MCAT Basics

What is the MCAT?

The MCAT is designed by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) to measure students’ preparation for medical school.

The MCAT takes about 7.5 hours to complete, including two short breaks and a 30-minute lunch break. Although the test is very content-driven, most of that content has been covered by the end of sophomore year in a pre-med track. The exam covers physics, biology, organic chemistry, general chemistry, and biochemistry. The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section does not test any content; it tests your ability to extract arguments and information from complex passages. In fact, most of the questions on the MCAT are delivered alongside reading passages. Luckily, the necessary skills to perform well on passage-based questions are the same as active reading skills. The Learning Center has many resources to help with improving those skills.

What are the subsections?

  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

Each subsection score ranges from 118-132, with a total score range of 472-528.

Is any subsection favored by admissions committees?

There is a slight preference for higher CARS scores. Matriculants tend to have slightly higher CARS scores than those of the other three science-based sections. Many pre-med advisors now recommend students take additional courses in the humanities as a way to practice reading outside of the health and science fields.

GPA versus MCAT: what’s more important?

The MCAT is an important part of an application. You can bolster your GPA with internships and clinical experiences, but the MCAT is looked at as a static snapshot of your preparation for medical school. Generally, the MCAT is fairly equally weighted to GPA. Medical schools use the MCAT as a sorting device, and total scores at or below 500 are unlikely to advance an application, according to The Princeton Review.

Applying to medical school is a very competitive endeavor, and it’s best to support your expectations with data. For instance, both a student with a GPA of 3.5 and a total MCAT score of 510 and a student with a GPA of 3.8 and an MCAT score of 505 both have good chance (55%) of acceptance to medical school. For a complete grid comparing GPA to total MCAT score for applicants and accepted students (PDF).

Averages for Matriculants

Average total score: 510 (standard deviation of 6.5; 82nd percentile)
Average GPA: 3.7 (standard deviation of 0.25)
More Averages (PDF)

How should I prepare?

The MCAT is a long test that requires a great deal of preparation and practice, regardless of whether or not you take a formal course to study. Most students prepare for roughly 500 hours(!) over a period of two months to one year. Starting this preparation on the early side will give you more time to fine tune your studying practices. At the end of all that preparation, you should feel confident in your ability to walk out of the testing center with the score you expect. The best way to gain this confidence is by achieving consistent results from practice exams in the weeks leading up to the official test.

When is it offered? How much does it cost?

The MCAT is currently offered at different times throughout the year, check the calendar of test dates. Many students choose to take the exam in January, May, or September. Depending on how far in advance you register, the exam can cost between $315-370 (as of 2018). AAMC does offer a Fee Assistance Program, which reduces the cost by nearly half for qualifying applicants.

To complete a medical school application, you will have to fill out your application online through the American Medical College Application Services College (AMCAS). Scores are released to medical schools 30-35 days after the test date. The AMCAS application costs approximately $160, which includes reporting scores to one medical school. Additional medical schools may be added at a cost of approximately $40 each.

Should I take a prep course?

A prep course can be helpful not only for the content knowledge and practice but also for the guided structure. According to AAMC, roughly half of students prepare for the MCAT with a course. Whatever you decide, everyone can benefit from a realistic, structured study plan and ways to keep yourself accountable. The academic coaches at The Learning Center are happy to help you make and follow that plan, so be sure to take advantage of coaching appointments while you’re still enrolled as a Carolina student. Another resource for making that plan is this helpful guide from AAMC titled How to Create a Study Plan for the MCAT Exam. At the end of this document is a helpful sample test review. Test review is a critical step in guiding your study and revising your strategy.

Another key step in considering a prep course is finding out what you would score now, before studying. Establishing a baseline score is helpful in determining whether or not a prep course is right for you. It also lets you see first-hand the format and content of the test. The online sample test from the AAMC costs $25.

What to Expect from a Course

Most MCAT courses are a serious time commitment. The Princeton Review offers the greatest number of hours of classroom instruction (123 hours), offered in many different schedules and in both in-person and online instruction. It's advised that students consider an MCAT course to be another 3-credit course and adjust their schedule accordingly. It is best to plan well in advance in order to maximize your attention to the hard work of getting ready for the MCAT.

Like all standardized tests, the MCAT is predictable. Not only does it test the same material but it also tests that material in similar ways. In other words, with plenty of study and practice it is unlikely that anything will surprise you on test day. A prep course will teach you all the concepts necessary to excel on the exam as well as the test-taking skills you need. This means that the science instructors will discuss both content and strategy, while the CARS instructors will teach a comprehensive method to approaching the passages. These skills take practice.

What to Look for in a Course

You’ll want an MCAT course that has quality practice materials. Different sets of materials have different reputations, and the Student Doctor Network forums often have the most current opinions. You’ll also want quality instruction. Typically, you won’t know who exactly your instructors will be, but you can find out information about their qualifications. For instance, some companies hire med students who scored highly on the MCAT to teach the entire course. The benefit here is that the instructor has been through your experience and will be a consistent presence in the course. However, the instructor is unlikely to have specialized knowledge in each subject. Other companies hire subject specialists to teach each section of the MCAT as a team. These instructors may not have taken a full MCAT exam, but they will have scored highly on the section of the MCAT that they teach.

A Word About Accommodations

AAMC offers accommodations for qualifying students. However, the documentation requirements are more stringent than those of the typical university. Plan ahead in order to make time for appointments and completing the necessary supporting documents. Be sure to submit the application well-ahead of your intended test date (at least 60 days prior).


Developed and shared by The Learning Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

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