MCAT Sections: What is on the MCAT?

MCAT Sections: What is on the MCAT?

The Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) can be intimidating for any aspiring medical student. Each section tests your knowledge of basic sciences you’ll apply in medical school and as a doctor, as well as your aptitude for learning. Though it may be one of the most challenging entrance exams out there, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to pass.


Studying for the MCAT
Bianca Villanueva


August 10, 2023

Many students can feel overwhelmed by the coverage of the exam. The questions range from natural and social sciences and put to the test the subjects most pre-med students learn throughout their undergraduate programs. As such, the best way to approach it is step by step, rather than looking at the big picture. This article will break down each section and include some tips for tackling each one. But first, what is the MCAT?

What is the MCAT?

The MCAT is a computer-based standardized exam in multiple choice format, taken by prospective medical students in the USA, Canada, and the Caribbean Islands.

This applies to programs for both Allopathic M.D. and Osteopathic, D.O. It’s split into 4 different sections that are scored individually. The whole exam, including breaks, takes 7.5 hours; so it’s as much an endurance event as it is an academic one.

The scoring range falls between 472–528 with a median of 500, as it’s scored by percentile. There’s no true “passing score”. Colleges, rather, usually set a cut-off score as their benchmark for selection. So, you’re really competing against your peers, not some predetermined standard.

You can view the MCAT as similar to an entrance exam. It’s a test that aims to guide schools in their student selection process by predicting their success in or readiness for medical school. You might be thinking, why not just base medical school applications on college grades?  It’s because, unfortunately, a notable number of students don’t complete medical school due to inadequate academic preparedness. That’s the core reason for the MCAT’s existence.

While the MCAT has a strong relationship with your success in first year medical school, it is by no means a perfect test. Your score here is never a 100% accurate predictor of your performance in medical school, and it shouldn’t be. A student’s potential for success hinges on their dedication and perseverance, not just the results of one exam.

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What is on the MCAT? An MCAT Section Breakdown

Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (Bio/Biochem)

  • Number of questions: 59 questions
  • Time limit: 95 minutes

This section tests your ability to recall your biological and biochemical knowledge and apply it to problem-solving. Knowing the processes and interactions of living organisms is one of the main competencies as a doctor.

Study up on your basic biology, inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics. College-level biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology are included as well, which are also common prerequisite subjects pre-med students take in their undergrad courses. Research and statistics will also come up in this section, usually applied to biological sciences.

For this part of the exam, you’ll have access to a periodic table. Make sure that you understand groups and periodic trends. That will make it easier for you to use the table as a reference during the exam. 

This section is memorization-intensive. That means, you should focus on memorizing essential concepts like metabolic pathways. To maximize your memorization success, start studying these subjects closer to your MCAT exam date. Around 3–6 months should be enough– if you start any earlier, you might forget the things you memorized from the beginning.

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

  • Number of questions: 59 questions
  • Time limit: 95 minutes

Like the previous section, this part also relies on recalling important concepts, but the focus will be on applying that knowledge. While it may not be clear at first, physics plays a big role in physiology. Studying the mechanical, physical, and biochemical functions of various organ systems is necessary to holistically understand how the body works. Chemistry is essential in the practice of medicine as well, as the medications we prescribe heavily rely on their chemical and physical effects on the body.

Make sure to stock up knowledge on basic biology, inorganic and organic chemistry, molecular biology, and physics. This also includes research and statistics, similar to the last section. You’ll also be allowed to use a periodic table for this part. What makes this different from the last section is that it’ll focus more on chemistry and physics rather than biology.

For this section, focus on practicing again and again. That’s the best way to get used to understanding the questions and solving math problems. Practice applying common equations in chemistry and physics, and doing math without a calculator. This will ensure you know what to do during the MCAT, and that you will be able to complete the tasks within the time limit. Remember that you won’t have access to a formula sheet, so write down all equations when studying and memorize them.

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

  • Number of questions: 59 questions
  • Time limit: 95 minutes

This part will ask you to apply your knowledge of psychological, social, and biological concepts to solve problems. It delves into what shapes behavior, how it morphs, how people think, and cultural and social concepts. To a doctor, the holistic well-being of the patient is of utmost importance. It’s not enough to simply know the basic natural sciences, so it’s important to cover these topics as much as the others.

This section covers college-level psychology, sociology, and biology subjects. These are usually presented in relation to behavioral and sociocultural determinants of health. Research and statistics will also be tested in this section, similar to the last two.

Memorization won’t suffice for this section. You need to apply psychology and sociology concepts to solve complex issues. The challenge with this section is that by the time you reach it, you’re likely exhausted from the recall-heavy sections. On top of that, you’ll be asked to analyze patient data and relate it to factors like social class and healthcare accessibility. So, learn to pace yourself within the 95 minutes you’re given, because you’re going to need them. 

During the actual MCAT, always ask yourself what the test is looking for. Is the question testing your ability to recall scientific concepts? If so, focus your energy into recalling what you’ve memorized. Is the question assessing your problem solving skills? If so, focus on drawing conclusions from the information given in the question.

Lastly, learn the terminology, if you’re not familiar with it. You’ll encounter words like “hindsight bias” or “introspection” and these aren’t words that come up every day. So as you do practice exams, read up on all the terms that look unfamiliar to you.

Critical Analysis and Reading Skills (CARS)

  • Number of questions: 53 questions
  • Time limit: 90 minutes

I saved this section for last because people think it’s one of the “strangest” parts of the MCAT. In a way, it is. It’s unlike the other sections that rely on your raw knowledge of the basic sciences. Instead, this part of the exam requires you to read and understand passages.

While it sounds like a reading comprehension exam, it’s much more than that. The passages require you to analyze them rather than solve problems or recall scientific concepts. Moreover, this section spans subjects regarding the humanities and social sciences. There are also parts that test your deduction and reasoning skills. Instead of testing your knowledge, it checks your aptitude for understanding.

This section has 3 parts:

  • Foundations of comprehension: This part tests your reading comprehension. Rather than simply reading the passage and absorbing information from it, it asks you to read between the lines and infer what the passage is trying to implicitly say.
  • Reasoning within the text: This challenges the test taker to infer the meaning of the text. You’ll be asked to evaluate the evidence presented and indicate whether it supports or weakens the argument being made.
  • Reasoning beyond the text: This is arguably the most challenging part. It introduces new information and you need to determine how it relates to the passage. You may also be asked to challenge your understanding by applying your inferences to different contexts and situations.

It’s recommended that you read practice questions so that you can have an idea as to how the questions are asked. If there’s one skill you must learn for this section, it’s Active Reading. This is different from passive reading where you skim or skip parts as you read leisurely. Open books or articles and try to think about what the author is trying to say. Try to reflect. What’s the main idea? What are the themes? What are the important points?

During the MCAT itself, you’ll be pressed for time. Instead of following the questions by number, focus more time on the paragraphs that are easiest to read. It’s better you focus your energy on the points you can get than wasting your time on hard questions, then cramming the easy ones after. Lastly, read the question and choices first before the paragraph so that you know what you’re looking for.

A Summary Table

We went through a lot of information. It sounds overwhelming, but don’t let that get to you. Again, you’re meant to review for the MCAT one step at a time. So, let’s summarize it into a table, including the distribution of topics by AAMC:

Section Number of Items Time Coverage
Bio/Biochem 59 questions 95 minutes Biochemistry 25%
Intro Biology 65%
General Chemistry 5%
Organic Chemistry 5%
Chem/Phys 59 questions 95 minutes Biochemistry 25%
Intro Biology 5%
General Chemistry 30%
Organic Chemistry 15%
Intro Physics 25%
Psych/Soc 59 questions 95 minutes Intro Psychology 65%
Intro Sociology 30%
Intro Biology 5%
CARS 53 questions 90 minutes Humanities 50%
Social Sciences 50%
Table: Overview of the MCAT sections

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