The Exam

As a pre-med, one of the most daunting and time consuming aspects of applying to medical school is studying for and taking the MCAT or Medical College Admission Test. When considering you for admission, medical schools look at this exam as a future reflection of how you may do on your USMLE Step 1 exam.

“The Medical College Admission Test® (MCAT®) is a standardized, multiple-choice examination designed to assess the examinee’s problem solving, critical thinking, writing skills, and knowledge of science concepts and principles prerequisite to the study of medicine. Scores are reported in Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, Writing Sample, and Biological Sciences. Almost all U.S. medical schools require applicants to submit MCAT exam scores. Many schools do not accept MCAT exam scores that are more than three years old.” 1

The current MCAT is a computer-based exam that consists of four sections:

Physical Sciences Section: 52 multiple-choice questions, 70 minutes
Verbal Reasoning Section: 40 multiple-choice questions, questions, 60 minutes
Writing Section: 2 prompts, 30 minutes each (60 minutes total)
Biological Sciences Section: 52 multiple-choice questions, 70 minutes

Between each section is an optional 10 minute break. There is also a somewhat time consuming security and check-in process for taking this exam, giving the test an average length of 5 hours. Please note, starting in 2013, the writing section will be removed and replaced by a unscored trial section (info here). Starting 2015, exams will be drastically changed, see here).


Preparing for the MCAT begins with taking and mastering the medical school prerequisite classes, often undertaken in your first two years of college. So, when you’re sitting there saying “Physics sucks, when will I ever use this in real life?”…well, at the very least, you will use it on your MCAT. Along with taking the prerequisite classes, some other classes may be of benefit to you on your MCAT, such as physiology, anatomy, microbiology, etc.

The next step in preparing for the MCAT is to take a “baseline” exam, an exam before you start studying so that you can compare back to see how you have improved. There are a few free exams offered around the internet, including from the AAMC. Personally, I would avoid taking the free practice exams offered by test-prep companies, as they are usually exponentially harder than the actual MCAT, with the hope of making you score horribly, freak out, and sign up for their program.

After that, your next step will be to actually start studying. Unless you are a savant genius, chances are that you will have to put a considerable amount of time into studying. At this point, many people decide to go ahead and sign up for an MCAT test-prep class, usually because it will “force them” to study for the test. These classes are very expensive, usually in the range of $2,000 (although sometimes you can get discounts by being part of a university pre-med club).

My take on test-prep classes: If one can afford it*, these classes are a great resource for helping you prepare for the MCAT. A common misconception is that simply attending these classes will get you prepared. You will have to put 3-4x as much time into studying outside of the class as you do attending the class. These prep-courses will be worthless to you if you do not do a majority of the assignments and practice tests (at some point, they assign you so much work it becomes near impossible to do it all). If you do intend on taking a prep course, I recommend taking it during the summer. Trying to take a prep-course while also focusing on doing well in your classes will prove impossible. Lastly, one of the test-prep companies offers a “Holiday Hell”, a 6+ hour a day, 7 days a week program that encompasses the entirety of your Christmas holiday; although this program offers the same courses you would take at any other time of the year, they have now condensed a few months of class and study into ~20 days, setting you up for disaster and implosion. If you did not get it from my subtle hints, DO NOT take a “Holiday Hell” test-prep course.

My recommendation:

  1. Take the AAMC free practice test and see how you do
  2. Purchase an MCAT test-prep book and start studying on your own. These books usually come with practice tests. You can also purchase additional practice tests from the AAMC. I personally liked the Princeton Review “Cracking the MCAT” all-encompassing book.
  3. If, after studying on your own, you feel as if you are not reaching your goals, sign up for a test-prep class.
  4. Study your ass off…this test can set the direction for the rest of your life.


Each multiple-choice section on the MCAT is scored on a 15 point scale, with the lowest score possible being a 1 and the highest score possible being a 15. This gives a theoretical range of 3-45, however, since the exam is graded on a non-linear curve , it is very rare to see a score above 43, making that the generally accepted top of the score range.

In the writing section of the exam, each prompt is graded twice, once by a human and once by a computer, and scored on an alphabetical scale from J to T. These alphabets can easily be converted to a number scale:  J (1)   K(1.5)   L(2)   M(2.5)   N(3)   O(3.5)   P(4)   Q(4.5)   R(5)   S(5.5)   T(6). The average of these four scores is taken and you are assigned one letter grade.

For more detailed information, please consult the AAMC.

 Analyzing your performance:

When attempting to analyze your performance on the MCAT, a good place to start is comparing your score against the national averages (+/- is first standard deviation):

2011 National average of examinees (86,181): 25.1 +/- 6.4 O  2
2011 National average of applicants (43,919): 28.2 +/- 5.5 P  3
2011 National average of matriculants  (19,230): 31.1 +/- 4.1 Q  3

Quite often, the “magic number” that people note is a 30, however, it seems that this number (along with the National averages) are increasing slightly every year.

The next step of analyzing your score is to compare your score with that of the average accepted score at the medical schools which you may be interested in. A handy tool for doing this is the “Are your MCAT Scores competitive? Find out.” page located here. This tool compares your score against that of the average scores of accepted students at most U.S. medical schools and also takes into account your GPA and state of residence. I personally consider this tool a “first view” of the possibilities and encourage you to double check the averages listed with that on the medical school’s website and/or by purchasing the AAMC MSAR (Medical School Admission Requirements) book (sometimes, you can get this book for free and or borrow it from your university’s health professions office).

 Retaking the MCAT?

After analyzing your score, if you feel that your score is not competitive and/or reflective of your perceived abilities, you may consider retaking the MCAT. Don’t worry, retaking the MCAT is not the end of the world, just the end of your social life for the next few months…AGAIN. The AAMC allows you to retake the exam up to 3 times a year as allowed by available seats. When submitting scores, medical schools will see all MCATs that you had graded (there is an option at the end of each exam to void the test). Most medical schools will consider your most recent score, as it is the best reflection of your current knowledge level. Therefore, if you take the exam twice and score lower the second time, you have just decreased your chances of getting into medical school. Although I was not able to find any official statistics on this, it seems that the average number of times an applicant takes the MCAT is two. The biggest reason for this is that many people take the MCAT the first time without being fully prepared.

My recommendation: Study hard and do not take the MCAT until you are absolutely sure you will get the score you want the first time. Each sitting of the MCAT will cost you $240 (this price goes up every year) and for every time you have to take the MCAT, you will have to scarifice months of time from other important aspects of your life and/or application, such as classes.

 Additional MCAT tips:

  • Create a calendar/timeline for yourself for when you would like to take the MCAT and the time you will be using to study for it.
  • Sign up for an MCAT exam seat the first day registration opens. Depending on when and where you would like to take the MCAT, seats fill up fast and you may be stuck with unfavorable times and/or locations.
  • *I had a friend who took out a loan and created a payment plan with the test-prep company, just so that he could take the class. It was a lot of money and a though choice to make, but he is now in medical school.


1: Accessed: 4/22/12
2: Accessed: 4/22/12
3: Accessed: 4/22/12