Updated: Mar 24, 2022
This article will serve as a comprehensive guide to help you understand all the hype about the MCAT! The MCAT, also known as the Medical College Admission Test, is a critical entrance-style exam that students are required to take to be considered for a seat in a medical school. As a pharmacy student, you probably have heard of this notorious test, but know little about the finer details! It requires a substantial amount of planning along with some cognitive resilience to perform well.
As a pharmacy student interested in applying to medical school, we will talk about exam basics including an MCAT overview, MCAT percentiles, MCAT score ranges, average MCAT scores, and so much more!
As mentioned, the test is a standardized, 230 question, multiple-choice, computer-based examination that is essential to getting accepted into an accredited medical school. Academic proficiency regarding content review along with an appreciation for testing strategy will allow students to get the score of their dreams. Unfortunately, medical school is getting harder and harder to get into and there has been a steady uptrend in average matriculant MCAT scores. In other words, it's imperative that you take this exam seriously, and knock it out of the park on test day!
Before we dive into exam basics, it's important to learn how the MCAT is structured. The MCAT format includes four independent sections that test different specialty/knowledge backgrounds.
The first section is the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems, also known in layman's terms as "Chem/Phys." Students will have 95 minutes to answer 59
Multiple choice questions. These questions can be further subdivided into 44 passage-based and 15 standalone (non-passage based conceptual) questions. Both the Bio/Biochem and Psych/Soc sections follow the same question breakdown. The CARS section is the only one with different numbers of passages and questions.
The content asked in this section includes Introductory Physics (25%), Biochemistry (25%), Organic Chemistry (15%), General Chemistry (30%), Introductory Biology (5%).
The second section of the MCAT is the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills, also known as "CARS" for short. This section will ask a total of 53 passage-based questions. Students are given 90 minutes to read passages and complete questions. The CARS section is a unique component of the MCAT that doesn't test any prior content knowledge. All the material you will see and read about will be completely novel. The goal is to test students ability to analyze new material, understand passage based arguments, and make inferences based on the passage author's tone/perspective.
Formally, they will test Foundations of Comprehension (30%), Reasoning within the Text (30%), and Reasoning Beyond the Text (40%). Rather ambiguous descriptors in my opinion!
This section is notoriously despised by almost every medical school applicant, and you are likely no exception to this rule. Testing well on the CARS section requires severe strategic discipline, pattern recognition for question analysis, and some innate literary skills. Students who are fast readers and have stronger literary backgrounds tend to fair better! If you are are slower reader (like myself), this section will require additional attention during your studies along with far more practice.
The third section is Bio/Biochem, formally known as "Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems." This section is usually a pharmacy student's strongest section. The material you are responsible to learn in this section is by far the closest to your pharmacy background. Don't get too excited though! They won't be asking any pharmacology questions related to treatment, although you may get lucky with a Fluoroquinolone mechanism of action passage (hint: it's DNA Gyrase).
I personally enjoyed studying for this section because most of the material was content that I had seen before in my undergraduate studies. I started my MCAT preparation with Biology because it helped me get into the study groove while building up my confidence.
The section breakdown includes Biology (65%), General Chemistry (5%), Organic Chemistry (5%), and Biochemistry (25%).
The fourth and final section of the MCAT is the "Psych/Soc" section (Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior). The material tested on in this section can be easily memorized and regurgitated on test day! There will be plenty of topics that you may have never heard about, but rest assured, it's usually the easiest section on the test. At least they saved it for the end!
Being a pharmacy student/graduate, we tend to excel with semantic memory (factual content) tasks. Memorizing drug dosing or side effect profiles uses the same memory heuristic and is reason why I personally found it quite manageable. This section has a reputation for easy score improvement with lower scores usually indicating a knowledge gap rather than an application issue.
The best way to tackle the material is through repetition, with a lesser focus on "application" learning. For example, the term "Social Capital" is defined as "an individual's social networks and connections that may confer economic or personal benefits." Understanding a mere definition can be used to answer questions in a passage about intergenerational wealth, while easily disqualifying the other answer choices simply because you know all the other definitions. The other sections mentioned above tend to test more of your application skills and less semantic memory. For example, not only must you define a Western Blot, but you will need to use said definition to interpret experimental data and then apply these principles to other experiments. This will make more sense after you have taken a few practice tests!
The section breakdown for Psych/Soc is Psychology (65%), Sociology (30%), and Biology (5%). For those of you Googling the definition of Sociology, its just the "study of human social relationships and institutions."
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)
How is the MCAT Scored?
We have tackled the section breakdown and question allotment for the MCAT, but it's about time we talked about MCAT scoring! The total score ranges from 472 to 528 and students are given a percentile score along with the physical total. For instance a 528 would be 100 percentile. Each subsection is scored from 118 to 132 and totaled up to give you your total score.
For instance, you may have a breakdown of 129/120/129/130 totaling at a 508. Breakdowns are important because some medical school programs may reject your application if one subsection score is too low. In our example, a CARS score of 120 is considered very low and a program may disqualify an applicant with such lopsided results. This principle is school specific and may not apply for all programs.
I would like to call your attention to the reality that percentile ranks are not linear. This means that a 528 is equivalent to a 524 when considering percentiles; both being in the 100th percentile. The difference in your percentile will change with larger increments the closer you get to the middle, in comparison to the top and bottom ends!
To better portray this example, we can take a look at 2021-2022 MCAT Summary Scores provided by The AAMC.
Keep in mind when scheduling your MCAT, most exam score reports take approximately 30-35 days after your actual exam date to be released to the applicant. This may delay a your application if you plan on taking the test closer to the submission dates of AMCAS (typically late May, or early June). For more information about the medical school timeline, checkout our 2022 Application Cycle Timeline Article.
What is a Good MCAT Score?
It should be obvious that the higher your score is the better. However, to define what a "good MCAT score" may be is a fairly subjective endeavor. A 506 may be sufficient to garnish an applicant with an acceptance if they have incredible extracurriculars. Alternatively, an applicant with limited shadowing, clinical experience, or passion for medicine, will have to strive for a higher margin to shield their application shortcomings. The key is that you should shoot for the highest MCAT score that's realistically attainable, but your decision to retake or delay applying will be based on your additional qualities as an applicant.
While I can't disabuse the fact that a 523 is an objectively good score, its value holds less weight the higher you go up in raw score. The difference between a 526 and a 519 is only 3-4 questions on the test. Both applicants has proven they are academically suitable for medical school at this point. Unless you have ambitions for a top 10 medical school, don't get lost in the semantics!
Your personal goal on the MCAT should be as high as you can obtain, but the means of getting that score may not be practical, especially for a busy pharmacy student or pharmacist. I still recommend treating the MCAT like a full-time job but my readers usually laugh when they create the mental picture necessary to balance such a task.
"Study for 6 hours after my 9 hour APPE rotation, no thanks!"
"Quit my full-time pharmacy manager position to study for an exam. What about my bills? What about my mortgage?
I think you get my point!
Curbing those 528 aspirations, most applicants should strive for the 75th percentile, or a 509 raw score. Your minimum score should be no lower than 50th percentile and I think that's cutting it a little close. If your score is toward the lower end, you may want to consider applying to osteopathic schools of medicine. Like I mentioned, the MCAT is essential but a slightly lower than average score can be offset with a holistic application. As a pharmacy student, you probably have checked that box. The MCAT is usually one of the largest barriers for pharmacy students/graduates alike!
Here is the 2020-2021 Medical School Application data for applicants that actually matriculated into medical school. Unfortunately this data has been up-trending and this years cycle will demand even higher metrics! For example, the average MCAT for MD (allopathic) applicants for the 2021-2022 application cycle was a 511.9 (almost a 512 0r 84th percentile!)
Cost of the MCAT:
You may be wondering how much does the MCAT cost? To register for the MCAT you will have to pay $320! This value increases if the applicant registers late or decides to reschedule. This also doesn't include the cost of preparation material such as the AAMC Sponsored Content (~$600) and or test prep courses (>$1,000). Not to mention the opportunity cost of giving up work shifts and social life!
However, I don't to discourage you! If you do it right the first time, a 3-4 month period of hard work will open up a realm of possibilities and will be completely worth it. If you don't take it seriously, allow for lazy prep work, and are easily distracted studying, you will likely have a negative outcome. This includes plenty of wasted time and money.
How many questions are on the MCAT?
As covered above there are a total of 230 questions on the MCAT. 59 on the Chem/Phys, 53 on CARS, 59 in Bio/Biochem, and 59 in Psych/Soc. What we didn't discuss is how long the exam actually is.
Your total content test time is 6 hours and 15 minutes. Your total "seated" time is approximately 7 hours and 33 minutes. No fun at all!
Need to retake the MCAT? Welcome to every applicant's worst nightmare! You studied long and hard for months at a time only to get a score below your goal. Regardless of the cause, you have to decide if you really want to be a physician. For me, when I was faced with this very same dilemma, I found myself bestowed with a renewed sense of energy and purpose. I was down-right pissed with my score! This is also coming from a past member of the 497 club (35th percentile). Use that motivation to restructure our approach, analyze what went wrong, and investigate what you could do better. This is a beatable exam, so don't let a single bad score dismantle your ambitions for medical school.
Now for some retake logistics. If you took the MCAT and had the exam scored (not-voided) your report will be sent to medical schools no matter what. The key is to have a better score report to send along with the bad, hence the retake!
Also note that the MCAT does NOT super-score. In other words, you can't take the best score of a subsection from two different exams. This is a common feature with the Highschool SAT but is not allowed with the MCAT. Each test score report is final. I was fortunate enough to perform better in every section during my retake, but some applicants will inevitably trade one section for another! This commonly happens when said applicant performs exceptionally on one section (130+) during their first attempt, and subsequently neglects the high performing section during their second attempt.
For example, think of our friend Student X from above with 129/120/129/130 (508). They may opt for a retake out of fear of getting rejected for having such a low CARS score. When hyper-focusing on CARS, they end up forgetting some material for Psych/Soc and get a score drop. Their second attempt score report may look like this; 129/125/127/125 (506)! While still a pretty strong score with less-lopsided statistics, they may have made themselves even less competitive for programs with 512 MCAT averages!
When To Take The MCAT:
Studying For The MCAT:
You were probably hoping for a comprehensive guide to studying for the MCAT but unfortunately this is a rather complex topic and warrants an entirely new blog post (coming soon). For immediate information, check out the established guide in my book "PharmD to MD" to create a study schedule and get insights into prep-materials.
Is The MCAT Hard?
Well obviously yes! However it's a beatable exam. Once you master the MCAT your medical school career is just on the horizon. I often find that the MCAT is the greatest barrier that pharmacy students/graduates have to overcome. We have the clinical knowledge and life experience. We just need the medical school metrics to set the transition into motion!
If you thought the MCAT was hard, see how it compares to Medical School! Check out the article "How Hard Is Medical School" for more information.
If you are interested in starting your journey into Medicine, check out our other featured Blog Articles.
For more questions, review our article "6 Most Common Questions About Transitioning From Pharmacy to Medicine."
For more information, consider signing up for a Membership with The Physician Pharmacist for complete access to our comprehensive guide. Additionally, check out "Pharm.D. to M.D." on Amazon for physical copies of our featured book!
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