"Make sure that you feel that you are completely ready to take it before you sit for the exam," says Timothy Malone, who is pursuing an M.D. and a Master of Public Health degree through a dual-degree program at St. George's University. "If you have any doubts, push off the exam to a later test date."
Here are the essential facts to know about the MCAT before signing up to take the test.
What Is the MCAT Like and What Purpose Does It Serve?
The MCAT is designed to assess whether prospective medical students have the conceptual understanding and analytical skills necessary for success in medical school, according to Karen Mitchell, the senior director of admissions testing service with the Association of American Medical Colleges, the organization that creates and administers MCAT exams.
The format and content of the MCAT is informed by input of medical school faculty, medical residents and medical students based on their judgments of what academic preparation ought to be required for medical school, Mitchell adds.
"The MCAT exam has been part of the medical school admissions process for over 90 years, and almost all medical schools in the United States, and many in Canada, require applicants to submit recent MCAT scores as part of their application," she wrote in an email. "Many health professions and graduate programs also accept MCAT scores in lieu of other standardized tests. The exam was revised in 2015 to reflect recent changes in medicine and science and to test examinees on not only what they know, but how well they use what they know."
The MCAT is split into four sections, and a test-taker's performance on each of these sections is weighted equally in his or her overall score. The four sections are:
-- Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems.
-- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems.
-- Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills.
-- Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior.
Three of the four sections of the MCAT focus on natural and social sciences and are based upon lessons learned in undergraduate courses, Mitchell says. In contrast, the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section of the MCAT is not scientifically oriented and does not require "specific content knowledge." It tests reading comprehension abilities, she says.
"The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section was developed to measure the analytical and reasoning skills needed to be successful in medical school," Mitchell explains. "It covers a wide range of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities, including those in population health, ethics and philosophy, and studies of diverse cultures."
How Much Does the MCAT Cost?
According to the MCAT fee schedule posted on the AAMC website, the initial registration fee to sign up for the MCAT is $315 for the 2019 testing year. However, med school hopefuls with difficult financial circumstances may qualify for the AAMC's fee assistance program. The program enables premeds with demonstrated financial need to receive discounts on their MCAT registration fees, alongside free test prep resources and complimentary access to the Medical School Admission Requirements database.
How Long Is the MCAT?
"The total seated time for the MCAT exam is approximately seven and a half hours," Mitchell says. "This time includes six hours and 15 minutes of actual content time, 50 minutes worth of breaks and approximately 25 minutes of administrative tasks such as test-day certification, an MCAT tutorial and an optional survey upon completion of the exam."
An MCAT test-taker's total score on the exam can be as low as 472 or as high as 528, and this score is determined based upon the sum of a student's section scores, each of which ranges from a minimum of 118 to a maximum of 132. MCAT test-takers are rewarded for correct answers to test questions, but they are not penalized for wrong answers, so they should make their best guess on questions where they are unsure of the right answer, Mitchell says.
"The MCAT exam is not graded on a curve," she says. "Instead, the MCAT exam is scaled and equated so that scores have the same meaning, no matter when an examinee tests or who tests at the same time they did."
According to MCAT test prep experts, perfect and near-perfect overall MCAT scores are exceedingly rare, so premeds should not expect to achieve these scores.
"A perfect score in a section isn't necessarily exceedingly rare, but an overall perfect score is, you know, like a unicorn," says Dr. Ryan Gray, the publisher and CEO of Meded Media, a company that produces content for premeds. "It happens, but it's not something to shoot for at all. ... I see students who shoot for those perfect scores do it at the expense of having a more well-rounded application, and those students -- even with really great scores -- don't get into medical school, because the rest of their application isn't what it needs to be."
[Read: What Is a Good MCAT Score?]
According to the AAMC, premeds who achieve the following MCAT scores have equaled or surpassed the achievements of the vast majority of MCAT test-takers in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
Equal to or superior to 80 percent of MCAT test-takers
Equal to or superior to 90 percent of MCAT test-takers
Equal to or superior to 95 percent of MCAT test-takers
Equal to or superior to 98 percent of MCAT test-takers
521, 522 or 523
Equal to or superior to 99 percent of MCAT test-takers
Average MCAT Scores
The mean MCAT score among med school applicants seeking admission to U.S. medical schools in the 2018-2019 school year was 505.6, according to AAMC statistics. However, the average MCAT score among applicants who were admitted and actually matriculated at U.S. medical schools in that same year was higher: 511.2.
MCAT Test Dates and Locations
"The MCAT exam is administered at computer-based test center locations throughout the United States, Canada and select locations internationally," Mitchell says. "The testing calendar runs from January through September and includes over 35 testing dates."
Premeds may use the online MCAT Registration System in order to see a list of all the MCAT test centers, Mitchell says. "Test centers have fixed capacity, and seats are reserved on a first-come, first-served basis," she says. "If examinees are unable to secure their preferred appointment, a notification system was recently implemented, which enables examinees to be notified when that appointment becomes available."
Katherine Thomson, senior curriculum manager with Magoosh, a test prep company, suggests that premeds should attempt to schedule their MCAT exam as soon as possible after slots open up for their desired test date, since spots may run out.
"Registration for the MCAT is split into two phases," she says. "In October, students may begin to register for January through May test dates. June through September test dates open for registration in February. You can follow the AAMC on Twitter to learn the exact time when registration opens," Thomson says.
Thomson adds that students who need their MCAT scores back by a certain date should take that into account when they schedule their MCAT test, since it takes about 30 days after the test to receive a score. "Because of the MCAT score release delay, take the MCAT by May if you want your application to be among the earliest reviewed by medical schools," she says.
It is common for premeds to say that they are unsure how to start preparing for the MCAT, Mitchell says. "To address this concern, the AAMC has developed a free six-step guide to creating a study plan," she says. "The study plan walks students through a simple planning process that helps them evaluate their current level of knowledge, organize their resources, plan their study schedule and simulate a mock exam day before the actual test day."
She adds that the AAMC provides an abundance of MCAT test prep resources, including many which are free.
Med students say that, because the MCAT is a multi-hour exam that covers a variety of academic disciplines including both science and non-science subjects, it's crucial to prepare for the length and breadth of the exam.
"The best way to do it is to take a lot of practice tests," says Cameron Ward, a student at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Ward says his approach to building up the endurance necessary to complete the entire MCAT test in one sitting was to progressively tackle more significant chunks of the test until he could complete the entire test in one go. Then Ward repeatedly took the full-length exam until it felt normal, he says. "By the time the test came around, I was accustomed to the length, and I had learned how to maintain focus" for an extended time period, Ward says.
Taking practice tests helps students identify which topics to focus on during their test prep, Ward says.
Divya Vaithiswaran, an M.D. student at St. George's University, says that MCAT prep can be "disheartening" and "humbling" at times, however, it is possible to perform well on the test even if preparing for it is challenging.
"The anxiety of taking the test is very real," she says. "People need to realize that, when you start studying for the MCAT, a lot of times you feel like you can't do it because you're not scoring as well as you should." Vaithiswaran says premeds shouldn't get discouraged if they initially struggle with practice MCAT exam questions. "No one starts studying for the MCAT knowing everything," she adds.
Lauren Friedrich, a UT Southwestern medical student, says the best way for premeds to decide what their target MCAT score should be is to research what the typical scores are among admitted students at the med schools where they plan to apply. Friedrich says that she waited to take the MCAT until she had finished premed courses that were relevant to the test, such as psychology and sociology.
How Important Is the MCAT During the Medical School Admissions Process?
Dr. Blake Barker, associate dean for student affairs at UT Southwestern Medical Center, says med school hopefuls should be careful not to overestimate the weight that the MCAT is given in admissions decisions.
"Medical schools really intently look at the whole application in its entirety ... with (the) MCAT just being one piece," he says. "Think of your application like a pizza, and if one piece of the pizza is a little bit smaller than the rest, that means that the rest of the pieces need to be a bit bigger to make a whole pizza."
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