How To Study For The MCAT

The MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) is a national standardized test used by virtually all medical schools in the United States to evaluate applicants for entry into their medical programs.

The MCAT tests students’ knowledge of science, as well as their critical thinking, analytic, problem-solving, and writing skills. Most medical school admission boards place as much weight on an applicant’s MCAT score as they do on their GPA.

If a student’s MCAT score and GPA offer conflicting assessments of an applicant’s qualifications, it’s common for admission boards to place more weight to the MCAT score.

What is on the MCAT?

The MCAT is made up of four sections. These include Physical Sciences (chemistry and physics), Biological Sciences (biology and organic chemistry), Verbal Reasoning, and Writing. The Physical Sciences section consists of 52 multiple-choice questions which must be completed within 70 minutes.

The Biological Sciences section consists of 52 multiple-choice questions which must be completed in under 70 minutes. The Verbal Reasoning section of the exam includes 40 multiple-choice questions which must be completed in 60 minutes.

Finally, the Writing Sample section consists of two essays which must be completed in 60 minutes.

How is the MCAT scored?

The Physical Sciences, Biological Sciences and Verbal Reasoning sections of the test are all multiple choice. They are graded purely based on the number of questions answered correctly. There is no penalty for incorrect answers.

The individual scores from each of the three sections are then converted to scaled scores using a 15-point scale. The scores are then combined to create a composite score for the three multiple choice sections.

The Writing Sample section of the MCAT includes two essays that are each graded on a 6-point scale by two graders. Each essay receives two scores, one from each grader. The resulting four scores are then combined to create a raw score for the entire Writing Sample section. The raw score is then converted to a letter grade ranging from J (on the low end) to T (on the high end).

Getting Started

The following steps will help you get ready for the MCAT exam.

Step 1

The MCAT is principally designed to test your knowledge in core areas and critical thinking skills. As a result, you should focus your college studies on scientific concepts and how they’re applied in different scenarios.

Take classes and courses that will prepare you to pass all four sections of the MCAT: Physical Sciences (chemistry and physics), Biological Sciences (biology and organic chemistry), Verbal Reasoning, and Writing.

Step 2

Review the admission requirements for each medical school you plan to apply to before signing up for the MCAT. Although most medical schools located within the United States require applicants to take the MCAT, some schools do not. Register early for the MCAT if you want to apply early to medical school.

Step 3

Sign up for either the April or August test. Most people choose a date which best accommodates their preparation schedule and intended medical school enrollment date. Again, review the admission requirements and dates for each school you’re going to apply to before signing up for the MCAT.

Step 4

Complete the MCAT registration packet once it becomes available after February 1. The packet can be acquired from the MCAT Program Office by calling (319) 337-1357 or from a school advisor.

Step 5

If you think you qualify, ask about the test fee-reduction option. The test fee-reduction option is need based. You can learn more about the AAMC Fee Assistance Program on the AAMC website.


As is the case with most graduate level admission tests, preparation is the key to passing and/or achieving a high score on the MCAT. It is a challenging test. Preparation for the MCAT should begin with the classes you choose to take while you’re still in college and end with focused study several months prior to taking the test.

The following are proven study tips and preparation strategies for improving performance on the MCAT.

Start early

This should be an obvious one, but we want to reiterate how important it is to start your preparation for the MCAT early. Do not cram for the MCAT. Begin your actual test preparation a 2 to 6 months prior to the test.

Six months before test day take an initial diagnostic practice exam to see where you’re at. This will help you determine how well prepared you are for the MCAT, what you should focus on during your subsequent MCAT preparation, and how much prep time you’re likely to need.

Do practice problems

While knowledge acquisition is an important aspect of preparation for the MCAT, it’s not enough. The MCAT is designed to test your ability to apply your knowledge of scientific concepts in various scenarios – to test your ability to think critically.

The best way to enhance your critical thinking ability, as it relates to MCAT performance, is to do practice problems. There are various resources, both on and off line, including Kaplan Test Prep, Khan Academy and Peterson’s, that offer a large selection of MCAT practice questions.

Complete practice tests

Working individual practice questions will help you develop the critical thinking skills necessary to perform well on the MCAT. However, you should also complete several full-length practice tests in preparation for the MCAT.

The MCAT is 6 hours and 15 minutes – one of the longest and most rigorous graduate entrance exams. Completing several practice tests prior to test day will not only improve your critical thinking skills, it will help you build the mental stamina required to maintain your focus throughout the exam. As you take each practice exam, pace yourself. Pacing on the MCAT is a challenge for many students – don’t let it be yours.

Don’t just focus on your strengths

While focusing only on your strengths may be a good strategy for some standardized tests, it isn’t the best test preparation strategy for the MCAT. Whether you decide to study on your own or take an MCAT preparation course, use practice tests to help you identify where your strengths and weaknesses are. Then use this information to develop your study plan. The most effective plan will help you further develop your strengths and improve in your weaker areas.

Don’t overload yourself

If you’re like most premed students, you’ll start preparing for the MCAT while you’re still finishing up your undergraduate degree. During your MCAT preparation period, if at all possible, do not stress yourself out by taking too many undergraduate classes. If you can plan ahead so that you can manage a lighter academic load during this period it will give you more time and mental ability to focus on MCAT preparation.

Get expert advice

Seek advice from people who’ve obtained a high score on the MCAT. Find out what study materials they utilized during their preparation and what preparation strategies they recommend. You may even want to consider enrolling in a MCAT preparatory course.

Many MCAT prep courses are taught by individuals who’ve scored high on the MCAT and who will be able to provide you insight into which testing strategies are likely to work best for you. MCAT preparation courses are held on most college and university campuses. Since these classes often fill up quickly, sign up as soon as possible.

Use good materials

Most universities with premed programs can provide you with good study materials and resources for the MCAT. We highly recommend the study materials published by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), who happen to be the architects and creators of the MCAT.

Try and get your hands on every practice test and practice question from the AAMC. The practice questions published by AAMC usually come from old MCAT exams and the practice tests they provide are going to be closer to the real MCAT than any other source.

Specifically, we recommend purchasing the following study guides published by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC): Practice Test II, III, and IV, Practice Items, and the MCAT Student Manual. If you cannot find them at the bookstore, you can purchase them online.

Other reputable study resources include Kaplan Test Prep and Khan Academy.

Review the subject matter

The MCAT is designed to test analytical and problem solving ability with relation to two major subject areas: Physical Science (chemistry and physics) and Biology (organic chemistry and biology). Even though the focus of the exam is to test understanding and application of knowledge, if you don’t have the knowledge, you’ll struggle.

During your preparation period, dedicate time to reviewing your notes from your science classes and read study materials that will help enhance your knowledge.

How you know when you’re ready

By the time you’ve made it through most of your undergraduate college courses and are ready to take the MCAT, you’ve demonstrated that you can memorize information, use formulas, and learn new concepts.

The people who design the MCAT know that you’re a knowledgeable person. Consequently, they are far more interested in testing your ability to understand and apply concepts than they are in your ability to acquire knowledge and memorize facts.

Specifically, they want to see if you really understand physical, biological, and chemical processes. You’ll know when you’re ready for the MCAT when you can sit down and teach another person how to work the questions and how to understand the concepts and processes that will be on the test.

Another way to know if you are ready for the MCAT is by taking practice tests. If the scores you’re getting on your practice tests aren’t remotely close to your target score, you’re not ready. If you don’t feel ready to take the MCAT, don’t take it.

One of the biggest mistakes anxious pre-med students make is rush to take the MCAT. If you can tell you’re just not ready for the MCAT, then postpone taking the test and give yourself more time to prepare.

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