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The Ultimate Guide to the MCAT for International Students

standardized testing
Last updated on September 3, 2020

Dreaming of becoming a doctor? The first question to ask is “what is the MCAT test?” Acing this entrance exam is key to admission to top medical grad school programs.

A young female doctor wearing a hijab confers with a young male doctor in scrubs.

If you aspire to become a doctor, the road to medical school starts with the MCAT. 

What is the MCAT? The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a standardized exam administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) that is required for consideration to most medical graduate programs in the United States. What does the MCAT measure? This day-long standardized test evaluates a test taker’s conceptual understanding and analytical skills necessary to practice medicine. 

Here is everything prospective medical students need to know about this competitive grad school test. We will go over questions including how long does the MCAT take, how the MCAT score is calculated, and what is considered a good MCAT score. 


July 20 update 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the AAMC is temporarily offering students a shortened version of the MCAT from May 29 to September 28 and is also expanding the testing calendar to accommodate three test appointments per test date at test centers. Students have the flexibility of choosing a time that works best for them from a list of preset options.

The duration of the shortened MCAT will be five hours and forty-five minutes, compared to seven hours and thirty minutes for the standard MCAT. You will receive the same scores on the shortened exam as on the full-length exam!

Depending on the location of the test center, the testing schedule may have changed. Visit the MCAT website to see availability of test dates for your location. If you are unable to travel to an official test center or if your test center is closed, your appointment will be placed on hold. There is nothing to worry about if this happens—you can reschedule your exam to another date at no cost or cancel your exam for a full refund of your base registration fee. 

For more specifics, visit the MCAT exam website.

If you have any questions or need assistance, please reach out to a Shorelight representative.


What is the MCAT? 

The MCAT is a computer-based standardized test that measures various scientific inquiry and reasoning skills as they relate to biological functions. Critical thinking and logical reasoning are primarily what is measured in this multiple-choice exam.

How hard is the MCAT? 

Since medical school in the United States is very competitive, MCAT scores factor heavily into admission decisions. Deep knowledge of biology and chemistry is crucial to MCAT success. 

What is the structure of the MCAT? How is the MCAT scored?

More specifically, how many sections does the MCAT exam have? How many questions are on MCAT? How is each MCAT section scored?

Since its update in 2015, the MCAT consists of four multiple-choice sections, each scored from 118 to 132 with a median score of 125. The sections are administered in the following order: 

  1. Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems, which is fifty-nine questions taken in ninety-five minutes. This focuses on organic and inorganic chemistry and physics as they relate to biological processes and biochemistry. Critical reasoning, research methods, and statistics are important in this section. 

  2. Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) features fifty-three questions taken in ninety minutes. This verbal reasoning section measures reading comprehension through 500–600-word passages on topics like social sciences and the humanities, sometimes written with a bias that challenges test-takers to consider and evaluate differing perspectives.

  3. Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems is fifty-nine questions taken in ninety-five minutes. Questions focus on the functions of biomolecules and organization of biological systems in living organisms. Having deep knowledge of biology and biochemistry, organic and inorganic chemistry, as well as research methods and statistics are important for this section. 

  4. Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior is also fifty-nine questions taken in ninety-five minutes. Test-takers must prove they understand how behavior and behavior change and sociocultural factors impact human health. Again, knowledge of research methods and statistics are required for these questions.

Throughout the MCAT, test-takers will be called upon to demonstrate four identified Scientific Inquiry and Reasoning Skills that are important to science and medicine: 

  1. Knowledge of Scientific Concepts and Principles: identify relationships between concepts, rather than just memorizing scientific facts.

  2. Scientific Reasoning and Problem Solving: explain findings and draw conclusions related to the presented data.

  3. Reasoning about the Design and Execution of Research: demonstrate knowledge of science in the context of experiments.

  4. Data-based and Statistical Reasoning: interpret data to make evidence-based conclusions.

How long is the MCAT? How long does it take to get MCAT scores?

The MCAT takes seven-and-a-half hours to complete. Scores are released on a predetermined date, usually thirty to thirty-five days after the exam date.


No calculators, timers, mobile phones, or other electronic devices are allowed in the MCAT testing room. Jackets or sweaters, if worn, may not be removed during the test.

What is a good MCAT score?

The total MCAT score is a sum of the scores from the four sections, and ranges from 472 to 528 with a median MCAT score of 500. 

MCAT logistics

When is MCAT registration? 

The exam is offered at least twenty-five times per year at certified Pearson VUE centers. Find a designated testing center near you and register at AAMC.

How much does taking the MCAT cost?

Exam fees for MCAT are $315, or $370 for late registration.  

How many times can MCAT be taken?

The MCAT may be taken three times per year, and up to seven times total. Test-takers may register for one test date at a time and wait two days after testing before re-registering. You have the option to void your score on the day of the exam, at any point during the exam, or during a five-minute window after the end of the exam. 

How to study for MCAT

Like many standardized tests, students spend an average of twelve weeks preparing for the MCAT, usually studying twenty hours per week or more. The AAMC sells official study materials including practice exams, which the majority of students use for test prep. Additionally, free online MCAT prep materials are available through Khan Academy. Commercial test prep alternatives include Kaplan and The Princeton Review.

Studying for the MCAT is challenging, but it is an important step toward a career in medicine. Best of luck to you!

Speak with a Shorelight advisor today to start planning your next steps toward studying in the US >