The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), a standardized examination, is one of the principal ways in which medical schools assess applicants’ ability to thrive in a program of rigorous medical education. With very few exceptions, all applicants must take the MCAT to be considered eligible for admission.
The MCAT consists of four multiple-choice sections: Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems; Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems; Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior; and Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills. The sections are each graded on a scale of 118-132.
The first three sections mentioned above are organized around ten foundational concepts or ‘big ideas’ in the sciences and draw from the following disciplines: biology, biochemistry, organic chemistry, general chemistry, physics, psychology, and sociology. Questions in these sections will ask you to combine your scientific knowledge from multiple disciplines with your scientific inquiry and reasoning skills. The last section listed, Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills, includes questions that test your ability to comprehend and analyze what you read and requires no specific outside content knowledge.
Because of the MCAT's increased focus on psychology and sociology, it is recommended that premeds take The Science of Psychology (PSYC W1001), if they did not previously take introductory psychology courses. Since psychology is not generally required for medical school admission, it is not a curricular requirement.
The exam is administered in January and from April through September. Students may take the MCAT up to three times each year. Because test scores are reported to medical schools one month after the test, Postbac Premed students are advised to take the MCAT in April, May, or June on the cusp of their application year. Admissions processes are well underway in the fall and even the most highly qualified applicant will be at a substantial disadvantage if MCAT scores do not arrive until mid-fall.
Online registration for the MCAT begins six months prior to each test date, and students are advised to register as early as possible to ensure their first choice of testing location.
Grading is scaled to correct for the differing difficulty of questions on different versions of the test. Students taking different versions of the test need not have the same number of right answers to receive the same score.
How to Prepare
The MCAT is not an examination for which students can cram. The best preparation for the MCAT is a rigorous program in the premedical sciences that has taught the student to apply basic concepts to novel situations. It is important, however, to become familiar with the format of the MCAT exam through whatever means is most appropriate for the applicant. While many students enroll in test prep courses, significant numbers have found that they can do at least as good a job of preparing for the MCAT by studying on their own. Either approach requires discipline, time, and a plan.
- Students should begin their review in September for the April test date, and devote some regular time each week – say, one morning each weekend – to MCAT review.
- Students should review course notes and textbooks paying particular attention to concepts missed previously. They should also outline and organize to be sure they have an understanding of basic concepts.
- Students should study every topic listed on the What's on the MCAT Exam page. Students may perform poorly on the MCAT if they confuse familiarity with the test with preparation.
- Students should review concepts outside of the review materials. Prep books are useful as diagnostic tools, but they cannot replace textbooks and notes. As the test approaches, students should complete a full-length practice MCAT under exam-like conditions to prepare for the long day of the test.
- In addition to MCAT review books, students can prepare for the verbal reasoning section by reading as much as possible, especially essays, columns, in-depth journalism about complex issues, and op-ed pieces (found, for example, in New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker and other periodicals known for their sophisticated prose style). Students should cut down on movies and television and do more recreational reading. They should also keep lists of unfamiliar words they encounter, look up their meanings and etymologies, and review them periodically.
Postbac Premed Student Scores
Columbia Postbac Premed students as a whole typically score an average of more than three points above the national average on the MCAT. Students are encouraged to consult with their advisors after they receive their scores, and especially if they are dissatisfied with them.