Test Prep

3 Facts to Know Before Taking the MCAT

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If you know that the MCAT is in your future, it helps to understand everything about this exam early so you can develop a study plan. This means understanding test content as well as strategy.

The facts: The MCAT is a six hour and 15 minute-long test (about 7.5 hours total seated time) made up of four sections:


1) Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems

2) Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

3) Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems

4) Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior

The test is entirely computer-based, and each section is scored between 118 and 132 (the total score ranges between 472 and 528).

But beyond the basics, what else should you know to guide your test prep? We asked Dr. Shirag Shemmassian, founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting and a medical school admissions specialist, for the three most important things to be aware of before taking the MCAT.

1) Studying Test Strategy Is As Important As the Test Content

It's essential to focus on studying test content and strategy. Many students spend countless hours studying various scientific principles, but lose sight of the bigger picture. The MCAT is a standardized, multiple-choice test with question patterns that can be anticipated with proven test-taking strategies. Sometimes, a lower-than-expected score reflects struggles in approaching the exam the right way, rather than a lack of scientific knowledge.

You should devote a minimum of three months (15 to 20 hours a week) before taking the MCAT the first time. Any less and you will likely be unable to sufficiently study test content and test strategy. The AAMC’s (the organization that administers the MCAT) official test prep resources are known to be very reflective of the real exam.

Once you’ve built a strong foundation in the natural and social sciences, you should take as many practice exams as possible, simulating testing conditions. Specifically, take full-length tests in a relatively quiet setting and resist the urge to take long breaks or otherwise compromise a realistic test experience. 

2) Aim to Score Above 126 in Each Section

In addition to aiming for your highest total score possible -- the average among matriculants during the most recent admissions cycle was 511.2 -- you should look to score 126 and up in each section. Otherwise, your knowledge of that subject area could be questioned. That said, achieving less than 126 in a particular section does not mean your application is doomed. For instance, if you achieve a 125 on the Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems section, but have an A in all of your biology prerequisite courses, admissions committees may give you some benefit of the doubt.

Waiting until you're ready can help you achieve higher section scores. Try to take the MCAT for the first time after you’ve completed the majority of your pre-med prerequisite courses -- usually after your sophomore year is over -- so your test prep doesn't include concepts that are entirely new to you.

3) Choose Your School When You Know Your Score

Students routinely ask which MCAT score they should aim for. Shemmassian hesitates to provide a specific number because students should try and achieve their best score possible. "If I advise you to aim for a 512, will you study less than if I told you to aim for a 515?" he asks. "Rather than shoot for a specific total, I encourage you to modify your school list based on your GPA and MCAT scores. The higher your stats, the more competitive your school list can be, and vice-versa."

Oftentimes, the question you should ask is not “Can I get in with my numbers?” but rather, “Where should I apply with my numbers?” Approached correctly, your school list can significantly increase your overall admissions odds. If you devote considerable study time to subsequent MCAT attempts (you should take the test two or three times max) but achieve the same or lower score, it may be the right time to stop. Moreover, if you achieve a high enough score for the schools you’re looking to attend, you may want to turn your attention to other aspects of your admissions process.

Keep in mind that, as with any standardized test, your MCAT score is still just one part of your application. Admission committees will also be reviewing your GPA, extracurricular activities, personal qualities and accomplishments to ensure that you are a good fit for the medical field. In addition, it always helps to look good on paper, but your interview gives the school a chance to get to know who you really are as a person -- and a future medical professional.