MCAT vs STEP 1: What’s the Difference?

June 25, 2024

minute read

MCAT and USMLE are the two most commonly used standardized examinations in the medical field. These exams are widely acknowledged by prestigious medical schools worldwide and other medical institutions. 

Also, these two exams highly differ in many aspects. However, many test-takers are still confused between the MCAT and the USMLE since the latter offers a three-step examination for medical professionals, including the USMLE Step 1.

This article will go through the different exam structures, exam fees, exam length, and other characteristics of the MCAT and USMLE Step 1. We will give a comprehensive comparison between these two exams.

What is the MCAT?

The MCAT or Medical College Admission Test is a test intended for individuals who wish to continue studying in med school. 

It primarily assesses the understanding of incoming med students about the fundamentals of the medicine program and if their skills are enough to help them prosper in entering med school. 

The exam is entirely computer-based and last for 7 hours and 30 minutes.

Also, the MCAT contains four test sections wherein you need to answer 50+ test questions in each section.

Moreover, the test uses a multiple-choice question that mainly focuses on the different scientific principles and topics of Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Psychology, and Sociology.

It is conducted by the Association of American Medical Colleges or the AAMC across Australia, Canada, the United States, and other Asian countries. 

MCAT Four Test Sections:

What is Step 1?

Step 1 is part of the USMLE three-step examination for medical licensure. The test is computer-based and focuses on the concepts of science usually required to practice medicine.

The goal of USMLE Step 1 is to measure the knowledge and acquired skills of medical professionals and those fresh graduates from med school. The test is usually required in the US and other countries for medical professionals to practice their profession fully.

Also, it gives importance to the readiness of the test-taker and one’s knowledge of the basic medical principles, procedures, and processes for health, diseases, and modes of therapy which is highly needed to practice medicine.

The test duration takes about 8 hours or 60 minutes in each test section and is only done in one sitting.

Moreover, the USMLE Step 1 contains seven blocks (or test sections) which are the test sections of the exam, and it utilizes different types of test questions in each one. 

USMLE Step 1 (7 Blocks/Test Sections): 

  • Anatomy
  • Behavioral Science
  • Biochemistry/Medical Genetics
  • Microbiology/Immunology
  • Pathology
  • Pharmacology
  • Physiology

MCAT vs. Step 1: What are the Similarities?

The MCAT and USMLE are similar in some aspects, such as providing quality assessments of the knowledge and skills of medical professionals. Both tests are also accepted and used by medical schools and institutions in different countries.

Moreover, the MCAT and USMLE test sections center on various medical skills, fundamental medical concepts, and more. And also to determine if the individual is prepared and equipped with the right competency to practice medicine.

Exam Format and Structure: MCAT vs. Step 1

The MCAT exam format and structure are quite different compared with the USMLE Step 1. 

The MCAT contains four test sections only, while the latter includes seven blocks that serve as the test sections of the exam. 

The test sections of MCAT and USMLE Step 1 also focuses on different topics and assess various skills and knowledge needed for medical practice and to enter med school. 

In terms of exam duration, both the MCAT and USMLE Step 1 takes around 7 to 8 hours and more for you to finish the whole exam. 

And both are usually taken on computers in their designated exam centers. 

In comparison, the MCAT and USMLE Step 1 uses various question types. 

For example, the MCAT utilizes multiple-choice questions across the four test sections of its exam while the USMLE Step 1 varies in the type of questions used in each of its test sections. 

The table below shows the differences in details between the MCAT and USMLE Step 1 exam format and structure. 

Exam Format and Structure

MCAT

Step 1

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

7 Blocks (Test Sections)


-Anatomy


-Behavioral Sciences


-Biochemistry


-Biostatistics and Epidemiology


-Microbiology


-Pathology


-Pharmacology


-Physiology

Test Duration

Duration per test section: 

90 to 95 minutes each 

Overall:

7 hours and 33 minutes, including break times

Duration of each 7 Blocks: 

60 minutes each

Overall:

8 hours with 45 minutes of break time

Number of Test Questions

230 multiple-choice test questions

280 test questions

Uses different types of test questions including:


-Clinical case questions (long clinical cases)


-“Two-step” (double-jump) questions


-“Bait and switch” questions


-Conjunction questions


-Visual questions

Test Frequency

35 testing dates annually from January to September.

Available all year round

Test Delivery Mode

Computer-Based Test

Computer-Based Test

Scoring Differences: MCAT vs. Step 1

In terms of scoring systems, the MCAT and USMLE Step 1 greatly differ. The big difference between these two exams’ scoring systems is that the MCAT uses score points while the USMLE Step 1 exam is scored by pass and fail criteria.

Moreover, to determine if you get a passing or failing score, the USMLE Step 1 provides a score range between 1 to 300 points, the passing score of which is 196 points.

The MCAT four test sections will receive individual scores between 118 to 132 points. These test scores will be added to get the overall score which ranges from 472 to 528 points. A good MCAT score is around 511 points and higher. 

Also, the MCAT has a percentile rank that will help you determine the ranking of your results. It is a set of a percentage scale of the accumulated scores from previous MCAT test-takers. 

Scoring Differences: MCAT vs. Step 1

In terms of scoring systems, the MCAT and USMLE Step 1 greatly differ. The big difference between these two exams’ scoring systems is that the MCAT uses score points while the USMLE Step 1 exam is scored by pass and fail criteria.

Moreover, to determine if you get a passing or failing score, the USMLE Step 1 provides a score range between 1 to 300 points, the passing score of which is 196 points.

The MCAT four test sections will receive individual scores between 118 to 132 points. These test scores will be added to get the overall score which ranges from 472 to 528 points. A good MCAT score is around 511 points and higher. 

Also, the MCAT has a percentile rank that will help you determine the ranking of your results. It is a set of a percentage scale of the accumulated scores from previous MCAT test-takers. 

MCAT Scoring

Step 1 Scoring

Score Range Per Test Section:

118 to 132

Overall Score Range:

472 to 528

Scoring Scale:

Graded as Pass or Fail

(1 to 300 score range/ 196 passing score)

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. It is will help you know the standing of your MCAT results. 

Overall MCAT Score

Percentile Rank


Overall MCAT Score

Percentile Rank


Overall MCAT Score

Percentile Rank

472

<1%


491

19%


510

78%

473

<1%


492

21%

Cell

511

81%

474

<1%


493

24%

Cell

512

84%

475

<1%


494

27%

Cell

513

86%

476

1%


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

5225

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. Step 1

The MCAT and USMLE Step 1 is relatively similar in terms of their exam registration process which is online via their official website. However, they significantly differ in their test requirements. 

In MCAT, you can directly register for the exam on their official website by creating an account. 

While in the USMLE Step 1, you first need to apply for an ECFMG Certification and verify your medical school if it is accredited. Then you can continue your application for the exam. 

Also, the MCAT and USMLE Step 1 do not have the same set of IDs accepted as part of their requirements. And USMLE Step 1 registration process is complex compared to MCAT. 

The table below shows a comprehensive comparison in terms of the test requirements and registration process of MCAT and USMLE Step 1. 

MCAT Test Requirements

Step 1 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


5. 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 Registration Process:


-Apply for an ECFMG Certification


-Status verification of your medical school from the Medical School Web Portal (MSWP).


USMLE Online Application:

 

-Register on the official website of ECFMG. Wait for your USMLE ID.


-Log in using your USMLE at the NBME website


-Follow the application instructions given. 


-Wait for the confirmation and scheduling permit email.

 

Present the following upon registration:


1. Send electronic copies of your Certification ID from ECFMG and Authorization Form and include a passport-size picture, and email these to [email protected]


2. If you have graduated already from med school present the following documents: 


-Copy of your degree certification and a certified English translation. 


-Performance transcript from your university. 


3. Accepted IDs include:


-Passport


-Driver’s License with picture


-National Identity card


-Any other government-issued IDs

Test Costs: MCAT vs. Step 1

Both the MCAT and USMLE Step 1 accept credit and debit card payments. However, the USMLE Step 1 offers more payment options for its test-takers including e-checks, bank drafts, and more. 

Concerning the cost of these two exams, the MCAT only cost USD 310 which is much cheaper compared to the cost of the USMLE Step 1 which is around USD 975.


MCAT Fee

STEP 1 Fee

Payment Modes

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

-Accepts credit cards (Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express)

-Accepts electronic checks (for US Banks only)

-Accepts payment thru bank drafts/money order (must be in US dollars only)

Cost

USD 310

USD 975

Test Recognition: MCAT vs. Step 1

These two standardized exams are highly recognized and accepted by various medical schools and institutions around the world to provide a quality assessment of the knowledge, skills, and abilities of medical professionals. 

The MCAT is an acclaimed standardized admission exam for most medical schools in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, and other countries worldwide. The purpose of the test is to check your readiness to handle advanced medical courses. 

At the same time, the USMLE Step 1, is a well-known medical licensure exam that every medical professional needs to take in order for them to practice medicine, especially if you intend to work in the US. 

Here is a list of the medical schools in Australia, Canada, and the USA that accepts the MCAT:

  • Griffith Medical School
  • Melbourne Medical School
  • UQ Medical School
  • Sydney Medical School
  • 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
  • Johns Hopkins University School 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
  • George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
  • …and more.

Below are the top schools in the USA that recognize and accept the USMLE Step 1. 

  • Harvard University
  • John Hopkins University
  • The University of Pennsylvania
  • Stanford University
  • The University of California
  • Washington University
  • Yale University
  • Columbia University
  • Duke University
  • The University of Chicago

Which is Easier: MCAT vs. Step 1

In terms of exam difficulty, the MCAT is considered easier compared to the USMLE Step 1. 

It is because the MCAT only tests the basic science principles and skills of the individual if one fits the requirement to proceed or enter med school. 

While the USMLE is a medical licensure exam, which is much more complex as it tests the individual’s capacity to practice medicine. It measures what you have learned during your stay in med school and if you are ready to be a medical professional. 

Therefore, given the importance and purpose of the MCAT and USMLE Step 1, MCAT is much easier and more manageable to take than the USMLE Step 1.

Should You Take the MCAT or the Step 1?

It entirely depends on the purpose of why you are taking the MCAT or the USMLE Step 1. These two exams differ in terms of exam contents, structure, length, fees, purpose, and more. 

Before taking any of these two, you should know what these exams are for. Medical schools use the MCAT as an admission exam to determine if the incoming pre-med student is prepared to take any advanced medical courses. 

And also if the individual knowledge and skills are enough for them to succeed in the program. The USMLE Step 1 is a medical licensure exam that can be taken by those medical professionals who wish to practice their profession in the US, especially if they are from other countries. 

Fresh graduates from medical schools can also take the USMLE Step 1 for them to get their license to practice medicine. 

So if you intend to enroll in med school, you may take the MCAT, and if you already have graduated from med school and still do not have any license, you can take the USMLE Step 1. 

Summary Table of Differences: MCAT vs. Step 1

Below is the table of differences between the MCAT and USMLE Step 1.


MCAT

USMLE Step 1

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

7 Blocks (Test Sections)


-Anatomy


-Behavioral Sciences


-Biochemistry


-Biostatistics and Epidemiology


-Microbiology


-Pathology


-Pharmacology


-Physiology

Test Duration

7 hours and 33 minutes, including break times.

8 hours with 45 minutes of break time

Number of Test Questions

230 multiple-choice test questions

280 test questions

Uses various types of test questions

Test Frequency 

35 testing dates from January to September.

Available all year

Exam Cost

USD 310

USD 975

Mode of Payment

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

Accepts credit cards (Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express)

Accepts electronic checks (for US Banks only)

Accepts payment thru bank drafts/money order (must be in US dollars only)

Scoring System

Score Range Per Test Section:

118 to 132

Overall Score Range:

472 to 528 with percentile ranks

Scoring Scale:

Graded as Pass or Fail

(1 to 300 score range/ 196 passing score)

Additional FAQs – MCAT vs. Step 1

Is USMLE Step 1 like the MCAT?

No, the USMLE Step 1 is a different exam than the MCAT. 

They do not share the same objective and purpose. However, both exams are used and accepted in various medical institutions and med schools worldwide. 

The USMLE Step 1 is a part of the three-step exam for medical licensure intended for medical professionals. 

While the MCAT is a standardized exam used by medical schools as part of their admission requirement.

Is MCAT a Good Predictor of Step 1?

The MCAT is actually not considered a direct predictor for the USMLE Step 1. Note that these two exams are different in their purpose and intent. 

Even though the MCAT and USMLE Step 1 are used in the medical field, it does not mean they are similar and a predictor of each. 

The MCAT assesses the knowledge and skills of incoming pre-med students, while the USMLE Step 1 is a licensure exam for medical professionals.

Is there a Correlation Between MCAT and Step 1?

The MCAT and USMLE Step 1 are similar in how both are used and recognized by medical institutions. 

Other than that, they are two completely different exams designed for those individuals who want to pursue medicine and those who wish to get their medical license. 

Therefore, there is no direct correlation between the MCAT and USMLE Step 1 since they significantly differ.

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