2021 MCAT Study Guide — Everything You Need to Prepare

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on email
Email

The MCAT is a critical piece of your medical school application that can make or break your chances of acceptance. It’s a grueling 7.5 hour test that requires significant hours of planning, studying, practicing, and preparing. In our MCAT Study Guide, we’ll cover MCAT basics, how the MCAT is scored, 7 MCAT study strategies, MCAT resources, and FAQs.

 

An Introduction to the MCAT Sections

The Medical College Admission Test, better known as the MCAT, is a 7.5-hour standardized exam for premeds designed to assess foundational science knowledge and critical thinking skills. The test is split up into 4 sections, each worth 132 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 of the test require a deep knowledge of scientific facts and concepts, as well as an ability to combine knowledge from multiple disciplines with inquiry and reasoning skills.

On the exam, you will be asked to demonstrate the following skills:

  • Knowledge of scientific concepts and principles.
  • Scientific reasoning and problem-solving.
  • Reasoning about the design and execution of research.
  • Data-based and statistical reasoning.

Section 2 of the MCAT, CARS, is a little different. It doesn’t require any memorization; instead, it tests your critical analysis and reasoning skills. In this section, you are asked to read passages and then answer questions about those passages. To do well on the CARS section, you must be able to quickly understand, analyze, and evaluate what you read.

Learn more: MCAT Sections: What’s on the MCAT?

Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (Chem/Phys)

The first section on the MCAT is worth 132 points with 59 total questions (44 passage-related,15 standalone.) It tests your knowledge of biology, biochemistry, general chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics in combination with your scientific inquiry and reasoning skills.

This section is broken down into the following testing categories:

  • First semester biochemistry: 25%
  • Introductory biology: 5%
  • General chemistry: 30%
  • Organic chemistry: 15%
  • Introductory physics: 25%

Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems

Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)

The CARS section was developed to measure your analytical and reasoning skills. Unlike the other three sections, it’s not a section you can study for directly. It requires continual practice to hone your reading comprehension, analysis, critical thinking, and reasoning skills.

The section includes 9 passages, each between 500 and 600 words. For each passage, you will need to answer 5-7 questions for a total of 53 questions.

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

This section is broken down into the following testing categories:

  • Foundations of Comprehension: 30%
  • Reasoning Within the Text: 30%
  • Reasoning Beyond the Text: 40%

Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

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. This portion of the test combines your knowledge of biological and biochemical concepts, such as your understanding of cells and organs as well as how these systems work together, along with your scientific inquiry and reasoning skills.

This section is broken down into the following testing categories:

  • First semester biochemistry: 25%
  • Introductory biology: 65%
  • General chemistry: 5%
  • Organic chemistry: 5%

Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems

Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (Psych/Soc)

The Psych/Soc section of the MCAT also has 59 total questions, including 44 passage-related, and 15 standalone. It tests your understanding of psychological, social, and biological factors in terms of how they shape health. It requires knowledge of perceptions, behavior and behavior change, what people think about themselves and others, cultural and social differences, and the influence of other social relationships.

This section is broken down into the following testing categories:

  • Introductory psychology: 65%
  • Introductory sociology: 30%
  • Introductory biology: 5%

Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior

 

How is the MCAT Scored?

The MCAT is broken down into 4 sections, each worth a total perfect score of 132 points. A perfect MCAT score combining all 4 sections is 528.

Each of the 3 science-related sections has 59 total questions (44 passage-related, and 15 standalone.) The CARS section is scored a little differently, but it is still worth the same amount of your total score—132 points. The CARS section has 9 passages, which each have 5-7 questions for a total of 53 questions.

MCAT Sections Breakdown

What’s a Good MCAT Score?

A perfect MCAT score is 528, which requires scoring 132 in each of the 4 sections. Of course, a perfect score is not required to get into your top choice medical schools.

A good MCAT score is different for everyone and largely depends on the schools you hope to gain acceptance to. Average statistics for recently matriculated medical students will give you an idea of what’s expected, but you should always research exactly what is expected for each school you are applying to.

The average MCAT score for recent matriculants applying through AMCAS is: 511.5

The average MCAT score for recent matriculants applying through AACOMAS is: 503.8

Remember that these are only averages. The actual score you will need will vary by school, and to be competitive, you should aim for much higher than average for the best chance at acceptance at your top school.

Learn more in our article: What MCAT Score Should You Aim For?

 

MCAT Study Guide: Tips and Strategies

1 | Establish a Study Routine

Routines are a critical aspect of an effective study strategy. Take time to establish a routine that works best for you. This should include routines around the time you spend studying as well as bedtime and morning routines.

An effective routine will help you establish a study groove, and it will also improve your overall wellness, which in turn will improve the quality of your studying. All-nighters, sugar rushes, and stressful study habits are not your friend. Start building healthy habits early as a premed to prepare for the MCAT as well as your time as a medical student.

2 | Prioritize Comprehension

Yes, memorization is a key factor when preparing for the MCAT, and you will need to memorize a great deal of science content in order to be successful, but memorizing what you don’t understand won’t get you anywhere. It’s far less effective to memorize facts in isolation without first building a solid foundation of comprehension.

Performing well on the MCAT comes down to three important factors: understanding, memorizing, and applying. Once you understand a concept, you must commit it to memory. Then, you must apply your understanding and memorization in a standardized format.

If you memorize something without understanding it, you cannot effectively apply that knowledge. For example, it’s not enough to memorize the periodic table. You must also know how each element relates to each other, what factors influence them, and their specific significance.

3 | Focus on High-Yield Content

Studying more or for longer hours isn’t necessarily the best strategy. There’s a limit on how much can be memorized in a given period of time. To maximize effectiveness, focus on memorizing high-yield concepts—concepts that are most likely to have an impact on your MCAT score.

There are only so many productive hours of studying during a day, and the reason for putting less focus on low-yield concepts is the forgetting curve.

the forgetting curve

The forgetting curve reveals the reality of memory decay. No matter how hard you work to memorize MCAT facts, you will forget them over time. The forgetting curve is why students who spend over two months studying for the MCAT see diminishing returns and plateau with their score. After a certain point, you will learn at a rate almost equal to the rate at which you forget information.

Studying high-yield information is the best solution. Of course, how do you know what content is low-yield vs. high-yield? Speak to trusted mentors or peers who have been through the process before, and consider working with an MCAT tutor.

4 | Assess Your Strengths and Weaknesses

You don’t need to spend the same amount of time studying each section. Assess yourself to understand what you’re best at and where you need the most improvement. If you know you’re an ace at physics but struggle with chemistry, spend more time studying chemistry. If you feel very confident with all of your science knowledge but haven’t picked up a book for pleasure in years, focus on building your reading comprehension to prepare for the CARS section of the MCAT.

It’s not only about what you’re studying, but how you’re studying. Are your study habits working for you? Are you confident they’ll serve you well as you prepare for this immense and monumental test?

It’s difficult to be completely confident in your study habits since you’ve never taken the MCAT before. But your mentors and MCAT tutors have. They can objectively assess your current strengths and weaknesses to help you create a customized study approach that’s tailored to what you need to improve most.

5 | Utilize Quality Tools and Resources

Utilize the many quality tools and resources that are available to you. You don’t need to start from scratch since so many people have taken the MCAT and mastered studying before you. There are plenty of quality tools and resources, such as AAMC, Memm, and the Khan Academy.

Read reviews of any resource you’re considering, talk to medical students, and ask your mentors for recommendations. What’s important is that you find quality tools and resources that work for you. Everyone has different strengths, weaknesses, and preferences when it comes to studying. Capitalize on your differences by choosing tools that align with your needs.

6 | Intentionally Limit Distractions

Thanks to our smartphones, computers, tablets, smartwatches, and what have you, distractions and interruptions are everywhere. Unfortunately, you may rely on this technology to help you study. In order to master your MCAT studying, you also need to master your distractions. This includes your email, phone notifications, messages, and the people in your life.

Interruptions are costly to your focus. It can take an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task after an interruption. As any premed will attest, time is not something you have in abundance. It’s critical that you intentionally limit your distractions in order to gain deep chunks of focus.

You can adjust the notification settings on your phone, and most phones also have settings that help you limit the amount of time you spend on certain apps. Set limits for your own personal common offenders, which may be Twitter, Instagram, gaming, news aggregates, or other distracting apps.

If you need the extra push, set up a distraction blocker on your phone and computer to ensure you can’t access any distracting websites or apps during your study time. When it is time for a break, avoid the urge to turn to your phone and instead take the time for a stretch, walk, or healthy snack.

7 | Study Smarter, Not Harder

“Smarter, not harder” is a good rule for most things in life. Why put in more energy than you need to in order to succeed? It’s not about the sheer amount of time you spend studying. Carefully build a study plan that focuses on efficiency, effectiveness, and results.

More hours spent studying and simply “keeping busy” isn’t better and will likely end in worse results due to stress and burnout. You need to focus on what will yield the best results based on your strengths and weaknesses, study preferences, schedule, and personal wellness.

Make smart, tactical decisions about how, when, and what you study in order to optimize any time spent studying.

 

Where to Find MCAT Resources

When it comes to MCAT resources, the source, AAMC, is a good place to start. Princeton Review and Kaplan also offer extensive resources, though you should focus on just one—not both.

MCAT Flashcards

MCAT flashcards accelerate your learning by providing clear blocks of information that are easy to retain and recall. Flashcards will help you master the knowledge and skills needed to succeed on the MCAT. We recommend using Memm to effortlessly organize information and accelerate your MCAT learning.

MCAT Practice Questions

Practice passages help you review and practice your knowledge and skills on a routine, regular basis. There are a number of resources to help you practice both CARS and the science-based sections of the MCAT.

MCAT Practice Tests

Practice tests aren’t all that helpful in the beginning, but they do play a critical role in helping you decide when you are ready to take the MCAT.

|| More information about the best MCAT Tools and Resources ||

 

How to Perform Well on Test Day

It’s important that you adequately prepare so that you are ready on test day and can go into the exam relaxed and at ease. All-nighters and rushing to study leading up to the moment of your test will not serve you. Here are some of our top tips for succeeding on test day.

  • Don’t change it up—stick to the routine and habits you have developed leading up to the test.
  • Ensure you get lots of sleep and maintain your regular sleep routine.
  • Eat brain-healthy foods and avoid sweets, sugary drinks, and fast food. (Note: it’s more important to stick to what you know. If you haven’t developed these healthy habits yet, don’t completely switch things up on the day of your test. It’s better to stick with what you know.)
  • Get someone to check on you when you need to be up just in case something goes wrong, such as a missed alarm.
  • Pack everything you need the day before your test, such as valid forms of identification, required medication, wallet, keys, snacks, etc.
  • Before test day, go to the testing location as a practice run. This will get you familiar with how to get there, parking, entrances, etc., so you’re not surprised by anything on the day of your test.
  • A week before test day, switch to reviewing the most important material. At this point, your focus shouldn’t be on learning new material.

For more testing advice, read our Tips for Success on MCAT Test Day and learn What to Expect on MCAT Test Day.

 

MCAT FAQ

How Do I Sign Up for the MCAT?

Register for your MCAT exam through the AAMC website. You’ll need to first create an account, if you don’t already have one, in order to access AAMC services.

When is the Best Time to Take the MCAT?

Take the MCAT when you feel ready to do so, but if you plan on attending medical school immediately after college, we recommend taking the MCAT during the summer after your sophomore year. If you plan to take a year off after college, take the MCAT during the summer between your junior and senior years.

How Do I Know If I’m Ready to Take the MCAT?

Delaying your MCAT could be a costly mistake. Take careful care assessing if and when you are ready, and keep in mind that the longer you spend studying, the more chances you have of forgetting previous material.

The 3 main factors to consider are:

  • How well your MCAT studying is going
  • Your results on practice tests
  • Personal state of mind (your own timeline, mentality, confidence, etc.)

|| Should You Delay Your MCAT? How to Know If You’re Ready ||

Is the MCAT the Hardest Test?

The MCAT is certainly a difficult test and ranks as one of the hardest examinations in the world. The length alone—7.5 hours—makes it a grueling feat for any premed. That said, test difficulty depends completely on the person and how well they are able to prepare and stick to a study schedule.

Is MCAT Tutoring Worth It?

There are pros and cons to all methods, but MCAT tutoring offers a customized approach to your MCAT studying. A tutor can objectively assess your strengths and weaknesses and provide you with one-on-one attention on your own schedule.

MCAT Study Methods Pros and Cons

Learn more about the pros and cons of different MCAT studying methods.

 

A Customized Approach to MCAT Tutoring

Med School Insiders offers tailored MCAT tutoring designed around your strengths and weaknesses to help you make the greatest improvements. You’ll be matched with a top-scoring tutor for a custom-built strategy and one-on-one mentorship.

Learn more about our MCAT tutoring services and comprehensive admissions packages.

For more free MCAT resources, check out our articles:

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on email
Email

Leave a Reply