What is the MCAT?

Gold Standard (GS) MCAT Prep Guide: MCAT Description

What is the MCAT? | Who Can Take the MCAT? | When to take the MCAT? | What sections are on the MCAT?
Exam-day MCAT Test Schedule | MCAT Changes
GS Commentary about the MCAT

Start your MCAT prep by familiarizing yourself with the exam. This Gold Standard (GS) MCAT Guide shares answers to questions such as what is the MCAT, who can take the MCAT, when to take the MCAT, and information regarding the different exam sections, test schedule and much more. Through links to other free web pages, our GS MCAT Guide also provides comprehensive information regarding MCAT topics covered in the current exam, preparation advice, a plan for 2- and 3-month MCAT study schedules, test dates, MCAT score information, and free GS MCAT sample questions with helpful explanations. Let’s get started!

What is the MCAT?

The MCAT, which stands for the Medical College Admission Test, is a standardized, multiple-choice exam administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). The exam is a prerequisite for admission to nearly all the medical schools in the US and Canada. Annually, over 80,000 applicants to American and Canadian medical schools submit their MCAT scores (What is a good MCAT score?).

The exam has evolved over the years and, since 2015, has become primarily a reasoning-based exam - although a wide breadth of basic knowledge is required to answer the questions accurately.

The MCAT will evaluate your knowledge of natural, behavioral, and social science concepts and principles, as well as problem solving and critical thinking skills that are required in medical school.

Who can take the MCAT?

    You may take the MCAT if:

  • you are planning to apply to a health profession's school such as allopathic, osteopathic, podiatric and/or veterinary medicine. This also applies to international students.

  • you are applying to any health-related program that will accept MCAT exam results.

  • you are enrolled in an MBBS degree program or if you have such a degree (Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery).
    During MCAT registration, you will be asked to verify your intention to apply to medical school or to a health profession’s school.

Anyone can take the MCAT as long as they are planning to apply to a health professions school. There are no academic prerequisites to take the MCAT. Students with science and non-science backgrounds are eligible to take the exam and have the same opportunity to enter medical school. However, there are recommended undergraduate courses which would help to optimize exam performance. It is important to recognize that recommended courses do not restrict the freedom in pursuing a wide variety of possible undergraduate academic Programs (What college classes do you need to prepare for the MCAT exam?)

When to take the MCAT?

Prospective students usually arrange to take their MCAT a year before their intended matriculation into medical school. For example, if you are applying for medical school in 2019, then you should take the MCAT in 2018. If you are eyeing medical school in 2020, then you can take the MCAT in 2019 or before. Ideally, you should start your MCAT prep at least six months prior to your test date (2018 MCAT Test Dates).

Again, since there are no academic prerequisites for the MCAT, you can take the MCAT as early as your freshman, sophomore or junior year of undergraduate studies. The best time to take the MCAT is when you are ready (consider reading our blog post: How to Determine When to Take the MCAT).

The following diagram is a result of a Johns Hopkins University MCAT Survey of students who had taken the MCAT in the year that the new version of the exam was first administered (2015), and who scored at the 90th percentile or higher. Among the issues explored, was the time of the year that this cohort chose to take the exam.

When should I take the MCAT study results; image modified by Gold Standard MCAT

The fact that 2/3rds of the cohort took the exam in August and September suggests that having most or all of the summer available for MCAT preparation may be one factor in gaining a high MCAT score.

As you consider when to take the MCAT, keep in mind that you can take the MCAT exam up to three times in a single testing year, up to four times in a two consecutive-year period, and up to seven times in a lifetime. Obviously, one would want to minimize the number of times you need to take such a rigorous exam and that is clearly the value of a good MCAT prep. Furthermore, medical schools will not review your application for admission until they have received all your scores from the AAMC.

Students should also take into consideration how medical school admission offices evaluate applicants’ multiple MCAT scores. Some schools consider only your most recent score, whereas others will accept your highest score for each section of the MCAT. In other cases, medical schools may rely solely on percentile rank when comparing your multiple scores. Just keep in mind that medical schools will see all your MCAT attempts during their review of your application.

For guidance on planning all your premed activities including taking the MCAT, click here: AAMC’s Medical School Application Timeline

What sections are on the MCAT?

The four MCAT sections are:

  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (MCAT CARS)
  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior

The table below provides a breakdown of the four sections of the current exam with a comparison to the previous version.

Comparison by Total Number of Questions per MCAT Subject (approx.)

MCAT Subject MCAT 2013 - January 2015 Current MCAT


39 45
Biochemistry 0** 30


26 15
General Chemistry 26 20

Organic Chemistry

13 11
Psychology 0 38


0 18
Verbal Reasoning/CARS* 40 53
Total Number of Questions 144 230
Total Time (not including breaks) 3 h, 20 m 6 h, 15 m

* "CARS" is the acronym for the current MCAT verbal section (Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills). CARS is the same as the old MCAT Verbal Reasoning except that it is longer and it does NOT contain natural sciences-themed passages.

** This is an oversimplification. The ‘old’ MCAT Biological Sciences section actually did contain an unspecified number of questions that would now be considered Biochemistry including biological molecules (Organic Chemistry) and basic metabolism (Biology: glycolysis, Krebs cycle, etc.). However, the current MCAT Biochemistry also includes the pentose pathway, lipid metabolism, gluconeogenesis and other typical first semester college topics.

Note: the above summary does not take into account the fact that many questions in the non-CARS sections will involve basic research methods and statistics in the passages and/or questions.

Exam-day MCAT Test Schedule

The AAMC has designed the MCAT to be longer. That is, 7 hours and 30 minutes long. The table below provides a breakdown of the four MCAT sections, the subjects included in the MCAT exam, the time allotted for you to answer them, as well as the breaks between sections.

Section Questions Time
Before the exam: sign-in, present valid identification, have your fingerprints digitally collected, and have a test-day photograph taken. - -
Tutorial (optional) - 10 minutes

1. Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems

59 95 minutes
Break (optional) - 10 minutes

2. Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills ('MCAT CARS')

53 90 minutes
Mid-Exam/LUNCH Break (optional)* - 30 minutes

3. Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems

59 95 minutes
Break (optional) - 10 minutes

4. Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior

59 95 minutes

Void Question

- 5 minutes

Satisfaction Survey (optional)

12 5 minutes
Total Content Time - 6 hours, 15 minutes
Total "Seated" Time (approx.) - 7 hours, 33 minutes

You may use your optional break to go on to the next MCAT section if you are done with the previous section earlier than the required time. But, the unused time from the previous section will not carry over to the next exam section.

Note: The total time does not include check-in time upon arrival at the test center. In 2012, 65 to 67 questions were planned for the 95- and 90-minute new MCAT sections which would have been proportional to the timing provided for the old version of the exam. However, for the current MCAT the AAMC has allocated only 59 questions for 95 minutes. Because of this subtle change, the new MCAT has more working time per question than the old version of the exam. This means that overall, you will have more time to read passages, consider options and make decisions about your answer choices.

MCAT Changes

The MCAT started as a paper-based standardized test. In 2007, it became a computer-based test. To keep pace with the changes in medicine and science, the AAMC changed the exam again in April 2015. The current MCAT tests not only what examinees know but also how they can use their knowledge to reason.

Section by Section Comparison between the 2 MCAT Versions

  MCAT 2013 - January 2015 Current MCAT

Effective Exam Dates

2013 - January 2015 April 17, 2015 - date unknown (2030?)
Number of Questions 144 + 32 additional 'trial' questions 230

Number of Sections

4 4
Sections (1) Physical Sciences
(2) Verbal Reasoning
(3) Biological Sciences
(4) Trial Section (testing new MCAT questions)
(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

Total Content Time

4 hours and 5 minutes (includes trial section) Approx. 6 hours and 15 minutes
Total "Seated" Time Approx. 5 hours and 10 minutes 7 hours and 30 minutes
Average Time per Question Verbal Reasoning (VR): 1.5 min/q
Non-VR Sections: 1.35 min/q
MCAT CARS: 1.7 min/q
Non-CARS Sections: 1.6 min/q

Subjects Covered

(1) Physical Sciences (52 passage-based + discrete questions; 70 minutes): Physics and General Chemistry

(2) Verbal Reasoning* (40 passage-based questions; 60 minutes): Social Sciences, Humanities, Natural Sciences and Technology (note that the new “Verbal” section called CARS no longer has passages in the Natural Sciences and Technology)

(3) Biological Sciences (52 passage-based + discrete questions; 70 minutes): Biology and Organic Chemistry (note that the "old" MCAT did not cover aromatic chemistry but MCAT2015 does cover aromatics including phenols and heterocycles)

(4) Trial Section (32 questions from randomly selected subjects from the new MCAT; students agreeing to a good faith attempt at solving these questions were rewarded with an Amazon gift card. The score for this trial section did not count towards the overall exam score)

(1) Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems {59 questions: 10 passages with 44 passage-based questions, plus 15 discrete (stand-alone) questions; 95 minutes}: organic and inorganic chemistry (48%), physics (25%), biochemistry (25%), biology (2%), basic research methods and statistics

(2) Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills*: (53 questions: 9 passages and all of the questions are passage-based; 90 minutes): comprehension, analysis and reasoning in ethics, philosophy, cultural studies, population health, social sciences and humanities

(3) Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems {59 questions: 10 passages with 44 passage-based questions, plus 15 discrete (stand-alone) questions; 95 minutes}: biology (65%), biochemistry (25%), organic and inorganic chemistry (10%), basic research and statistics skills

(4) Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior {59 questions: 10 passages with 44 passage-based questions, plus 15 discrete (stand-alone) questions; 95 minutes}: concepts in psychology (60%), sociology (30%) and biology (10%) that provide behavioral and socio-cultural determinants of health; basic research methods and statistics

* Note: The correct answers for this section can either be found directly in the passage or by applying information from the passage to new content presented in the questions.

GS Commentary about the MCAT

What can you expect from the current version of the MCAT exam?

  • The current MCAT is broad, but at the same time, it is a precision tool to assess your grasp of the sciences. Keep in mind that in real life, the boundary between sciences is artificial. A molecule does not know if it is a matter of physics, chemistry or biology. You were trained to put that molecule into a box depending on the course code. The current MCAT blurs the boundary. After all, the molecule is physics, is chemistry, can be biology, and may have psychological or sociological implications.
  • The current MCAT sections cut across scientific disciplines (Physics, Organic Chemistry, Inorganic Chemistry, Biochemistry, and Biology) which interact in living or biological systems. The Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior section seeks to test your grasp of the interplay between Psychology, Sociology and Biology with the context being basic research methods. The latter is also consistent with DSM-5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition).

    The keywords for the new exam are 'foundations' and 'systems'. Just as it takes different elements to create a foundation and it takes all sorts of concepts to comprise a system, so the new MCAT will test your knowledge of how each scientific discipline interacts, interplays and influences other scientific disciplines.

  • The current MCAT is hard. First, it is comprehensive as there are more topics included (Psychology, Sociology, Biochemistry and Statistics). Second, the MCAT sections are organized along different criteria that span all the subjects. Third, the purpose is to ensure that the students who do get accepted to medical school not only have a good foundation of scientific facts and relevant formulae, but also the mental agility to look holistically at the sciences (take in the big picture), and yet be comfortable at critically analyzing scientific data with depth of perception (focus on the necessary details).

    In other words, the new MCAT is not for those who can cram four years' worth of study into three months. It is for those students who can take scientific facts presented to them and make sense of them enough to solve particular problems. All of this is compounded by the fact that the test seeks to probe what you know about how your thoughts, feelings and functioning impact your actions and behavior (Psychology and Social Sciences section). Sounds complicated, doesn't it?

    Well, it is complicated. The science of life and the science of medicine are complicated. Medical technology and medical knowledge are exponentially expanding, and this further complicates what you already know about the science of life. The doctors of tomorrow need to have mental agility to cope with the fast-changing developments in science and technology and yet learn to deal with patients as people and not as mere medical conditions – that is what good doctors are supposed to do. And that is how good medical schools propose to train their students to become the doctors of the future.

Gold Standard MCAT Guide

To help you prepare for the exam, Gold Standard MCAT has laid out comprehensive information on MCAT scores, topics covered, MCAT test dates, preparation advice and free MCAT sample questions.

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