MCAT: Medical College Admissions Test
Last edited August 26, 2001

Summary Facts:

"Oh Sh*t." "The mother of all tests." "My future depends on what I get." "Why isn't anyone else as freaked out as I am about this test?"

These are all potential thoughts you'll have before taking the MCAT, whether that be in the months before you actually write, or perhaps in the 30 minute period when you're actually inside the exam hall waiting for the test adjudicators to finish processing the paperwork for your fellow test-takers. I think, and hope, that you'll find this pre-test anxiety disappear once you actually immerse yourself in the test.

If you have progressed through the years of high school and undergraduate studies necessary to make an attempt at the MCAT, you've clearly had a great deal of experience in test-taking, and you know what attitudes and emotional viewpoints work for you in test-time. Never forget that the MCAT is, after all, just another test. The last action you'll want to commit on this day is to freak out, and to fixate on the importance of this test to your career, instead of the far more productive goal of answering the questions! Remember, doctors have to work well under stress. The MCAT is a perfect situation to rise above your anxiety and perform under pressure.

The MCAT will test you on the four following categories:

Verbal Reasoning: 85 minutes
Break: 10 minutes
Physical Sciences: (no calculators!) 100 minutes
Lunch: 60 minutes
Written Sample: 60 minutes
Break: 10 minutes
Biological Sciences: 100 minutes
Party time! Well into the night...

With that said, good doctors are always well-prepared, and knowledgeable about clinical details. And if they aren't, then they go look up the information and make themselves informed. Consider the MCAT as the training ground for developing these good habits. Therefore, you should realise that even in a best case scenario, the MCAT is not going to be side-splittingly easy, but if you go in unprepared, you'll find it to be several magnitudes more difficult than it really has to be. Preparation is key.

So, here are some of my recommendations.

Early Preparation:

Start your preparation early. Here, you'll find that on average, pre-med students allocate 3 months to studying for this exam, with some extremes ranging up to starting one year in advance. Bully for the people who can muster the time, and patience to study a year early for a test. I personally think 3-4 months is ideal, in that I tend to forget details after time. For me, studying a year in advance would be futile, as after 6 months, I would have forgotten what I had studied in the first month. Don't believe me? Flip through some notes from last semester and see how much fine detail you remember.

Take a lesson from me, and try to give yourself some free time to study. I wrote my MCAT in August of 1998, while I was working a full-time job during the week and a second part-time job on Sundays. Trust me when I say that the extra few dollars you make by working are not worth the increased stress and mental fatigue you encounter as you discover just how little time you really have to study. Med school and residency will be stressful enough; don't add any extra worries before you get there! Beg, borrow, or save to give yourself the finances to study without worrying about the next month's rent. It'll be worth it.

When to take it?

Along the lines of early preparation, consider taking this test in the summer after your 2nd year. In my course selections for 1st and 2nd year, I pretty much followed the recommended curriculum set forth in the Uvic calendar. By the end of second year, I had completed full-year courses in Physics, Inorganic Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, and English Literature, as well as half-year courses in Anatomy, Physiology, and Biochemistry. This was my major preparation for the 4 MCAT areas tested: Verbal Reasoning, Physical Sciences, Writing Sample, and Biological Sciences.

This was my reason for taking the MCAT a year earlier than the typical "summer after 3rd year" date. After all, my 3rd year is clogging my brain with genetics, and DNA manipulation, topics not extensively covered in the MCAT. So why would I allow all that precious 1st and 2nd year knowledge another year to dribble out of my brain? Take the MCAT whenever you've just recently covered the relevant material in university. For a student taking a "typical" curriculum like myself, that time is in the summer after 2nd year.

A question that often comes up for Canadian students, who apply to med schools much later than the AMCAS-led American schools is whether to write the exam in April or August. For Americans, writing the exam in April allows the MCAT scores to be available by June, when rolling admissions typically start. This is not as significant a requirement for Canadian pre-meds, as Canadian schools typically don't operate on rolling admissions, and the deadlines for med applications are much later in the year. I received my August MCAT scores in mid-October, which was cutting very close to the Ontario medical schools' application deadlines; however, this was well within the December 1 application deadline for UBC. I liked the idea of writing in August because I could focus on doing well in my April university final exams.

If you have already graduated, or have an easy spring workload, my advice is to write the exam in April. Shrewd thinking reveals that since your MCAT is graded relative to the applicant pool, your results will be improved if the applicant pool fares relatively poorly. I personally believe that many undergraduate students are burned out when writing the April MCAT, after a full year's worth of courses. If you are refreshed and energetic for the April exam because of an easier or non-existant course-load, you may likely receive a higher MCAT score simply by sliding further right along the grading curve.

Another advantage to writing the MCAT a year early (just after 2nd year) is that if you end up re-taking it next year, you'll have already had some experience with the format, unlike the "green" people taking it for the first time. With that said, make sure you're prepared for the exam whenever you write it. Don't approach the first writing as a throw-away that you can redo the following year, because a flubbed MCAT score is never an advantage when applying to med. It may not hurt you, but it certainly won't help.

From personal experience, a friend of mine wrote his MCAT after 2nd year, and did well in all of the sections except for his essay samples. He re-wrote the MCAT after his 3rd year, in August 98, did very well for himself, and is now applying for medicine in his 4th year. For him, writing the MCAT a year early was vital, as he learned that his essay skills were not up to par, and he had a year to improve them. In addition, had he written the MCAT for the 1st time in 3rd year, and flubbed that essay section, he would have had to re-write the MCAT in April of 4th year, which is extremely difficult to do. Now, he's sitting pretty in 4th year with the MCAT in his back pocket, only needing to concentrate on finishing out his degree.

Another friend wrote his MCAT after 2nd year, and did well in all the sections but Verbal Reasoning. He declined to re-write his MCAT until after he graduated, which he did in December 1998. He has decided to re-write in April 1999, and has been frantically studying to improve his Verbal Reasoning scores. His major hurdle is that he took all his Physics and Chemistry courses in his first two years on study, so he is essentially re-learning his physical sciences from scratch. Moral of the story? Do the MCAT early, and do it well, so you don't have to repeat them later. If luck deals you a bad hand, repeat your MCAT the very next year, so you minimize the "leakage" of information. Life is tough enough without making it harder on yourself.

Test Preparation and Study Materials:

I did not have access to any test prep courses, and in fact did not even know of the existence of the Kaplan's course or other such prep courses. I don't think it hurt me, but if you've got the cash, and independent learning doesn't float your boat, then by all means, sign up. However, try to find out more from people who have taken such prep courses; it never hurts to have the wheat separated from the chaff before you make a large time and money investment. I relied almost exclusively on my 1st and 2nd year knowledge and textbooks, and "The Gold Standard MCAT Text" by Dr. Brett Ferdinand.

In my opinion, The Gold Standard is a must-have, with comprehensive review notes on all the MCAT topics including sample tests and answers. In addition, the sample questions tended to be of a slightly higher caliber than the actual MCAT, which means you study to a higher level than is really necessary. I believe this to be ideal, as you are less likely to encounter a "just where the heck did that come from?" curveball-type question.

The other MCAT prep book I bought was the ARCO Supercourse, which I would possibly use as an additional source of questions. However, I found a lot of the questions/answers in the sample tests to contain errors, and in general, I didn't feel as comfortable using it as The Gold Standard. It's definitely a tier below, in my opinion. My biggest regret is not purchasing the sample exam booklets from the AAMC. This, along with The Gold Standard are the two items I don't think you can do without. The AAMC sample exams are the only exams that you can be absolutely sure are representative of the type, and format of questions you'll be facing in the MCAT exam room. Get them, and do all of the questions, and then study the answers to find out which subjects need review.

I've also heard enough rumblings through the internet that the Betz/Flowers Guide by Betz Publishing is the best thing going, that I'd inquire and check some shelves if I had to to re-write the MCAT.

It's test day!


Well, I think it goes without saying that you should be on-site 15 minutes early. Bring all relevant ID and your SIN#, and have a supply of pencils, erasers and black ink pens. Calculators aren't allowed. It also pays to have visited the site earlier, so that you know exactly where the exam room is, to avoid frantic searching for Room 347A minutes before your MCAT is scheduled to start. Finally, do realise that the registration process is fairly time consuming, so if you're the first person processed, you'll be sitting inside the exam room for at least half an hour before everyone else gets done.

My friends and I decided to stay outside so that we wouldn't have to be sweating bullets inside until the last minute. However, if you're the type that needs to get established in the exam room early in order to feel comfortable, so be it. Also, there are several versions of the MCAT exam, so it's very unlikely that your table neighbors will be writing the same exam as you. With that in mind, pick the table and seat that feel the luckiest. You did remember your good luck charm right?

I've heard rumours that the tests are not of the same difficulty, and the results are accordingly differentially scaled. So even if someone comes out of the exam proclaiming it was the easiest thing going, it just might be that his/her exam will be scaled harder because of it. You should not assume anything about your MCAT performance until that slip of paper comes through the mail.

Oh yeah, don't be like a fellow MCAT test taker, and bring in a stack of cue cards so you can study while you're waiting for everyone else to get processed. It only stresses you out, and really, if you didn't know your stuff by the morning of the exam, you haven't put in the work, and I don't believe you deserve to do well.

Verbal Reasoning:

Yech! This area is often the bane of the aspiring pre-med student who has focussed entirely too much attention in the undergrad years on sciences! The word from UBC's Associate Dean of Admissions is that most applicants tend to fall down on this section, having devoted most of their time to the science sections. Do very well here, and perhaps you'll stand out.

You'll have 85 minutes to answer 65 questions on several passages. Each passage is about a page long (not very helpful, I admit), and can be on just about any topic under the sun. After reading the passage you have 6-10 questions to answer based on details in that passage.This section tests you on the ability to rapidly read, and comprehend the meaning and implication of an essay. As a result, good literary skills are paramount, as the more time you spend reading, the less time you have to answer questions!

I think the only way to improve your literary skills is to challenge yourself to reading novels and short stories of increasingly difficult comprehension levels. Trying out speed-reading techniques is also probably not a bad idea. These are ways of improving your reading skills. Alternately, (and what I did!), is to improve my test-taking skills! Here were my strategies for the MCAT, which I followed on the assumption that I have average, to slightly higher-than-average reading skills.

Finally, if you're unlucky like a fellow Biochemistry friend of mine, and get a sample passage written in old English about medieval history, don't freak out like him, and spend 25 precious minutes trying futilely to answer 7 measly questions. Skip them and answer the easy questions.

The AAMC markers aren't dummies, and chances are that if everyone else messed up on those questions, they will be omitted when calculating your overall score. I'm told each MCAT has a number of "calibration questions" to assess the level of difficulty, and which aren't scored. My friend is repeating the MCAT this year because of his verbal reasoning score, but this time he's keeping the idea of skipping hard questions firmly in mind. Easy questions are worth just as much as the hard questions, so get all the easy questions you can.

The Break:

Go to the bathroom, and maybe grab a light snack. The exam room is not the place to be thinking "Oh damn, now that coffee's hitting me." Try not to discuss hard questions with your friends, as I found that just freaked us all out even more. Just chill, discuss a cool movie, or your plans after the MCAT. You want to re-enter that exam room as relaxed as possible. Don't forget that eating carbohydrate-laden foods (eg. pop, candy) may cause your insulin levels to spike later, thus giving you the low blood-sugar blues.

Physical Sciences:

Like the true biology student, I've already forgotten just about everything I learned in order to finish this section. :) You too will be able to brag of this immense feat, just as soon as the 100 minutes of hell are up!Most biology students aren't especially comfortable around inorganic chemistry and physics, so if you happen to conform to the stereotype, this section should be the one you've devoted the most time to studying. As a bit of negative motivation, just remember that if you study this section really well, you'll perform well on the MCAT, and will never, ever need to vomit the physics again.

However, there is one advantage in the biologist's favour. A very large proportion of the 77 questions are actually derived from passages. The Gold Standard states that 62 of those 77 questions are based on passages, which jibes with my MCAT experience. This means that the answers to the questions are either located in, or can be derived from information in the passages. So, the Physical Sciences section is nothing more than a Verbal Reasoning in disguise, using physical and chemical formulae and principles.

What this means when you are studying, is that understanding of the test material is far more crucial than raw memorization. You'll get much farther ahead if you can explain why CO2 is a linear molecule while H2O is a bent molecule rather than just memorizing them as facts. Know how to interpret data in tables and graphs. Again, do all the test questions. The Gold Standard is invaluable as it provides reasons for its sample exam answers.

Finally, as with all the multiple-choice sections, don't forget about the calibration questions. Don't waste 30 minutes trying to derive Einstein's Theory of Relativity in order to answer a single question, when you could be answering several easier answers. In the MCAT, as with all silly standardized tests, he who walks out with the most marks wins. Since the easy questions are worth the same as the hard ones, make sure you get all the easy marks first.


Go outside. Eat lunch. See your boyfriend / girlfriend. Relax. You're half-way through, and the second half is going to be draining, so you want to conserve as much precious energy as possible. Again, I feel discussing your answers isn't likely to help anyone, so why raise the stress level unnecessarily?

Written Sample:

Ick. I didn't think much of this section either. You'll have two essays to write, with 30 minutes allotted per essay. You'll be presented with a general philosophical statement, and then be asked to define the statement, and to provide both an example and a counter-example of the statement, while explaining the apparent contradiction.

Of crucial importance is that you remember that this section is being graded by human beings. Imagine yourself to be one of the MCAT graders, locked in a room with 20 other people. You've already plowed through 200 essays today based on the exact same topic, it's Friday afternoon at 4:45 pm, all you've done this entire week is read essays, and the weekend is crying out for attention. Also, you spend a maximum of 2 minutes per essay before assigning a grade.

As the grading is holistic, the mark you assign is based solely on your overall impression of the essay, rather than an individual numerical breakdown of spelling grammar and content. Yeah that sounds pretty harsh, knowing that the mark you receive depends on how the examiner is feeling at the time. You can use that knowledge to your advantage.

Therefore, keep that MCAT grader in mind when you are writing your essay. Keep your handwriting legible, use black ink (have you ever tried to read green or red inked essays?), and put clearly defined spaces between your words. Try to link your paragraphs together with leading phrases such as: "In addition to," "A counter-example to," or "The theory may also be applied in practical situations such as". Giving linkage and continuity to your essays will make them easier to follow for the reader, and will help make it evident that you are capable of producing coherent, written information. Good grammar is a must. No, stapling a $50 into your test booklet is not a good idea. Yet people try it every year...

In addition to the technical aspects above, don't be afraid to be creative and make your essay stand out. Attack the problem from an atypical point of view. I believe one of my MCAT essay topics was (loosely paraphrased): "Money gives an individual power in society." Then you needed to define the statement, and propose examples for, and against the premise, and finally rationalize the apparent contradiction.

I'm willing to bet 50% of the MCAT answers to that question defined power as the ability to purchase tangible goods. ie. "He who has the most toys wins", so the richest guy clearly wins. Now, this is the beginning to a perfectly solid essay about money, power, and capitalism in general, but it falls into the trap that lots of other people have written about the exact same topic. The human eyes reading and grading your essay with fall asleep before finishing the introduction because he/she has already seen hundreds of nearly identical variants of the same thesis in the past week.

As a result, I decided to approach the problem from a different tack. This, I believe, showed the grader that I am a little bit more special, and worthy of a closer read. My introduction went along the lines of:

"In the hallway, Janitor Bob works tirelessly to keep our university spotless. For the past 3 years, on passing him, I have been greeted to a warm smile and friendly wave. I talk to him frequently about the advances in genetics, while he espouses stories of solid common sense, learned as a result of being a high-school dropout. He is mopping the already glowing floor, visible through the windows of the exam hall, as I write this MCAT, in a sparkling university building established and maintained by government grants. Beside me, fellow students, funded by student loans, frantically eke out answers to an exam that will help determine our future careers, so that we may send our children to university, and start the education cycle anew. Clearly, money is of great importance to the individual."

Yes, this essay began rather tenuously, and in fact, was just a piece of fiction. However, it's quite likely that the grader will be able to relate to some part of the introduction. Perhaps his/her memories will be stirred back to his undergraduate days, and the stress of exams, or perhaps he/she was lucky enough to make the acquaintance of a Janitor Bob. In any event, the grader is likely more involved in your unique essay as opposed to the cookie-cutter capitalism essays I've described above. Remember that the mark you get depends on the grader's mood.

I should caution that searching for a special viewpoint is more difficult than simply using the first idea that pops into your mind, so you'll need to practice your brainstorming. Take a practice exam philosophical statement, and see how many different ways you can come up with for attacking the problem. Friends will often be able to supply valuable divergent points of view. However, it goes without saying that an adequate, completed essay is worth a lot more than a brilliantly insightful incomplete essay, so don't waste a tremendous amount of time looking for that unique viewpoint. Make sure you've got something to hand in when that 30 minute timer goes off, and double-check that you've answered all parts of the question.

Second Break:

Here's where you might think about hitting that vending machine for some candy. I know I mentioned the insulin spike and accompanying low-blood sugar blues, but if you're sneaky, you can time your candy ingestion during the break and in the Biological Sciences section so the blues don't hit and drag you under until after the MCAT is over. In the meantime, you'll get some badly needed glucose into your poor overworked brain.

Biological Sciences:

Well, here you go. It's the last section of a very long and draining day, but you can't let your attention down until after it's over. It's only 100 more minutes, hang in there! Just like physical sciences, you've got 77 questions, 62 of which are derived from passages. In this section, you'll be examined on biology, biochemistry, and organic chemistry. Personally, I don't recall much biochem or orgo, on the August 1998 MCAT.

I do however, remember a particularly hellacious biology passage question where I was introduced to some kind of fungus that had two nuclei in one cell. One was called a macronucleus and the other a micronucleus, and they reacted differently in meiosis and mitosis. I have never seen, heard of, or otherwise been aware of a cell that has more than one nucleus. So of course, the questions were on what genes would go where in mitosis/meiosis, and this is where understanding the course material, rather than memorizing trivia, becomes invaluable in spades. I was able to apply the idea that in this fungus, meiosis was used to create haploid spores while mitosis was for growth and differentiation, and use those principles to determine what nuclei needed to go where after cellular division.

The MCAT tests principles, so make sure you know them. The best way to check up on this is to find an MCAT buddy, and try to explain concepts like mitosis/meiosis. My acid test for understanding is that I know the material well enough if I can fully explain it to others after defining, and then using, the correct, widely accepted terms and jargon. You'll also be presented with diagrams, graphs, tables, and other visual methods of representing data. Be sure to read the data carefully; lots of easy answers are botched by simply not reading the damn question properly.


Take a break. Do something non-related. Go to the bar for a cold one if that's what will get you relaxed. Several colds ones if you're in to that kind of thing, but having two miserable mornings back to back is never fun. Trust me. Spend time with the friends, or significant others. Hopefully, you'll never have to face the beast again. In any event, you've got a two month reprieve from the MCAT before that manila envelope from the AAMC folks crosses your mailbox. Until then, get on with the process of enjoying yourself, and living life to the fullest. In order to be a good doctor, you have to be a good human being first. Have some fun; you've earned it.

Recommended Links

AAMC MCAT Start Page
MCAT Prep Web-site
Med Way's MCAT Section
Princeton Review
Gold Standard Website