Preparing for the MCAT
Completing the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a crucial step for students planning a career as a healthcare professional.
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), over 86,000 graduates take the exam every year.
Medical school hopefuls must take this exam as nearly all US and Canadian medical schools require MCAT scores as part of a student’s application requirements. Prospective students can also use MCAT scores for application to many graduate programs in other health professions.
As MCAT performance affects educational acceptance and future career prospects, it is essential that prospective medical students take this exam seriously and prepare properly with a study plan, becoming familiar with the exam and developing effective test-taking strategies.
What is the MCAT?
The MCAT is a standardized exam administered by the AAMC. There is a fee to take the exam and examinees must schedule a date well in advance. The computerized multiple choice exam takes nearly seven and a half hours (including breaks) and consists of four parts:
- Biological and biochemical foundations of living systems
- Chemical and physical foundations of biological systems
- Psychological, social, and biological foundations of behavior
- Critical analysis and reasoning skills
Examinees receive a scaled score based on the number of correct answers in each section.
Medical schools and other notable medical graduate programs use the MCAT score as a predictive tool to determine the student’s likelihood of success during their medical studies and in the practice of medicine.
Not only does the exam measure your aptitude in tested topics, but it also tests the critical thinking and problem-solving skills necessary for success as a medical professional.
Who Is Eligible to Take the MCAT?
There are no required courses needed to register and take the exam; however, the content on the MCAT covers introductory courses at most colleges and universities.
Students who are planning on applying to a medical school qualify to take the exam—this includes:
- Veterinary medicine
International students may also sit for the exam as long as you meet the eligibility requirements.
Special permission to sit for the exam is necessary if you are not planning on applying to a health professions school or if you are currently a medical student.
When Should I Take the MCAT Exam?
In most cases, you should take the exam in the calendar year before the year in which you plan to enter medical school.
If you cannot decide whether to take the exam early in the year or later, ask yourself two questions:
- Is there a possibility I might want to retake the exam?
- Do I need additional time to study?
How Many Times Can I Take the MCAT?
The MCAT can be taken as follows:
- Single testing year – up to three times
- Two consecutive-year period – up to four times
- Lifetime – up to seven times in a lifetime
Remember that you can only register for one seat at a time and no-shows and voids count as attempts.
You should prepare for the exam: (a) to better familiarize yourself with the exam, (b) to discover your weaknesses, and (c) to learn about time management (the MCAT is long; practice exams will help you get used to prolonged sitting).
Creating a Study Plan
The MCAT requires careful and rigorous study in your prerequisite college-level coursework, as well as familiarizing yourself with the content on the exam. Cramming for the test will not equate to success.
Examinees must also familiarize themselves with computer-based testing and verbal reasoning questions—this makes it vital that students start studying well in advance of their test date.
Students typically start studying several months to a year before the exam date. Many students choose to sign up for commercial test-prep programs as they provide study schedules, study materials, and practice tests.
Self-study is also a viable option for students who feel comfortable creating their own study and practice test program. Students can use their college course materials for self-study or purchase commercial study materials.
The AAMC also provides content outlines on the materials covered in the exam. The exact timeline and study plan will depend on an examinee’s knowledge level and weak areas going into exam prep.
In addition to studying the exam topics, students should ensure they are familiar with the exam structure and type of questions on the exam.
AAMC recommends using up-to-date test preparation material. Some questions in old products test concepts that are not on the current MCAT exam.
MCAT is an exhausting examination; therefore, practicing under simulated testing conditions also cuts down on anxiety as students will know just what to expect on test day.
Tips for Preparing for the Test
Develop a systematic and step-by-step study schedule leading up to your testing day. Even if you take a commercial study course, tailor it further to account for your specific strengths and weaknesses.
Join a study group. This creates accountability and gives you a support system. You may also want to consult with current medical students on effective study strategies.
Practice taking the entire test from start to finish. While practicing specific topics is important, taking the entire exam is a unique experience and something you do not want to experience for the first time on test day.
Ensure that you get proper exercise, rest, and nutrition in the months leading up to the exam. While it is tempting to focus solely on studying, maintaining your mental and physical well-being will help you perform your best on test day.
Do a run-through for test day. Familiarize yourself with every aspect of your examination day from your route to the testing site to the rules on what you can take into the testing room. Doing so prevents unpleasant surprises on your test date and will give you peace of mind during an understandably anxious time.
Remain calm. Not only is anxiety counterproductive to exam prep, but it is also vital to remember that the MCAT is only one part of your medical school application profile. Admissions committees will consider your other academic and extracurricular achievements when assessing your application.
If you feel unprepared as you approach the test day, speak with a trusted advisor and carefully consider your options. You may need to determine if it is simply nerves or decide if it is in your best interest to reschedule the exam to a later date.
- Preparing for the MCAT Exam
- Understand the MCAT
- Fee Assistance Program
- Preparing Your Application
- MCAT Questions and Scoring
- MCAT Test Day and Security
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Written by Sarah Gehrke, MSN, RN and last updated Oct 24, 2018
Last reviewed by Jay Frank Vijar on Oct 11, 2016