What Is the MCAT? Overview and FAQs

Exam Content, Scores, Registration, and How to Prepare

University students taking exam in classroom
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The Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) is an important tool used by medical school admissions committees. The test is intended to gauge applicants' preparedness for the challenges of medical school. For many students, a sense of mystery and confusion surrounds the exam, so we created this basic overview to answer the most frequently asked questions about the MCAT.

What's on the MCAT? 

The MCAT is a 230-question exam broken into four general topic areas: Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems; Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems; Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior; and Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS). The basic information covered in introductory university-level courses in biology, chemistry, physics, biochemistry, psychology, sociology, and pre-algebra math are tested across these four sections of the MCAT.

How long is the MCAT? 

The MCAT is a 7.5-hour long examination. Each science-related section consists of 59 questions (15 stand-alone questions, 44 passage-based questions) with 95 minutes given to finish the section. The CARS section is 53 questions (all passage-based) with 90 minutes to complete it. The actual time sitting for the exam is 6.25 hours, with the remaining time divided between two 10-minute breaks and one 30-minute break.

Can I use a calculator on the MCAT? 

No, calculators are not permitted on the exam. You should review basic arithmetic, including fractions, exponents, logarithms, geometry, and trigonometry to prepare for the test.

What about scratch paper? 

Yes, but it isn't paper. During the exam, you will be provided with a laminated noteboard booklet and a wet-erase marker. You may use the front and back of these nine graph-lined pages, but you will not be able to erase. If you need more scratch paper, additional noteboard(s) can be provided.

How is the MCAT scored? 

You will receive five separate scores for the MCAT exam: one from each of the four sections, and a total score. Raw scores are scaled to account for slight differences between different versions of the test. You will receive the scaled version of your scores. You will also receive a percentile ranking with each score to understand how your score compares to other test-takers.

How long are MCAT scores valid? 

MCAT scores are valid for up to three years, though some programs will only accept scores that are no older than two years.

When will I receive my MCAT score? 

MCAT scores are released approximately one month (30-35 days) after the exam date by 5 PM EST and can be checked online.

How do I prepare for the MCAT? 

There are several ways to prepare for the MCAT, from self-directed review to prep programs offered by professional test prep companies. No matter the approach you choose, you'll need to review the information covered in introductory university courses in biology, chemistry, physics, biochemistry, psychology, and sociology. You must also be comfortable doing basic mathematical functions without the assistance of a calculator. The layout of the exam is unique with its focus on passage-based questions and inclusion of the CARS section, so your preparations should include practicing with sample problems from the real MCAT.

When should I start studying for the MCAT?

Some argue that the MCAT requires only eight weeks of preparation, while others contend that three to six months of study time are necessary. The bottom line is that it depends on the student. Keep in mind that the exam is a test of content knowledge and critical thinking skills. First, you'll need to complete at least a cursory review of the materials covered by the MCAT, which can take two to four months. After that, you'll need a minimum of eight weeks practicing sample MCAT problems and taking practice exams, extending the necessary prep time into the three- to six-month range. Naturally, the more material you need to review, the more time you'll need to devote to test prep.

How long should I study for the MCAT?

The exact answer varies from student to student. In general, if you are completing eight weeks . of intensive prep, you'll need to spend 15-30 hours per week for a total of 120-240 hours of study time. The average student will need about 200-300 hours of review time before sitting for the exam.

When should I take the MCAT?

The MCAT is offered several times per month from January to September. You can take the MCAT as early as the end of your sophomore year. Most pre-med students take the MCAT near the end of their junior year. This means you must carefully plan to have your coursework finished well in advance of the expected test date in order to adequately prepare for the test. Remember that poor MCAT scores do not disappear, and medical schools will be able to see the score from every attempt. Make sure you are fully prepared before even thinking of taking the MCAT. If you consistently scoring about a 510 or higher on practice exams, you're likely ready for the real deal.

How much does the MCAT cost? 

Currently, the MCAT costs $320, but the cost increases to $375 if scheduled within a week of the exam date. For students who are eligible for the fee assistance program, the cost is reduced to $130 ($175 for later registration). There is an additional $115 fee for international students (except residents of Canada, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands). Dates fill up quickly, so you should register as soon as you have your test prep planned.

How do I register for the MCAT?

MCAT registration is processed through the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges), and you will need to create an account with them in order to register.

How many times can I take the MCAT? 

Taking the MCAT multiple times may not reflect well on medical school applications. However, you can take the MCAT up to three times during one calendar year or four times over a two-year period. You may only take the MCAT a maximum of seven times in a lifetime. 

Medical schools take several factors into account when considering your application: your transcript, letters of recommendation, and of course, your medical college admissions test, or MCAT, score.