The MCAT ranks as one of the hardest examinations in the world.
From the skills and knowledge required to the fact that you must endure the 7.5 hours it takes to complete this test, preparing for the MCAT is grueling for any pre-med student.
It is challenging, yes, but getting a good MCAT score is not impossible.
The first step in acing this exam is understanding how to study for the MCAT, and this article is a perfect starting point.
- Passing the MCAT exam comes down to 3 key strategies: Understanding, Memorizing and Applying.
- If you memorize something without understanding it, you cannot effectively apply that knowledge.
- Keep in mind that the longer you spend studying, the more chances you have of forgetting previous material.
How To Study For The MCAT: A Step By Step Guide
What Is The MCAT Test Like?
The Medical College Admission Test is designed to assess whether prospective medical students have the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed in medical school and, after that, as medical practitioners.
In particular, the MCAT exam tests a student’s conceptual understanding, critical thinking and reasoning capabilities, and ability to analyze data to make predictions. As such, the MCAT heavily relies on the application of knowledge rather than mere memorization.
These skills are measured through 4 sections in the exam:
- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
- Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills, CARS
- Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
- Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
This standardized exam is administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges, more popularly known as the AAMC.
The test has been part of the medical school admissions process since 1928 and is required by almost all medical schools in the United States.
Here’s the format and content of the MCAT exam:
No. Of Questions
Overall Raw Score
• Test-Day Certification
Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills, CARS
• Mid-Exam Break
Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior
• Void Question
• End-Of-Day Survey
Full MCAT Exam
7 Hrs. 27 Min.
Note: When sitting for this exam, it is worth noting that the breaks are optional, meaning you can opt to skip a break altogether and just continue with the exam.
However, keep in mind that if you opt to skip a break, this will not add to your section time. The timing for each section remains constant, whether or not you take the recommended breaks.
MCAT Test Sections & Skills Tested
Overall, sections 1, 3, and 4 on the MCAT require you to have a deep knowledge of scientific facts and concepts. Additionally, you need to be able to combine knowledge from multiple disciplines by applying inquiry and reasoning skills.
The scientific inquiry and reasoning skills tested in these 3 sections comprise:
a) Knowledge of Scientific Concepts and Principles.
b) Scientific Reasoning and Problem-Solving.
c) Reasoning About the Design and Execution of Research.
d) Data-Based and Statistical Reasoning.
On the other hand, CARS, section 2 of the MCAT, tests for critical analysis and reasoning skills, including:
a) Foundations of Comprehension
b) Reasoning Within the Text
c) Reasoning Beyond the Text
That being said, here’s an outline of the MCAT test sections:
1. Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
This section tests a student’s understanding of the physical, mechanical, and biochemical functions of the human body with regard to human tissues, organs, and organ systems.
You will be required to know the basic physical and chemical principles that govern the mechanisms operating in the human body. Your ability to reason about these principles and apply this understanding to living systems will also be tested.
Out of the total 59 questions, 44 are passage-based, and 15 are presented as standalone questions.
The academic disciplines tested, along with the average distribution of questions in each subject, are as follows:
- First-Semester Biochemistry, 25%
- Introductory Biology, 5%
- General Chemistry, 30%
- Organic Chemistry, 15%
- Introductory Physics, 25%
2. Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills, CARS
Unlike the other three sections within the MCAT, you cannot study for CARS directly because this section doesn’t require any specific content knowledge.
Rather, you would need continuous practice to sharpen your reading comprehension, analytical, critical thinking, and reasoning skills.
You are presented with 9 complex, thought-provoking passages, each 500 to 600 words long and containing 5-7 questions to give you a total of 53 questions.
The academic disciplines tested in this section and the average distribution of questions in each subject are as follows:
- Humanities, 50%
- Social Sciences, 50%
3. Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
This segment tests your knowledge of fundamental concepts governing processes unique to living organisms. These processes include reproduction, growing, responding, metabolizing, and adapting.
Additionally, you will be required to know how cells and organ systems accomplish these processes, in addition to your ability to reason about these fundamental processes.
The 59 questions in this section are presented as 44 passage-based and 15 standalone questions.
The academic disciplines tested in this section, along with the average distribution of questions in each subject, are as follows:
- First-Semester Biochemistry, 25%
- Introductory Biology, 65%
- General Chemistry, 5%
- Organic Chemistry, 5%
4. Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
This section tests your understanding of how sociology, Psychology, and biology concepts apply to the behavioral and socio-cultural aspects of human health.
You will be required to have knowledge of perceptions, behavior and behavior change, cultural and social differences, what people think about themselves and others, and the influence of social relationships.
Just as well, this section will require you to demonstrate your ability to use statistics and research methods.
Out of the 59 questions, 44 are passage-based and 15 are standalone questions.
The academic disciplines tested, along with the average distribution of questions in each subject are as follows:
- Introductory Psychology, 65%
- Introductory Sociology, 30%
- Introductory Biology, 5%
How Long Should You Study Before Taking The MCAT?
Students who do well in the MCAT exam are reported to have put in about 300 – 350 hours of study time.
There’s a ton of material to cover when preparing for the MCAT exam, so naturally, plenty of students wonder when they should start studying.
Here’s the dilemma: if you start studying too early, you will have forgotten plenty of content by the time the exam date is approaching. Not to mention, you are likely to experience burnout, further hindering your learning progress.
On the other hand, if you start studying too late, you will end up having to cram a lot of content in a short amount of time. Not only will this induce panic, but it is also near impossible that you will do well in the actual exam.
So when is the ideal time to start studying for the MCAT exam?
Well, here’s a starting point: take a diagnostic full-length practice exam about 6 months before your chosen test date. This will help you determine your baseline, so you know how much or little studying you need to do, based on how well you scored on the diagnostic test.
Once you’ve determined how well prepared you are for the exam, you will then know what to focus on in your subsequent MCAT preparation, allowing you to evaluate how much prep time you are likely to need.
Some people may require to refresh their knowledge 6 months in advance, while others may only need 2 months. On average, it is recommended to take about 3 months to prepare for the MCAT exams.
This is a hard test, and so you need sufficient time to prepare adequately. After all, you wouldn’t want to have to do this exam a second time, would you?
How To Start Studying For The MCAT
Step 1: Create Your Timeline
When do you plan on taking the MCAT exam? Your first step should be to determine your test date.
If you’ll be attending medical school immediately after college, it is recommended to take the MCAT during the summer after sophomore year.
If you will be taking a year off after college, take the MCAT during the summer between junior and senior years.
Ideally, it is best to schedule your MCAT test date at least a year prior to when you plan to start medical school.
Step 2: Identify Your Learning Style
Your learning style and study preferences will influence how you craft your study schedule, as well as help you pick out the ideal MCAT prep study materials.
For some, this may be independently going over material such as flashcards and books. For others, this may be consistently taking practice tests on a daily basis.
Others thrive off working within study groups, whereas some thrive better from the structure offered by an MCAT test prep course.
Step 3: Set Your Goal Score
Establish the MCAT score you aim towards achieving, based on the med school you wish to attend.
Like all standardized tests, the MCAT is extremely competitive, so you need to score accordingly if you wish to secure a slot in your school of choice.
Step 4: Determine Your Baseline
Full-length practice tests are a good way of gauging exactly where you stand if you were to take the MCAT today. So to establish your baseline, start by taking a diagnostic practice test.
Assessing your baseline against your target goal score will help establish how much reading you need to do.
Your baseline will help establish the current level of knowledge you possess. At the same time, you will be able to clearly tell areas where your knowledge is lacking.
Furthermore, taking MCAT practice exams earlier on in your study period will help you get used to the MCAT test format, including how questions are asked and what kind of content is tested.
Step 5: Gather Your Study Materials
The Association of American Medical Colleges, AAMC, has a ton of helpful material for prospective medical students available on its website. I’d advise you to start at this point.
Step 6: Create A Detailed Study Schedule
Having a detailed study schedule will help you stay on track with your MCAT preparation so that you optimize every minute you spend studying.
The key goal here is to stay consistent. Ultimately, you are better off studying for 3 hours every day, for a couple of months, rather than trying to fit a ton of content in a 10-hour study session once a week.
Your study schedule should align with your study timeline, and learning style, and should place equal emphasis on both content review, and practice.
Step 7: Establish Your Study Community
Ever heard of the phrase “It takes a village”? Well, these words are as true when it comes to passing the MCAT, as they are when it comes to raising a child.
Your community may come in the form of a study group, a study partner, an online MCAT prep forum, or a trusted professor or advisor.
Sure, you can do this entirely on your own, and many have done so successfully. However, having solid support will prove worthwhile especially when burnout starts to set in.
Step 8: Build Stamina By Taking Practice Exams
The MCAT is a very long test, taking approximately 7.5 hours.
Taking MCAT practice tests earlier on in your study period will help gradually build the stamina required to endure such a long exam, which is an important aspect of doing well on the real test.
So in addition to taking plenty of MCAT practice questions, take plenty of timed full-length practice exams as well.
Step 9: Assess Your Work
After working on a set of practice problems, go through all your answers, both the correct and incorrect ones, and study the solutions offered.
This will help further cement your strengths and weaknesses, so you know where to dedicate more study time and therefore you can adjust your study schedule accordingly.
Step 10: Take Good Care Of Yourself
Prepping for the MCAT can be an intense period for pre-med students. But with a well-planned timeline, this period doesn’t have to be entirely isolating.
Take good care of your physical and mental health by exercising, staying hydrated, well-rested, and allowing room in your study schedule for regular breaks.
Which Are The Best MCAT Study Materials?
Before we delve into the various MCAT study materials, here are a couple of things you need to keep in mind:
- It is advisable to use multiple study materials to study for the MCAT.
- Some study materials are better at explaining certain concepts than other study materials. So know which material works best for which subject.
- What’s important is that you find quality tools and resources that work for you and stick to those rather than trying to use all possible resources at once.
MCAT Books: Content review books will help you build a strong foundation of scientific knowledge which is paramount when it comes to acing the MCAT.
Additionally, these books often have topical practice questions at the end of each chapter, helping you cement what you’ve just covered. Ensure you work on these diligently.
MCAT Prep Courses: These come in handy for the students who thrive from the structure and strict discipline offered by a prep course.
Each test prep company has its advantages and shortcomings so make sure you undertake diligent research before settling for a particular MCAT prep course.
Study Notes: Taking your own notes is encouraged as this is a good way to activate active learning, so you can retain more from each study session.
So whether you are reading a book, or watching a content review video, summarize and consolidate that information in the form of study notes which you can easily review later to quickly re-learn something.
Practice Tests: These help familiarize you with the content, format, and structure of the real MCAT exam in terms of what’s tested, and how questions are asked.
At the same time, practice tests are a good way to build your stamina in readiness for the 7.5-hour long exam so the sooner you get started on these, the better.
Question Banks: practice questions allow you to review and test your knowledge and skills on a regular basis. The more representative the questions are of the real MCAT, the better off you will be.
Additionally, pay attention also to the suitability of answer explanations provided, checking to see whether they have clarity and detail.
Flashcards: By allowing you to re-learn and re-test yourself on the same material, flashcards make use of spaced repetition to cement content.
These are best used for targeted review of any content gaps you may have.
AAMC Material: The AAMC provides a wealth of MCAT practice resources. You have a ton of practice questions to work on, a free diagnostic test, and 4 full-length sample tests.
Seeing as these materials come right from the creators of the real MCAT exam, every student is encouraged to go through all these resources before sitting for the exam.
In particular, your average score across the 4 AAMC full-length tests will be a good indicator of what you should expect to score on the real exam.
How To Study As A Non-Traditional MCAT Student
Studying for the MCAT as a non-traditional student can be incredibly challenging either because you were not a science major, or have been removed from the academic world for some time.
A non-traditional MCAT student is one that essentially falls under one of the following categories:
- Older applicants in their late 20s or older.
- Career changers from a non-medical profession.
- Recent graduates who were not pre-med.
- Applicants with children.
It would be easy for me to simply tell you “Just focus and study”, but we all know that that’s better said than done.
So instead, here are a few helpful tips to get you through the mountain of struggles and challenges you are bound to encounter as a non-traditional MCAT student.
1. Rethink Your Day Job
You might have either to negotiate with your employer for reduced working hours, so you can have more time to study, or take a leave of absence for maybe 2 months.
Some people have opted to quit their jobs altogether so that they can fully immerse themselves into studying for the MCAT.
2. Consider Enrolling In Classes
If you are good at self-teaching, then learning concepts through video lectures and prep books may be sufficient.
However, if you lack the foundational knowledge, it can be incredibly challenging to self-study for certain subjects such as Biochemistry. As such, you may be better off taking an in-person course.
Taking core science courses is particularly advisable for the students who lack a science background, and those who did not take any science courses in their undergrad.
3. Make MCAT Studying Your Second Nature
You need to prepare your mind to become accustomed to studying, such that you think about the MCAT even in the simplest scenarios.
For instance, try thinking of Biological processes whenever you see an animal crossing the street while you are driving.
It will be easy to find such connections in your day-to-day life when you program your brain to think this way every single second of the day.
4. Keep The Studying Going
Listen to audio lectures while driving to work, or go through flashcards while waiting in line at the grocery store. Make use of every downtime to squeeze in some studying no matter how minimal.
How Students Have Studied For The MCAT
All students hope to do as well as possible during their first time sitting for the MCAT so that they will not have to retake the exam. Well, one way to ensure this is to borrow a leaf from students who have been in your shoes before.
FAQs About How To Study For The MCAT
Do All Medical Schools Require The MCAT?
No, not all medical schools require the MCAT.
However, the majority of medical schools in the United States do have the MCAT as an admissions requirement. And those that don’t aren’t particularly easy to get into anyway. Often, you will be required to have stellar ACT and SAT scores.
How Many Hours A Day Should I Study For The MCAT?
Aim to spend at least 3-4 hours a day studying for the MCAT, assuming you will be studying 6 days per week.
Overall, the AAMC recommends that students spend between 300 and 350 hours in total preparing for the MCAT exam. If you were to study for 3 months, this would translate into studying for an average of 25 hours per week.
Are 2 Months Enough To Study For The MCAT?
Yes, 2 months is enough time to study for the MCAT if you really must be on a shorter study schedule as is often the case for non-traditional applicants.
However, keep in mind that accomplishing 300 hours of study over 2 months is going to be pretty painful. You need to prepare yourself for the reality of studying around 6 hours a day, 6 days a week, leaving one day for rest to avoid burnout.
Additionally, scoring well after preparing for such a short amount of time will require you to have a firm grasp of the material beforehand. You simply cannot rely purely on cramming.
Which Are The Best MCAT Study Resources?
The best MCAT study resources are MCAT books, practice tests, and practice questions.
Used together, these resources not only give you a firm grasp of content review but also allow you to test your skills and knowledge so you know how best to apply what you are learning.
How Do You Know When You Are Ready To Take The MCAT?
You know you are ready to take the MCAT when the scores you are getting in AAMC’s full-length practice tests are close to the goal score you have in mind.
Additionally, if you get to the point where you understand how to work through various practice questions, knowing what is required to answer each question, then this also shows you are ready to sit for the real exam.
Do not rush to take the MCAT if you don’t feel ready.
If you do not know how to evaluate the exam, then it can be tough to get a good score on the MCAT.
Evaluating the exam is all about understanding what’s tested and how these concepts are tested. Once you understand this, you can then better plan on how to study for the MCAT to efficiently use your study time.