How Hard is the MCAT?

posted by Memm Team

If you ask most pre-med or med students how hard the MCAT is, they’ll probably tell you that it’s really, really hard. And they’re right. But what does that actually mean? The measure of how difficult something is is subjective, and there are undoubtedly some people who find the MCAT more difficult than others. To give you a better idea of how difficult the MCAT truly is, we’re going to look at both objective and subjective measures of difficulty.

Objective Measures of MCAT Difficulty

Generally, objective measures are more accurate and reliable than subjective measures. They provide real data that helps us determine the degree of difficulty of the test. We looked at the length of the MCAT, score breakdowns, and average study time to objectively answer the question: is the MCAT hard?

MCAT Content and Duration

The length of the MCAT alone is enough to make the test difficult. You can expect to be in the testing center for about eight hours on MCAT test day. That’s quite the marathon for your brain.

The MCAT is broken down into four sections:

  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (Chem/Phys)
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)
  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (Bio/Biochem)
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (Psych/Soc)

CARS is 90 minutes long while the other three sections are 95 minutes. The MCAT asks a total of 230 questions.

Across these sections, students are expected to know information about biology, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, biochemistry, general chemistry, physics, sociology, psychology, humanities, and social sciences.

The actual time spent on content is six hours and 15 minutes. That’s a long time to ask your brain to focus on anything, let alone a content-packed test. When you compare this to other grad school admission tests, the MCAT is by far the longest. The graduate record exam (GRE) and the law school admission test (LSAT) both take about half the time of the MCAT and ask less than half the number of questions.

These numbers alone don’t necessarily make the MCAT difficult, but they do add to the difficulty of the overall test. As your brain works for hour after hour answering questions across 11 content areas, it’s bound to get tired and make mistakes. You could sit me in a chair and ask me to identify letters and colors — a test a toddler could pass — and I’d be sure to lose focus and get some questions wrong by hour five or six.

Average MCAT Scores

Average scores can give us an idea of how difficult the test is as well. The lowest total score you can get on the MCAT is 472, and the highest possible score is 528. According to the most recent data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the average score is 506.4, but the average score of a student who gets into medical school is 511.5. Therefore, the average score of a successful matriculant is over five points higher than the average score overall — this indicates that scoring well enough on the MCAT to get into med school is difficult.

Let’s look at how the scores break down for each section:

Average MCAT scores
SectionAverage overallAverage for med school matriculant
Chem/Phys126.5127.8
CARS125.9127
Bio/Biochem126.8128.1
Psych/Soc127.2128.6

The highest possible score on each section is 118 and the lowest possible score is 132. The difference between matriculants and average scorers in each section is just over one point. This means that most successful med school applicants don’t score significantly higher than the average scorer in any one particular section. To do well on the MCAT, you need to score well in each section, again showing that there is an incredible amount of information you need to know (and know well) when you take the MCAT

Study Time for the MCAT

The amount of time spent studying can vary widely from one person to the next. Successful students tend to take one of two study approaches:

  • They dedicate to themselves to study for the MCAT full-time, studying 40-50 hours per week for two to three months
  • They take a more moderate approach, studying 15-25 hours per week for about six months

Most students tend to spend about 250-350 hours studying, with some reporting more than double those numbers and others considerably less. With the amount of information the MCAT expects students to know, it’s no surprise that some spend over 500 hours studying. As difficult as the MCAT is, however, many students perform well with fewer study hours. This is because the quality of your studying is just as — if not more — important as the quantity of your studying. Studying for more hours than the average student does not automatically mean you will get a better score than the average student.

In fact, many students who study for 300 hours with intense, active learning methods outperform students who study for 500 hours with mediocre, passive learning methods.

The reason students study for so long, and one of the reasons the test is so difficult is because test takers are expected to know an incredible amount of information. As mentioned above, the MCAT generally tests students across 11 different content areas.

Many students struggle with knowing all the information because rather than going deep on a few topics, the test asks students to have a basic understanding of a very large number of topics. This is why studying high-yield content is one of the keys to doing well on the MCAT. There is such an abundance of information that it would be next to impossible to memorize everything.

Subjective Measures of MCAT Difficulty

The objective measures of difficulty we explored above are enough to show that the MCAT is challenging. You’re not going to walk into the testing center and do well on the MCAT without preparing. That being said, some students will invariably find the test harder than others, and there are many subjective factors that can influence the MCAT degree of difficulty for different students. We looked at the pressure of the MCAT, the overall test design, and the section test takers most often report as being difficult to subjectively answer the question: is the MCAT hard?

Pressure to do Well on the MCAT

When you sit down to take the MCAT, you can almost feel the pressure weighing down your shoulders. The MCAT is an extremely important test, and it’s nerve-wracking because you probably won’t ever feel completely ready. This test is a huge determinant regarding whether you get into med school. Particularly for people who don’t do well under pressure, this adds to the degree of difficulty.

Many students studying for the MCAT report that they struggle with their mental health as well. Test takers talk about experiencing stress, anxiety, and depression. These mental health conditions can put a fog on your brain that makes it even harder to focus and study.

Another aspect of the pressure may come from family. Many students who take the MCAT feel the pressure from family members to do well. There’s also a lot of pressure that students put on themselves to do well and to only have to take the test once.

For many students, this pressure is enough to make them break. They get so bogged down and overwhelmed, which makes doing well on the MCAT seem even harder than it is.

Other students find a way to thrive under this pressure. Some students are able to shift their mindset to make preparing for and taking the MCAT almost like a game. They’re organized, they know what they need to improve on, and each day they check something off their preparation to-do list. When it comes time to take the test, they feel like it’s their moment to shine and have something to show for everything they know.

MCAT Test Design

If you’ve done well in school up until this point in your life, you’ve probably become very good at taking tests. The MCAT takes everything you know about taking tests and turns it on its head.

Anecdotally, many students report that they scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT with little to no studying but that they could not replicate this with the MCAT. Even with many hours of studying for the MCAT, these same students report scoring below the 70th percentile. The main reason for this many of these students report: the MCAT is a different beast.

Most standardized tests and college exams largely test what you know. The MCAT also tests what you know, but moreso, it tests how you think. It asks you to think in ways most other exams do not. Are you able to think critically, synthesize information, and analyze what is being presented to you — all within a short period of time? If not, you’ll likely struggle with the MCAT.

Additionally, the MCAT has many questions that combine content from different subjects — this is difficult for students who tend to compartmentalize information. If you’re not able to answer a question that includes information from physics, biology, and psychology, for example, you might struggle.

The section students tend to find most difficult deserves its own difficulty analysis entirely: CARS.

The Most Difficult MCAT Test Section

Many students report that the most difficult section is CARS, and the average scores reported by AAMC back that up. The lowest average section scores overall and for matriculants are in CARS.

Students report struggling with CARS because it takes the idea of using critical thinking and logical reasoning and puts it on steroids. The questions in this section are so different from anything students have studied in their undergrad science classes. You could easily ace every med school prerequisite and be completely baffled the first time you see a CARS practice question.

This is because questions in CARS are not designed to test your scientific content knowledge. In fact, it’s entirely possible to answer every question in CARS with the information provided — you don’t need any background content knowledge. The questions are completely designed to test your thought process, what you can infer from reading a passage, and how well you can separate important and useless information. Because it includes long, complex passages, it also tests how quickly you can read and comprehend passages.

Additionally, according to AAMC, CARS tests content from ethics, philosophy, studies of diverse cultures, population health, and a wide range of social sciences and humanities disciplines. For this reason, students who majored in the humanities might find CARS easier than students who majored in the sciences.

The fact is that CARS might not be inherently more difficult than other sections, but it is likely to be the most different from the ways students have studied and been tested in the past. This makes it feel very difficult to test takers, particularly those who don’t spend a lot of time practicing these types of questions.

So, Is the MCAT Hard?

Is the MCAT difficult? The short answer is: yes. A test that assesses your critical thinking skills and analytical skills via your knowledge of scientific facts and concepts, all under a timer and with immense pressure to do well? This is a complicated and intricate test, indeed.

With most students spending anywhere from two to six months to prepare for the MCAT (and some spending even more) it’s clear that a good study strategy is essential if you want to do well on this difficult test. Even if you graduated college with a 4.0, it would be naive to think you could just take the MCAT without preparing.

Scoring in the 99th percentile on the MCAT is not out of reach, but test takers should not underestimate the difficulty of the test. It’s possible to overcome adversity and do exceptionally well on the MCAT. It’s really not about how intelligent you are; it’s more about your study strategies, your discipline, and your use of evidence-based learning principles as you prepare.

At Memm, we’ve seen countless students boost their scores by revamping their study strategy. We’ve already done the legwork, incorporating evidence-based learning strategies into a user-friendly tool that cuts down on the noise, allowing you to spend more of your precious time in focused preparation.

Last edited on: March 26, 2021

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