) Khan Academy has partnered with the AAMC to provide content review videos, practice questions, and content review for students. Khan Academy covers topics that are provided in The Official Guide for the MCAT.

So… Where do I start?

The MCAT is an exam that will test your ability to synthesize information that you have learned over your entire undergraduate career into a single day full of critical thinking application. The MCAT is a difficult exam, but not impossible by any means. It’s important to have confidence when preparing for the exam; your mindset will carry you on the day of the exam. Study hard, and study with your goal in mind.

Begin by using the StudySchedule generator. Once you have your schedule, stick to it! However, it is important to not forget to give yourself time to relax and recuperate. Allow yourself enough time to complete all of the material that you want to cover, and allow time towards the end of your studying to complete the Official AAMC materials. (You want to take these closer to the exam date as they are most representative of the real thing.) Most people decide to review content and then complete practice questions. While this may work for some, it is important to note that although the MCAT tests content, the MCAT is a multiple choice exam. I am a strong supporter of starting practice questions early! There are hundreds of practice questions available online.

What about the week before/day before/day of the exam?

Relax! Aside from some light flashcard studying the morning before the exam day, resist the urge to study. Your brain has been working harder than it ever has for a long time; give it some rest the day before it has to run the marathon. Make sure to do something that you enjoy the night before. Go see a movie, grab your favorite dinner, and climb into bed early. You have worked very hard for this, and now it is your time to prove to yourself that you can accomplish any goal that you set your mind to when you dedicate your time and effort towards it.

Helpful websites while on your journey to taking the MCAT:

Information about what to expect on test day!
AAMC Pre-Med Facebook
American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) Facebook
Veterinary School Admissions
Podiatry School Admissions

About the Author

Emily Millet works full-time as a paramedic and has been involved in EMS for 6 years. She graduated college in 2017 and is preparing to apply to medical school during the upcoming application cycle.  She enjoys baking, trying new restaurants, and spending time with family.

One thought on “What is the MCAT?

  • July 11, 2018 at 1:55 am

    Nice article and would be really helpful for students interested in medical field. Although I have a query that : Can Indian Med students can also appear for MCAT examination if interested to Study Medical courses Abroad even grad level such as MBBS.