The Medical College Admissions Test, otherwise known as the MCAT, is a roughly seven- to eight-hour exam that tests your knowledge of subjects such as chemistry, physics, biology, and psychology. The exam is used to gain admission into medical school and, while it is not the only factor for acceptance, it is a significant component of your medical school application.
Is the MCAT Hard?
As a current medical student, I look back and think about the difficulty of the MCAT. Maybe you are not the best test taker and you might worry about how hard it will be. Fear not!
After my own experience, I’d say that while the MCAT is not a walk in the park, it is a doable exam!
The test requires a lot of endurance as it is the most lengthy of all the graduate admissions tests, so it becomes a bit of a stepping stone to other medical school exams in a way.
There are a variety of factors that could affect how easy or difficult the MCAT will be for you. These include how many and what type of prerequisite courses you have taken, what kind of preparation you have done for the MCAT, your test taking skills, and so on. The MCAT is a different type of difficulty than other college exams due to the content being tested and how long it takes. While some students may find the MCAT a “make it or break it” ordeal, it is important to remember that it is just another piece of the application and is not the entire determinant of getting into medical school. Due to the events of the COVID-19 pandemic, the MCAT has had somewhat less weight because there were limitations for many applicants during the 2022 cycle along with other medical school admission metrics. This may have generated a more holistic approach in admitting incoming medical students; however, you should still do your best on the MCAT!
Is the New MCAT Harder? What Test Day Was Like for Me
In 2015, the MCAT underwent some content changes and added an additional section on Psychology and Sociology.
I actually took the MCAT twice, once during my undergraduate career and another time during my gap years. You might wonder whether the new MCAT was harder, and I would not say so, but it really depends on you personally. While I knew I was not the best test taker, psychology and sociology were easier subjects for me to understand. The change did not make much of a difference to me compared to my first attempt with the MCAT. I did have an idea of what the content was like because of my previous experience, but then I also had to prepare for another section and I had to increase my mental endurance to sit and focus for a longer exam. I personally believe that your attitude is half the battle when taking such a long exam, and answering questions mimicking the exam can really help you prepare effectively.
My main hurdle in studying for the MCAT was the Critical Analysis and Reasoning (CARs) section. While I enjoy reading in my leisure, I am not the best at it under timed conditions and I often found myself skimming each question over and over, which took a lot of time away from answering other questions.
To prepare better for test day, I would time myself reading individual passages when doing practice questions to better pace myself. I’d aim to maximize the first pass of reading to squeeze out as much information as possible from that first pass before re-reading passages.
Practice really makes perfect in whatever you do, and I believe the more practice questions you answer, the more experience you gain in how to tackle actual test day questions to ace the MCAT.
After doing many practice questions and taking plenty of MCAT practice exams, I tried to relax leading up to the exam. Easier said than done, but it really is crucial to put your mind at ease and lessen stress before test day so you can go in with a clear mind.
During my MCAT prep, I tried to exercise every other day to minimize stress and mental fatigue. About two days before test day, I prepared a pack of snacks and water to have during my break time. I definitely recommend that you take a breather in between the exam sections, as it helps you refocus for the remainder of the test. What makes the test hard is not necessarily the content, but the mental stamina needed to endure it and avoid getting tired or zoning out throughout the exam. When I hit the CARs section, I took a deep breath and tried my best to resimulate my practice tests to put myself in the zone.
After the exam, I tried my best to forget all about it. After putting all that effort into an exam, there comes a point where you can only commend yourself in getting through it and try not to worry about the results. I hung out with some friends and vacationed a bit until my results arrived, which was great because in the end, everything worked out. At the end of the day, the MCAT is just another test and does not define one’s worth, which students tend to forget at times.
MCAT Prep and Test-taking Strategies
Outside of my personal practice on the CARs section, I knew I had to work on my overall test taking skills for the MCAT to improve on my first attempt. Here are some things I personally practiced:
- Time yourself. I’m glad that I practiced pacing myself while reading passages, because I ended up having extra time to look over my answers before moving onto the next section.
- Work on your weaknesses. It is definitely important for you to understand your weaknesses, whichever section it may be: CARs, Physical Sciences, Biological Sciences, or Psychology and Sociology. This is where you can improve the most and improve your score.
- Practice under test taking conditions. When taking practice exams, try to simulate the test conditions as best as you can. Doing so will make the actual test day a lot less stressful. This approach fosters time management skills so you are not scrounging for time, and it will set you up for better focus because you have done it all before.
- Skip questions! I also learned to skip questions when I needed to. I used to try to answer every question as soon as I could in order to move onto the next. If you are not understanding the question or are stumped, do not waste time! It is best to mark the question, move onto the next one, then return to the question you were stuck on later. Chances are you will be able to go back and reread the questions with fresh eyes, rather than waste time trying to decipher it, which takes time away from completing the rest of the exam.
- Carefully read the answer choices. Another tidbit I would like to mention is that if you read two answer choices that sound the same, they are probably both wrong. There can only be one answer and realizing two answer choices are the same eliminates two choices, creating greater odds of making the correct choice.
- Do NOT change your answers. Pro-tip for taking any test in general: Unless you did not read the question correctly the first time or had a “eureka” moment, NEVER change your answer choice. I say this as I used to be an avid second-guessing, answer-choice-changing test taker. There is a reason why you chose that first answer. Believe and trust in yourself!
- Learn how to interpret graphs. A decent portion of the Physical Sciences and Biological Sciences includes understanding not just the content of research explained in the questions, but rather the interpretation of the data shown. If you can work on this skill, it will make the MCAT a bit smoother for you.
- Take a break. This is vital. The MCAT is pretty much the longest graduate admissions test of them all. It is super important to take the optional break they give you to reset your mind. Have a snack and get hydrated. I recommend doing this outside of the testing center to get a bit of sun. Then quickly use the restroom and wash your face before going back in. You will feel refreshed, which is a good reset button for taking on the rest of the exam!
- Do not study the day before. Or at least limit your studying the day before your test and enjoy yourself. You have been studying for a while, and it is best to put your mind in a relaxed state beforehand.
- Stay calm. Above all, staying calm works wonders. The MCAT is not the only factor of your medical school application. It’s important to remember that you can also retake the test and it is not the end of the world if you do not get the score you want the first time around. In fact, sometimes that room for improvement can help because it motivates you to do better – Admissions will be able to see that.
Looking back, if I were to have done things any differently, I would have tried to take better care of myself.
It may sound cliché, but I really do believe that relaxing and being calm truly go a long way on test day. On my second test day, I did relax a bit in comparison to my first attempt. I still had a looming idea of the MCAT that did stress me out, but trying to lessen my stress levels helped me make some good score improvements just where I needed them.
A really big no-no during my first try was that I did not take my break, which I was sure to do when I took the MCAT again.
Really taking in that moment of having my snacks outside and taking a deep breath before using the restroom and washing my face allowed me to rest my eyes, take in a bit of sun, and go in recentered with better focus. You can spend a long time studying for the MCAT, but it really comes down to how you prepare and how you show up on test day, where being relaxed and focused can take you further in reaching your goals. Believe in yourself, you can do it!