The MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) is a 5.5-hour test, consisting of 4 sections: Verbal Reasoning, Physical Sciences, Biological Sciences, and a Writing Sample.

What is the format of the MCAT?

Section Number of Questions Length
Verbal Reasoning 40 60 minutes
Physical Sciences 52 70 minutes
Biological Sciences 52 70 minutes
Writing Sample 2 thirty-minute essays 60 minutes

How is the MCAT scored?

Each MCAT section is assigned a numerical score from 1 to 15, with 15 being the highest. The essays are assigned a letter score from J to T, with T being the highest. You will receive your scores by first-class mail in approximately 60 days after the test date.

Section Average Score Good Score Top Score
Verbal Reasoning 8.6 10-11 12+
Physical Sciences 8.8 10-11 12+
Biological Sciences 9.1 10-11 12+
Writing N Q S+

Sciences

The physical sciences test covers physics and general chemistry. The biological sciences test covers biology and organic chemistry, with concentration on biology.

The science portions of the MCAT consist mainly of a series of passages, each with several questions or problems. Often the passages involve unfamiliar situations and, rather than numbers, explanations, relationships among various quantities, and extrapolations to new situations. When pre-med students find out about the exam, they are often fearful.

How do you prepare for the MCAT science section?

The short answer is: by thinking and doing physics, chemistry, and biology.

Although these are knowledge based subjects, you need only a working knowledge of the basic concepts of these subjects. In your studies, you should concentrate on the ideas underlying the knowledge. Also, you will not need a battery of specialized equations; however, you should remember enough equations to understand the ideas. The purpose of the MCAT is measure how well you reason, not how much knowledge you have.

In addition to measuring your reasoning ability, the MCAT is testing your problem solving skills. Your goal in your studies is to learn how to approach new problems by studying the solutions to problems. Then you can solve future MCAT problems by thinking in the same way as when you solved previous problems.

It is especially important that you keep an open mind and visualize what you read in the science sections. In biology one can actually see organelles with an electron microscope. Understanding the operation of enzymes requires a bit more imagination. In physics, you must rely on imagination even more, but it is not too different from imagining the working of enzymes. If you view science as a mere collection of facts and equations to memorize, you will find it frustrating. Alternatively, if you approach science looking for new concepts, themes and a new worldview, then your efforts will be better rewarded.

Verbal Reasoning

The reading comprehension portion of the MCAT is 60 minutes long and consists of several passages, each about 500 words long and each with several questions. The subject matter of a passage can be almost anything, but the most common themes are politics, history, culture, and science.

Most people find the passages difficult because the subject matter is dry and unfamiliar. Obscure subject matter is chosen so that your reading comprehension will be tested, not your knowledge of a particular subject. Also the more esoteric the subject the more likely everyone taking the MCAT will be on an even playing field. However, because the material must still be accessible to laymen, you won’t find any tracts on subtle issues of philosophy or abstract mathematics. In fact, if you read books on current affairs and the Op/Ed page of the newspaper, then the style of writing used in the MCAT passages will be familiar and you probably won’t find the reading comprehension section particularly difficult.

The passages use a formal, compact style. They are typically taken from articles in academic journals, but they are rarely reprinted verbatim. Usually the chosen article is heavily edited until it is honed down to the required length. The formal style of the piece is retained but much of the “fluff” is removed. The editing process condenses the article to about one-third its original length. Thus, an MCAT passage contains about three times as much information for its length as does the original article. This is why the passages are similar to the writing on the Op/Ed page of a newspaper. After all, a person writing a piece for the Op/Ed page must express all his ideas in about 500 words, and he must use a formal (grammatical) style to convince people that he is well educated.

In addition to being dry and unfamiliar, MCAT passages often start in the middle of an explanation, so there is no point of reference. Furthermore, the passages are untitled, so you have to hit the ground running.

Reading styles are subjective — there is no best method for approaching the passages. There are as many “systems” for reading the passages as there are test-prep books — all “authoritatively” promoting their method, while contradicting some aspect of another. A reading technique that is natural for one person can be awkward and unnatural for another person. However, it’s hard to believe that many of the methods advocated in certain books could help anyone. Be that as it may, we’ll will throw in our own two-cents worth — though not so dogmatically.

Some books recommend speed reading the passages. This is a mistake. Speed reading is designed for ordinary, nontechnical material. Because this material is filled with “fluff,” you can skim over the nonessential parts and still get the gist — and often more — of the passage. As mentioned before, however, MCAT passages are dense. Some are actual quoted articles (when the writers of the MCAT find one that is sufficiently compact). Most often, however, they are based on articles that have been condensed to about one-third their original length. During this process no essential information is lost, just the “fluff” is cut. This is why speed reading will not work here — the passages contain too much information. Furthermore, the bulk of the time is spent answering the questions, not reading the passages. You should, however, read somewhat faster than you normally do, but not to the point that your comprehension suffers. You will have to experiment to find your optimum pace.

Many books recommend that the questions be read before the passage. This strikes us as a cruel joke. In some of these books it seems that many of the methods, such as this one, are advocated merely to give the reader the feeling that he is getting the “inside stuff” on how to ace the test. There are two big problems with this method. First, some of the questions are a paragraph long, and reading a question twice can use up precious time. Second, there are usually seven questions per passage, and psychologists have shown that we can hold in our minds a maximum of about three thoughts at any one time (some of us have trouble simply remembering phone numbers). After reading all seven questions, the student will turn to the passage with his mind clouded by half-remembered thoughts. This will at best waste his time and distract him. More likely it will turn the passage into a disjointed mass of information.

However, one technique that you may find helpful is to preview the passage by reading the first sentence of each paragraph. Generally, the topic of a paragraph is contained in the first sentence. Reading the first sentence of each paragraph will give an overview of the passage. The topic sentences act in essence as a summary of the passage. Furthermore, since each passage is only three or four paragraphs long, previewing the topic sentences will not use up an inordinate amount of time. (Many students don’t use this method, however. They prefer to see the passage as a completed whole, and to let the passage unveil its main idea to them as they become absorbed in it. They find that when trying to pre-analyze the passage it tends to become disjointed, and they lose concentration. Nonetheless, as mentioned before, reading methods are subjective, so experiment — this method may work for you.)

Writing

Writing essays for standardized exams can raise anxieties in people who are poised when answering other kinds of test questions. Perhaps this is because critical and creative skills are being tested and evaluated in a more subjective manner than they are within the objective multiple-choice format. Performance anxiety can lead to a host of problems, from having a difficult time understanding exactly what is being asked to having debilitating uncertainties about how to begin an answer.

The best way to reduce such anxieties, and therefore increase your chance of obtaining a top score, is through rehearsal, which encompasses three activities that need to take place when writing your essay:

1. Interpret the given statement.

2. Provide a counter-example to the given statement.

3. Resolve the conflict between the given statement and your counter-example.