The MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) is a standardized exam developed and administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). It’s used by many medical schools as part of their admissions process to identify candidates that possess the foundational knowledge and skills necessary for success in medicine. If you’re planning on applying to medical school, it’s important to understand the objectives and format of the MCAT as well as how to ace it.
This blog post is all about the MCAT, including…
- The four MCAT sections
- Your MCAT score report
- MCAT prep
Sections of the MCAT
The MCAT has 4 sections, all of which are composed of multiple choice questions. The number of questions and the amount of allotted time is the same for all sections except for CARS, as presented in the table below. You’ll encounter two kinds of questions throughout the exam: passage-based questions – questions that require you to read a passage before answering them – and discrete questions – questions that don’t relate to a passage.
The following table outlines the number of questions, their format, and the amount of time allotted for each section:
# of Questions
Amount of Time
Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (BBLS)
Passage-based and Discrete
Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (CPBS)
Passage-based and Discrete
Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behaviour (PSBB)
Passage-Based and Discrete
Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)
The BBLS, CPBS, and PSBB sections test foundational concepts in various scientific disciplines of which you’re required to have an introductory-level understanding. According to the AAMC, in order to complete these sections, you’ll have to draw on the following scientific inquiry and reasoning skills:
- Demonstrating an understanding of scientific concepts and principles
- Identifying the relationship between closely related concepts
- Reasoning about scientific principles, theories, and models
- Analyzing and evaluating scientific explanations and predictions
- Demonstrating an understanding of important components of scientific research
- Reasoning about ethical issues in research
- Interpreting patterns in data presented in tables, figures, and graphs
- Reasoning about data and drawing conclusions from them
(Association of American Medical Colleges. (2020). What’s on the MCAT Exam? Washington, DC.)
You’ll also need to have an understanding of some mathematical concepts, such as logarithmic scales, the difference and conversion between metric and English units, calculating ratios and percentages, and a general understanding of trigonometry and vectors.
During these three sections of the MCAT, test takers are given the conversion factors for metric and English units. They also have access to a periodic table.
While the BBLS, CPBS, and PSBB sections strictly test your knowledge of the sciences, CARS tests your reading comprehension and analysis skills. Everything you need to complete this part of the exam will be provided in either the passages or the questions relating to them.
Let’s go over the specifics of each section.
Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
This section is all about the processes that are unique to living organisms. The questions relate to how living organisms grow, reproduce, and respond to their environment. They also relate to how the cells and systems within a given organism accomplish the necessary biological and biochemical processes.
In order to prepare for this section, you’ll need to know the basic scientific concepts covered in introductory university-level biology, organic and inorganic chemistry, biochemistry, as well as cellular and molecular chemistry. You’ll also need to be familiar with basic research methods and statistical concepts that are applicable to these branches of science.
Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
This section covers the mechanical, physical, and biochemical functions of human tissues and organ systems. You’re expected to understand the basic chemical and physical principles that allow the human body to properly function.
To complete this section, you’ll need to know the basic scientific concepts covered in introductory university-level biology, organic and inorganic chemistry, physics, biochemistry, and molecular biology courses. You’ll also need to know basic research methods and statistical concepts that are applicable to these branches of science.
Psychology, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behaviour
This section relates to the concepts that doctors need to know in order to serve diverse populations. It emphasizes the need for physicians to be able to deal with social issues in medicine. This section requires an understanding of the ways in which social, psychological, and biological factors influence perceptions and reactions.
You’ll need to understand the concepts taught in introductory university-level social science courses, such as psychology and sociology as well as biological concepts as they relate to mental health. The basic research methods and statistics concepts that are relevant to this section are those applicable to the social sciences.
Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
This section is composed of passages from a range of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities that are between 500 and 600 words in length. Each passage is thought provoking and often uses sophisticated vocabulary and structure. They’re each followed by 5-7 questions.
Unlike the other sections of the MCAT, everything you need to answer CARS questions is provided either in the passages or in the questions themselves. While you don’t have to be familiar with any specific concepts in order to ace this section, you still need to learn the strategies that will help you succeed and you will need lots of practice.
In this section, test takers are required to…
- Read and understand the passage
- Infer the writer’s message, intent, bias, stance, etc.
- Recognize and evaluate the writer’s argument(s)
- Apply ideas from the passage to new contexts
- Assess the impact of incorporating new contexts or factors to those discussed in the passage
Your MCAT score report is available 30-35 days after you take the exam. Most programs accept scores from tests taken within the last 3-5 years. Make sure to check the admissions requirements of the programs to which you are applying to ensure that your scores are recent enough!
Your score report includes the results for each of the four sections. The individual sections add up to your MCAT total score which is also reported. You can access your score report through your AAMC account.
There are four components to the score report:
- MCAT score
- Confidence band
- Percentile rank
- Score profile
The first step in scoring your exam is to count the number of questions you answered correctly in each section. This is called the raw score. From here, your score for each section is converted to an MCAT scaled score on a scale ranging from 118 to 132.
You might be wondering: Why is my score converted? Why not just report the raw score? The answer primarily relates to the fact that the MCAT is administered multiple times each year.
Instead of using the same version of the test every time, AAMC uses different versions. While all versions assess the same skills and concepts, they use different questions. Although MCAT developers aim to make all tests equally challenging, the degree of difficulty might vary slightly from test to test, and even from section to section within a single test. Converting the raw scores to a scaled score compensates for this slight variation in difficulty.
The scaled score also tends to provide a more stable and accurate assessment of students’ performances across test administrations and testing years. For example, two students who prepared for the exam in exactly the same way but took different versions of the MCAT might end up with different raw scores. However, they would be expected to get very similar scaled scores.
Ultimately, like nearly every other method of academic assessment, the MCAT is an imperfect measurement of your preparedness. It doesn’t account for factors such as how recently you studied certain topics, how tired or anxious you are, or even what the conditions are like in the room where you take the exam. In order to account for these factors, the score report includes a confidence band.
A confidence band is a range in which your knowledge-level falls. The confidence band for each section of the MCAT is reported as your scaled score plus or minus one point. So, for example, if your score for one section is reported as 123, your confidence band for that section would be 122-124. For your total score, the confidence band is reported as your scaled score plus or minus two points.
Percentile ranks compare your scores to those of other test-takers. They represent the number of test-takers who received scores that were either the same as or lower than yours.
MCAT percentiles are updated annually on May 1st using the data reported from the previous three years. You can find your percentile score here. So, if your percentile rank is reported as 42%, that means that 42% of test-takers within the last three years received the same or a lower score than you did.
The score profile is a visual representation of your scores. The 15-point scale (118-132) is laid out on a line onto which your confidence band is plotted. Since your score report is formatted as a table, the four score profiles (one for each section) are listed one above the other. This layout clearly highlights your strengths and weaknesses across the four sections. You can find a sample MCAT score profile here.
AAMC offers test dates from January to September every year. There is a standard $325 USD fee associated with the exam and additional fees associated with rescheduling or cancelling your exam. Exams can be rescheduled or canceled 10 or more days before your test date.
You can take the MCAT…
- Three times in a single year
- Four times in two consecutive years
- Seven times in your lifetime
Ready to take the MCAT? Create an account and register through AAMC.
Study and Prep Resources
You should start studying for the MCAT at least three months prior to your test date. However, we highly recommend that you give yourself more time as it allows you to gather study resources and create an effective MCAT study schedule that highlights exactly what and when you need to study. Carving out time for regular study sessions will allow you to better understand and remember content, which makes it easier to recall the information when writing the exam.
AAMC provides a guide to setting up your own study plan which includes related tips, worksheets, and strategies. They also share free study resources on their MCAT Official Prep Hub for which you must have an AAMC account. The Prep Hub also offers paid MCAT prep resources. If you’re having trouble accessing these resources, check out this tutorial.
Advice from people who have taken the MCAT is also incredibly beneficial. If you know anyone who has taken the test, you can inquire about what helped them, what unforeseen challenges they faced, and what they could have done differently. You can also take inspiration from the stories of high-scoring students to learn about their approach to each MCAT section as well as their advice to future test-takers.
MCAT Question of the Day is another handy tool! If you subscribe to their mailing list, you receive a daily email with an MCAT practice question, which acts as a great reminder and encourages you to be consistent with your studying.
Finding an MCAT tutor is a great way to gain clarity on subjects that you have more trouble with. They’ll also hold you accountable for staying on track with your study schedule. I Got In offers one-on-one MCAT tutoring to arm you with proven strategies that will help you decode questions and grasp complex concepts. Book a free consultation with one of our specialists to get started on your MCAT prep journey.
You might also benefit from MCAT prep courses. A great free option is Khan Academy. The following companies offer paid prep courses:
We wish you the best of luck in all of your MCAT preparation! Contact us should you need any support throughout your MCAT journey.