Does the MCAT Test Intelligence or Memorization?


It’s undeniable: the MCAT is a tough test. But what is the high-stakes test actually measuring: inherent ability and intelligence or memorization? The answer to this question is complicated because the MCAT tests a bit of both. Undoubtedly, you’ll need to memorize your fair share of information, but you’ll need a strong set of critical thinking skills as well.

On each section of the MCAT, intelligence and memorization are tested to varying degrees. Once you know how each section of the test assesses your knowledge and abilities, you can tailor a study strategy that will best equip you to do well on the MCAT.


What Does the MCAT Test?

Each section of the MCAT assesses your knowledge a bit differently.

The Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (Psych/Soc) section requires you to rely more heavily on your memorization. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), this section “asks you to solve problems by combining your knowledge of foundational concepts with your scientific inquiry and reasoning skills.” The discipline distribution for this section is approximately 65% introductory psychology, 30% introductory sociology, and 5% introductory biology.

Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior

The Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (Bio/Biochem) and the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (Chem/Phys) sections require you to rely more heavily on your problem-solving skills. Compared to Psych/Soc, these sections focus less heavily on memorization. Similar to Psych/Soc, you’ll be required to combine your knowledge in these topics with your scientific inquiry and reasoning skills.

For Bio/Biochem, the discipline breakdown is 25% first semester biochemistry, 65% introductory biology, 5% general chemistry, and 5% organic chemistry.

Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems

For Chem/Phys, the discipline breakdown is 25% first-semester biochemistry, 5% introductory biology, 30% general chemistry, 15% organic chemistry, and 25% introductory physics.

Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems

The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section does not require any memorization. Instead, this section requires you to interpret and make inferences from written passages. According to the AAMC, this section “will be similar to many of the verbal reasoning tests you have taken in your academic career. It includes passages and questions that test your ability to understand what you read.” You’ll need to rely heavily on your critical thinking and reasoning skills for this section.

MCAT CARS Section Guide: Format, Study Tips, and FAQ

The AAMC itself makes it clear that in addition to knowing and understanding the core content on the MCAT, you also need to be able to think and reason critically. So, what does that mean when it comes to intelligence? Does the MCAT assess how smart you are, or can you do well on the MCAT by solely relying on memorization and proper preparation?


How does intelligence play a role?

Intelligence can take many forms, and when we’re speaking of intelligence in terms of the MCAT, we’re typically looking at the strength of your critical reasoning and critical thinking skills. It’s common for students to overemphasize the importance of innate intelligence and underemphasize skills they can hone.

Often, when you don’t get grades you’re happy with—be it in a course or on an exam—the problem lies more in your study strategies than your innate intelligence. Instead of thinking that you performed poorly because you are unintelligent, try to shift your mindset. It may be just as likely that you didn’t perform as well as you had hoped due to underdeveloped skills.

This is all good news because the MCAT isn’t really testing intelligence, rather it’s testing your preparation in a few domains:

  • Content (memorization)
  • Comprehension (understanding of the material)
  • Application (applying your knowledge)
  • Critical reasoning (making an educated guess based on incomplete information)

Different sections of the MCAT assess these four domains to varying degrees. The Psych/Soc section tests heavily on memorization. The Chem/Phys and Bio/Biochem sections test heavily on application. The CARS section tests heavily on critical reasoning.

As the MCAT is a test designed to assess your ability to succeed in a demanding and dynamic field, it’s not surprising that the test evaluates your knowledge and abilities in a variety of different ways.


How to Improve Your MCAT Score

If the MCAT tests memorization along with critical thinking and reasoning skills, then you can improve your MCAT score by focusing on memorization as well as critical thinking when you study. Specifically, you’ll want to work on improving in those areas when it comes to the four domains: content, comprehension, application, and critical reasoning.

Rather than miraculously becoming more inherently intelligent, you need a more intelligent study strategy.

There are three main areas to focus on when trying to improve your MCAT score:

  • Content comprehension
  • Content memorization
  • Content application

Thankfully, the MCAT is not designed to assess your raw intelligence. After all, it’s not an IQ test. Rather, the test is designed to assess your ability to succeed in the rigorous environment of medical school. If you take the MCAT thinking your intelligence will carry you through, you will be sorely disappointed.

Rather, it’s imperative you take the MCAT after months of serious preparation, where you work on improving your memorization, comprehension, and content application. Admissions committees want to know what you know, but they also want to know how you think and how you handle the pressure of a grueling, high-stakes test.

Read our complete MCAT Study Guide, which includes 7 MCAT study strategies, MCAT resources, and FAQs.

Memm offers a well-rounded and comprehensive approach to addressing all possible deficiencies holding back your MCAT score.

According to the scientific literature, memorization is best enforced through spaced repetition with active recall. Memm leverages this and other evidence-based study strategies including interleaving and desirable difficulties. Not only that, it was created by two 99.9th percentile MCAT scorers who understand what it takes to achieve top marks.


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