Understandably, the MCAT has a reputation for being “hard.” Because difficulty is relative, this article compares the MCAT to other standardized tests, evaluating its structure, content, and weight in medical school admissions to assess its difficulty.
Test Length: the MCAT vs. Other Standardized Tests
When I was studying to take the MCAT for the first time, I was also interning at a nonprofit organization. Once, I overheard a fellow intern state that he was studying for the LSAT. He said that the test was four hours long. All I could think to myself was, “Child’s play.”
The tests you take for college admission—the SAT and ACT—are just over three hours. The GMAT is also just over three hours, the GRE is about three and a half hours, and the LSAT is just under four hours. The MCAT is in a league of its own, totaling 7 hours and 27 minutes of seated time.
In the time it takes to complete a single MCAT, you could take two GREs and still have time left over. Based on time alone, all of these standardized tests—the SAT, ACT, GMAT, GRE, and LSAT—really are child’s play. However, one must consider more factors when assessing difficulty.
Time Needed to Prepare
While different sources vary in suggested study time, suggested times hover around 50 hours for the SAT/ACT, 100 for the GRE, and 120 for the GMAT. Only the LSAT mirrors the MCAT in terms of time demanded to prepare: both at 300 hours.
Even with a busy schedule, allocating a contiguous chunk of time for a GRE or LSAT practice test may be inconvenient but it is usually possible. With an ordinary student or working schedule, however, taking a full-length practice MCAT is rarely possible, as doing so takes a full day. This is one reason why the MCAT is the test most challenging to prepare for.
With the exception of learning vocabulary words for the GRE, studying for the above standardized tests are purely skill-based. The MCAT demands certain skills (noticing trends in data, applying authors’ ideas to novel settings, assessing experimental validity, etc.). However, the MCAT ALSO demands discrete knowledge, and a lot of it.
To be fully equipped with the outside knowledge needed for the MCAT, one must be familiar with physics, general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology. To perform well on the MCAT, one must master large, overarching concepts, in addition to memorizing obscure facts and vocabulary. There are no shortcuts in mastering these necessary topics, so learning the content needed for the MCAT is an especially grueling task.
Understanding What “Easy” Means
Imagine you took a 100-question test, and you thought it was easy. You missed a handful of questions, so you scored a 97 percent. Objectively, you did quite well, right?
The truth is that, even though you missed very few questions, we don’t have enough information to tell whether or not you did well.
If your fellow test-takers did not find the test as easy as you and your 97 was the highest score, then, yes, you did fantastically!
Having higher-achieving peers writes a different story. Imagine there were five people taking the test, including you. All other test-takers answered 98, 99, or 100 percent of questions correctly. You now have the lowest score—the zeroth percentile.
In this instance, you did not score well at all, even though you found the test easy and hardly missed any questions. Therefore, this test is not hard, but it is hard to do well on.
Many of us are conditioned to think in terms of objective scores, but on standardized tests (especially the MCAT), it is all about percentiles. Not only is the content covered on the MCAT challenging, but the people taking the MCAT are highly capable. Thus, taking the MCAT mirrors the situation above. To you, the MCAT may feel “easy” or “hard,” but in reality, what matters is scoring well relative to your peers.
MCAT Test-Takers vs. Those Taking Other Tests
Essentially all high school students take the SAT or ACT (or both). Some schools even require all students to take them. Thus, students of all levels—from the slackers to the prodigies—take the SAT and ACT. As a result, these tests’ bottommost percentiles are occupied by students uninterested in earning a high score and matriculating to an excellent university. These students essentially create a buffer and inflate the percentile ranking of the high-achieving test-takers.
In most incoming college classes, there is an influx of students who express interest in being pre-med. Some potential doctors deviate from the pre-med track, not because they cannot handle the work, but because they find other areas of study more fulfilling. However, for many, challenging pre-med courses “weed them out,” leaving only those with the tenacity and academic ability (and delusion?) required to jump through the hoops required to matriculate to medical school.
The MCAT lost the buffer of lower performing students who did not go to college and those unwilling to complete rigorous pre-med coursework. With fewer apathetic or low-performing students occupying the low percentiles, scoring in a high percentile is much more challenging on the MCAT than on college-admissions tests.
Smarter-than-average people also comprise GRE, GMAT, and LSAT test-takers. However, business and law schools do not demand specific coursework, and graduate schools require coursework tailored to specific programs, which would align with individual students’ interests. Students pursuing these programs lack the intense culling that pre-med students face with rigid pre-med requirements, so the GRE, GMAT, and LSAT have a bit more of a buffer of lower performing students.
Added Difficulty from Competitive Medical School Admissions
Most solid graduate or business programs are looking for students with GRE or GMAT scores between the 70th and 85th percentiles (although the median scores for the most competitive programs are above this). The LSAT is similar to the ACT and SAT in the sense that an extremely high score is needed for admittance into the most prestigious programs, but less competitive schools accept students with lower scores.
The MCAT is alone in the sense that a relatively high score is needed for essentially all programs. About 60% of medical school applicants are rejected from every school they apply to. In 2018-2019:
- The median MCAT score for all test-takers was 500 (~50th percentile).
- The median MCAT score for all med school applicants was 505.6 (~68th percentile).
- The median MCAT score for all med school matriculants was 511.2 (~84th percentile).
These data indicate that a low MCAT score doesn’t mean not getting into a prestigious medical school; it means not getting into a medical school at all. The extreme competitiveness of medical school admissions is a unique element that makes doing well on the MCAT much harder than on other tests.
Ease With the ACT vs. Struggle With the MCAT
As a junior in high school, I knew nothing about the ACT when I took it for the first time, and I scored a 31, which was the 97th percentile at that time. I then used some free online resources and became familiar with the test, allowing me to score a 35 (99th+ percentile).
As shown by my ACT performance, I was always a strong test-taker. However, relying on test-taking skills alone will not suffice for the MCAT. I studied for just over 100 hours the first time I took the MCAT, and I scored a 509 (79th percentile). Later, having studied for the recommended 300 hours, I retook the test and scored a 519 (97th percentile).
The MCAT is its own beast. Even if you had an easy time with past standardized tests, the MCAT demands more time and energy to prepare. Relying on good test-taking skills and brushing up on a few unfamiliar topics will not cut it.
If you had a hard time with standardized tests in high school, brace yourself for the MCAT. The good news is that diligent, consistent, hard work will pay off. Remember to set yourself up for success and grant yourself the time and resources you need to fully prepare. You can do it!