Medical School FAQ


2.1 What is the MCAT?

The Medical College Admissions Test, or MCAT, is the standardized admissions test required by nearly all U.S. medical schools (some combined BS/MD programs that accept students directly from high school do not require the MCAT). The test consists of four sections: Verbal Reasoning (scored 1-15), Physicial Sciences (scored 1-15), Biological Sciences (scored 1-15), and an essay section (scored J-T, with T being the highest). The test takes one long Saturday to complete and is offered twice a year, usually in mid April and in late August. Official information about the MCAT, including registration information, may be obtained online from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), at http://www.aamc.org/.

2.2 How important is the MCAT in the admission process?

The MCAT is very important. A high MCAT score by itself will not get you into medical school, but a low MCAT score may keep you out. Unfortunately, an otherwise qualified applicant may not even be granted an interview if his or her MCAT scores are not high enough. Once an interview is granted, each applicant is evaluated individually in determining acceptance or rejection. In most cases the MCAT still is just as important as other parts of the application in making the final decision.

2.3 What material is on the MCAT?

The official MCAT registration materials include a syllabus that spells out the subject matter tested in detail. Below is a summary:

* The verbal reasoning test is virtually identical to similar tests found on other standardized exams (such as LSAT, GRE, or even SAT), except it typically contains two or three science-oriented passages.

* The essay section consists of two timed half-hour essays. In each essay you are asked to interpret an open-ended ambiguous statement.

* The physical sciences test covers inorganic chemistry and physics. One full year (two semesters) each of inorganic chemistry and physics sufficiently covers all the tested material.

* The biological sciences test covers a variety of biology topics (about 50% of test) and organic chemistry (about 50% of test). One full year of organic chemistry plus lab is sufficient to cover the organic chemistry material on the MCAT.

2.4 When should I start studying for the MCAT?

Nearly all students require at least two months of regular review to cover all the necessary material. Many students require longer. However, preparation really begins as soon as you start college--by doing your best in your undergraduate science courses and reading broadly to prepare for the verbal reasoning section. You can then spend the final 2 or 3 months reviewing and solidifying the information you have already learned. It is unlikely that you will learn and understand a lot of new material in the final months leading up to the MCAT.

2.5 How should I study for the MCAT?

Basically, whatever study methods have served you well in the past should also help you prepare for the MCAT. For example, if you read your textbooks heavily in class, then review your textbooks. If you used study sheets or notecards in your classes, then review those. A few other tips:

* It is important to be quite disciplined and to make the time necessary for review. Most pre-medical students find they don't have the time for MCAT review unless they make a concerted effort to make the time.

* For more structured review, consider buying a review book (such as the "Betz Guide"--for 1999, "Complete Preparation for the MCAT" by Aftab S. Hassan, ed., pub. Williams & Wilkins) or taking a review course (see below)

* No matter what you do, take lots of timed practice tests. Practice MCAT tests are available directly from the AAMC, in any book store, or through review courses.

2.6 Should I take a review course?

That depends. If you are overwhelmed by the thought of MCAT review, and if you like structure and learn well in a classroom environment, then a review course is not a bad idea. When used properly, review courses are an expensive, effective way to prepare for the MCAT. They offer structured, comprehensive review, teacher-student interaction, numerous practice tests and test- taking strategies, and comprehensive, well-written review materials. However, do not enroll in a review course just for the materials. Equally good materials (such as the Betz guide, cf. 2.5) may be purchased in the bookstore for a whole lot less money.

2.7 Can you tell me about Stanley Kaplan vs. Princeton Review?

Kaplan http://www.kaplan.com and Princeton Review http://www.princetonreview.com/ are the two largest standardized test review companies in the United States. Opinions differ as to which company offers a better review course for the MCAT. Traditionally, the Kaplan course focused more on detail and offered more review materials, while the Princeton Review course focused more on "the big picture" and offered more student-teacher interaction. However, Kaplan has recently decreased its class-size, and Princeton Review recently increased the amount and detail-level of materials offered. Today the two courses really are more similar than they are different. The biggest factor in determining the quality of either course is the quality of its teacher. If you want to take a review course, it helps to ask around locally to see which courses have a better reputation in the local area.

2.8 Are there any other options for review courses?

Yes. Many colleges offer structured review courses for the MCAT. Ask your local pre-med advisor for details. Also, if you happen to live in California, MCAT review courses offered by the Berkeley Review http://www.berkeley-review.com have an excellent reputation.

2.9 When should I take the MCAT?

You should take the MCAT at least one year prior to the date you wish to begin medical school. However, do not take the test until you have completed the necessary pre-requisite courses: one year each of biology, inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics. Many students take the April MCAT while they are concurrently taking prerequisite courses (usually Physics II, Organic Chemistry II, and/or an advanced biology course). This is not a bad strategy: virtually all of the material tested on the MCAT will already be covered by the time April rolls around -- and the material should be fresh in your mind, since you have just learned it.

2.10 Does it matter whether I take the MCAT in April or August?

If you are prepared for the exam, it's probably best to take it in April. Taking the test earlier allows you to complete your application early in the season--and the earlier you submit your application, the better. Also, If you are applying under an early decision program, you *must* take the April MCAT of that year (or any time prior) so that test scores are available in time for early interviews. Of course, there is also an advantage to taking it in August: it allows you more time to study. You can take the exam in August and still apply for the same application season, but you'll be running a tight time-schedule. Keep in mind that it takes approximately 8 weeks for scores to get back to the schools.

2.11 What is a good MCAT score?

Traditionally a good score is "double digits" (10 or better) on each test, and a score of at least "N" on the essay. You can get into medical school with lower scores, depending on the rest of your application and on the medical school. For your state medical school, a total score of 27 or higher, with no individual score less than 8, is probably sufficient. It is important to have a well balanced MCAT score, with no individual score markedly lower than the rest of the test. For example, a score of 8,8,8 (total 24) is generally considered superior to a score of 10,10,5 (total 25).

2.12 Are different sections of the MCAT more or less important than other sections?

Yes. The essay section is less important than the other sections. Your essay score is impressive if it is extremely high (S or T) and is detrimental if it is extremely low (J or K). However, any score in between has little or no impact on your application. Be sure to demonstrate your writing abilities to medical schools by composing a well-written personal statement essay.

2.13 My MCAT score was not stellar. Is it advisable to take the MCAT twice? Three times?

Yes--as long as you improve your score! Taking the MCAT multiple times is only helpful if a significant score improvement is reflected in each attempt. However, it is preferrable to study as hard as possible and be prepared so that you do an excellent job on your first attempt. Who wants to take this test multiple times, anyway?

2.14 Should I go ahead and apply with my current MCAT score, or should I wait until I take the test again?

If you received greater than 27 on your first attempt, it is advisable to apply with your current score and not take the test again. If you received less than 24, you should probably take the test again, prepare harder next time, and try to improve your score. The range of 24-27 is a grey zone: whether to take the test again depends on the rest of your application and on where you are applying. Note that these are just guidelines. You must consider your own individual situation to arrive at a final decision. Also note: if you take the MCAT in April and are dissatisfied with your scores, you can go ahead an apply anyway and still retake the test in August for the same application year. It's better to submit your application early than to submit it in the fall.

2.15 How do medical schools interpret multiple MCAT attempts?

Medical schools consider them favorably, as long as you improve your score. Most medical schools will consider the highest overall MCAT score in evaluating your final application.

2.16 I heard that you can take the MCAT as "practice" but not have your score count. I could use the practice; is this a good idea?

No. At the end of the exam, you must decide whether or not to release your scores. It is almost always advisable to have your scores released. The only good reason not to release scores is if you know you did poorly by some fluke; for example, if you filled in all the bubbles incorrectly. Deciding not to release your scores on a whim is not advisable.

2.17 Can I decide not to release my MCAT scores and then later decide to release them after I have seen my score?

Yes, however, medical schools will be informed that you originally did not release your scores and later decided to release them. This allowance is actually a new rule recently instituted by the AAMC. Because the rule is new, it is unclear how medical schools will view an MCAT score that was originally not released. Common sense says that medical schools will not view this favorably, and that it is not a good idea to exercise this option.