MCAT Exam Format: The Complete Guide

June 22, 2024

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The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is something that every pre-med student is familiar with. For the past many decades, since 1928, this exam has been a cornerstone of the medical school admissions process

If you are studying and preparing for the MCAT and want to know the MCAT exam format, how long the exam takes, and the best ways to prepare for it, you have come to the right page. Please continue reading for details on the MCAT exam format.


What is the MCAT?

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) administers the MCAT, or Medical College Admission Test, a standardized, multiple-choice exam. The MCAT is established to provide medical schools with standardized criteria for comparing applicants' qualifications and readiness for medical school. 

Most medical schools, if not all, in the United States and Canada, require this exam. Over 80,000 applicants to medical schools in the United States and Canada write the exam and subsequently submit their MCAT scores each year. 

The MCAT has changed through time and has mostly been a reasoning-based exam — however, a broad range of basic knowledge is required to answer the questions correctly. 

Additionally, the MCAT assesses your understanding of natural, behavioral, and social science topics and principles and problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities, which are essential in medical school.

What is the MCAT Syllabus?

To do well on all three sections linked to scientific principles, you must understand the logic of scientific research. It covers (but is not limited to) scientific principles and scientific inquiry fundamentals.

In the MCAT exam format, it is anticipated that you have a basic comprehension of all aspects of scientific research. 

Here are the four sections that are tested in the MCAT:

Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (Bio-Biochem)

The MCAT section Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (Bio-Biochem) requires knowledge of the fundamental processes that support life, such as growing, reproducing, gaining energy, and so on. 

Knowledge of how cells and organ systems within an organism function both independently and in concert to complete these tasks is equally significant in the study of medicine.

Below are some areas/disciplines covered in the Bio-Biochem part of the MCAT:

  • Cell division
  • Nervous and endocrine systems
  • Bioenergetics and fuel metabolism
  • Organ systems: functions and structure
  • Genetic diversity and the activities that enhance it
  • Genetic transmission of information: gene to protein
  • Amino acids and protein structures as building blocks
  • Molecules and cells assembly in single/multi-cell organisms
  • Viruses and prokaryotes: physiology, genetics, and structure

Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (Chem-Phys)

On the MCAT, the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (Chem-Phys) portion requires you to combine your knowledge of basic physical sciences with your understanding of biological sciences.

It is crucial to have a fundamental understanding of the chemical and physical principles that underpin the mechanisms that operate in the human body and the capacity to apply that knowledge to living systems.

Below are some areas/disciplines covered in the Chem-Phys part of the MCAT: 

  • Electrochemistry
  • The concept of purification
  • Water: nature and solutions
  • Kinetics and thermodynamic principles
  • Interaction of light and sound with matter
  • Molecules and the interaction among them
  • Function and structure of biological molecules
  • Nuclear decay and chemical behavior of atoms
  • Forces, work, energy, and equilibrium in living systems
  • Fluids and their involvement in blood flow and gas exchange

Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (Psych-Soc)

The MCAT part Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (Psych-Soc) addresses themes in psychology and sociology in relation to biological sciences. 

These are the MCAT's newest courses, which were included due to their growing importance in medical education. This section was introduced in 2015. The importance of behavioral and sociocultural aspects in health and illness is recognized in this new section.

While most medical schools do not need psychology or sociology as part of their preparatory coursework, the MCAT suggests taking one semester of each of these topics. 

This portion of the MCAT is crucial because it evaluates your ability to apply research and statistical principles to behavioral and sociocultural factors of health and health outcomes. 

Below are some areas/disciplines covered in the Psych-Soc part of the MCAT:

Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)

This area is formally known as Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills but is now commonly called as CARS. While the other three areas have a lot of stuff to cover, the CARS section does not require any prior scientific knowledge. 

Instead, the CARS portion is a test of your ability to analyze arguments and identify the assumptions and conclusions that underpin them. 

Because the passages contain all of the material you need to answer the questions, studying for this portion is somewhat different. Excessively sophisticated language and esoteric words are frequently used in these passages. You will have to read between the lines to figure out the answers.

Below are some areas/disciplines covered in the CARS part of the MCAT: 

Humanities:

  • Ethics
  • Religion
  • Literature
  • Philosophy
  • Pop culture
  • Cultural studies
  • Art and architecture

Science:

  • Linguistics
  • Archaeology
  • Anthropology
  • Political science
  • Psychology and sociology
  • Economics/history/geography

What are the Key Foundational Concepts and Skills Needed for Each Section of the MCAT?

Preparing for the MCAT can be challenging, and your efforts are useless unless you know the different foundational concepts and skills needed to ace each section of the MCAT. 

To help you prepare for the MCAT and familiarize yourself with the MCAT exam format, below are the different foundational concepts and skills required.

Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems

Foundational Concept 1

Biomolecules have distinct features that influence the way they contribute to the structure and function of cells, as well as how they participate in life-sustaining processes.

Foundational Concept 2

To carry out the operations of living creatures, highly-organized ensembles of molecules, cells, and organs interact.

Foundational Concept 3

Multicellular organisms' internal and exterior surroundings are sensed by complex systems of tissues and organs, which maintain a steady internal environment within an ever-changing surrounding factor through coordinated functioning.

Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems

Foundational Concept 4

Complex living organisms use processes that may be explained in terms of physical principles to transport materials, detect their surroundings, interpret signals, and respond to changes.

Foundational Concept 5

The rules that regulate chemical contacts and reactions serve as the foundation for a more comprehensive knowledge of living systems' molecular dynamics.

Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior

Foundational Concept 6

Individuals' perceptions, thoughts, and reactions to the world are influenced by biological, psychological, and societal influences.

Foundational Concept 7

Behavior and behavior change are influenced by biological, psychological, and social variables.

Foundational Concept 8

The manner by which we think about ourselves and others, as well as how we connect with others, is influenced by psychological, social, and biological aspects.

Foundational Concept 9

Cultural and societal differences have an impact on happiness.

Foundational Concept 10

Well-being is influenced by social stratification and resource availability.

Scientific Inquiry and Reasoning Skills (CARS)

Skill 1: Scientific Principles Understanding

Demonstrate knowledge of scientific principles and concepts. Determine the connections between concepts that are closely linked.

Skill 2: Problem-solving and Scientific Reasoning

Consider the concepts, theories, and models of science. Examine and assess scientific explanations and predictions.

Skill 3: Reasoning about Research Design and Execution

Demonstrate a good comprehension of key scientific research concepts. Consider the ethical implications of the research.

Skill 4: Data-based Statistical Inference

Decipher patterns in data given in graphs, figures, and tables. Use logic to analyze facts and draw conclusions from them.

Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)

Skill 1: Comprehension's Foundations

Understand the text's fundamental components. Infer meaning or purpose from the context of a statement.

Skill 2: Within the Text Reasoning

Infer an author's message, goal, purpose, belief, viewpoint, prejudice, and assumptions by combining disparate textual elements. Recognize and evaluate arguments and the factors that make them up (claims, evidence, support, relations).

Skill 3: Reasoning Outside of the Text

Extrapolate or apply ideas from the text to other situations. Consider the impact of new factors, conditions, or information on the passage's ideas.

How Long is the MCAT?

Part of studying for the MCAT exam format is knowing how long the exam would take. This gives you an idea of how you can manage your time well. 

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a 7-and-a-half-hour standardized test that measures your mental stamina, critical thinking skills, and grasp of scientific ideas. 

The test is divided into four components, three assessing your scientific knowledge and one of which tests your critical thinking and reasoning. Physics, biology, chemistry, sociology, and psychology are among the subjects covered in the three science-based parts. 

The critical reasoning component asks you to analyze the facts and critically evaluate the supplied arguments.

Here is a section-by-section breakdown of the MCAT:

Sections

Duration

Number of Questions and Distribution

McAt Subjects That Are Included and Their Percentage

Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems

95 minutes

59 questions


- 10 passage-best set of questions


- 4-6 questions per set


- 15 independent questions

- General Chemistry – 30%


- First-Semester Biochemistry – 25%

- Introductory Physics – 25%


- Organic Chemistry – 15%


- Introductory Biology – 5%

Break (optional)

10 minutes 



Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)

90 minutes

53 questions


- 9 passages


- 5-7 questions per passage

- Reasoning Beyond the Text – 40%

- Foundations of Comprehension – 30%


- Reasoning Within the Text – 30%

Break (optional)

30 minutes



Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems

95 minutes

59 questions


- 10 passage-based sets of questions

- 4–6 questions per set

- 15 independent questions

- First semester Biochemistry – 25%


- Introductory Biology – 65%


- General Chemistry – 5%


- Organic Chemistry – 5%

Break (optional)

10 minutes

Cell
Cell

Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior

95 minutes

59 questions


- 10 passage-based sets of questions

- 4–6 questions per set

- 15 independent questions

- Introductory Psychology – 65%


- Introductory Sociology – 30%


- Introductory Biology – 5%

How Should You Prepare for the MCAT?

The MCAT is arguably the most difficult exam you will ever take on your way to your dream medical school. However, it is a lot more manageable than you might believe, as difficult as it may appear. You will achieve a high score if you put up a great deal of effort and dedication.

Below are a few proven MCAT study tips and methods to help you ace the exam. Let's get started.

Consider Your Undergraduate Course Options Carefully

Many pre-med students believe they should cram as many science lessons as possible into one semester. It is a good idea to major in a discipline related to the type of doctor you want to be, but do not focus too much on one subject. 

Having a well-rounded undergraduate education is essential when preparing for the MCAT. You should have a well-rounded education that includes humanities, accountancy, psychology, and literature, as these subjects will aid your MCAT preparation in the four core test areas.

Begin As Early As Possible

Although this should go without saying, we want to emphasize the importance of beginning your MCAT preparation as early as possible. Do not attempt to cram for the MCAT. 

Begin genuine test preparation two to six months before the test date. Take a diagnostic practice exam six months before the test to evaluate where you stand. This can help you figure out how well prepared you are for the MCAT, what you should focus on during your MCAT preparation, and how much time you will need to prepare.

Create A Study Plan That Works… and Stick To It

One of the most crucial components of your MCAT preparation is having a timetable that works for you. The length of your MCAT preparation is determined by how many hours per week you can devote to studying. 

Some students have additional obligations, such as a job or extracurricular activities, while others have plenty of time to sit at home and study. You must consider your other daily activities to create an effective study strategy. In the end, you must determine how many hours you can devote to studying for the exam each week.

Take A Lot Of MCAT Practice Tests

Start looking at MCAT practice examinations and questions once you have solidified your understanding of the concepts. Practice problems are an excellent approach to see if you are prepared to take the test. You must also answer full-length practice tests to verify that you have the necessary stamina on test day. 

As much as possible, try to emulate the testing environment when taking practice tests as much as possible. Take your practice exam at 8 a.m. if you anticipate taking the MCAT at 8 a.m. on test day.

Make Use of High-Quality Materials

Most pre-medical universities can provide helpful study tools and resources for the MCAT. The study tools issued by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the architects and designers of the MCAT, are highly recommended. 

Try to obtain all of the AAMC's practice tests and practice questions. The practice questions given by AAMC are frequently taken from previous MCAT exams, and the practice tests they offer are more precise and reliable than any other sources.

Take MCAT Preparation Courses 

Studying alone can be difficult since you may feel disoriented and begin to mistrust your efforts. To help you plan your studies, seek the assistance of a professional test prep center. 

Furthermore, the material offered by professionals guarantees that you are studying from the correct resources, such as extensive review books that contain the test's required topic.

Do Not Overwork Yourself

Most students preparing for the MCAT are undergraduate students enrolled in a pre-medical program. If that is the case, you mustn't overextend yourself by enrolling in too many classes. 

Try to minimize the workload in your undergraduate coursework if at all possible. You can devote some time to studying for the MCAT in this manner. You also do not want to make your preparation a burden on top of your other commitments as an undergrad. Make an effort to strike a balance.

Keep Track of Your Weaknesses

Another suggestion for adequately preparing for the MCAT is to identify your weak points and work on them. After a few practice tests, you can pinpoint the areas where you need to improve. 

It is critical, to be honest, while tracking your flaws. When you recognize mistakes, you can tell where your brain tends to go awry. Working out your faults can help you get the most out of your learning.

Additional FAQs – MCAT Exam Format

Is The MCAT Multiple-Choice?

Yes, the MCAT is a standardized multiple-choice, computer-based exam that is necessary for entrance to medical schools in the US and Canada. There are no free answers in the MCAT, but that does not mean that it makes it easier compared to other exams.

What Are The 7 Subjects on the MCAT?

The MCAT comprises four sections covering these 7 subjects: 
General Chemistry
Organic Chemistry
General Biology
Biochemistry
Physics
Psychology,
and Sociology

Aside from these areas and disciplines, the MCAT also assesses your critical analysis and thinking skills.

What Types of Questions Are on the MCAT?

The questions in the MCAT are all multiple-choice and evaluate your skills and knowledge on the seven subjects stated above (General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, General Biology, Biochemistry, Physics, Psychology, and Sociology) and critical thinking and reasoning.

Is The MCAT A Hard Exam?

Yes, the MCAT is a challenging exam. However, that does not mean that your chances of acing the MCAT are low. Every year, many students perform well on the MCAT, enhancing their chances of admission to medical school.

What Order Are the Sections on the MCAT?

When you take the MCAT, you will answer each section in the following sequence: 
1st - Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems; 

2nd - Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS); 

3rd – Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems; 

4th – Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior. 

Keep in mind that there are optional breaks after each section.

What Is the Most Difficult MCAT Section?

The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section is said to be the most challenging section by many students, and AAMC's average scores back this up. CARS has the lowest total and matriculant average section scores.

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