You’ve always thought about pursuing a career in medicine. What once began as a childhood dream has now become an attainable career option. It’s finally time to start taking the steps necessary to make it a reality. But you know there are a few things standing between you and a medical school acceptance letter.
One significant step is taking the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). This notorious test is one that keeps many aspiring med school students up at night. So it’s no surprise that you have some questions about the exam.
How long is the MCAT? How can you ensure you’re prepared to succeed? How important is it for acceptance into medical school?
These are all valid questions, and ones that many applicants before you have asked. That’s why we enlisted some medical experts to help provide the answers you need to feel prepared.
5 things you should know before taking the MCAT
1. The MCAT is an extensive exam
It’s the burning question you want answered: How long is the MCAT, exactly? If you plan to take the exam, be prepared to spend the entire day at your testing site. The MCAT takes seven and a half hours and is composed of 230 questions. Keep in mind that this time period does include a lunch break and a few other short breaks.
On the big day, you will check in and put your belongings in a locker, explains Dr. Richard Beddingfield, author of Med School Uncensored. You’ll then be escorted to a cubicle and provided with headphones to cancel noise. The exam is computer-based and administered multiple times each year at hundreds of local test sites.
2. The MCAT is broken down into four sections
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) administers the exam, with more than 80,000 medical hopefuls taking the standardized, multiple choice test each year. The exam was reconfigured in 2015 and is now longer in length, with 230 questions compared to its predecessor’s 176 questions.
“It’s essentially a big science exam, focusing on biology, chemistry, biochemistry, physics, and behavioral sciences,” Dr. Beddingfield says.
The questions are organized into the following four 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
Those who complete the test will receive five results scores — an individual score for each of the sections along with an overall score. Test takers typically learn how they scored about a month after the exam is taken.
3. You’ll need to devote some serious time studying
You’re probably wondering when you should start studying for the MCAT. Dr. Beddingfield recommends beginning the process early in your junior year of college, aiming to take the MCAT toward the end of that school year.
While there are no official prerequisites for taking the MCAT, you’d be wise to have already completed courses that align with the subjects covered in the exam — including biology, physics, psychology, sociology, organic chemistry, and biochemistry.
With so much of your future hinging on the success of your MCAT score, don’t be surprised to find a huge market of MCAT test prep materials, guides, and courses. Try your hand at practice MCAT exams online to get a feel for the format and timing of the exam. This preparation will instill a critical component of MCAT success: confidence.
“The most important aspect of the MCAT is confidence. You need to practice, practice, practice,” says Dr. Alex Roher, a board-certified anesthesiologist and founder of SD Botox. He attributes his MCAT success to the numerous practice exams he took. “I knew what to expect and what to look for in trick questions. Being prepared breeds confidence and success.”
4. A strong MCAT score can set you up for success
Total scores can range from 472 to 528 for the MCAT. A strong performance on the exam can help you stand out to admissions teams. The average MCAT score for everyone who applied to US medical schools for the 2019-2020 year was 506.1. For comparison, the average MCAT score for students admitted to an MD program in the United States in 2017–2018 is between 510 and 511. However, you should remember a slightly lower score is not a deal breaker. Medical schools take every part of your application into account.
Should you be unhappy with your MCAT score, rest easy knowing you can retake the exam. In fact, you can take the MCAT as many as three times in a year, four times in two consecutive years, and a maximum of seven times throughout your lifetime.
5. MCAT scores matter — to a certain extent
Each institution has their own way of reviewing medical school applications. Keep in mind that a great MCAT score and GPA alone will not guarantee your admittance to medical school. Rather, they are considered as part of a greater equation.
“Admissions officers want to see a glimmer of who you are behind the GPA, MCAT score, academic awards and extracurricular activities,” explains Dr. Beddingfield. “Be honest. Share a personal story or experience. Show them who you are as a person.”
"Share a personal story or experience. Show them who you are as a person."
Schools seek a demonstration of certain personal attributes that are important to medical practice, such as integrity, collaboration, and a commitment to service. They examine an applicant’s life experiences, extracurricular activities, and personal statements. And then there’s the interviews, letters of recommendation, and alignment with the institution’s values.
Simply put, a lot goes into the admission process.
But medical schools receive more applications than they can accept. In fact, only an estimated 41 percent of applicants matriculate in the US. Because schools simply don’t have the capacity to accept all of these aspiring doctors, the MCAT score and GPA are often used as ways to narrow down the applicant pool. Knowing this, it’s certainly not something you should take lightly.
Prepare for success
The MCAT is a significant step toward fulfilling your dream of becoming a doctor. But instead of considering it an obstacle, consider it something to add your arsenal for your medical school applications. Devote some serious time and energy into preparing yourself for the exam.
But remember: The MCAT is only part of the equation. Medical school admissions teams have a much more holistic approach to evaluating candidates. Learn more about what exactly they’re looking for in our article, “Medical School GPA: Why Good Grades Are Only Part of the Equation.”
* This article has been updated from a previous version to include current facts and figures.
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