The Medical College Admission Test is meant to predict how well you will perform in med school and even in your career as a medical practitioner.
So as you would imagine, this is not meant to be an easy exam. That being said, though, really, how hard is the MCAT?
This exam seems to take a toll even on straight-A students who performed excellently in their undergraduate studies. So what exactly is it about the MCAT that’s so challenging, setting it apart from all other college exams?
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Places a particular emphasis on CARS.
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Table of Contents
- The MCAT is an entirely different ball game from all other college tests, so you need to know what you’re getting into.
- This is a cumulative exam testing a year’s worth of General Chemistry, a year’s worth of Organic Chemistry, a year’s worth of Physics, a year’s worth of Biology, a semester’s worth of Biochemistry, and various topics from Psychology and Sociology.
- You are better off taking your time and waiting till you are fully ready before sitting for the exam.
- Experts recommend studying between 300 – 350 hours when preparing for the MCAT.
- Acing the MCAT will require a combination of factors, including strategy, content mastery, sharpened critical thinking, analysis and reasoning skills, problem-solving skills, and pacing.
How Hard Is The MCAT?
The MCAT is pretty darn difficult, and even worse, it can be hard to establish exactly why this is so.
You performed pretty okay in your undergraduate classes, and you even understand the MCAT material well, but for some reason, you just cannot seem to figure the test out. So what exactly about the MCAT makes this exam so hard, even for stellar students?
What Makes The MCAT Challenging?
1. Vast Amount Of Content
Think of the MCAT as a cumulative exam, covering multiple years of college lectures.
The Medical College Admission Test is a comprehensive interdisciplinary exam that covers multiple subjects ranging from science subjects to social sciences and humanities.
The 8 subjects tested on the MCAT are: Physics, Biochemistry, Biology, CARS, General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Psychology, and sociology.
It is like taking all the college pre-med classes you took and putting them into one mega exam.
That’s a ton of content to cover. This means that excelling on the MCAT requires an incredible amount of knowledge, not just in breadth but depth as well.
This exam tests specific advanced knowledge on any particular subject, requiring you to understand a wide range of content from subjects that seem disparate but are, in fact, quite intertwined.
2. It’s A Very Long Test
This exam not only tests your knowledge, but your mental fortitude and physical endurance as well, which can be pretty overwhelming.
When sitting for the MCAT, you will be seated for 7.5 hours, working on 230 pretty complex questions. This makes it one of the longest standardized tests out there, taking twice as long as the Law School Admission Test.
Taking an exam – any exam for that matter, can drain you physically, mentally, and emotionally. Now imagine the endurance required to sit inside a testing center for hours on end, and picture the kind of toll this can take on you.
You very well would be ready to walk out on the exam by the 4th hour!
In order to allow them to apply the necessary test prep techniques to build their test-taking endurance, MCAT test takers are advised to view this exam as a marathon, not a sprint.
3. Time Pressure
Students often run out of time, finding themselves unable to finish some sections. This particularly appears to be the case in the Chem/Phys and the CARS MCAT sections.
Considering that we have just mentioned that the MCAT is one of the longest tests out there, it might be ironic to bring up a time crunch as one of the factors that make this exam particularly hard, but it is.
Out of the 7.5 hours, you will spend 6 hours and 15 minutes working on the 230 questions. This means, ultimately, you have about 1.6 minutes to answer each question. Do you now see where the time crunch comes in?
4. It Tests How You Think
This exam requires you to apply learned information to situational questions. Your problem-solving and critical thinking skills are tested as well.
The MCAT goes far beyond memorization, so merely being able to remember facts from your undergraduate studies won’t automatically result in a high MCAT score.
Instead of simply providing an answer to a question, you will need to express the reasoning behind a concept. As such, you need to completely understand the concepts and topics within the various technical fields that are tested on the MCAT.
Thoroughly understanding how these concepts work will then help you be able to infer what concepts different questions are calling on, thereby being able to apply said concepts effectively.
This isn’t the kind of test you can bulldoze your way through using rote memorization.
The whole point of the MCAT is to test whether you have absorbed the intricate details of the various technical fields such as Biochemistry, etc. This explains why most questions typically involve some component of problem-solving, analysis, and critical reasoning.
Attaining a high score in this exam will require you to not only know something but be able to apply it as well.
5. It’s Designed To Trick You
MCAT questions are often phrased and constructed in a way that will confuse you.
This isn’t a malicious move by the AAMC.
Rather, this tricky design is so that the exam can test your reading comprehension and analysis skills, as well as your critical reasoning skills.
Here’s the thing: as a physician, you will be presented with mounds of information and details from patients and other medical professionals, and it’s up to you to identify the essential information so you can arrive at the correct diagnosis.
To prepare you for this, therefore, the MCAT exam will similarly contain both facts and extraneous information, requiring you to think critically about what’s important and what can be disregarded as non-essential information.
How well can you connect several pieces of information? Can you identify extraneous facts and distinguish them from relevant data? How well can you recognize patterns? Can you think critically?
All these aspects are tested on the MCAT because they are issues you are bound to see once you are a medical practitioner.
So all the large volumes of data you are bombarded with in MCAT passages are meant to simulate diagnostic scenarios, thereby testing your issue-spotting skills.
Which Is The Most Difficult MCAT Test Section?
Unlike other sections where you can know your weaknesses and improve upon respectively, getting the right footing in CARS can be a little challenging because you just don’t know exactly where you are going wrong.
The most difficult MCAT test section that many test-takers end up struggling with is the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills CARS section. And the reason for this difficulty is that no content knowledge is required to tackle this section.
While this may appear to be a good thing, it isn’t.
Furthermore, there aren’t many resources out there that actually show how to read a CARS passage. You simply need to figure out on your own how to make sense of the complex written material.
How do you pick apart the passages? How do you decide between two good-sounding answer choices? Is it all just guesswork? How do you tackle passages where you just can’t seem to find the main idea?
Tackling the CARS section requires you to accurately comprehend, analyze and evaluate what you are reading, as well as draw inferences from the text and apply appropriate arguments to new situations and ideas.
As previously mentioned, there is no content knowledge you can apply. You simply need to build your analysis and reasoning skills through constant and consistent reading.
Why Is It Hard To Get A High MCAT Score?
The MCAT tests how you think, how well you can apply learned information, how refined your problem-solving skills are, and how adept you are at reasoning out concepts.
The MCAT is a challenging exam because getting a high score isn’t as simple as studying harder, as is the case with other college exams.
Rather, attaining high MCAT scores would require a complete reset of your MCAT test preparation right down to your study discipline, content mastery, confidence, mentality, focus, etc.
According to the latest 2022 – 2023 MCAT percentile rankings, a total score of 501.5 fell in the 50th percentile, meaning this was the score attained by about half the test-takers.
On the other hand, 509.5 ranked in the 75th percentile.
Data further reveals that the average score of students who matriculated to medical school during the 2021-2022 testing cycle was 511.9. This means that to get a good chance of getting into med school, you need to have scored in the 81st percentile.
As you can imagine, this is quite the mean feat for any standardized test, let alone the MCAT.
Medical school can be a grueling undertaking even for an A student, so the Association of American Medical Colleges uses MCAT scores to predict medical school success. This explains why it is so hard to get a high MCAT score.
In addition to testing your scientific knowledge, the MCAT tests your language and verbal skills as well. At the same time, you must develop excellent time management skills and strategies and display a superior ability to search and respond to knowledge.
So ultimately, it isn’t just about what you know.
Additionally, all students want to get into reputable top-tier medical schools, so you need to score pretty highly to qualify as a competitive applicant. A good MCAT score simply won’t cut it. You need a high score.
Combine all these factors, and you will begin to see why your chances of getting a perfect MCAT score are pretty slim.
How Long Does It Take To Prepare For The MCAT?
On average, 523+ scorers put in a cumulative study time range of 700 – 1500 hours.
MCAT preparation takes plenty of time and dedication. There is simply no way around it.
Whether you choose to take an MCAT prep course or self-study using MCAT books and your personal notes, the fact is that you will need to put in a ton of consistent, dedicated study time.
A good strategy would be to put in 20 – 40 hours of study time a week for 2 – 3 months. Students who do well on this exam will have put in between 300 and 350 hours of dedicated study time by test day.
Ultimately, the hours you spend studying is one thing, but how you study is a whole other factor to take into consideration.
How To Make The MCAT Less Challenging
Is the MCAT hard? Yes, it is. But are there measures you can take to make this test less challenging? Absolutely!
With the proper preparation and attitude, the MCAT can become a little less intimidating and slightly easier to handle.
How To Efficiently Prepare For The MCAT Exam
a) Practice Relentlessly
You don’t want the first time you take a full-length MCAT exam to be on test day when plenty is at stake and nerves are running high.
Instead, ensure you take numerous MCAT practice tests (see best deals on MCAT resources here) throughout your study period, as this will yield a couple of benefits, including:
- You’ll familiarize yourself with the test format.
- You’ll familiarize yourself with what content is tested and how questions are asked.
- You’ll be able to build your endurance for this very long exam, learning how to power through it.
It is recommended you take no less than 8 full-length practice tests spread out throughout your MCAT preparation.
Aside from the full-length practice exams, obtain as much practice material as you possibly can and carefully work your way through each question asked.
b) Don’t Just Read. Internalize.
You need to have a solid knowledge of the content that’s tested on the MCAT, as knowledge gaps can be pretty detrimental when it comes to the MCAT.
Rather than merely memorizing information, you will need to thoroughly understand the various concepts, fine-tune your critical thinking abilities, and learn how to apply diverse information to novel questions and situations.
To do this, ensure you pay attention to effective discussions presented in MCAT books, video lectures, etc. Additionally, thoroughly go through answer explanations because this helps reinforce the rationale used to arrive at the correct answer.
And by the way, there are many tools that can help you with this. A new memorization tool that everyone has been talking about lately is Memm. This tool can help you not only memorize things quickly but also understand how they are linked to other concepts. It’s pretty cool. Check it out here.
c) Understand How The MCAT Is Written
Beyond studying content, you need to understand how the MCAT is written so you can better understand where or how to find answers when analyzing MCAT passages.
Basically, MCAT questions are designed to be more complex than what they are testing, and the AAMC does this through the questions’ wording, phrasing, format, and general construction.
For this reason, familiarizing yourself with the MCAT format and practicing active reading will help you get better at effortlessly recognizing what each question is asking.
Some questions have their answers located within the passage, whereas other questions require you to apply outside knowledge to come up with the correct answer. Nevertheless, some questions will require a combination of these two approaches.
The first step to tackling passage-based questions is understanding that these 3 question types exist.
d) Make Connections
The MCAT is a hard exam in that a wide range of materials is covered. This cumulative exam tests pretty much everything you studied in your undergrad classes.
However, what makes this exam pretty straightforward is that all the subjects are intertwined and connected, and learning how to identify these connections will make your studying that much easier.
This also explains why knowledge gaps are a dangerous thing on the MCAT.
A knowledge gap in one science subject will not only hurt your ability to answer a question in that discipline, but this knowledge gap could also limit your odds of correctly answering an interdisciplinary MCAT question.
Physics is applied Math; Chemistry is applied Physics; Biochemistry is applied organic Chemistry, etc.
All the sciences are incredibly interconnected, and drawing connections by applying elaborative interrogation, will help you understand how each variable connects to the others.
As an added advantage, the better you get at recognizing these connections, the sharper your analytical skills will get.
Tips And Strategies To Ace The MCAT
Activate Your Long-Term Memory
Whether you choose to use the “Spacing Effect”, or the teaching tactic, there are numerous ways to build upon your long-term memory when studying for the MCAT, and doing so will prove advantageous in a number of ways.
To begin with, information stored in long-term memory lasts longer, thereby reducing the likelihood of you easily forgetting what you have studied. Long-term memory decays very little with time and additionally, information stored here is much easier to recall.
Secondly, unlike short-term memory, long-term memory has no limits to the amount of information that can be stored.
Employ Active Learning
Your performance on the MCAT will only be as good as the quality of your studying, which heavily depends on the study skills you employ.
When you employ passive learning, you will only end up wasting hours of studying because the information you are taking in will be misunderstood, forgotten, or never even truly learned in the first place if your attention is scattered.
On the other hand, active learning ensures your time is very well spent in acquiring new knowledge, making sense of it, and integrating it with other knowledge all the while ingraining this new knowledge into long-term memory.
Between the two, wouldn’t you much rather employ active learning?
A few ways to do this include:
- Changing your study schedule every so often.
- Reviewing every answer whether correct or incorrect, after completing a set of questions or a practice exam.
- Integrating note-taking into your reading.
- Restructuring or reformatting your notes.
- Making flashcards.
The whole point of active learning is to keep your mind active and engaged while studying so you can best understand the content and allow yourself to think about what you’ve learned so you can efficiently find new connections among the material.
You want to synthesize and solidify knowledge effectively and efficiently, thereby guaranteeing excellent use of your MCAT prep time.
Know The High Yield Topics
The popular piece of advice given to every single pre-medical student is that they should treat every subject and topic equally, giving everything equal attention during their study prep.
The reality, however, is that acing the MCAT can come down to a proportions game, whereby putting emphasis on particular areas would pay off hugely.
One such area is the high-yield topics, and these are simply the topics that appear most frequently in the exam’s three sections. Of course, CARS isn’t included here because that section relies purely on inference.
Defining which topics qualify as high yield and knowing how best to cover them would require a fair degree of strategy, so your efforts are put into the best possible use.
Although the MCAT covers pretty much everything, the reality is that specific topics are more commonly tested than others.
Here is a breakdown of some of the high yield topics belonging to various subjects:
High Yield Topics
Biochemistry of proteins; Enzymes; Amino acids; DNA; Molecular Biology; Oxidative Phosphorylation; & General cell biology.
Thermodynamics; Chemical reactions; Oxidation-reduction; & Acids and bases.
Kinematics; Forces; Work; Torque; Waves; & Electrostatics.
Learning and memory; Demographics; Social behavior; & Group psychology
One thing you need to realize is that some high-yield topics are tested indirectly, rather than directly.
For instance, while some MCAT questions will test Organic Chemistry directly, there are plenty of other questions, especially in Biochemistry, that require a strong working knowledge of Organic Chemistry in order to answer the questions correctly.
FAQs About The Difficulty Of The MCAT Test
Is The MCAT The Hardest Exam?
Yes, the MCAT is one of the hardest exams, among all college tests including the DAT, SAT, GMAT, LSAT, GRE, etc.
The reason for this is because, to begin with, the MCAT is a very long test requiring students to sit in the testing center for a whopping 7 hours, 30 minutes.
Also, scoring well on the MCAT isn’t as simple as knowing your material, as is typically the case with all other college tests. This challenging exam is designed to test how you think, putting your language skills, problem-solving skills, and critical analysis and reasoning skills to the test.
How Hard Is The MCAT Compared To ACT?
To begin with, while the MCAT takes 7.5 hours to complete, the ACT lasts for just 3.5 hours. This means getting through the MCAT would require you to have double the stamina and endurance it takes to get through the ACT.
Secondly, scoring in the 100th percentile on the MCAT is much harder than it is to score in the 100th percentile on the ACT.
The MCAT requires more background knowledge and reasoning skills than the ACT. However, you will find that both exams make use of the same test-taking skills such as reading efficiently, time strategy and pacing, etc.
What Is The Pass Rate For The MCAT?
The average score of students admitted into medical programs across America during the 2021 – 2022 admission cycle was 511.9 and this score fell in the 82nd percentile.
This means that students who matriculated into medical school scored similarly to or better than 82% of the overall test-takers. Meaning the MCAT pass rate for the 2021-2022 testing cycle was 18%.
Can A High GPA Make Up For A Low MCAT Score?
No, a high GPA cannot really make up for a low MCAT score.
MCAT scores are known to predict a student’s performance in medical school far better than an undergraduate GPA score ever could. And together, the two scores provide a far more accurate prediction than if either academic metric were to be used independently of the other.
That being said, some colleges may favor a higher GPA if your MCAT score is slightly lower, but this is the exception, not the norm. Ultimately, MCAT scores reign supreme over GPAs.