MCAT Overview: Study Guides, Books, Prep Courses & Other Resources
We answer all your questions about the MCAT, including those about structure and sections of the test, when and where to take it, and the most effective study strategies for getting a great score.
By Riley Stoltenburg, Masters Degree in Public Health
What Is The MCAT?
The Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, is the standardized exam utilized by almost every major school in the U.S. and Canada in its medical school admission process. The MCAT is administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges, or AAMC, and is designed to assess skills that are crucial to success in medical school, including problem solving, critical thinking, and knowledge of natural, behavioral, and social science concepts and principles. As a note, when applying to med school, your MCAT must be recent – most schools will not accept MCAT exam scores that are more than three years old.
MCAT Test Structure
The MCAT is a computer-based, multiple-choice exam which takes a daunting seven-and-a-half hours to complete. Since 2015, following a revamp of the exam by the AAMC, the MCAT is comprised of four sections: Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems; Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS); Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems; and Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior.
The Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems section is comprised of 44 passage-related questions and 15 standalone, non-passage-related questions, for a total of 59 questions, which the test taker is allocated 95 minutes to complete. This section tests a student’s physical sciences knowledge in the context of biological sciences, and wraps in a fair amount of biochemistry. Breaking down the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems section by undergraduate course, the section tests General Chemistry (30%), Physics (25%), Organic Chemistry (15%), Biochemistry (25%), and Introductory Biology (5%) is also included in this section of the test.
The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section of the MCAT consists of 53 passage-related questions, which the student is given 90 minutes to complete. The CARS section does not require any prior information or substantive knowledge, as all information necessary to answer the questions is included in the exam. This section is designed to test the student’s ability to analyze arguments, synthesize passages, and identify underlying assumptions and inferences.
The Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems section, mirroring the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems section in structure, consists of 44 passage-related questions and 15 standalone, non-passage-related questions, for a total of 59 questions, for which the student is given 95 minutes to complete. While this section is true to its name and examines the test taker’s knowledge of biology and biochemistry, this section additionally contains questions based in organic chemistry and general chemistry, as those principles wrap into the biochemistry aspect. The undergraduate courses that are incorporated into and tested in the Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems section include Biology (65%), Biochemistry (25%), General Chemistry (5%), and Organic Chemistry (5%).
The Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior section once again is comprised of 44 passage-related questions and 15 standalone, non-passage-related questions, totaling 59 questions, which the student is given 95 minutes to complete. This (somewhat) newly added section tests the concepts of Psychology and Sociology as they relate to biological sciences. While some pre-med students will have not taken Psychology and Sociology, as they are generally not required prerequisite courses to medical school admission, having done a semester in one or both of these areas will help. This section tests a student’s ability to analyze and apply psychological, sociological, and biological principles in the context of behaviors and relationships.
When and Where Can I Take the MCAT?
The MCAT is offered roughly 25 times per year at test centers around the globe. Students have a number of options to choose from in regards to dates and locations, as the exam is administered between the months of January and September yearly. To see scheduling deadlines, test dates and locations, and to register for the MCAT, visit the AAMC website here: MCAT Dates and Locations.
MCAT exam scores are typically released approximately one month after the exam is taken and can be viewed online. We recommend you register early, as test centers and preferred dates tend to fill up quickly.
How is the MCAT Scored?
Each section of the MCAT is scored on a scale, from a minimum of 118 to a maximum 132, with the average being 125. As a result, the total MCAT score will range from a low of 472 to a high of 528, with the average around 500. The AAMC utilizes the aggregate score of the four sections in determining the student’s final results of the exam. Here is a brief scoring percentile breakdown for reference:
Percentile based on all scores | MCAT Total Score
Top 10% of all scores | 514 to 528
Top 25% of all scores | 508 to 513
Top 50% of all scores | 500 to 507
Below 50% of all scores | 499 or below
How to Study for the MCAT
We recommend studying for three to four months before actually sitting for the MCAT. Obviously, that study timeframe will change depending on your commitments and schedule, but be prepared for a long haul. You cannot procrastinate in studying for the MCAT and expect to score well. You have to study early and often. Unlike some graduate school entrance exams that do not test much, if any, substantive knowledge, the MCAT will test your knowledge on a range of scientific and social concepts and their application to varying scenarios. There is lots to pack in before the big day, so here are our key strategies for studying for the MCAT:
Create a study plan and timeline – do not go into your MCAT preparation without a plan or direction. Create an actionable timeline of when to hit certain targets, how often and when you will take full length practice tests, and generally plan out your attack so you are ready when the big day arrives. Having a game plan is critical.
Practice questions and tests – do not spend all of your time with your nose buried in a book or flashcards memorizing facts and formulas. The MCAT tests your ability to think critically and apply substantive scientific knowledge to unique scenarios. Hammering practice problems is by far the best way to prepare yourself for the actual exam. But don’t stop at just practice questions—do a number of full-length tests under real exam conditions. You want to condition your mind and body for the real thing so that you’re not caught off guard on the day of the exam. Make sure to incorporate a number of full-length tests into your study plan.
Focus on improving your weaknesses – as much as we hate to admit it, we all have weaknesses. As you work through memorizing material and doing practice questions, you will be sure to notice where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Whatever your weaknesses are, reallocate study time from your strengths to your weaknesses. If you’re crushing biology-based questions and struggling with biochemistry, no need to keep spending so much time on the biology. Focus in on that biochemistry and make it a strength!
Quality not quantity – do not worry about hitting quantitative targets in terms of memorization or practice questions. This will only rush your learning process and can possibly cause a false sense of security. Instead, focus your energy on quality of study. Concentrate on knowledge retention (read a flashcard or passage multiple times if you need to) and learning from your mistakes (make sure to understand why you got a question wrong).
Ensure readiness – if you don’t feel ready as the big day gets close, push the exam out. The MCAT is offered roughly 25 times per year and there’s no need to rush in to it if you’re not mentally prepared—you will only be setting yourself up for failure. You want to feel confident and prepared before the big day so that you can go in there and rock it.
Best MCAT Prep Courses
A solid prep course is critical to getting a great score on the MCAT and consequently getting into your preferred school. The courses offered vary widely from uber affordable alternative online courses, which cost just a couple hundred dollars, to full blown in person and online blended courses that cost upwards of $3,000. Like most things in life, you get what you pay for, and the cheaper courses will typically have less study material, practice questions and full-length tests, while the more expensive courses will inundate you with comprehensive study materials, a tailored study schedule, online modules and in-person learning experiences. We recommend going with one of the tried and true big players in the test prep space like Kaplan or Princeton Review and purchasing a full-length course with blended study methods—you won’t regret it.
Best MCAT Prep Books
Online retailers like Amazon offer a wide range of MCAT related study books, including subject specific books focusing on certain concepts, to full course study guides. These books can range anywhere in cost from $20 per book to upwards of $200 per set. While many of these books contain excellent information, it is our opinion that these books alone won’t prepare you for the MCAT. If you are targeting a lower-end school and money is a real concern, such books may be your only option, and in that case, we recommend getting a set that covers all the major concepts and includes a couple practice tests. It’s no guarantee that alone will work, but it may be your best bet. Otherwise, we look at these books as an excellent study supplement and a way to consider the material from a different angle than the prep course you’ve purchased.