How Hard is the MCAT?

How Hard is the MCAT

If you’ve never taken the MCAT, feeling some anxiety is normal. That’s because the MCAT has a reputation for being extremely difficult. Yet, you may have seen people scoring high on the tests. Hence, the nagging question: how hard is the MCAT? Here’s the truth.

The MCAT is one of the hardest standardized tests in the US and Canada. The questions are tricky and require knowledge of multiple science topics and concepts. The test also takes a long time to complete.

You shouldn’t worry about how hard the MCAT is because anyone can ace it. Yes, by following some of the tips we’ll provide in this post, you’ll better understand how the exam works and the best way to prepare for it.

Let’s get started.

Why is the MCAT So Hard?

The Medical College Admission Test may be hard, but its difficulty is understandable. Becoming a medical professional means patients must place their health and lives in your care. Such a responsibility requires exceptional skill, knowledge, and commitment.

The MCAT is designed to see if you have what it takes to be an asset in the medical field. With the right preparation, you can succeed in the exam, as many others have.

To help you prepare for the exam, you need to understand the characteristics that make the MCAT difficult.

  1. Tricky Questions

MCAT questions are hardly ever straightforward. They are designed to task your ability to comprehend and analyze sentences related to the medical field. You’ll need to be good at the following to answer some of these tricky questions:

  • Focus reading
  • Passage analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem-solving

If the AAMC phrased questions in ways that MCAT test takers would easily understand, your only concern would be finding their answers. However, that’s not the case.

You’ll need to surpass the hurdle of understanding the craftily-phrased items in a question before you can even think of answering them.

Having a good memory only helps you to find the answers you’re looking for. Without the above skills, you won’t know what to look for in the first place.

The tricky nature of the MCAT also makes it easier for you to get the answer wrong. Wrong answers are inevitable when you don’t read the questions properly before answering them. 

These tricky questions make the test more difficult and eat deep into your allocated time.

  1. Extremely Long Test Duration

Speaking of allocated time – the MCAT is one of the longest standardized tests in the world. You have 7 hours and 30 minutes to write the exam. The irony is that even with such a long duration, many test takers don’t finish (attempt all questions) on time.

Participants are allowed three breaks:

  1. One 10-minute break
  2. Another 10-minute break
  3. One 30-minute break

Imagine spending over seven hours at the testing center. If you choose to use all of your breaks, that still leaves you with 6 hours and 40 minutes to answer the 230 questions. 

To give you an idea of just how long the MCAT is, we’ve created a table showing other standardized tests and their durations.

Test NameAbbreviationDuration (Including breaks)
Test of English as a Foreign LanguageTOEFL4 hours
Graduate Record ExaminationsGRE3 hours and 45 minutes
Graduate Management Admission TestGMAT3 hours and 16 minutes
Law School Admission TestLSAT4 hours
Dental Admission TestDAT4 hours and 30 minutes
Pharmacy College Admission TestPCAT3 hours and 40 minutes
Optometry Admission TestOAT5 hours and 5 minutes
Scholastic Aptitude TestSAT3 hours and 15 minutes
American College TestACT3 hours and 5 minutes
Medical College Admission TestMCAT7 hours and 30 minutes

As you can see, none of the popular exams come close to the MCAT in terms of testing duration.

  1. Wide Range of Topics

The MCAT focuses on multiple topics. It consists of four sections, each of them covering a variety of subjects. The four sections are as follows:

  1. Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems:

This section includes questions about biological and biochemical sciences. You’ll need to know details about subjects such as cells, genetics, digestive systems, reproduction, enzymes, nutrition, metabolism, and more.

  1. Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems:

Here, you’ll answer questions related to organic chemistry, general chemistry, and physics. Subjects covered include atoms, acids & bases, thermochemistry, electrochemistry, chemical equilibrium, isomers, reactions, thermodynamics, waves, fluid mechanics, and more.

  1. Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior:

Aspects of sociology and psychology are at the forefront of this testing section. You’ll be tested on your knowledge of fundamental topics such as human behavior, mental disorders, culture, society, cognition, and memory.

  1. Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills:

The last section is designed to test your reading comprehension and ability to analyze problems. It covers topics such as history, philosophy, and verbal reasoning.

There’s a chance that you may not have covered some of the above topics in your high school or college days. It’s even worse if you don’t have a science background.

The MCAT requires you to learn or relearn most, if not all, of those topics in a short timeframe. It’s the only way to avoid unpleasant surprises during the exam.

  1. In-Depth Knowledge Requirement

The way the MCAT is set up, it isn’t enough for you to know the answers. You also have to know the key concepts surrounding it.

The MCAT doesn’t just test for fundamentals. To excel, you need to have advanced knowledge of all of the topics mentioned in the previous section (Reason No.3).

For instance, it’s not enough to know the symptoms of a disease. The MCAT requires you to know why those symptoms manifest in the first place.

This in-depth knowledge requirement is one of the reasons some students score high on the percentile rankings, and others don’t. Your level of understanding of the topic is what will make you stand out in MCAT tests.

Hence, med schools take MCAT score percentiles quite seriously. Since it is an interdisciplinary test, you may find yourself struggling to gain the required level of knowledge before the exam.

  1. Passage-Based Questions

A passage-based question is one that consists of a group of related sentences that test takers must analyze to find solutions. These questions will come with several facts, and it’s your job to sort out the facts that are useful.

MCAT questions are passage-based, so you’ll need to decide which info will help you to solve the problem and which is there to mislead you.

The question may also come with a graph which you’ll need to analyze quickly. This is one of the reasons your analysis speed is just as important as your accuracy.

Despite having several hours to complete the test, you may struggle to meet up if you spend too much time analyzing the passage-based questions. As if the exam weren’t hard enough, not attempting all the questions will only make things worse for you.

The passage-based nature of the MCAT is one of the reasons some people avoid taking the test. It’s also one of the reasons people have to retake the MCAT before getting a satisfactory score.

  1. Heavy Prep Requirement

If you think you know enough about science to take the MCAT without studying, then you may be in for a surprise.

The questions, format, and even the conditions you’ll face during the exam require you to be familiar with them if you want to score above the 80th percentile.

The only way to build up the level of familiarity needed is to practice hard before the test date. A typical MCAT preparation involves the following:

  • Taking practice exams
  • Reading science books on biology, chemistry, sociology, etc.
  • Studying MCAT-related materials
  • Joining MCAT prep classes
  • Taking MCAT prep courses
  • Hiring a private tutor 

Try to combine all of these in your mind, and you can imagine the time commitment they require. There’s also the issue of cost. Some of these textbooks and prep courses are expensive. You’ll spend even more if you hire a private tutor.

Not many people have the discipline, time, or resources to commit to such a heavy prep requirement. When such people fall short, they tend to struggle during the actual exam because it becomes more difficult than it would have been had they prepared adequately.

  1. Intense Pressure

It’s clear that exam jitters are common at MCAT testing halls. Granted, a small portion of people harness their nervousness because it keeps them focused. However, that’s not always the case.

If you consider that your medical career depends on your MCAT performance, you may start to feel some pressure in the exam hall.

This feeling, coupled with thoughts about the cost of registration and preparation, could make questions seem tougher than they are.

Countless factors could trigger an anxiety or panic attack after seeing the first set of questions. This greatly hinders the test taker’s cognitive ability, which is unfortunate because the questions require critical thinking skills.

So, even if the questions aren’t too hard, your emotional state could make them more difficult to answer correctly.

Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid of the MCAT

All of the factors that make the MCAT difficult (as mentioned above) are valid concerns. However, no one should fear the MCAT. It’s just a test, and tests are made to be passed.

If you’re harboring doubts about taking the MCAT or attending med school, the following are reasons you should be confident in your abilities.

Requires Basic Understanding

We’ve already talked about how getting a high score on the MCAT requires you to have in-depth knowledge of core concepts.

The good part is that understanding these concepts is quite easy. You don’t need to be a genius to grasp the scientific facts and apply them to your questions. Hence, learning them once is enough.

 Since all you need is a basic understanding, your only hurdle is finding the right information and absorbing them.

Couple that with adequate practice for question format familiarity, and you should be good to go.

Questions are Set to Standard

A key part of what makes the MCAT so scary is the fear of the unknown.

The fact that the MCAT is a standardized test should fill you with confidence. It means you can predict a lot of factors prior to the exam.

Standardized tests have similar formats, duration, and difficulty levels across the years. The topics covered are also similar.

If you prepare well enough, you should have no problem doing well on your exam. With access to reliable MCAT practice tests, you can even gauge your readiness before you write the actual exam.

Studying Makes it Easier

There is no way around this fact. The more you study and prep for the MCAT, the easier it becomes.

Test difficulty is relative. What others see as hard will look easy to you if you understand the concepts behind most of the questions.

The only way to get the understanding you need is to read books and practice exam questions as much as possible.

No Pass or Fail

It is technically impossible to fail the MCAT. The test uses a score range system that places a result between 472 and 528.

The reason people try to get a score higher than 510 is that most medical schools require admission candidates to surpass that score.

Hence, when students score less than 500, which is roughly the average score, they see it as a failure.

The truth is that a score less than 500 can still get you into some reputable med schools. The MCAT is not the only point of consideration for admission committees.

You may be surprised to learn that 10% of people who score 494 to 497 still gain admission into medical school.

So, even if you don’t meet your target score, you may still be able to get into med school.

You Can Always Retake

The AAMC is aware that one sitting may not be enough for some people to succeed on the MCAT. That’s why you can retake the exam.

You can take the MCAT three times within a single testing year, four times in two years, and seven times in a lifetime.

Most schools will not mind you retaking the test a few times. However, taking the exam more than three times will weaken your application.

Tips for Taking the MCAT

Now that you have an idea of how tough the MCAT is, it’s time to learn how to succeed in the exam. To achieve your goal, you need to use certain steps before and during the exam.

The following sections will cover those steps.

Before the Exam

The months or weeks before your exam date is ultimately a preparation phase. Everything you do at that stage should be getting you ready for the big day.

Coincidentally, the tips we’ll offer to help you in this stage form the acronym PREP (Plan, Read, External Help, Practice). You should try these test prep techniques.

P – Plan

The first thing you must do after you register for the MCAT exam and confirm a date is to create a plan. You’ll need to create a study plan, schedule, and strategy.

This plan should answer the following questions:

  • How often should I study?
  • What learning materials will I read?
  • What are my strengths and weaknesses?
  • How many hours can I allocate to studying per day?
  • Do I need help from others?
  • What topics do I need to cover before the exam?
  • In what order should I study these topics?

The study schedule is only a part of this overall plan, but it’s the most important. That is why you must stick with it at all costs.

Create a schedule and allocate time slots every day. Arrange it in a way that allows you to cover every relevant topic before your MCAT date.

Remember to include breaks for relaxation, feeding, and rest. You should also make out some time to spend with your friends and loved ones. The last thing you want is for you to burn out before you get a chance to take the exam.

R – Read

You need to read learning materials to get a better knowledge of the science fields. Some reliable physical and digital textbooks will help you learn biology, chemistry, physics, etc.

You must remember that understanding is key at this point. Don’t try to cram as many facts as you can in hopes that some of them will be useful on the day.

Instead, read, assimilate, and understand. Only after that do you memorize. This will ensure you can actually handle the tricky and non-linear nature of MCAT questions.

Check out this post about reading techniques for more ways to study effectively before your test.

Also, remember that every subject is different from the next. Your study approach should vary accordingly.

For instance, while studying physics, you may need to take several notes and try to memorize some facts and figures. However, studying for verbal reasoning will require you to read and analyze passages to improve your verbal skills.

Remember to make up for academic deficits by studying the subjects you don’t fully grasp harder.

For instance, let’s say you’re bad at chemistry but good at biology. Your chemistry study time should be twice as long as the time allocated for biology.

E – External Help

While it’s possible to ace the MCAT without any external help, we highly recommend that you maximize your chances by getting some. Assistance can come in many forms, including the following:

  1. Private Tutor

Tutors cost money, but they can be very helpful. Getting one will give you a personalized approach to learning that’s efficient and wholesome.

However, you can only enjoy those benefits if you choose the right person for the job. When picking a tutor, you should consider budget & cost, availability, area of expertise, and teaching style.

That is why we recommend that you watch them teach at least once before you commit to a deal.

You can get a tutor online or offline. There are also agencies that have tutors who specialize in prepping students for the MCAT.

  1. Online Prep Course

Taking an MCAT prep course is also a good idea. E-learning platforms are advanced and can render the experience as regular classes.

If you choose wisely, your course should come with practice tests and learning materials for MCAT preparation. The best ones will give you access to the instructors, allowing you to ask questions or give feedback.

We recommend that you scrutinize reviews before making a final decision on which course to take.

  1. Physical Classes

You may attend an MCAT prep class near you. The benefits you gain are similar to those of the virtual prep courses. The difference is you get more up-close interactions with the tutors and other students.

It’s best to attend one or two classes before enrolling in the class, if possible.

  1. Study Group

Feel free to join a study group to supplement your efforts. This group will help you to develop better study habits, get help with difficult topics, and view concepts from multiple perspectives.

When setting up the group, make sure it consists of three to four people who complement each other. That way, you all share ideas to help with individual weaknesses.

You shouldn’t limit members to proximity. With teleconferencing platforms like Zoom, Skype, and Facebook, study group members can be from anywhere in the country.

As you enjoy working with your study buddies, be careful not to over-rely on them. Maintain your independence by studying on your own just as often as with the group.

  1. MCAT Mentor

A mentor, in this case, could be anyone you know who did well in the MCAT. They may have useful tips to help you do the same.

Friends and family are the ideal choices for the role because they are more likely to agree to help you. Knowing what to expect at the testing center will make you feel more confident, focused, and less anxious.

P – Practice

The best way to get better at test-taking is to take as many practice exams as possible before the deadline.

In fact, once you’ve grasped the basics, you should spend more time practicing with test questions than reading to memorize details.

Treat each practice like a real exam.

Start early in the day and time yourself. Take breaks according to the real MCAT rules and try to attempt all questions before the 7 hours and 30 minutes are up.

You should cover at least five practice tests before you write the MCAT.

When we say “cover,” we don’t mean that you answer the questions, check the answers, and give yourself a score. That’s no way to improve.

The best strategy is to analyze both the questions and answers. Find out why the questions were asked and figure out what the examiners want to see from MCAT test-takers. This could take hours or days.

You may work on your own, with a tutor, or with your study group. 

Take as many as you can, and take note of your final scores each time. So long as there’s some improvement in your average scores, then you’re on the right path.

During the Exam

Here’s what you should do from the hours leading up to your MCAT to the actual test-taking period.

Sleep Hours Before the Exam

Experts recommend that you get at least eight hours of sleep the night before the exam. That entails going to bed early and getting up early.

Doing this will rest your brain, leaving you refreshed and alert in the morning.

Arrive Early

It’s vital for you to arrive at the testing center early. The head-start should allow you to settle in with the environment long before the test begins.

Also, arriving late will only cause you to be anxious throughout the test.

Prepare everything you need to take with you the day before, you don’t want to be worrying about forgetting anything.

If you’re not familiar with the route to the center, you should consider visiting the place a few days before the exam.

Try to go on the same day of the week as your test date and assess the traffic situation. You can also take a tour of the center, particularly the parking lot. The last thing you want is to arrive late because you couldn’t find a suitable parking space.

Calm Your Nerves

It’s normal to feel your heart beat faster right before and during the test. When this happens, it may be difficult for you to focus on the task at hand.

Take a deep breath each time you feel too excited. It will help to calm your nerves.

In moments when you feel overwhelmed by the atmosphere or questions, you need to pause whatever it is you’re working on.

Take a series of deep breaths, focus on your breathing and heartbeat, and try to regain some focus. Do this for thirty seconds.

You should feel much better in the end and ready to resume the test.

Leverage Your Breaks

We’ve already mentioned the three sets of breaks you get during the MCAT (two 10-minute short breaks and one 30-minute long break). 

These breaks are there because no one should have to work for over seven hours without taking a break. Some might be able to get away with it, but it will be unhealthy and counter-productive.

Your brain needs time to relax and recharge. Based on the four MCAT sections you’ll face, here’s the ideal way to use your three breaks:

  1. 10-minute break after 1st section
  2. 10-minute break after 2nd section
  3. 30-minute break after 3rd section

You can also take breaks based on your observations while you took the practice tests prior to the real deal. That’s another key reason to simulate the test environment during your MCAT preparation.

Approach Questions Appropriately

The differences in MCAT sections mean that you’ll have to approach them using various strategies.

Some questions are stand-alone, while others are passage-based. Some of them require calculations, and others don’t.

You will even find questions that don’t need you to fetch any external info from your memory. The answers are in their respective passages. Questions in the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section are notorious for that.

Try to gauge each question quickly and decide on the best approach for maximum efficiency.  

Manage Your Time

The MCAT is a timed exam, so you need to make every second count. Don’t dwell too much on one question, even if it seems like an important one.

Many students have fallen for the trap of struggling to find the answer to a question until they realize they’ve wasted tens of minutes.

To avoid such issues, you should allocate an approximate time to answer each question. We recommend that you spend roughly a minute on stand-alone questions and 8-10 minutes on passage-based questions.

Don’t wait until the exam to start using this technique, but start implementing it in the practice sessions prior to the test.

Related Questions

What is the hardest part of the MCAT?

According to the latest MCAT section scores and percentile report, the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section is the hardest part of the MCAT.

We discovered this fact by considering what percentage of test-takers in the last three years scored more than 125 in each section. Here’s the result:

  • CARS: 40%
  • CPFBS: 48%
  • BBFLS: 52%
  • PSBFB: 58%

You can see that participants tended to score the least in the CARS section, making it the most difficult MCAT test section.

How hard is it to get over 500 on MCAT?

To score more than 500 would mean you surpassed 45% of test takers. That means scoring above 500 is not that hard of a goal to accomplish.

Is studying 3 hours a day enough for the MCAT?

We recommend that you study for at least 300 hours in total before the test. At 3 hours a day, you’ll need 100 days (3 months and a week) for you to meet up to the required standard.

Final Thoughts

The MCAT may be hard, but you can ace it. Dealing with the initial fear of the unknown is perhaps the toughest part.

However, the facts presented above should be enough to get you fired up and ready to prepare for the test. We wish you the best of luck!

Josh Hutcheson

E-Learning Specialist in Online Programs & Courses Linkedin

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