MCAT vs NCLEX: What’s the Difference?

February 20, 2024

minute read

The MCAT is an admission exam for medical school, and the NCLEX is a licensing exam for nursing graduates. These two tests vary significantly from each other. 

If you are undecided about which exam to take and why you should take a specific one – we will help you clear your doubts between the MCAT and NCLEX and how they differ. 

This article will go through the different exam structures, exam fees, and other characteristics of the MCAT and NCLEX. We will give a comprehensive comparison between these two.

 

What is the MCAT?

The MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) is a standardized admission exam taken by those who want to pursue a medical degree and enroll in med school. 

It is a test that is highly recognized and required test by medical schools in the United States, Canada, Australia, and other counties worldwide. The MCAT is conducted by The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

Furthermore, the exam is usually taken on a computer and contains four test sections that cover topics about the basics of medical science, different fundamentals of medical principles, and more. 

The exam is 7 hours and 30 minutes long that contain 230 multiple-type of test questions

The test’s primary purpose is to assess the knowledge of pre-medical students in ChemistryPhysicsBiologyPsychology, and Sociology. These basic sciences are usually encountered when taking any medical course. 

The purpose of the test is to help these institutions to evaluate the readiness of the incoming med students to handle the pressure in medical school and high-level medical courses. 

The MCAT four test Sections are: 

What is the NCLEX?

The NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination) is a licensure examination intended for nursing students. The exam is approximately 5 to 6 hours long with eight test sections. 

It is two standardized tests, the NCLEX-RN is recommended for those graduates of nursing programs, and NCLEX-PN is used for practical and vocational nursing graduates. 

These two versions of the NCLEX have the same purpose and goal: to determine the test taker's eligibility and readiness to practice a nursing career. 

Both aims to provide a quality assessment of the test-takers knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to be successful in the field.

Moreover, the exam utilizes computerized adapting testing (CAT), a special algorithm in the exam that delivers test questions depending on the knowledge and abilities of the individual. It simply means that the NCLEX exam difficulty level adjusts according to its test-taker’s abilities. 

The NCLEX is developed and administered by the National Council of the State Boards of Nursing, Inc. (NCSBN)

The exam is highly acknowledged and accepted in Canada, Australia, England, the USA, Japan, Mexico, India, the Philippines, and other countries worldwide. 

The NCLEX's two types of exam:

NCLEX test sections:

  • Management of Care
  • Safety and Infection Control
  • Health Promotion and Maintenance
  • Psychosocial Integrity
  • Basic Care and Comfort
  • Pharmacological and Parental Therapies
  • Reduction of Risk Potential
  • Physiological Adaptation

MCAT vs. NCLEX: What are the Similarities?

The similarities of the MCAT and NCLEX are these two exams are commonly used in the medical field.

The MCAT is used by medical schools as an admission exam for those who want to pursue a medical degree. 

While the NCLEX is a licensure exam for nursing graduates. Both the MCAT and NCLEX are computer-based tests, and both are internationally recognized by various institutions. 

The MCAT and NCLEX similarly assess the readiness, knowledge, and skills to pursue a medical profession or be ready to apply the learnings in nursing school in real-life situations.

Exam Format and Structure: MCAT vs. NCLEX

The MCAT and NCLEX are two different examinations used by medical schools and nursing schools worldwide, respectively. 

These two generally differ in exam format, length, exam contents, and more. 

Both the MCAT and NCLEX are computer-based tests

However, the NCLEX uses computerized adapting testing (CAT), which is a type of test that adapts the difficulty level to its test-taker’s abilities. 

Regarding the number of test sections, the MCAT only has four test sections, while the NCLEX contains eight

The MCAT exam length is approximately 7 hours and 30 minutes long, thus making it longer than the NCLEX which only lasts approximately 5 to 6 hours long

In addition, the MCAT has 35 pre-scheduled test dates in a year, while the NCLEX is available all year round, which makes the latter very accessible for its test-takers. 

If we compare the MCAT and NCLEX number of test questions, the MCAT contains more test questions which count to 230, while the NCLEX only has 145 test items. 

The table below shows a comprehensive comparison between the MCAT and NCLEX test structure and format including their test frequency. 

Exam Format and Structure

MCAT

NCLEX

Test Sections

-Biological and Biochemical Foundations


-Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems


-Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior


-Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

-Management of Care


-Safety and Infection Control


-Health Promotion and Maintenance


-Psychosocial Integrity


-Basic Care and Comfort


-Pharmacological and Parental Therapies


-Reduction of Risk Potential


-Physiological Adaptation

Test Duration

Duration per test section:

 

90 to 95 minutes each 


Overall:

 

7 hours and 33 minutes, including break times.

Maximum duration:


5 to 6 hours


With an optional break after 2 hours of testing and another optional break after 3.5 hours of testing.

Number of Test Questions

230 Test Questions

145 Test Items

Type of Test Questions

Multiple-choice Type

NCLEX RN

-Multiple-choice type

NCLEX PN


-Multiple-choice type

-Fill-in-the-blank

-Hot Spots

-Charts

-Drag-and-Drop

Test Frequency

35 testing dates annually from January to September.

Available throughout the year

Test Delivery Mode

Computer-Based Test

Computerized Adaptive Testing (CAT)

Scoring: MCAT vs. NCLEX

In terms of scoring, the MCAT and NCLEX use different scoring systems. The NCLEX utilizes a dichotomous scoring system, wherein the scoring assigned is only a pass or a fail. 

To pass the NCLEX-RN, you need to have answered at least 75 correct test questions, while in the NCLEX-PN, you need to have a minimum of 85 correct answers. 

On the other hand, the MCAT has a scoring range of 132 to 118 points for each test section. All four test scores you get will be added up to an overall score which should range from 472 to 528 points

The MCAT provides a percentile rank for the test scores as a guide to check the overall ranking of your MCAT score compared to the scores of its previous test-takers.

MCAT Scoring

NCLEX Scoring

Score Range Per Test Section:

118 to 132


Overall Score Range:

472 to 528

Dichotomous Scoring System:

Pass or Fail

This is the MCAT Percentile Rank from May 1, 2021, to April 30, 2022. The table below shows the MCAT overall scores with their corresponding percentile ranks. The percentile ranking will help you determine your score rank versus the previous test-takers score. 

Overall MCAT Score

Percentile Rank


Overall MCAT Score

Percentile Rank

Header

Overall MCAT Score

Percentile Rank

472

<1%

Cell

491

19%

Cell

510

78%

473

<1%

Cell

492

21%

Cell

511

81%

474

<1%

Cell

493

24%

Cell

512

84%

475

<1%

Cell

494

27%

Cell

513

86%

476

1%

Cell

495

29%

Cell

514

88%

477

1%

Cell

496

32%

Cell

515

90%

478

1%

Cell

497

35%

Cell

516

92%

479

2%

Cell

498

38%

Cell

517

94%

480

3%

Cell

499

42%

Cell

518

95%

481

4%

Cell

500

45%

Cell

519

96%

482

4%

Cell

501

48%

Cell

520

97%

483

6%

Cell

502

52%

Cell

521

98%

484

7%

Cell

503

55%

Cell

522

99%

485

8%

Cell

504

58%

Cell

523

99%

486

9%

Cell

505

62%

Cell

524

100%

487

11%

Cell

506

65%

Cell

525

100%

488

13%

Cell

507

69%

Cell

526

100%

489

15%

Cell

508

72%

Cell

527

100%

490

17%

Cell

509

75%

Cell

528

100%

Test Requirements: MCAT vs. NCLEX

The MCAT and NCLEX have different sets of test requirements and ID’s accepted during the registration process. 

They do not share the same application procedure. For example, NCLEX has a two-step online registration process and a telephone registration option. 

The MCAT only has an online registration option given to its test-takers. Also, the MCAT has a wide selection of accepted IDs for proof of identification. 

The table below compares the MCAT and NCLEX registration processes and test requirements. 

MCAT Test Requirements

NCLEX Test Requirements

For Online Application 


-Make an account on the AAMC website.


-Fill out the application questions and prompts on their website.


-Go to MCAT registration systems and follow the instructions given.


Present the following upon registration: 


1. Any government-issued IDs (must be valid and not expired)


2. ID must contain a clear photo of you.


3. ID must be in English.


4. Accepted IDs include:

-Driver’s license


-Passport


-Permanent Resident Card (Green Card)


-Employment Authorization Document


-Canada Health Car (For Ontario and British Columbia only)


-Consular ID


-Canadian Aviation Card


Submit your academic transcripts 

(applicable for high school, undergraduate, and any post-graduate education). Also, it accepts unofficial transcripts but must reflect your full name.

For Online Application (Two-Step):


-Submit an application to Nursing Regulatory Body (NRB)


-Register for the exam with Pearson Vue and acquire a code to proceed with the registration.

Telephone Registration: 


Call Pearson Vue for NCLEX Candidate Services


1. Accepted Primary IDs include: (Unexpired IDs with photo and signature) 


-Physical ID (non-digital)


-Government-issued


-Passport books and cards


-Driver’s License


-Provincial/territorial or state identification card


-Permanent residence card


-Military Identification Card

 

Test Costs: MCAT vs. NCLEX

The MCAT and NCLEX varies in terms of their exam fees and the mode of payment they offer to their test-takers. 

In comparison, the MCAT costs around USD 325, while the NCLEX exam fee costs differently depending on what licensure you are going to need. 

For example, if you need to have a US licensure, it costs around USD 200, and for those who want to have Canadian licensure, the NCLEX costs around CAD 360. For those who seek Australian licensure, it costs USD 200

The NCLEX also require international students to pay an additional scheduling fee of USD 150 or CAD 150, depending on the country they want to practice. 

They also have additional fees, such as USD 50 for a change of language exam from English to French and an exam type to RN or PN, which cost around USD 50 for US licensure. 

Here’s a comprehensive table reflecting their cost differences and payment options.


MCAT Fee

NCLEX Fee

Payment Modes

Only accepts credit or debit cards (American Express, VISA, MasterCard)

-Accepts payments made through major credit, debit card, or ATM.


-Also using US cashier’s check, US Bank Draft, and US money order.

Cost

USD 325

USD 200 (U.S. Licensure)

CAD 360 (Canadian Licensure)

USD 200 (Australian Licensure)

Test Recognition: MCAT vs. NCLEX

Both the MCAT and NCLEX are among highly regarded examinations used and recognized by medical schools and for nursing licensure in different countries worldwide. 

Moreover, the NCLEX is offered in different countries worldwide, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, England, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Philippines, Puerto Rico, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey. 

The MCAT is also acknowledged and used by prominent medical schools located in the United States, Canada, Europe, Singapore, Australia, and other countries. 

These two exams are well-known to provide a high-quality assessment of knowledge, qualities, and skills which are needed in a medical career. 

The MCAT and NCLEX are trusted by most medical schools and institutions to provide excellent and accurate results. 

Below are some medical schools in Australia that require the MCAT:

  • Griffith Medical School
  • Melbourne Medical School
  • UQ Medical School
  • Sydney Medical School
  • McMaster University Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine
  • Queen’s University School of Medicine
  • University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry
  • University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine
  • University of Calgary Cumming School of Medicine
  • University of Manitoba Max Rady College of Medicine
  • University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine
  • Harvard Medical School
  • Yale School of Medicine
  • Boston University School of Medicine
  • Stanford University School of Medicine
  • Georgetown University School of Medicine
  • Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
  • Howard University College of Medicine
  • University of South Alabama College of Medicine
  • New York Medical College
  • Duke University School of Medicine
  • Michigan State University College of Human Medicine
  • Saint Louis University School of Medicine
  • Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine
  • California Northstate University College of Medicine
  • George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
  • …and more.

Which is Easier: MCAT vs. NCLEX

The MCAT and NCLEX are two different exams meaning they vary in the degree of difficulty. 

These exams are known to be difficult on their terms, considering they are different exams. 

For example, the MCAT needs excellent critical thinking and analysis as it generally covers intensive medical topics and other branches of science. The MCAT is designed to assess the skills and preparedness of the student to take up challenging medical courses. .

Meanwhile, the NCLEX is a licensure exam for nursing graduates so it is also expected to be difficult as it will test all the knowledge and skills acquired by these graduates from nursing school. It will determine if what they have learned over the years spent in nursing school is enough for them to practice nursing in reality.

In general, the MCAT and NCLEX are difficult exams.

Should You Take the MCAT or the NCLEX?

The MCAT and NCLEX are two different exams commonly used in the medical field. They significantly differ in their purpose and objective. 

For example, the MCAT is used by medical schools worldwide as part of their admission process and to help schools determine if the incoming student is suitable to enroll in medical school. 

In comparison, the NCLEX is a licensure exam for nursing professionals. It is required for all nursing professionals for them to practice their profession fully. 

Therefore, the MCAT is highly suggested to be taken by incoming med students. If you are already a nursing graduate and want to acquire a license, then you need to take the NCLEX. 

Note that there are two versions of the NCLEX exam, the NCLEX-RN for registered nurses and the NCLEX-PN for licensed practical nursing. You can choose what type of NCLEX version you will take depending on what licensure you need.

Summary Table of Differences: MCAT vs. NCLEX

Below is the table of differences between the MCAT and NCLEX.


MCAT

NCLEX

Test Sections

-Biological and Biochemical Foundations


-Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems


-Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior


-Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

-Management of Care


-Safety and Infection Control


-Health Promotion and Maintenance


-Psychosocial Integrity


-Basic Care and Comfort


-Pharmacological and Parental Therapies


-Reduction of Risk Potential


-Physiological Adaptation

Test Duration

7 hours and 33 minutes, including break times.

5 to 6 hours

With an optional break after 2 hours of testing and another optional break after 3.5 hours of testing.

Number of Test Questions

230 Test Questions

45 Test Items

Type of Test Questions

Multiple-choice Type

NCLEX RN


-Multiple-choice type


NCLEX PN


-Multiple-choice type


-Fill-in-the-blank


-Hot Spots


-Charts


-Drag-and-Drop

Scoring System

Score Range Per Test Section: 118 to 132


Overall Score Range: 472 to 528

Dichotomous Scoring System:

Pass or Fail

Test Frequency 

35 testing dates from January to September.

Available all year round

Exam Cost

USD 325

USD 200 (U.S. Licensure)

CAD 360 (Canadian Licensure)

USD 200 (Australian Licensure)

Mode of Payment

Only accepts credit or debit cards (American Express, VISA, MasterCard)

Accepts payments made through major credit, debit card, or ATM.


Also, using US cashier’s check, US Bank Draft, and US money order.

Test Delivery Mode

Computer-Based Test

Computerized Adaptive Testing (CAT)

Additional FAQs – MCAT vs. PCAT

Can Nurses Take the MCAT?

Yes, nurses can take the MCAT if they want to pursue a medical degree and enroll in medical school. Anyone can study for and take the MCAT if their goal is to pursue a career as an MD or DO. 

However, the MCAT is not an exam that nurses must take to enroll in nursing school or get licensed as a nurse. 

The NCLEX is the licensure exam intended for a nursing career.

Is the NCLEX the Hardest Exam?

The NCLEX is just like any other admissions or licensing exam. It covers a lot of many intensive nursing contents and will assess the level of acquired knowledge and skills of the test-takers in nursing school. Hence, it is challenging for most nursing students. 

However, the NCLEX isn’t as hard or intensive as the MCAT or the USMLE. 

Both the MCAT and the USMLE cover extensive subjects in various science topics (biology, biochemistry, microbiology, pharmacology, etc.). 

Read more about these two medical school exams to understand the differences between the MCAT and the USMLE.

Do Nurses Do Well in Med School?

Nurses, due to their work history in the medical field, can make excellent candidates for medical school. To become a nurse, one must undergo rigorous training, licensing exams, and fieldwork. All this knowledge and experience will come in handy when preparing to apply for medical school. 

However, it’s important to know that they must follow the same pre-med journey as others – take the MCAT, physician shadowing, extra-curricular activities, the required courses, and properly complete the medical school applications.

Is there Med Math on the NCLEX?

Yes, a medical calculation in the NCLEX-RN exam tackles drug dosage calculation. 

However, not all test-takers of the NCLEX can encounter calculation test questions as the whole exam is unpredictable and it explicitly uses computerized data.

Is the NCLEX Harder than Nursing School?

The NCLEX is intended to evaluate the suitable knowledge and skills you have acquired in nursing school. So it is expected to be more challenging than the nursing school itself. 

And it will determine if you have learned the fundamentals of nursing and can apply them in real-life situations. 

Also, the NCLEX is a licensure exam, so it is very comprehensive and challenging compared to the classes in nursing school. 

Is the MCAT a Difficult Exam?

The MCAT is undeniably a challenging exam, given the complexity of its test questions and topics covered. Also, the exam is lengthy and runs for 7 hours and 30 minutes, making it more challenging for its test-takers. 

Furthermore, it is considered the most challenging admission exam for an educational institution. 

Even though the MCAT is a challenging exam, it is manageable, and most of its test-takers can pass it. One just needs proper and intensive preparation before taking the MCAT.

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