The MCAT is a behemoth of a test that can cause even the most learned and dedicated student to shake in their proverbial boots. After all, the MCAT is regarded as one of the hardest examinations in the world. As every premed knows, the MCAT is an essential piece of your medical school application and can make or break your chances of acceptance. So, how long does the MCAT take? And when do you need to begin studying?
In this article, we’ll discuss how long the MCAT takes with and without breaks, how the MCAT test is broken down, how long it takes to study for the MCAT, and when you should begin studying based on your targeted test date.
The MCAT Test
The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a massive standardized exam designed to assess a premed’s foundational science knowledge and critical thinking skills. The test is divided into 4 sections. Each section is worth 132 points for a total perfect MCAT score of 528.
- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (Chem/Phys)
- Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)
- Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (Bio/BioChem)
- Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (Psych/Soc)
Sections 1, 3, and 4 rigorously test your knowledge of scientific facts and concepts, as well as your reasoning and inquiry skills. The MCAT requires you to demonstrate ample knowledge of scientific concepts and principles, scientific reasoning and problem solving, reasoning about the design and execution of research, and data-based and statistical reasoning.
Section 2, CARS, differs from the other sections, as it is a firm test of your critical analysis and reasoning skills and doesn’t require any previous memorization. CARS requires you to read passages and then answer questions about those passages. Success on the CARS section of the MCAT depends on your ability to quickly comprehend, analyze, and evaluate what you read.
How Long Does the MCAT Take in 2023?
The MCAT is a 7.5-hour standardized exam. The test is broken down into four separate sections with optional (but recommended) breaks in between each one.
How Long is the MCAT With Breaks?
Including breaks, the MCAT takes 7.5 hours. Each of the four MCAT sections takes 90-95 minutes to complete, and each section is broken up by an optional break between 10 and 30 minutes long.
The breakdown of the MCAT test is as follows:
Chem/Phys: 95 minutes
Optional break: 10 minutes
CARS: 90 minutes
Optional lunch break: 30 minutes
Bio/BioChem: 95 minutes
Optional break: 10 minutes
Psych/Soc: 95 minutes
How many breaks do you get during MCAT? There are 3 optional breaks during the MCAT test. Before the test begins, there’s also an optional 10 minute tutorial. We recommend taking the tutorial to help you settle in and to make sure everything is working properly.
It is imperative to your success on test day that you take breaks. The MCAT is a grueling test, and your mind and body need both rest and fuel to ensure you’re performing optimally. Considering your score can make or break your entire medical school application, the MCAT is not a test you should try to rush through.
Learn more about What to Expect on MCAT Test Day.
How Long is the MCAT Without Breaks?
Without breaks, the MCAT takes approximately 6.25 hours, or six hours and fifteen minutes. Denying your mind and body breaks and trying to speed through your MCAT is highly inadvisable; utilize your allotted breaks to ensure you can perform to the best of your ability.
Bring multiple snacks with you, and if you pack a lunch, make sure it’s something light. Ideal foods include simple sandwiches, granola bars, nuts, bananas, and berries. Make sure you choose healthy options, but don’t branch out of your comfort zone either. Test day is not the time to experiment with an exotic health food you’ve never tried before.
Make sure to also pack plenty of water. Dehydration can lead to loss of memory, poor cognitive functions, and mood swings.
Read more about Test Day Strategies, including tips for the days leading up to your test and what to do on test day.
How is the MCAT Structured
Each section of the MCAT is broken down further into distinct categories, each worth a different percentage of your final score.
Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (Chem/Phys)
The first section of the MCAT has 59 total questions—44 passage-related and 15 standalone. Chem/Phys tests your knowledge of biology, biochemistry, general chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics in combination with your scientific inquiry and reasoning skills. It takes 95 minutes to complete.
The breakdown for Chem/Phys is as follows:
- First semester biochemistry: 25%
- Introductory biology: 5%
- General chemistry: 30%
- Organic chemistry: 15%
- Introductory physics: 25%
Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)
The CARS section evaluates your reading comprehension and analytical reasoning. CARS includes 9 passages, each between 500 and 600 words. Each passage requires you to answer 5-7 questions for a total of 53 questions, which are all passage-related.
As opposed to the type of dedicated studying and memorization required to perform well on the other three sections, CARS requires continual practice in order to refine and enhance your reading comprehension, analysis, critical thinking, and reasoning skills. It takes 90 minutes to complete.
The breakdown for CARS is as follows:
- Foundations of Comprehension: 30%
- Reasoning Within the Text: 30%
- Reasoning Beyond the Text: 40%
Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (Bio/BioChem)
The Bio/BioChem section of the MCAT has 59 questions—44 passage-related and 15 standalone. Bio/BioChem assesses your scientific inquiry and reasoning skills in combination with your knowledge of biological and biochemical concepts; for example, your understanding of organs and cells and how these systems work together. It takes 95 minutes to complete.
The breakdown for Bio/BioChem is as follows:
- First semester biochemistry: 25%
- Introductory biology: 65%
- General chemistry: 5%
- Organic chemistry: 5%
Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (Psych/Soc)
The Psych/Soc section has a total of 59 questions—44 passage-related and 15 standalone. Psych/Soc tests your understanding of how psychological, social, cultural, and biological factors affect and shape a person’s health and requires extensive knowledge of psychology and sociology in the context of biology. It takes 95 minutes to complete.
The breakdown for Psych/Soc is as follows:
- Introductory psychology: 65%
- Introductory sociology: 30%
- Introductory biology: 5%
How Long Does it Take to Study for the MCAT?
How long it takes to study for the MCAT depends on your own study habits and abilities. Before you choose to take the test, it is vital that you have successfully taken multiple practice tests so that you know exactly what to expect on the big day.
When determining if you are ready, there are three main factors to consider: how well your MCAT studying is going, the results of your practice tests, and your personal state of mind (your own timeline, mentality, confidence, etc.)
In general, it’s better to study in a short, dedicated time frame rather than drag the process out. This may seem counterintuitive—won’t studying for an entire year mean you’re more prepared?
There’s actually only so much MCAT studying you can do before you start to see diminishing returns. After a while, the knowledge you gained at the beginning of your studying will begin to disappear. You’ll start to lose information at the same rate you are adding it. This is called the forgetting curve.
Casually studying for 8-12 months is not as effective as studying for 3-6 months with a more dedicated schedule. In fact, we recommend an intense (but effective!) 3-4 month study schedule at 40-50 hours per week, if you can manage it.
We’ve found this yields the best results for students since it targets your energy and leaves plenty of other months free for you to focus on the many additional aspects of your medical school application.
When Should You Begin Studying for the MCAT?
The MCAT test calendar varies each year. The date you need to begin studying depends on your test date. We recommend leaving yourself 3-6 months of study time before the test date you choose. 3 months is ideal if you can budget dedicated MCAT studying of 40 or more hours per week.
For example, if you want to take the MCAT in July, you should begin studying in January at the earliest and April at the latest to give yourself 3-6 months. Use our guide to calculate when you need to begin studying.
Get the Help You Need
Med School Insiders offers tailored MCAT tutoring designed around your strengths and weaknesses to help you make the most impact with your studying in as little time as possible. We’ll help you zero in on the exact areas you need to improve so that no time is wasted.
For more MCAT resources, follow the Med School Insiders blog. Plus, you can check out our MCAT Study Guide, which includes how the MCAT is scored, 7 MCAT study strategies, MCAT resources, and FAQs.