Preparing for the MCAT, which has a reputation of being long and grueling, can be a challenge without fully understanding its format. Fortunately, the length and structure of the MCAT is consistent, allowing one to better prepare for it with fewer surprises.
The MCAT’s total question-answering time is 6 hours and 15 minutes. The total time at the test center (often referred to as “seated time”) is 7 hours and 27 minutes.
This is the itinerary for test day (which begins around 8:00 am):
You may have noticed a pattern in the section formats: Chem/Phys, Bio/Biochem, and Psyc/Soc follow identical structures. These sections have clusters of two-three passages with corresponding questions, followed by three-four discrete questions. (Discrete questions are questions that do not relate to a passage and demand outside knowledge to answer.)
The structure of CARS is a little different, with five fewer minutes, six fewer questions, and one fewer passage (although CARS passages are generally longer than the other sections’ passages). Be sure to familiarize yourself with these differences and visualize how they will affect your test-taking strategy.
It’s an excellent idea to become familiar with the test day experience and to engage in best practices to reduce the possibility of things going wrong. A few days before test day, visit the test center to know exactly where it is, where to park, etc. On test day, be sure to arrive at the test center at least 30 minutes before the actual exam start time (which will likely be 8:00 am). You will be required to store your belongings in lockers and your cell phone in a specific type of sealed bag provided for you.
Different than the SAT or ACT, the MCAT begins at a different time for each test-taker. Before the test begins, test administrators check the identities of, scan the palms of, and use metal detectors on test-takers to mitigate any risk of cheating. After the inspection, an administrator leads a test-taker to an assigned computer to begin his/her MCAT. Test-takers will generally begin their MCATs between 7:45 and 8:15 am.
Because the MCAT is a computer-based test and the computer keeps track of time, the test-taker has the option to submit any section (including the agreements and breaks) early, creating the possibility to complete the test in less than 7 hours and 27 minutes. However, submitting a section early does NOT grant the test-taker extra break time; it just allows one to move on to the next section more quickly.
Taking official AAMC practice tests allows many people to not need to complete the MCAT’s tutorial portion, as they arrive at the test center already familiar with how to navigate the MCAT’s interface. Practicing with these tests will also allows test-takers to familiarize themselves with the contents of the examinee agreement and void question, enabling test-takers to spend less time on these sections and have more energy where it counts—the test itself.
Understanding how long the MCAT is demands more than simply knowing how much time passes on the clock; you also need to know how long the MCAT feels. Taking a seven-plus hour test is incredibly taxing on even the best test-takers. The only real way to address this is by taking multiple practice tests and figuring out your own test-taking rhythm.
Ideally, you will take enough practice tests where the rhythm of the test feels like second nature—you know at what pace to read and how much time to spend on each question before moving on. (Generally, five to seven full-length practice tests will be enough to achieve this.) Taking the official MCAT prematurely means that you likely have not taken enough practice tests to fully feel comfortable—and therefore confident—confronting the mentally (and physically) demanding nature of the MCAT.
It is ideal to take practice tests in one sitting, starting at 8:00 am, simulating test conditions as much as possible. Restricting food consumption and bathroom use only during allocated breaks allows you to time familiarize yourself with how you eat, drink, and use the restroom. Then, you can make necessary adjustments to minimize the negative impact your hungry stomach or overextended bladder has on your test performance. Also, sitting and looking at a computer screen for six or more hours during a short window of time is uncomfortable for most, so practicing doing so will help you improve your comfort with this less-than-ideal set-up.
Yes, the MCAT is very long, intensive, and grueling. However, you do not have the ability to change the length of the MCAT. What you do have control over is how you prepare. This article allowed you to learn how long the MCAT is, how it is formatted, and how to best prepare for its high mental and physical demands. With this knowledge, you can better prepare for the MCAT and set a better trajectory to earn your best score.