MCAT – An Overview

If you’ve considered medicine, you probably know about the MCAT, the standardized test for medical school admissions. Most medical schools in Canada, and nearly every reputable medical school in the United States requires this test. If you haven’t done the MCAT yet, or haven’t started your preparations for it, chances are this test scares you. I mean why wouldn’t it? The MCAT is an approximately 7 hour test that can dictate your fate of entry into medical school. It costs a lot of money to write, there is a plethora of resources to choose from, and there are a lot of conflicting opinions and advice on doing well.

If you are applying to Canadian medical schools, they only look at your most recent MCAT test score. So if you bombed the test the first time, but rewrote it, then it’s as if you never wrote it more than once for the school. Of course if you do worse on your second attempt then you take a step backwards.

Many premed students right now are studying for the MCAT, and some have already written it or are going to be writing it soon. I will be releasing a series of blog posts regarding the MCAT in varying levels of detail. There is a lot of information required for the test, and I do not want to skimp on any details. This is the first in the series and will highlight some very generals about the MCAT and some common questions people have regarding it

What’s on the MCAT?

The MCAT is a standardized test that contains 4 sections: CP/CARS/BB/PS. Each section, except for CARS is 1 hour and 35 minutes in length, with CARS being 1 hour and 30 minutes. Unlike standard university level tests, the MCAT contains mainly passage-based questions.

Passages are excerpts/summaries of scientific journal articles. They are paired with questions pertaining to the information provided, along with your scientific background knowledge. Although these can scare some people, they can be nice as they refresh you on background information, as well as some formulas or equations you might need for the questions.

CP – Chemistry and Physics

The Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems section, or CP, is unsurprisingly the chemistry and physics portion of the MCAT. This is heavily weighted on general chemistry and physics, but can also contain organic chemistry and some biochemistry that pertains to chemistry or physics in some way.

CARS – Reading

The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section, or CARS, is the most notorious section, and unfortunately for some, and fortunately for others, it is the most important section for Canadian medical school admissions. It is also known as the most difficult section to improve since it does not involve any concrete knowledge, but rather is about verbal reasoning. You read a passage on subjects such as history, philosophy, economics, politics or art, then answer questions based solely on the passage and what the author wrote and how they wrote it. It requires analysis such as reasoning within the text, reasoning beyond the text, capturing the author’s main idea/thesis, and being able to identify support or lack of support for the author’s argument. It is very difficult to improve this, but some people are inherently good at this section, especially those that are strong in the humanities, are very good at English or read regularly.

BB – Biology & Biochemistry

The Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems section, or BB, is a fairly straightforward section for most premedical students. This is because most premedical students tend to be biology or biochemistry majors and have interest in physiology. You’ll need to know your basic human physiology with some limited anatomy. For example, you won’t need to know all 206 bones and all the muscles, only anatomy that is directly related to physiology like what the difference between the trachea and esophagus is. Microbiology and cell biology is also present and you will need to know that to some extent. Biochemistry is also a huge component of this section and knowing your metabolism, lipid, nucleic acid, protein and carbohydrate biochemistry is very important. If you are not in a biology or biochemistry program, this will probably require a lot of work to be on par or exceed the students with 2+ years of biology or biochemistry studies at the undergraduate level.

PS – Psychology & Sociology

The Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior section is the newest section on the 2015 MCAT, and it was not present on the previous MCAT. I believe the reason for the addition is because there is a shift in focus away from physician’s only caring about the biological and physical aspects of medicine, to include the psychological and social aspects of medicine as well. This section is probably known as the easiest to improve your score on since it requires a lot of memorization and understanding of key words and concepts, but everything is rather logical and for the most part nothing is too complicated.

How is the MCAT Scored?

There are 2 scores associated with your MCAT, your raw score which is your raw percentage (you got X% of questions right) along with your scaled score which is your percentile score. You will never see your raw score on the real test, they only report the scaled score to you and to medical schools. The lowest scaled score on the MCAT is a 472 and the highest is a 528 with a middle score of 500. Each section is scored independently with a possible scaled score range of 118 to 132 and a middle score of 125. The MCAT is standardized and so they normalize your score based on how other people do on your particular test, although how exactly they score it is not fully known. They officially state that they do not bell-curve the test which means that officially, it does not matter how the other people writing your test on test-day perform. They essentially test the questions you have out on other test-takers in the past. They then give it some level of difficulty, and based on how difficult your test is your score is scaled appropriately. This is speculative and I can’t go in more details because I’m not informed enough and I don’t have any form of insider information to share, but essentially the easier the section is for more people the harder it is to get a good scaled score.

When should I write the MCAT?

When you should write your MCAT both in terms of time of the year, and year of University is a very personalized question that depends on your personal & financial situation, your undergraduate education, and most importantly, when you want to apply to medical school. I wrote mine the summer after my second year of undergrad was completed since I wanted to apply to enter after my third year of University. Writing the MCAT in the summer is the best option in my opinion for anyone that is writing it during their undergraduate education. This is because you do not want to mix MCAT studying with studying for exams in your school. The MCAT is not an easy test, and ideally you want to spend a lot of your time focusing on it so that you do not under perform. It can be demoralizing to do bad the first time and have to motivate yourself to do it all over again and better.

I do highly recommend writing the MCAT the summer after 2nd year for a few reasons. If you do well you can apply to medical schools during your 3rd year of undergrad and have the opportunity to get early acceptance to medical school. Early acceptance can save you a year of tuition in your undergrad, and provide you with some desired closure, and allowing you to make an extra year of physician salary. If you do not do as well as you had hoped then you can write it again the next summer and learn from your mistakes. If you waited until a later time to write it you might not have done well at that time either and that will delay your entire process. Another point is that in many biology or biochemistry university programs, you will have the background for most of the MCAT content coming out of your second year of undergrad, and it will be relatively fresh. Third year of undergrad and higher is when you specialize more in your particular field, so you might be better at one particular section, but at the same time you might forget a lot of the first year science/psychology courses that are represented on the MCAT.

The only reason I can think of other than a financial situation that I would not recommend you write your test earlier is if you are not set on going into medicine right after undergrad or are not yet sure you want to do medical school and be a physician. There are a few reasons for this. The most important reason is that the MCAT score you have expires after some time and schools will not accept it. McMaster medical school for instance requires the score of your test be within 5 years of your application. If you write your MCAT during undergrad but decide to do a PhD or Master’s program first and take some time before going into medical school it might expire. This expiration date is also subject to change per year and you are at their mercy. Another reason, that I think is overlooked is the justification of effort phenomenon. This is early psychology studying for your MCAT, but essentially it describes how individuals that put a lot of effort into attaining some goal are more likely to want to achieve the goal to justify their efforts in attaining it. If you write your MCAT just to keep a door open, but you are unsure you want to be a physician, and you end up doing well on the MCAT, you are more likely to pursue being a physician. The reason is that you wish to justify yourself writing the MCAT and putting in that effort so it was not wasted. This is not a good reason to be a physician in my opinion, and if you want to prevent yourself from having regrets after wasting $100,000+ on tuition and housing plus 4 years of the prime of your life in stress, I would highly recommend you think about being a physician first and ensuring it’s for your before writing the MCAT. If you have written your MCAT and you did well, do not think you need to apply to medical school. Decide you wish to be a physician first before you apply. Even if you wasted time studying for your MCAT, it is better to waste one summer then waste 4 years+ if you realize the career not for you.

If you are writing it in the summer, exactly when to schedule your test depends on a few factors. If you have done the test before and are rewriting it, then you can do it a bit earlier, but if you are writing it for the first time I always suggest putting it off till as late as possible. Ideally, most people should have 3-4 months of MCAT studying so if you start at the start of May then you want to write your test between August and September. This study period varies based on your knowledge on the content, and how quickly you can pick up information, but it is a good range to aim for. It is important that you determine the date you wish to write it as soon as you can so you can register for it early. Registration in the summer fills up quickly and you might end up having to write it in a different city that might need a long drive the night before or even a flight. This can add unnecessary stress on test day which can affect your performance. Scheduling your test is also important to schedule your studying schedule.

If you are writing it the summer after second year of undergrad and want to apply to Ontario medical schools, you need to take note of when the deadline for OMSAS (which is the Ontario medical school application) to receive your MCAT score is. After you write your MCAT it takes a full month to get your score returned to you, and your application for medical school tends to be due at the first Monday of October, but confirm this as it changes every year. You can apply before you get your score back as long as the score is received by OMSAS before their MCAT deadline, which tends to be mid- or end of October. In other words you can submit your application not knowing what your MCAT score is. Doing so requires some confidence, and a good financial situation. If you write your application, pay & submit it, then get your scores back after and it fails to meet the criteria needed for some schools you applied for, then your application for those schools is trashed without getting a refund. I had no idea what to expect so I wrote mine August 11th in order to get my score back September 12th and my application was due by October 2nd, which gave me plenty of time to ensure that I had a good enough score to apply with.

So this was just a brief overview of the MCAT and what it’s about. I hope this provided some closure to some future MCAT writers and relieved a bit of stress regarding it. Remember that the MCAT is just a test and one measure for medical schools to look at to judge how well you will fit in their school and as a marker for potential performance in medical school and as a physician. Do not set your worth as a person or future physician on this test. If you want to be a physician, do not let this test get in your way, you can do it!

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