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Overview of the MCAT: Outline of Sections
The MCAT consists of 4 sections:
- Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
- Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
- Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills.
In between those sections, there are a total of 3 optional breaks: two 5-minute breaks, and one 30-minute mid-exam break. The total content time of the exam (the time you are writing the sections) is around 6 hours and 15 minutes, and the total seated time of the exam (including writing sections, answering surveys, taking the optional tutorial) is around 7 hours and 30 minutes.
The Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems is 95 minutes long and consists of 59 questions. The section consists of introductory-level biology, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and biochemistry. The AAMC website states that of the 59 questions, 25% are introductory biochemistry, 65% are introductory biology, 5% are general chemistry, and 5% are organic chemistry. However, they also stipulate that the percentages have been approximated, and will vary from test to test. They are more of guidelines, than precise values.
The Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems is 95 minutes long and consists of 59 questions. The section consists of introductory-level biology, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, physics, and introductory biochemistry. Of the 59 questions, 30% are general chemistry, 25% are first-semester biochemistry, 25% are introductory physics, 15% are organic chemistry, and 5% are introductory biology. Similar to Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems, these percentages are guidelines and not precise values.
The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section is 90 minutes long and consists of 53 passage-based questions. This section has passages on the social sciences, or humanities, for example, passages on art, Greek mythology, or psychology, that you read, and then answer questions that test your ability to understand, analyze, and reason through what you just read.
Finally, there is the Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior section . This section is 95 minutes long and consists of 59 questions. This section consists of psychology, sociology, and biology concepts. Of the 59 questions, 65% are introductory psychology, 30% are introductory sociology, and 5% are introductory biology.
Giving advice on how a student should focus their time for the MCAT is difficult. We provide some anecdotal evidence from examining the admissions requirements of most Canadian medical schools, as well as past student rest results. The CARS section is the section with both the highest admission requirements from some medical schools, but also the section where students tend to have the most difficulty, year over year. Many students that apply to medical school have a science background, and this typically does not prepare you sufficiently for the CARS section making it daunting for students. Despite this, depending on your own personal background knowledge, it may be wise for students to consider how much time they allocate studying for CARS, relative to the science based sections. Generally, students should consider spending more time studying and practicing the material that they are most unfamiliar with (CARS for many) and the material that will pay off the most (a high CARS score will arguably pay off more than a higher score in the other sections). Please consider this advice in line with other advice and tip you are given.
When Should I Write the MCAT?
While there are no absolute rules that apply to everyone, many students with a science or pre-medical undergraduate background typically write the MCAT the summer after the second year of college or university. There are 3 main advantages to writing the MCAT during the summer after second year:
- Most medicine-oriented students will have the opportunity to take most of the basic science courses (Biology, Chemistry, and Physics) in first year, the advanced science courses (Organic Chemistry and Introductory Biochemistry) in second year, and helpful elective courses (Psychology, Sociology, and English) that will prepare the student well, content-wise, for the MCAT.
- Writing the MCAT after the second year of college or university will both provide you the opportunity to apply to select medical schools as a third year undergraduate and allow you to rewrite the MCAT, if needed, after your third year of undergraduate study.
- If you do not need to rewrite the MCAT in the summer after third year, your summer will be free to focus on extracurriculars, volunteering, and research that can add to your application.
Writing after first or third year are both perfectly valid options if you are planning to apply to medical school with the hopes of entering after completion of a four-year undergraduate program.
If you are not currently in a science or pre-medical undergraduate program, the best timing for when to write the MCAT will be based on your own availability. Studying for the MCAT without recent experience with basic science courses may require more dedicated study time to learn and review the material on the test than an undergraduate science student. Generally speaking, you want to find a period of time where you will have about 3 consecutive months to study with the final 2-4 weeks dedicated to full-time studying. This often means one of your summers for undergraduate students and, in the case of graduate and mature applicants, often involves identifying a period of lower workload and utilizing vacation time for the dedicated study period.
Canadian pre-medical students typically have the window of time from May-September to write the MCAT. There are 5 main considerations to make when it comes to picking your test date:
- Do you have sufficient time to study for the test?
It generally takes 2-3 months of studying to prepare for the MCAT and it is important to ensure that you have sufficient time to cover all of the material on the test and work through practice exams.
- Will you receive your test scores before applications to medical schools are due?
Your score is released approximately 4 weeks after the MCAT test date, thus, students writing at the very end of August or early September may not receive their scores back before being required to submit their medical school application. You can still apply if your MCAT scores are not available yet, so long as your test scores are reported before the deadline for your schools. If you end up becoming eligible then your application proceeds, but if you become ineligible then your applications may not be looked at and you will not get a refund. This is something to consider depending on your financial situation.
- Do I need a break before going back to school/work?
Studying for the MCAT is a mentally exhausting process and many people who write the test will attempt to give themselves a week or more off afterwards before going back to school/work.
- Do the medical school programs have any restrictions on when I can write the MCAT?
Some medical schools require you to submit your MCAT scores by a certain date to be eligible. For example, University of Alberta and UBC require you to submit your MCAT score by October 1st of the year in which you are applying. Scores take approximately 4 weeks to be released, thus you cannot write the MCAT in early September if you would like to apply to UBC. Make sure to look at the specific MCAT writing requirements and deadlines for the schools that you plan to apply to before deciding on a date.
- Do I need time to rewrite the test during the same testing period?
It is possible to write the MCAT twice in a single spring/summer. You must schedule your MCAT date 4 weeks before the test and you do not receive your score until 4 weeks later, thus, the latest date which you can write the MCAT and rewrite it the same summer is late June followed by late August. This often does not give you enough time to sufficiently prepare for the first MCAT test and is not advisable for someone writing the MCAT for the first time.
Keeping in mind the first three considerations, the most popular dates to write the MCAT tends to be late-July to the first week of September. It provides you 3 months to study, allows you to receive your scores before medical school applications are due, and gives undergraduates a few weeks off after the MCAT before returning to school. It is important to note that MCAT test dates open up 6 months in advance - test takers looking to secure their ideal test date should be looking and prepared to sign up on the AAMC website, in February of the corresponding year!
Study Schedule Breakdown
This will differ from person-to-person and depends on a number of factors including, but not limited to, when you are writing, how long you are studying for, and how much of the content you already know before starting to study. Many study schedules can be found on YouTube and reddit (r/mcat), that you can spend time comparing and exploring. Generally, schedules follow a similar framework:
- 4-6 Weeks of Content-Focused studying and learning of material: Reading textbooks, watching online modules or tutorials, practice passages/questions.
- 6+ Weeks of Full-Length Tests/Practice: Prep-company practice tests, AAMC practice tests. Several schedules can be adopted, for example, a full-length test one day followed by reviewing the test the next day, a full-length every 3 days, etc. You can continue to learn or review old content as needed during this time, but the focus should be getting used to the stamina and strategies needed for writing the MCAT.
Prep Companies: Are They For You?
Test prep companies can be a great addition to any student's MCAT studying regimen. With that being said, we want to stress that they are an add-on, and must supplement the student’s discipline and study. They are by no means necessary or essential to getting a good score, they are a supplement and should be used as such.
There are several pros of utilizing a test prep company. They provide a clear studying regimen and plan for students who want an outline and some discipline provided, and you can be assured that they will cover all the content on the MCAT. Even with the schedule prep courses provide, it is also an option and even encouraged to work ahead of schedule - this allows classes to be reviewing content you have already seen rather than content you do not know. With that being said, test prep companies should be used to gain skills on process (i.e. test taking for the MCAT), NOT for content. A student can use the AAMC website to find out the content of the MCAT and purchase the required textbooks from a myriad of test prep companies (used, online) for a fraction of the price of taking a test prep companies course. Prep companies may be right for you if you are someone who likes to have concepts explained in person, similar to the format of an office hours. There are several options for prep companies and they are all generally similar. Having instructors to get to know in person may create a different experience albeit more expensive. The greatest asset of prep companies is usually the practice questions, passages, and full-length tests that each course will also provide.
There are several disadvantages of test prep companies that should be discussed. First and foremost, the price tag can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending upon the amount of in-person teaching/tutoring. Remember that if you are willing to pay the price tag for a test prep company's service, you are paying to gain process (MCAT test taking) skills, NOT to have someone teach you content that you have likely already learned, and could learn on your own. This brings us to the second con of test prep companies. A lot of in-class teaching will be teaching content, despite most of the value coming from process. Reason being, to teach the process, one must know the content, and a significant amount of class time will be allotted as such. Related to this, many test prep companies have specific approaches to working through the critical analysis and reasoning section (CARS) of the MCAT. This section is the lightest on content and the most heavy on process. However, due to the unique process and analytic reasoning focus of CARS, strategies to approach the section suggested by test prep companies can be hit or miss for specific students. Generally speaking, no matter what approach to CARS a test prep company teaches, the only reliable way to get better at it is to pick a strategy that you’re comfortable with and practice repeatedly. If you’re only looking to improve your CARS score test prep companies aren’t reliably helpful enough to recommend.
The Princeton Review
This is a commonly used test prep company that will ensure extremely comprehensive education on content, with some good strategies for approaching the process. The classic Princeton Review teaching programs consist of class ~3 hours a day for ~4 days per week in the mornings, afternoons, or evenings for flexibility in options. The schedule will typically have one subject area assigned to each class (ex: June 1st - Biology Class 7, June 7th - Physics Class 2, June 3rd - CARS Class 4, etc) corresponding to certain chapters of the book. The content will be reviewed while also sharing test-taking strategies and going over practice questions with approaches to them. It may be worthwhile to call and ask how many students are enrolled in a particular class as this may vary. For example, an evening TPR class may have less than 10 students while a morning class may have over 30. Clearly in the former, there is a smaller student to teacher ratio which will create for a more engaging experience that is much more worth the price-tag. Overall, it is important to pick the time that is most conducive to the rest of your life whether that is work, summer school, etc. but the student to teacher ratio of different times can also be kept in mind. They provide solid study regimens to excel on the MCAT and a guarantee that if you do not achieve your desired score on the MCAT, you can retake the class at no charge (please look into the fine print - although they seem to honour this well). The Princeton Review will prepare you very well for all sections of the MCAT, excluding CARS. In terms of CARS, process is far more important than content (which you do not need to know), and the Princeton Review’s process strategies for CARS are both cumbersome and complicated. Simplicity of approach to CARS is key, and The Princeton Review does not provide this. If you are looking for test prep for CARS, look to ExamKrackers books (used, older books online will do fine - as long as they are up to date with the most recent CARS). Overall, The Princeton Review prepares you well for content and process for all the sciences on the MCAT, but is lackluster for the CARS section, and overall comes at one of the higher end price tags for MCAT test prep.
Sharing Prep Company Resources
It is possible to decrease the cost of prep company resources by sharing them among friends or peers who are also writing during the same time period as you. Note: this works best if you choose not to opt for in-person sessions but you can decide among your own group to share online resources regardless, the cost just may not be as easily split. Individuals may choose to purchase practice tests or online courses from various companies: ExamKrackers, NextStep, TPR, Kaplan, etc. The logins for the courses can be shared between each other and would allow for a much larger pool of practice questions that are integral to the later weeks of studying.
We have spoken about the utility of prep companies in the section above and it is worth speaking a bit about private tutors. The major prep companies often hire students who have done well on their MCAT, provide them with minimal training, and then let them teach a course. This is also true with all CASPer/interview prep companies. Above we talked about the major pros of prep companies which are structure, practice tests and easy to access materials. However, if you have decided to study on your own with textbooks, it is still very valuable to reach out to someone who did very well on the MCAT to learn their strategy. We cannot stress enough that the MCAT is a test of skills much more than content, so your approach to the sections is more important than how much material you can memorize. In terms of finding private tutors there are some factors to keep in mind:
Look for tutors who have achieved high scores. It should not be hard to find someone who scored in the 95th percentile or above.
Look for tutors who have extensive teaching experience, work for a prep company side or are already in medical school and can also give you guidance on other aspects. Ask around to see if any friends met strong tutors or are close enough with someone to ask for some free advice.
You should start by looking into free programs in your area where tutors will give free guidance. Oftentimes medical schools may have their own MCAT prep summer programs with medical student volunteers.
If not, try to find the best price for experience that you can find. Better to pay someone good $70-100/hr than someone mediocre $55/hr. Expect to pay pretty high prices, but no one's hourly fee who is tutoring privately should exceed what prep companies are charging for 1-1 time.
You will likely get better prices by finding people individually rather than through an established tutoring company
Using A Tutor Efficiently
It is best to meet with someone before you start studying so they can give you a strategy for studying and give you an overview of strategy for the sections. This way you maximize your study time by being efficient from the outset.
Make sure they clearly write out their strategy on a document for you, so that you can take it home and reference it whenever.
It is likely not worth your time to spend hours getting tutors to teach you content, because you can quickly blow through your money paying for something Khan Academy would work just as well for. Try to focus on strategy and working through passages together. If there are any high yield topics you notice you are struggling with, then it might be worth it to go over it with a tutor.
Resources to Use: Overview of Books & Other Resources
- The organization that administers the MCAT
- Have various resources including question banks for specific sections and practice tests
- These may come with other company’s resources (for example: can be accessed if purchase TPR Courses)
- The single-most important resource as they are straight from the source, and most representative
- Save these for towards the end, when you have done a few full-length tests and know the content well as the score can be very predictive on how you will perform on test-day
- These resources are very valuable (do not want to waste them!)
The Princeton Review (TPR)
- These books tend to be content-heavy, covering likely more than you need thus good for those that like this type of reassurance
- Any course comes with access to online videos, practice questions, passages, and full-length tests
- The questions and tests tend to be more challenging than the real MCAT will be and thus scores will likely be lower than reality
- Content-heavy, comprehensive books
- Numerous Resources
- Questions tend to be more challenging
- Books cover high yield material in a simple and easy to understand manner
- Many visual aids that can help with recall
- Less comprehensive than some other popular resources
- Practice exams approximate AAMC style but can be more difficult and detail-oriented
- Excellent resource for reviewing content for which one already has a knowledge base or when time is limited. Best used closer to the exam date
- Practice exams are reasonably close to AAMC style
- Offers a succinct yet comprehensive depiction of content covered on the MCAT
- Writing style is more brief and factual rather than narrative; ideal for those who prefer straight-to-the point facts
- Questions tend to be content based and detail-oriented
- Books provide succinct, comprehensive, straight to the point content review. Sufficient as a sole resource
- Practice exams can be helpful to review knowledge of content but are not similar in style to AAMC exams
- Practice exams are not necessarily representative of AAMC style exams
- Extremely detailed and comprehensive, narrative-style depiction of content
- Combination of concept-based and detail oriented questions
- Ideal for those who may be lacking in foundational knowledge; can be used as a primary or reference resource
- Ideal for those with significant time to devote to content review and overall study plan
- Questions tend to be challenging compared to other resources
Blue Print (formerly Next Step)
- Provides full-length practice exams that are considered to be the most similar to AAMC exams
- Can be useful to do some exams early on to provide context for studying without using one of the official AAMC exams
- Good additional resource for becoming comfortable with the AAMC style of MCAT questions
- Completely Free Resource
- Online modules/videos and question banks
- Comprehensive content coverage but can be very time consuming; ideal to use as a reference to build upon areas where foundational knowledge may be lacking
- Question repository is detail oriented and is helpful for retention of information
- Not necessarily representative of AAMC style; best used as a learning tool
- Best resource for Psychology and Sociology section (look for the 100 page document online)
- Free online internet forum; place for discussions and resource-sharing
- Good for getting multiple perspectives to questions you may have
- Filled with years of threads to look back on for common questions
Youtube Channels & Videos
- A number of YouTube channels serve as free resources for material review
- These channels are not made specifically for the MCAT but can help to explain tested topics
- AK Lectures
- Science Simplified
Are There Classes I Should Take in Undergrad to Prepare?
Choosing your major, let alone your classes in undergrad, is one of the most stressful considerations along your premedical journey. Obviously, everyone knows their own capability and the level at which they can operate, but you do want to strike a balance between taking useful and interesting courses that will help you - while still maintaining a high GPA. It is worth repeating here your GPA is the most important part of your application based on the data of schools that release their selection criterion. This is because many schools will not even look at your application if your GPA does not meet a cut-off AND you can retake your MCAT but it is much more difficult to improve your GPA.
That being said, there are some really helpful classes you can take in undergrad that do help with the MCAT. Luckily, many of these classes also commonly fall under the admission requirements for medical school and even non-science majors may have to take these courses. There are also other considerations for which undergraduate courses to take.
Factors in Deciding Courses
- Does it satisfy a requirement for my major?
- Is it a requirement for the med schools I want to apply to?
- Do I need this course to do upper year courses?
- Does it help me with my MCAT?
- Can I get a high grade?
The more boxes a course checks, the better it is for you to take it. There are also other considerations like who the teacher is, do I have good notes/labs from past years I could use, are my friends in it, does it give me a longer weekend - the debate is endless.
But, focusing solely on the MCAT, these are the most helpful courses to take listed as being in the A tier, B tier or C tier. This is based on a combination of how much breadth they cover and how many essential skills they cover. Think of A tier as pretty essential, B tier as highly recommended and C tier as useful if you are interested.
This covers all the non-organic chem components of the chemistry section.
Essential MCAT Skills: Math, algebra, understanding graphs, understanding proportionality, ratios, applying equations to theoretical questions, experimental design, understanding behaviour of positive and negative charges.
This covers the basics of all the major organ systems in the human body and key physiologic concepts like osmolarity, diffusion, pressure gradients and how proteins work. Probably the most useful course for med school as well.
Essential MCAT Skills: Gradients, proportionality, organ systems, negative feedback, understanding graphs.
Covers all the non-human biology on the MCAT including DNA replication, cell division, prokaryotes and eukaryotes, Mendellian genetics, evolution, protein transcription and translation, cell membranes, mutations
Essential MCAT Skills:Following complex biologic pathways, experimental design
A biochemistry course should cover the basics of amino acids, enzyme kinetics, molecular structure of nucleic acids, carbohydrates and fats. Major metabolic pathways like glycolysis, fermentation, Krebs etc.
Essential MCAT Skills: Michaelis-Menten kinetics, understanding chemical structure, understanding complex biochemical pathways.
Should cover the basics of functional groups, chemical reactions, reaction mechanisms, stereochemistry and key methods for experimental design such as chromatography.
Essential MCAT Skills:Understanding chemical reactions, applying the principles of polar and non-polar, understanding separation and analysis techniques.
Intro to Physics *(see below)
Should cover all of the physics section including work and energy, kinematics, kinetics, thermodynamics, lenses/mirrors, electricity, sound and light waves, fluids, basic nuclear physics, gases, vectors and scalars.
Essential MCAT Skills: Math and algebra, applying theoretical concepts to equations, gradients, proportionality.
Intro to Physics *(see below)
More advanced understanding of the cell membrane, cytoskeleton, proteins, transporters, gradients, translation, transcription.
Essential MCAT Skills: Understanding flow of information in biologic systems.
Intro to Psychology
Should cover the basics of the entire psych section. Will likely not be fully comprehensive but should cover: perception, behaviour, mental illness, CNS hormones, learning theories, cognition. You may also learn some really good study strategies from this material. Not A tier because not as difficult of a section as the other science sections so you do not necessarily need an undergrad course to cover it, although it is helpful.
Essential MCAT Skills: Differentiating between similar concepts, experimental design, reasoning beyond the text.
Advanced Biology Courses
Genetics Research Methods
Essential MCAT Skills:More advanced understanding of genetics and research methods.
Advanced Physiology Courses
Immunology, cancer biology and other upper year physiology courses.
Essential MCAT Skills:Understanding biologic systems and research design.
Intro to Sociology
Should cover the basics of the sociology section, although the sociology section does not have much material and many people are able to do well with no prior knowledge.
Essential MCAT Skills:Differentiating between similar concepts, experimental design, reasoning beyond the text.
*Only A tier if your school weighs chem/phys equally or heavily OR you are good at physics OR your school has an easy first year physics program. For example, in Ontario, the chem/phys section is weighed much lower than Bio and CARS therefore spending the time and energy on basic physics matters less. Additionally, many people who are not experienced with physics can still do well on the MCAT because the content is not as math heavy as an undergrad course with calculators would be.
A common question people ask if there are any undergrad courses that prepare you for the CARS section. This is a pretty difficult question to answer and is course dependent. There is a misconception that taking humanities, history, or art courses will prepare you for CARS, but they will only be useful if they focus on critical analysis of literature.
Knowing the material beforehand does not help on CARS very much because it is a highly skill-based section. That being said, courses in English that critically analyze literature, law courses, or philosophy/logic, might be helpful to develop the critical thinking skills necessary to do well in CARS. Many US schools require English for admission, so if you are planning on taking English look for a course that focuses on critical analysis if you think you can get a good grade.
Once You Are Accepted
Your MCAT score is an important aspect of your medical school application, however, it can be difficult to know what score you need to be accepted. Many schools have minimum overall scores you must achieve, other schools require you to obtain a certain score in specific section to be eligible, and others look at the scores competitively. Most schools have an Admissions page that will outline what their MCAT requirements are, and it would be helpful to acquaint yourself with their requirements as you prepare to write the MCAT. In addition to these requirements, it’s also difficult to know what score you need to be competitive relative to other applicants. One strategy to get a clearer picture of what you need to score is by looking at the websites of the schools you are interested in. Many schools will publish statistics for specific years of what the average MCAT mark of accepted applicants, and even for applicants who were invited for an interview. For example, the University of Manitoba has a page that has GPA, and MCAT statistics for quite a few classes. Some schools will also have cutoff marks that you must achieve in order to be eligible for acceptance.
Once you are in medical school, it can be easy to get caught up in MCAT marks and who got what score, but overall, your MCAT mark has no significant bearing on your medical school career. It does not dictate how well you will do in medical school, or what residency position you will get.