Understanding the MCAT
The MCAT is a computer-based test. As exams go, this one is a marathon, lasting about seven and a half hours, including breaks. Given its length and difficulty, prospective test takers must fully understand the purpose of the test and ensure they register for it far in advance to adequately prepare.
What is the purpose of the MCAT?
The MCAT measures a prospective medical student’s level of scientific knowledge and critical reasoning ability.
Who is eligible to take the MCAT?
The only formal eligibility requirement to take the MCAT is the intent to apply to a health profession school.
Why is the MCAT required for admission?
The MCAT provides a way for medical schools to confirm an applicant has the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed. It also provides an objective method of comparing applicants against each other when making admissions decisions.
When is the MCAT administered?
The MCAT is administered roughly 30 times throughout the year, until around the middle of September. Scores are released about one month after test day. Below is a listing of the testing schedules for the 2018 year.
Where can I take the MCAT?
The MCAT is available at any of the many Pearson VUE test centers across the United States.
How is the MCAT taken?
The MCAT is a computer-based test, with no paper and pencil option. There are optional breaks between sections, allowing students to immediately move onto the next section if they so choose.
How often can I take the MCAT?
During a single testing year, an individual may only take the MCAT up to three times. Over a two-year period, they can take the MCAT four times. The lifetime limit for taking the MCAT is seven times.
Do all medical programs require the MCAT for admission?
For anyone looking to enter medical school after completing a traditional bachelor’s program, the MCAT is required. However, a few schools allow students to apply to a joint bachelor’s and medical degree program. In these accelerated dual degree programs, students will not have to take the MCAT before entering medical school. The joint programs at Northwestern University and the University of Rochester are good examples of this.
Test Composition and Timing
The MCAT is a long test, but that’s because it has to cover a tremendous amount of material. Let’s look at what it covers.
Registration and Fees for the MCAT
Given the financial and time costs to take the MCAT, it’s important to understand how the test works, and how to get registered.
Registering for the MCAT
How to register.
The first step is to create an AAMC account online to use the MCAT Registration System. From here, test takers can provide their personal and background information. They can schedule the exam and choose a test location near them.
Documents needed for registration.
To complete registration, an individual will need a debit or credit card (VISA or MasterCard) and a government issued ID. Note that the name on the ID card must match the name used during registration.
When to register.
Except in certain circumstances, a person should register to take the MCAT at least 29 days before the planned test date. This will save money on registration fees and provide the option to cancel the exam or make changes to the test location or dates. To get the best test location (closest to the test taker) and first choice of test dates, registering as soon as possible is recommended. Most test dates will be open for registration approximately five to seven months in advance.
Determining testing center.
After registering, the MCAT Registration System will provide the nearest test locations that are still available. This is why registering as soon as possible is so important.
Preparing for the MCAT: Tips and Practice Exams
Sun Tzu said that the best military minds will engage in battle only after it has already been won. The MCAT isn’t exactly warfare, but the same concept applies: acing the test depends primarily on what you do to prepare for it. Therefore, what and how you study before test day is of vital importance.
Know what type of learner you are and your best studying practices.
Top Tips for Test Prep:
Prepare for the MCAT well in advance. “Do not try to cram studying the material,” warns C. Nicole Swiner, better known as DocSwiner, a family physician and adjunct professor at the UNC School of Medicine. “Set aside three to four months for a detailed study schedule.”
The MCAT covers a large amount of information, so studying a bit every day is important. “It is important to schedule out your day to include studying, and you must be disciplined to follow your schedule. Also, it is important to schedule a day without studying,” says DocSwiner.
Focus on real MCAT practice tests. Time is a precious resource when taking the test. Anything to save a few seconds here and there will add up to significant additional time. One way to save time is to become very familiar with the format of the questions. The best way to do this is take as many real practice tests as possible.
Identify strengths and weaknesses. Most people won’t have enough time or willpower to study as much as they’d like. Therefore, they will need to triage their study time. This means spending extra time on difficult concepts and less time on topics that are already well understood.
Don’t bother trying to memorize everything. “There is so much info that you have to prioritize what information is important to study,” DocSwiner points out.
Learn how to think critically. Yes, the MCAT tests knowledge, but it also measures how someone applies that knowledge. This means critical thinking is as important as overall knowledge to mastering the MCAT. There are a variety of ways to learn how to think critically for the MCAT, but prep courses and study guides can make this process go faster.
Write down study goals. When taking several months to prepare for something, it’s easy to start off slow with the studying. It’s also easy to feel like you’re studying more than you really are. Having written study goals makes it clear if you are (or are not) studying as you should.
Don’t be afraid to start at the beginning. If you know little about a topic, it might be helpful to take an MCAT prerequisite course, like introduction to biology or chemistry.
The day before the test, take it easy. When it’s less than 24 hours before the MCAT, an additional few hours of studying are not likely to make a huge difference. However, using those hours to get extra sleep, confirm the test location and make sure everything is in order, such as having all required documentation, food and drink for lunch, etc., will be time well spent.
MCAT Practice Exams and Study Guides
The MCAT is like many other standardized entrance exams in that thousands of people take it and almost as many people look for ways to study for it. As a result, a variety of self-study guides and practice tests are available from a number of providers.
AAMC Official MCAT Prep Hub:
This is the newly launched online headquarters for official test preparation materials. From here, users can also purchase official practice exams and study guides directly from the AAMC.
Dr. Flowers MCAT:
This MCAT prep program is not as well-known as many others, but it’s far cheaper and offers a guarantee: register for a program lasting 12 weeks or more and score at least a 508. If the test taker does not, they can retake the program at no additional charge.
Kaplan is one of the most recognized and well-known test prep companies out there. They offer a range of MCAT prep options, although they don’t come cheap.
The Khan Academy offers hundreds of MCAT prep exercises, all at no charge.
The Princeton Review:
The Princeton Review is another major player in the MCAT prep industry and is priced similarly to its competitors, such as Kaplan.
Utilize free online resources and identify students who are also studying for the MCAT. They can help hold you accountable to your study schedule, and they can help you study.
Test Day: Rules for MCAT Success
All the preparation in the world is all for naught if you’re not allowed in the testing center or get kicked out for a policy violation. Follow all the rules so all that hard work pays off.
Discussing the MCAT.
As a condition of taking the MCAT, test takers must agree to keep its content confidential. There may be no detailed discussions with others about the exam’s content. This means:
- No discussions with others about their answer to a particular question.
- No request for assistance from others in trying to recreate a section or question from the exam.
- Only general discussion about the test center’s conditions and basic scientific concepts may be shared with others.
- For more details about what can or cannot be said to others, look at these guidelines.
Policies and Procedures for MCAT Testing Centers.
- Test takers must provide valid ID to take the exam.
- Everything in the test taker’s possession must be placed into the locker, except for the ID and the locker key.
- Before entering the testing room, test takers must go through a security check and have their picture and finger prints taken and signature recorded.
- When returning from a break, once at the testing computer, a test taker must resume taking the test, even if some break time remains.
Items Allowed in the MCAT Testing Area.
Please note: The last three items on this list are provided by the testing center. The only thing the test taker must bring is their ID.
- Photo ID
- Noteboard and marker
- Locker or storage key
- Foam, wireless earplugs
Guidelines for Scheduled Exam Breaks.
There are three breaks during the MCAT. Two of them last 10 minutes; one lasts 30 minutes to allow for lunch. All breaks are optional. The 10-minute break follows the first section and precedes the final section. The 30-minute break follows the second section. During breaks, test takers will have a little more leeway in what they can have in their possession, but there are still strict rules in place.
- Even during a break, test takers cannot access their phone or use any other electronic device.
- Test takers may not reference any notes, study guides or materials.
- If test takers wish to eat their lunch or access any medication, they may retrieve it from their storage locker. They are not allowed to leave the testing facility.
Understanding Scoring for the MCAT
The MCAT score means little without proper context and explanation. For example, a perfect score is a 528, but it doesn’t mean much until you understand where that number comes from.
How does MCAT scoring work?
The MCAT score is scaled, which means raw scores are converted into a format that compensates for variations in difficulty for each testing cycle. There are four scored sections on the MCAT, with a lowest possible score of 118 and a highest possible score of 132. Each section’s scaled score is totaled, with the median hovering around 500.
What is included in the MCAT score report?
Most test takers only care about their score, which is understandable. But a final score is accompanied by a score report which helps add some background to the score itself. Here are the components:
This shows how well the test taker did in relation to other test takers who took the same exam. The higher the percentile, the better the test taker performed.
A confidence band provides rough estimate of how accurate the test score is. The wider the band, the less accurate a test taker’s score really is. A confidence band is like a margin of error.
This helps the test taker visualize how they did on a particular section of the MCAT.
When are scores released?
Scores are usually available 30–35 days after test day.
What’s the test retake policy?
Prospective medical school students can retake the MCAT, but there is a limit on the number of times they can take the MCAT each year (three) as well as a lifetime test limit of seven.
When should I consider retaking the MCAT?
It’s common for medical school applicants to retake the MCAT. However, these individuals need to understand that medical schools will see all scores, regardless of any subsequent improvement. Additionally, test takers must consider what they can do differently the next time they take the MCAT to ensure a higher score.
Though the MCAT is important for getting into medical school, “admission officers are usually interested in students holistically. A good doctor is not one who can only state facts but is also one who can empathize and relate to patients.
MCAT Test Accommodations for Students with Disabilities
Individuals with certain disabilities might be at a disadvantage when taking tests like the MCAT. Luckily, there are accommodations available to level the playing field.
MCAT Exam Accommodations for Students with Disabilities
Additional Resources for Students Preparing for the MCAT
Getting as much assistance as possible for a test of such importance is always a good thing. Here are a few resources to help that along:
Altius MCAT Prep:
In addition to paid MCAT prep offerings, Altius offers a free practice test from 2015.
Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC):
The AAMC administers the MCATs. Its website serves as a one-stop location for all official MCAT information, including registration and MCAT prep.
Union Test Prep:
Offers free study aids for the MCAT, including flash cards, study guides and practice tests.
This is a MOOC provider with many courses that cover academic subjects on the MCAT. These are not targeted MCAT study exercises, but the courses are free, and it’s a great place to learn the basics.
Another example of a MOOC provider with free courses that cover many of the topics that make up the MCAT.
In addition to providing MCAT prep services and materials, users can read a variety of blog posts and articles with advice on taking the MCAT.