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Preparing For The MCAT
If you’re applying for a place at medical school, you will need to sit the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) as part of the application process.
It is a computer-based exam that assesses your problem solving, critical thinking, written analysis and knowledge of scientific concepts.
The test can be taken at any Prometric center, and lasts for 4.5-5 hours. It currently costs $315, although expect to pay additional fees if you register late, cancel your test, or reschedule it for another date.
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) offers an MCAT fee assistance program to those who can not afford to pay the full fee.
MCAT content and structure
The test is made up of four sections:
- Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems - assesses biological and biochemical concepts, alongside scientific and reasoning skills. This section is made up of discrete and passage based questions, and you are allowed 95 minutes to complete this part of the exam.
- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems - assesses knowledge of chemical and physical foundational concepts with your scientific inquiry and reasoning skills. Again, this section is made up of discrete and passage based questions, and you are allowed 95 minutes to complete this part of the exam.
- Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavious - asks you to solve problems by combining your knowledge of foundational concepts with your scientific inquiry and reasoning skills. Again, this section is made up of discrete and passage based questions, and you are allowed 95 minutes to complete this part of the exam.
- Critical Analysis & Reasoning Skills - is similar to many of the verbal reasoning tests you have taken in your academic career. This section includes 53 questions.
All of the questions on the MCAT are predetermined (unlike the GRE test, where the difficulty of later questions depends on your answers to earlier questions).
You'll receive four section scores, and a final combined total score.
Since applicants are not penalised for giving an incorrect answer to these questions, it is always best to guess if you’re unsure about a question, rather than leave it blank.
To be successful in the MCAT, we recommend the following steps.
1. Prepare early
We suggest candidates start preparing for the MCAT at least six months before you plan to take it - this allows plenty of time to get to grips with the test, which can be done in a number of ways.
Many students will spend up to around 300 hours preparing for their MCAT, so the sooner you can start, the better.
2. Take a free online practice test
Gauge your performance by taking a free online practice test.
This first practice test will key you into your strengths and weaknesses and help you determine your baseline score.
3. Improve your weak areas
Don’t feel bad if you don’t perform well in any practice tests you take - use them as a way to identify gaps in your knowledge so you can put together a strategy for revising this material and do better next time.
Focus on the sections, topics, or question types you need help with the most before moving on to comprehensive prep. For example, you may decide to start with any subjects not covered by your pre-req courses.
Don’t rely on the areas you are stronger in to see you through the test - to achieve the highest possible mark, you need to excel in all areas of the test.
4. Use textbooks
The first is to buy one or two self-help guides that will give you tips and advice on how to best approach the MCAT test.
These often involve creating a study plan, and making sure you understand scientific theories and concepts (not just memorizing them).
Investing in an MCAT prep book, which streamlines the need-to-know information in one place, will save you some time. It will also tell which topics the AAMC care about most.
5. Consider other prep resources
Some students choose to use an MCAT test preparation company, although these can be expensive and the quality of the tuition received can vary greatly.
If this is an option you think you might be interested in, do your research thoroughly first before signing up and handing over any money.
Dr Flowers MCAT Test Prep is one online resource that has been around over 30 years, and offers a range of study packages starting from $129.
The Association of American Medical Colleges also provide an MCAT video collection, and other study tools to help you with the preparation process.
They also have an online MCAT practice site, where you can sit example tests under timed conditions to familiarize yourself with the format and content of the test.
6. Practice makes perfect
Practice, practice, practice.
Practice questions and tests will show you where the holes in your knowledge are.
When you miss questions, try to think about why. If it’s due to being uncertain about the material, you need to spend more time reviewing that topic.
Make sure you simulate the conditions of the actual MCAT for some of your practice tests. This will help prepare you for what it will be like on the actual day.
7. Look after yourself
Especially in the run up to your test, it's important to make sure you get plenty of sleep, and eat healthy, nutritious meals.
Try to avoid excessive caffeine and sugar, and eat things that will provide sustenance.
Nuts, bananas, wholegrain crackers, Greek yoghurt and boiled eggs all make great snack options to keep you going.
8. Don't cram
The MCAT isn't a test that you can cram for and expect to pass. Prepare as much as you can, but don't plan to spend too much time revising for it the day before.
Give yourself some time to relax and unwind, so you are refreshed and ready for the next day.
9. Visit the test center
It's a good idea to take a trip to the test center at least a day or two before your actual test date so that you can easily find the building and room on test day.
This will also allow you to assess traffic and see if you need money for parking or any other unexpected expenses. Knowing this type of information ahead of time will greatly reduce your stress on the day of your test.
It's also worth checking your test center’s policy on cell phones ahead of time. Some centers do not even allow them to be kept in your locker, where you will keep your other personal items.
10. Don't be late!
On the day, you should aim to arrive at the test center at least a half hour prior to the start time of your test. Be prepared to show your photo ID, to sign in, and have a digital image of your fingerprint taken.
Don’t forget to bring snacks and/or some lunch, and make good use of all the breaks. Get up and walk around. It’s a good way to clear your head between sections and get the blood (and oxygen!) flowing to your brain.
Make sure to ask for new scratch paper at the breaks if you use it all up.
Best of luck with your MCAT!
For more tips and advice on applying to medical school in the U.S, please see: