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The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)

Contents Of The Mcat

Over the past several decades, there has been a gradual but nevertheless dramatic change in the medical profession in terms of knowledge amassed, technological advances, and delivery of health care. This has brought about the belief that premedical and medical education for practitioners in the twenty-first century needs revision. This realization has similarly motivated a review of the MCAT exam for relevancy, especially since its relevance in predicting clinical success has been seriously questioned.

A study over a period of several years, including field testing, resulted in a new MCAT format that was introduced in the fall of 1991. The new format is designed to assist medical school admissions committees to identify applicants who have a broad liberal arts education as well as a solid scientific background and adequate writing skills.

The MCAT now consists of four separate subtests:

Verbal reasoning 85 minutes
Physical sciences 100 minutes
Writing sample 60 minutes
Biological sciences 100 minutes

The tests are designed so that nearly everyone will have enough time to finish each section without undue pressure, since the emphasis will be on preparation rather than on speed of response.

Timetable for the MCAT

TOTAL TIME: 5¾ hours, plus 1 hour for lunch, two 10-minute breaks

85 minutes Verbal Reasoning 65 questions
Rest Period — 10 minutes
100 minutes Physical Sciences 77 questions
Lunch — 60 minutes
60 minutes Writing Sample 2 questions
Rest Period — 10 minutes
100 minutes Biological Sciences 77 questions

Verbal Reasoning

This section consists of a 500- to 600-word selected text taken from the natural or social sciences or humanities. The source of the text will be identified. Following the text will be a set of questions presented in order from easiest to hardest. The goal of this subtest is to ascertain quantitatively the applicant's skills in several, but not necessarily all, of the following:

  • (a) comprehending the essence of the text,
  • (b) utilizing the information of the text,
  • (c) determining the validity of the information in the text, and
  • (d) integrating new data on the context of that which is in the text.

Physical Sciences

This subject seeks to measure an applicant's comprehension of basic concepts and problem-solving ability in physics and chemistry. (This may require an understanding and ability to use basic college-level mathematical concepts to solve some of the problems in the physical sciences.) Of the 77 questions making up this subtest, 62 are based on a text that discusses a problem or situation that may be presented in a prose, graphic, tabular, or illustrative format. About ten problem sets consisting of four to eight questions each are associated with each such unit. In addition, 15 questions unrelated to the text are presented. The questions are not predicated on an ability to memorize scientific facts. Rather, they require knowledge of constants and equations commonly used in basic physics and chemistry courses.


This segment of the physical sciences subtest will judge your ability to utilize fundamental physics theories in solving problems (on a noncalculus basis). Topics that you should be familiar with include:

  • Mechanics: namely, concepts in equilibrium, momentum, force, motion, gravitation, translational motion, work, energy, fluids, and solids.
  • Wave Motion: namely, wave characteristics, periodic motion, and sound.
  • Electricity and Magnetism: namely, concepts in electrostatics, electromagnetism, and electric circuits.
  • Light and Optics: namely, concepts in visible light and geometric optics.
  • Modern Physics: namely, concepts in atomic and nuclear structure.


This segment of the physical science subtest will judge your ability to apply fundamental theories of general chemistry to solving problems. (Organic chemistry is included as part of the biological sciences subtest.) Topics you should be familiar with include:

  • Stoichiometry: namely, metric units, molecular weight, Avogadro number, mole concept, oxidation number, chemical equation reactions.
  • Electronic Structure: namely, understanding the complexities and dynamics of chemical reactions, as well as the link between quantum theories and physical and chemical properties of elements and compounds.
  • Bonding: namely, ionic and covalent bond formation characteristics should be understood so as to appreciate chemical and physical properties of substances.
  • Phases: namely, understanding the concepts involved in the dynamic phases of elements (gas, liquid, and solid) as well as phase equilibria is necessary to respond to some of the questions.
  • Solution Chemistry: namely, familiarity with ions in solution, solubility, and precipitation reactions.
  • Acids and Bases: namely, the concepts associated with acid/base equilibria and acid/base titrations.
  • Thermodynamics and Thermochemistry: namely, concepts associated with the evolution and absorption of heat during a reaction should be understood.
  • Rate of Chemical Reactions: namely, an understanding of rate concepts and reaction equilibrium is necessary.
  • Electrochemistry: namely, an understanding of concepts in the analysis of galvanic, electronic, or concentration cells.


Noncalculus prerequisite knowledge in mathematics that will permit solving some of the problems in the physical science subtests includes:

  • Arithmetic Computation Skills: namely, exponents, logarithms, quadratic equations, simultaneous equations, scientific notation, graphic presentation of data and functions.
  • Trigonometry: namely, functions (sine, cosine, tangent), the values of sines and cosines of 0°, 90°, and 180°; inverse functions (sin−1, cos−1, tan−1); lengths relationships of sides of right triangles containing angles of 30°, 45°, and 60°.
  • Vectors: namely, addition, subtraction, and right hand rule.
  • Probability: namely, capability to determine the mathematical probability of an event (on an elementary level).
  • Statistics: namely, capability to calculate the arithmetic average and range of a set of numerical data; comprehension of statistical association and correlation concepts; appreciating the value of standard deviation as a measure of variability (its calculation is not required).
  • Experimental Error: namely, relative magnitude as well as propagation of error, comprehension of reasonable estimates as well as the significant digits of a measurement.

Writing Sample

Written communication skills are deemed important elements for a successful medical practitioner. They provide an essential vehicle for an effective relationship with both colleagues and patients. The measure of an applicant's capability in the area is determined on the MCAT by two 30-minutes essays. Each item is made up of a short, usually one-line, statement of a policy or an opinion on a topic that can come from a broad range of issues. The applicant is then presented with three tasks: (1) to provide an in-depth interpretation of the meaning of the statement, (2) to provide a detailed rebuttal of the point of view expressed in the statement, and (3) to demonstrate how one can resolve the statement and the opposing viewpoint that was offered.

The response to all three tasks should be provided in a detailed, thoughtful, and logically expressed essay.

Biological Sciences

This subtest seeks to measure an applicant's comprehension of basic concepts of molecular biology, cell structure and function, genetics, and evolution as well as the organization of body systems. Topics in organic chemistry are also covered in the 77 questions of this subtest because it forms the bases of many biological (biochemical) reactions.


The major topics covered are:

  • Molecular Biology: namely, understanding enzyme regulation of cell metabolism as well as DNA and protein synthesis is necessary.
  • Microbiology: namely, familiarity with the structure and life histories of the bacteriophage, animal versus “fungi,” and prokaryotic cell is necessary.
  • Eukaryotic Cell: namely, knowledge of the principal components of the typical eukaryotic cell and their functions is required.
  • Specialized Eukaryotic Cell: namely, the unique features of cells and tissues of connective, muscular, nervous tissues, and skin should be understood.
  • Body Systems: namely, the organs that compose the major body systems (skeletal, muscular, circulatory, digestive, respiratory, excretory, nervous, reproductive, and endocrine) should be known.
  • Genetics and Evolution: both Mendelian and modern concepts of genetics should be understood as well as concepts of evolution such as natural selection, speciation, and basic structure of chordates.

Organic Chemistry

This area requires a knowledge of organic compounds, including nomenclature, classification of functional groups, and reactions including reaction mechanisms. The major topics covered are:

  • Biological Molecules: namely, knowledge of the types of biologically active molecules (e.g., amino acids and proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, and phosphorus compounds) is required.
  • Oxygen-Containing Compounds: namely, knowledge of the principal reaction of the oxygen-containing compounds (e.g., alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, carboxylic acids, ethers, and phenols) is required.
  • Amines: namely, knowledge of the nitrogen-containing compounds is required.
  • Hydrocarbons: namely, knowledge of the alkanes, alkenes, and benzene derivatives is required.
  • Molecular Structure: namely, knowledge of the structure of organic compounds in terms of bonds; bond strengths, and stereochemistry of bonded molecules is necessary.
  • Separation and Purification: namely, familiarity with the methodology and the characteristics of different organic compounds as related to their separation and possible purification if needed. This requires knowledge of the processes of extraction, distillation, recrystallization, and chromatography.
  • Spectroscopy: namely, knowledge of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and infrared (IR) spectroscopy is necessary.

A full description of the test is included in The MCAT Student Manual, obtainable from AAMC, 2450 N Street, NW, Washington, DC 20037.

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