MCAT 101

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What is the MCAT?

The Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) is the main entrance exam for medical schools in Canada, the U.S and other countries, administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). It is computer-based and currently composed of three sections: Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, and Biological Sciences. The Writing Section was removed in the winter of 2012.

Each section is bell-curved from 1 (low) to 15 (high) for a composite score range between 3 and 45. A 30 is generally considered competitive for medical school, a 35 being around the 95th percentile, and 40+ being between 98th and 99.9th percentile.

Though the MCAT tests facts and knowledge, it is largely passage-based and focuses on analyzing random experiments and research articles. Test takers are then required to answer questions using reasoning and basic chemistry, physics, and biology principles.

 

When should I write the MCAT?

There is not one specific time to write the MCAT. Test takers range from first year undergraduate students to those in their last year of graduate school. That said, here are some courses that are recommended to prepare for each section before writing the MCAT:

Physical Sciences: Introductory physics and chemistry (PHYS 101, 102; CHEM 110, 120).

Verbal Reasoning: no prior knowledge needed. This section is entirely skill-based. (Note that this does not make this section easier, and it is often considered the hardest to prepare for as a result).

Biological Sciences: Introductory molecular and cell biology, physiology, ecology, and organic chemistry. BIOL 111, 112; BIOL 200; PHGY 209, 210; CHEM 212, 222—including the material learned in organic chemistry labs (experimental methods like distillation, chromatography, and  H NMR). Don’t worry, only certain parts of these courses are tested.

 

How to register for the MCAT

You can register for the MCAT through the AAMC website. The MCAT is administered several times a year, but spots fill up quickly so it is ideal to register at least a few months in advance.

 

Test prep companies

AAMC: This company writes the actual MCAT and also offers practice tests and self-evaluation packages. The majority of material is taken from previously administered MCATs.

Kaplan: One of the main test-prep companies, it offers courses, books, and practice tests. Kaplan has a very comprehensive program that gives a detailed review of MCAT material. However, some people find that it focuses too much on facts, which are often not as important because the MCAT passages usually give you the details you need to attack the questions.

The Princeton Review: Another major test-prep company that offers courses, books, and practice tests. The tests are often more difficult than the real MCAT, but can be effective for diagnosing weak areas.

Examkrackers: This company provides a variety of services, but they are mostly known for their 1001 MCAT questions books and the EK 101 Verbal passages book—one of the most widely used resources for MCAT prep. Verbal passages are generally considered to be representative of the actual Verbal Reasoning section on the MCAT.

Gold Standard: Among its many services are 10 full-length practice tests, equating to hours of practice.

Other companies, like Prep101, Berkeley Review, and other online sources also provide preparatory services.

A source of information and support

Students and doctors across North America post discussions in online forums, namely the Student Doctor Network (SDN), which address almost any question you may have about the MCAT. There are some extremely useful posts about various test-prep strategies on SDN.

 

New MCAT

In spring 2015 the MCAT will be changing its sections to include:

“Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems, Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems, Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior, and Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills.” The major change is the addition of psychology and sociology.

The AAMC has posted further information about the 2015 MCAT. Students may need to write the new version depending on when they plan on applying to medical school.

 

A final personal wordof advice

Though it is tempting to try to cram vast amounts of information, remember that the MCAT is largely a skills-based test—learn to write the MCAT, not a biology exam. Unlike university finals, most marks lost are those from passage analysis and not lapses in knowledge. Therefore, be sure to practice MCAT passages as much and as early on as possible.

Many experienced MCAT test takers will agree that the MCAT is different for everybody. Each test taker has to find what works for them. A full prep course could be extremely valuable for one person, but a waste of time for another. As different approaches and test-preparation methods work for different people, try to expose yourself to as many prep companies and students who have written the test as possible to find what will help you reach your desired score.