What Is the MCAT?

“MCAT” stands for the Medical College Admissions Test. The MCAT is required for essentially all MD, DO, and podiatry programs in the United States and Canada. This article will help you understand what the MCAT is, enabling you to better prepare for the test and earn your best possible score.


Recent MCAT Redesign

The MCAT today is different than what the MCAT was just a few years ago. For 2015, the AAMC redesigned the MCAT. The 2015 MCAT covers the same topics as the old MCAT (biology, chemistry, physics, and verbal reasoning) in addition to new topics (biochemistry, psychology, and sociology).

The 2015 MCAT emphasizes an understanding of human behavior, sociocultural aspects of health, and applying known information to novel scenarios. The new test is longer with more sections, and it has a new grading scale.

What the MCAT Means for You

Because schools vary in rigor, GPA does not necessarily create an equal playing field for med school applicants. Although some have strong opinions about standardized tests, the MCAT serves as the “great equalizer” among med school applicants. The MCAT is what allows you to demonstrate your capability as a student relative to all other pre-meds, so take it seriously (especially if your GPA is on the lower side).

MCAT Structure

The MCAT is a computer-based test, broken up into four sections. Approximately one and a half hours are allocated to each section (although time can vary for those testing with accommodations). These are the four sections:

  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (“Chem/Phys”)
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (“CARS”)
  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (“Bio/Biochem”)
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (“Psyc/Soc”)

Chem/Phys tests one’s understanding of fundamental scientific topics, which serve as the foundation of many physiological mechanisms. CARS assesses one’s ability to read, absorb, and apply information to novel situations. Bio/Biochem focuses on biology-derived topics. Psyc/Soc demands an understanding of human behavior, social processes, and experimental design. Each section evaluates a skill valuable to physicians.

MCAT Scoring

Each MCAT section is graded on a scale from 118 to 132, with 125 being the median (50th percentile) on a given section. One’s overall MCAT is the sum of each section score. Overall scores range from 472 to 528, with 500 being the overall median. View full score percentiles here.

The AAMC scales scores over multiple testing dates, so there are no test dates when a test-taker is more or less likely to earn a particular score. Because the MCAT is scaled across approximately 85,000 annual test-takers, the pool for scaling is large enough to limit score volatility between testing dates and testing years.

Requirements for Testing

It costs $315 to register for the MCAT. One incurs additional fees for registering late ($55), moving the test date ($95-$155), or taking the test internationally ($110). In an effort to increase accessibility to students from low-resource backgrounds, the AAMC offers a Fee Assistance Program that reduces these costs by around 50%.

There are no required classes to take before the MCAT, although completing general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, biology, biochemistry, psychology, and sociology coursework will lay a strong foundation for test preparation. MCAT prep courses are also not required, although, given the high stakes of the test, spending a large amount of time to prepare is wise. Expect to spend around 300 hours to fully prepare.

Testing Frequency and Retesting

You may only take the MCAT three times within a year, four times over the course of two years, and seven times over your lifetime. In high school, most students approach the SAT or ACT with the mindset that they will just retake the tests until they achieve their best possible score. For the MCAT, it’s best to aim for “one and done.” One retake is generally fine, but retaking the MCAT multiple times generally looks unfavorable to med schools.

Med schools particularly value a high MCAT on your first (or maybe second) try because, if you perform poorly on the United States Medical Licensing Examinations, you must wait a full year to retest. Med schools want to be confident in their students’ abilities to pass standardized tests to ensure all of their graduates become certified doctors without delay.

Medical school admissions committees can look at all scores and weigh the most recent one most heavily, average all scores, only consider the most recent score, or only consider the highest section scores across tests. Regardless of how a particular med school views multiple test scores, however, it is best to earn the highest score possible on your first MCAT attempt.

When and Where to Take the MCAT

The MCAT is only offered during specific dates. Test dates are generally on select Fridays and Saturdays in March through September, with an additional cluster of test dates in mid-January. No MCATs are administered from October to December, so plan accordingly. You can only take the MCAT at specific testing centers, so if you do not live near one (or if the ones nearest you are full when your register), expect to travel to take your MCAT.

When applying to medical school, you must take the MCAT before the deadline stated by any particular medical school. Each school has its own schedule for reviewing applications and interviewing applicants, so final eligible test dates vary by school. Medical schools review applications on a rolling basis. Therefore, it is best to take the MCAT by April (or possibly May at the latest) during the year you apply to med school.

Once you decide when to take the MCAT, register as early as possible, as test centers can fill up fast. I registered for the MCAT the day after registration opened, and all of the testing centers near me were full. I had to take my MCAT at the ninth closest testing center, which was over an hour and a half away from where I live.

If registration for your desired test dates is not yet opened, review the AAMC website for when registration opens and mark your calendar. Generally, registration for one year’s test cycle opens in mid/late-October of the preceding year. Registration for all tests in a given year opens on the same date.

Test Day Protocol

On Test Day, you will arrive at the test center, undergo security checks, and be seated at a computer to take your MCAT. There will be breaks between sections for eating, drinking, and using the restroom. You must complete all work on wet-erase booklets, which are provided by the test center. Total time in the test center tallies to 7 hours and 27 minutes, of which 6 hours and 15 minutes are actually spent testing.

After completing your MCAT, you have the option to void your test for no refund. If you void your MCAT, it will not be visible on your medical school application.

Post-Test Protocol

After submitting your completed MCAT, you may not discuss any of the material on the test. This ensures that no test-taker has an advantage over another. Scores are released about four and a half weeks after test day. Within three weeks of receiving your score, you have the ability to pay $65 to have test rescored if you believe there was an error in how your MCAT was graded.

Making Sense of What the MCAT Is

This article’s information has allowed you to better understand what the MCAT is—a computer-based test that allows medical schools to objectively evaluate how you stack up against other pre-medical students. You now understand why the MCAT is important, how it is structured, and what the test-taking limitations are. With this knowledge, you can make choices to best prepare for the MCAT and earn your best possible score.