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Kevin Johns: MCAT 101
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MCAT 101

Kevin Johns

3rd-yr pre-med student at OSU, Columbus, OH.


In The Art of War, Sun Tzu argued that all battles are won before they are fought. His words of wisdom apply to the medical school admissions process, and the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) especially. The road to medical school is filled with challenges. For many, the MCAT is the tallest and most daunting hurdle. The MCAT is a very difficult exam, but with sufficient preparation and a thorough knowledge of the exam, you can significantly improve your performance.

So what’s the big deal about the MCAT anyways? The MCAT is a way for medical schools to compare students from a broad range of backgrounds and undergraduate institutions on a standardized scale. The average total score of students who are accepted into medical school is around a 30,[1] which roughly equates to the 75th to 80th percentile.[2] That being said, the MCAT is not a “make or break exam.”[3] Doing poorly on the MCAT will certainly make the admissions process more difficult, but not impossible. Likewise, a great performance on the MCAT does not guarantee admission into medical school by any means. Medical schools look for well-rounded applicants, not people who only do well on the MCAT. Besides MCAT scores, medical schools consider overall G.P.A. trends, extracurricular activities, leadership experience, research experience, community service, and strong interpersonal skills.

Therefore, the MCAT score is only one of many factors that determine who gets into medical school.

In order to do well on the MCAT, you need to know what you are up against. The MCAT is divided into four sections that are each 60 to 70 minutes long: physical sciences, verbal, writing, and biological sciences.[4] The writing section consists of two essay questions, and the other three sections are multiple-choice. The physical sciences, verbal, and biological sciences sections each have a maximum score of 15. The sum of those three scores is your total score out of 45. For example, if you receive a 10 on physical sciences, a 9 on verbal, and an 11 on biological sciences, you will have a total score of 30. The writing section is graded separately and given a letter designation of J through T, with J being the lowest score and T being the highest.[5] Therefore, your final MCAT score may look something like 27Q or 32K. Also, the MCAT is fully computerized now, so you will take the entire exam on a computer with a mouse and keyboard.[6] Since it is computerized, the exam is offered multiple times throughout the year. Check the AAMC website for a complete listing of upcoming test dates and to register for the exam.

It is also important to know what material to study for the MCAT. The Physical Sciences section tests your knowledge of introductory physics and general chemistry. The biological sciences section will test your knowledge of general biology, physiology, and organic chemistry. Please note that all you need to know about the sciences is the material covered in your introductory science courses. The MCAT will not ask you questions about advanced quantum physics or the intricate protein factors involved in bacterial translation. That being said, you will need to know the fundamentals of chemistry, biology, and physics forwards and backwards. Yes, you will need to brush the dust off of your old freshman chemistry, biology, and physics textbooks.

You also need to be aware of the fact that the science questions on the MCAT are not designed to test your ability to memorize scientific facts and to regurgitate them verbatim. The MCAT is a test of your critical thinking skills. For instance, you may be asked to apply the information you know about Mendelian genetics to a novel situation presented to you in a passage. Therefore, memorizing all the information is not enough. You must practice applying them to unfamiliar situations.

In my experience, people tend to have the most trouble on the verbal section. Verbal may be especially difficult if English is not your native language. The verbal section consists of several reading passages that are not related to science. You may be asked to read passages about art, philosophy, history, sociology, and other non-science subjects. Each passage is accompanied by a group of questions that will test your understanding of the passage. On the surface, the verbal section seems overly simple: you just have to read some passages and answer questions about them. This has led to the common belief that you cannot study for the verbal section. However, it is possible to prepare for the verbal section. Many test preparation companies have developed resources aimed at helping their clients raise their verbal scores. It may also help to take English courses and to become familiar with the vocabulary and style of questions used on the verbal section by taking practice exams.

The writing section was recently added to the MCAT exam. On the writing section, you will be given two statements, such as “Great leaders lead by example.” You must write a structured essay that provides examples of situations in which the statement holds true, and also examples of situations in which the statement is false. Finally, you need to create a “test” or list of criteria that will allow a reader to determine when to apply the statement. Although the writing section does not carry as much weight as the other three, doing well on the writing section can only improve your candidacy.

Besides knowing the structure of the MCAT, you must also know yourself. You need to sit down and honestly ask yourself, “How do I learn best?” Some people learn best by reading. Others learn best by listening to lectures. Some people work well in groups, while others perform best alone. Do you need someone to set strict deadlines to keep you from procrastinating or can you keep yourself on schedule? These are all important questions that you must answer before deciding how to study for the exam.

As far as study strategies go, there are two general paths that premeds can take: self-study and taking a test prep course. I know people who have achieved great success studying on their own, and I also know people who have achieved great success through a test prep course. Studying independently is great for those who are capable of keeping themselves on track. However, studying for the MCAT is very intense. The average test taker spends 300 hours preparing for the MCAT. Therefore, you must treat your individual study time like a classroom course. You must set aside specific times each week to study and then adhere to the schedule religiously. There are many resources available to people who are studying independently. You can invest in review books and practice exam booklets. Also, acquiring and reading college-level introductory science textbooks is very helpful. The main disadvantages of studying independently are the lack of an instructor and the danger of procrastination.

For many people, taking a test prep course is the best option. Many experienced test prep companies, including Kaplan and The Princeton Review, offer comprehensive MCAT review courses. These courses all have their unique strengths, and it is important to research their curricula to determine which company is the right fit for you. Unfortunately, MCAT classes are very expensive, and most will cost over $1500.

No matter what background you come from, preparation is key for success on the MCAT. I have attempted to give you a brief overview of the structure of the MCAT and the material that it will test you on. There is much more detailed information offered on the website of the American Association of Medical Colleges. The website also offers several practice tests that consist of authentic MCAT questions.

I highly recommend working through all of them. If you are affiliated with an undergraduate institution, you should consider consulting with your undergraduate premedical advisor. There are also great online communities for students pursuing careers in medicine including the Student Doctor Network. Lastly, assess yourself honestly. Know your strengths and your weaknesses and design your study strategy around them. As Sun Tzu said, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt.”[7]

Kevin Johns is a third-year premedical student at The Ohio State University. He took the MCAT in August 2008 and is in the process of applying to medical school. Kevin is currently serving as the president of OSU’s chapter of Alpha Epsilon Delta, a national premedical honorary. If you have any questions regarding the medical school admissions process, feel free to contact him at [email protected]


1. “All About the MCAT.” AspiringDocs.Org. Accessed 27 Nov 2008. <http://www.aspiringdocs.org/site/c.luIUL9MUJtE/b.2011039/k.5900/What_is_a_good_score.htm>
2. “Characteristics of Examinees and Summary Data.” The American Association of Medical Colleges. Accessed 27 Nov 2008. <http://www.aamc.org/students/mcat/examineedata/pubs.htm>
3. “All About the MCAT.” AspiringDocs.Org. Accessed 27 Nov 2008. <http://www.aspiringdocs.org/site/c.luIUL9MUJtE/b.2011039/k.5900/What_is_a_good_score.htm>
4. “MCAT Exam Testing Experience FAQ.” The American Association of Medical Colleges. Accessed 27 Nov 2008. <http://www.aamc.org/students/mcat/testexpfaq.htm#3>
5. “All About the MCAT.” AspiringDocs.Org. Accessed 27 Nov 2008. <http://www.aspiringdocs.org/site/c.luIUL9MUJtE/b.2011039/k.5900/What_is_a_good_score.htm>
6. “Transition to the Computerized MCAT FAQ.” The American Association of Medical Colleges. Accessed 27 Nov 2008. <http://www.aamc.org/students/mcat/transitionfaq.htm>
7. “Art of War by Sun Tzu[SunZi] – English Hypertext.” ChinaPage.Com. Accessed 27 Nov 2008. <http://www.chinapage.com/sunzi-e.html>

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