Applying to medical school is no doubt one of the most exciting paths in your life so far, however intense the process may feel! And while taking the MCAT can definitely be intimidating, the best way to ease any stress you may have surrounding it is to be as informed about it as possible. The Association of American Medical Colleges provides tons of information on applying to medical school and taking the MCAT (including this outstanding list of MCAT tips!), but let’s take a quick look at some key things you should know going into the MCAT exam.
1. The Basics
The MCAT stands for the Medical College Admission Test, is a critical part of the medical school admissions process, and is required by nearly all medical schools in the United States as well as some in Canada. The test has been administered for over eighty years and is taken annually by over 85,000 students! The MCAT is the test for admission to medical school, and most graduate programs accept the MCAT in place of any other standardized test.
The MCAT includes prerequisite content for success in medical school, as identified and agreed upon by physicians, educators, medical students, and residents. This content is divided into four sections:
• Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
• Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
• Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
• Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
The MCAT is developed and administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) several times annually, from January through September, and is offered at a multitude of test sites throughout the US and Canada as well as at several international locations.
2. Registration Details: Dates, Deadlines, and Fees
Deciding when to take the MCAT will depend on various personal factors, but generally speaking, you should plan to take the MCAT exam in the calendar year that precedes the year you plan to enter medical school. Which month you plan to take it will depend on whether or not you think you will need to re-take it, which you’ll want to leave time for.
Check out this handy overview of 2018 MCAT test dates and score release dates, which also includes several registration tips, the most important of which is register early. MCAT dates fill up quickly, so if you are partial to a particular date or location, get on registration ASAP!
Because there are so many test dates and deadline types, the AAMC provides a detailed breakdown of MCAT deadlines for each “zone” deadline. Zone deadlines refer to the dates at which you can register at given price points. In short they break down as follows:
• GOLD Zone scheduling deadline: Last date to reschedule at the lower rate and last date to receive a partial refund for cancelling an exam.
• SILVER Zone scheduling deadline: Last date for initial registration without a fee increase and last date to reschedule.
• BRONZE Zone scheduling deadline: Last date to cancel a reservation and last date to edit registration information such as name, address, consents, etc.
This brings us to MCAT fees. The MCAT is not an inexpensive test, which is why ample preparation and planning are necessary to avoid unnecessary registration fees or re-takes. The cost of applying to medical school in general can be quite pricey, so being prepared for the cost of the MCAT can help you plan accordingly.
In 2018, the basic registration cost for the MCAT is $310, which covers both the cost of the test, and the release of your scores. There are additional fees for late registration, registration changes, and test site changes, all of which are discussed on the MCAT scheduling fees page.
Do note, however, that per the AAMC:
“The AAMC believes that the cost of applying to medical school shouldn’t be a barrier for anyone aspiring to be a physician. The Fee Assistance Program assists potential medical students who, without financial assistance, would not be able to take the MCAT exam or apply to medical school. If you meet the eligibility requirements, this program reduces the registration fee from $310 to $120. It also provides several additional benefits, including free MCAT preparation resources.”
3. The Scoring System
For a comprehensive understanding of MCAT scoring, take a look at this overview of how the MCAT is scored, but here are some basics to keep in mind:
Your score for each of the four multiple choice sections of the MCAT exam is based on the number of questions you get right. Incorrect answers are scored the same as unanswered questions, so take a shot at each question, even if you are unsure of the answer!
Then, the number score for each section is converted to a scaled score ranging from 118-132, and from there, your MCAT percentile (the percentage of students whose raw scores were lower than yours on a specific test) is calculated.
There’s a super handy explanation of the new MCAT score conversion if you’re interested in learning more about how MCAT scoring has changed. A lot of examinees ask if the MCAT is graded on a curve, and the short and simple answer is: no. While your MCAT percentile does depend on how you performed in relation to other test takers on the same test date or during the same time of year, obtaining a higher score is not easier or harder at different times of the year.
Your exact test form and questions may be different than the ones of other examinees, but the scoring process takes this into consideration. For example, a 120 on the Critical Analysis and Reasoning section on one test from is the same as a 120 earned on that section on any other test form, no exceptions.
4. Test Day Rules
The AAMC aims to conduct the MCAT exam as ethically and securely as possible, which is why there are several rules and protocols for testing day that you should be aware of. You can find the entirety of test day rules in the MCAT Essentials for Testing Year 2018 handbook under the “Test Day Rules” section, but below are some of the most critical things to keep in mind.
Make sure you arrive on time for your exam. There is absolutely no late admittance to the MCAT. At check-in you must show a photo ID and will be given directions to store your personal belongings. Typically a United States driver’s license will suffice, but keep in mind the following criteria for photo ID, which is imperative to present before entering the testing area:
• ID must be in English
• ID must be current (document must have an expiration date that has not passed)
• ID must be government-issued
• ID must include a photo that can be used to identify you
• ID must include a signature, which you will be asked to duplicate
• ID must not show any indication of tampering (e.g. be overly weathered, have holes punched, etc.)
• ID must present your first and last name exactly as it appears on your MCAT registration
Note that these are the only forms of ID that will be accepted, bottom line. No expired or temporary IDs, library cards, student IDs, etc.
Again, the guidebook linked above provides more in-depth test-day protocol (including a discussion of optional breaks), but some of the strictest testing room policies are included below:
• The only items you may bring into the test room are as follows: your ID and a pair of foam earplugs provided by the test center. All personal items, including jewelry and watches, must be placed in secure storage prior to the test (as directed by the test administrator). All other items, such as eyeglasses, are subject to an inspection by a test administrator.
• You must raise your hand to take a break or leave the testing center. If you leave and re-enter the room, you may be subject to a metal detector scan.
• You are required to sit in the seat that is assigned to you.
• You may not eat, drink, or smoke in the testing room.
• You may not wear hats, scarves, or jewelry (outside of pre-approved religious garments).
• You will be provided with a noteboard for note-taking during the exam, but you may not rip, tear, or conceal any parts of it at any time, and it must remain on your desk at all times.
• Your photo ID must also remain on your desk at all times.
• You may not use any electronic devices at any point after check-in for the exam, even on breaks.
• You may be asked to turn your pockets inside-out to show that they are empty.
• You may not remove your shoes at any time during the test.
Overall, it’s best to remember to show up with proper ID, minimal belongings, and a driven but compliant attitude. Test administrators reserve the right to investigate any behavior they find suspicious, so be aware of all of the rules for the smoothest testing experience possible!
5. Your Voiding Rights
An often overlooked fact about the MCAT is that you can void your test results if you so choose after completing the exam. This means that your test won’t be scored or recorded for use during your medical school application process.
Keep in mind though, that you can only void your MCAT results once, and you can take the MCAT again (up to 3 times in a testing year, 4 times during a two consecutive-year period, and 7 times in a lifetime), so weigh out your voiding opportunity wisely.
At the end of the MCAT exam, you will be given a clear option whether or not you’d like your test to be scored or voided, but if you choose to have your score voided, know that you will not receive a refund for the test.
Another thing to keep in mind is that while information from a voided exam is not included on score reports sent to medical schools, the MCAT Score Reporting System will display that a score was voided.
Happy MCAT Preparation!
Being aware of MCAT parameters and protocols can help ease anxiety about the test, but really, the best thing you can do to feel great going into it is to prepare thoroughly! The sooner you start studying, the better, so check out this extensive, 6-Month MCAT study plan and this efficient 3-month MCAT study plan to help you jumpstart your studying
Nadyja von Ebers holds an MA in English from DePaul University and has been an English instructor at the high school and college levels for the last eleven years. She has extensive experience teaching preparation for various AP exams as well as the ACT, SAT, and GED, GRE, and MCAT. Nadyja loves helping students reach their maximum potential and thrives in both literal and virtual classrooms. When she’s not teaching, she enjoys reading and writing for pleasure and loves spending time in or near the ocean.
• Navigate the Med School Application Maze, a free guide
• Affordable Online Test Prep, a podcast episode
• 4 Things Your MCAT Score Says About You