Scoring well on the MCAT is a major key for med school acceptance. However, earning a high score is a challenge without knowing what is on the MCAT. To ensure you know what to study and reach your maximum score, this article outlines what is covered on the MCAT.
To be successful in the clinic, doctors need an array of knowledge and skills. The MCAT assesses test-takers’ skill diversity through its four sections:
The AAMC outlines what is on the MCAT’s four sections. Its descriptions are thorough and, therefore, lengthy. Below is my breakdown:
The CARS section presents test-takers with non-scientific passages (50% humanities and 50% social sciences) and challenges them with questions that demand varying levels of comprehension. Below are the skills that the CARS section evaluates.
These questions test if you are able to make sense of the author’s writing (Think literal comprehension questions on the SAT or ACT). The answers to these questions will be directly in the passage (although relevant information in the passage may be worded differently than the answer choice).
These questions challenge you to evaluate elements of the passage at a higher level; assessing the author’s argument, tone, theme, language choice, audience, assumptions, biases, logic errors, or purpose for including information.
These questions demand that you understand the author’s key ideas and then run with them. Often, this means applying the author’s claims to a novel situation or seeing how new information will affect the author’s claims.
The MCAT’s three non-CARS sections (Bio/Biochem, Chem/Phys, Psyc/Soc) evaluate the following skills:
These questions test how well you know concrete material (i.e. what is in your textbooks). Almost all non-passage-based (“discrete”) questions fall into this category.
These questions demand that you know concrete knowledge but also take your knowledge one step further, often to make a prediction or challenge a hypothesis. These questions are quite varied in format, so be on your toes.
These questions demand that you evaluate the pertinence, validity, or ethics of experimental procedures. Be sure to be totally confident in experiment-related terminology.
These questions challenge test-takers to identify and interpret trends in tables, figures, and graphs. Be sure to know statistics-related terms (mean, median, mode, etc).
Some MCAT questions (primarily those on the Chem/Phys section) demand test-takers to use math to answer a question, most commonly using a formula. However, there is no calculator on the MCAT, so be sure to get comfortable doing math questions by hand—logs, unit conversions, ratios, simple trig, multiplication, division, etc.
59 questions compose the Bio/Biochem section: 44 passage-based questions and 15 discrete questions. The content is 65% biology, 25% biochemistry, 5% organic chemistry, and 5% general chemistry.
Below are the three Bio/Biochem foundational concepts outlined by the AAMC:
These questions cover the structures and functions of amino acids, proteins, nucleotides, RNA, DNA, lipids, and sugars. Topics also include biomolecule-related processes like DNA replication and protein production.
These questions focus on properties of organelles, cell-specific processes (mitosis, meiosis, and more), cell junctions, ionic gradient maintenance, viruses, prokaryotes, the cell cycle, embryogenesis, and cell differentiation.
These questions test your understanding of the nervous and endocrine systems’ effects on other parts of the body. Other topics include the other organ systems: respiratory, circulatory, immune, etc.
59 questions compose the Chem/Phys section: 44 passage-based questions and 15 discrete questions. The content is 30% general chemistry, 25% physics, 25% biochemistry, 15% organic chemistry, and 5% biology.
Below are the two Chem/Phys foundational concepts outlined by the AAMC:
These questions cover motion, energy, fluids, electricity, magnetism, electrochemistry, light, sound, optics, atomic decay, and stoichiometry. You will apply physics-related knowledge and formulas to make predictions about human physiology.
These questions demand an understanding of solutions, acids/bases, intermolecular forces, separation/purification, biomolecular structure, functional groups, enzyme kinetics, bond types, and thermodynamics. You will apply these ideas to explain mechanisms behind somatic function and diseases.
59 questions compose the Psyc/Soc section: 44 passage-based questions and 15 discrete questions. The content is 65% introduction biology, 30% sociology, and 5% psychology.
Below are the five Psyc/Soc foundational concepts outlined by the AAMC:
These questions demand you know how one perceives his/her environment, makes sense of perceived information, and responds. Topics include sensory organs, perception, attention, cognition, consciousness, memory, language, emotion, and stress.
These questions focus on influencers of behavior and behavioral change. Topics include the nervous system, personality, psychological disorders, motivation, attitude, social processes, socialization, and learning theories.
These questions cover the development of self-image and the drivers of social interactions. Topics include identity formation, prejudice, stereotypes, self-presentation, social behavior, and discrimination.
These questions test knowledge on social structures, demographic characteristics, and processes that define societies. Topics include sociological theories, culture, and demographic-related processes.
These questions focus on societal issues can lead to adverse outcomes, particularly for vulnerable populations. Topics include spatial inequality, social class, as well as health and health care disparities.
When I retook the MCAT, I scored a 519 (131 Chem/Phys, 127 CARS, 131 Bio/Biochem, 130 Psyc/Soc). While more general study tips can be found in How to Study for the MCAT, here is some advice regarding test preparation for each of the sections:
With so much possible content on the MCAT, preparing can be overwhelming. However, this article broke down how the AAMC organizes the key ideas, allowing you to better know what is on the test. After reading this article, you now know what is on the MCAT. Now it’s time for the next step—learning it.