What to expect on MCAT test day

posted by Memm Team

You’ve studied, you’ve prepared, and you’ve probably spent your fair share of all-nighters worrying about the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). If you’re in the U.S. or Canada, you likely need good scores on this test to get into medical school, and the future of your medical career lies in your performance on this one day. 

Of course, you can take the MCAT multiple times:

  • Up to three times in one testing year
  • Up to four times in two consecutive testing years
  • Up to seven times in your life 

Knowing you can try again takes some of the pressure off, but most people would agree that getting a great score on your first try is ideal. 

When test day comes along, there’s no extra time to prepare. Being prepared for what you’ll experience on test day, however, might just help you feel more relaxed and ready to tackle the marathon that is the MCAT. 

How You’ll Feel on MCAT Test Morning

When you wake up the morning of the MCAT, (assuming you were able to fall asleep the night before) you might feel similar to how you felt when you took the SAT or ACT. Considering this test has much higher stakes, whatever you experienced then will likely be magnified. 

People often feel nervous, jittery, or on edge. Whatever you do to relax, calm, and ground yourself, plan to do those things on test day. 

Arriving at the Testing Facility 

Tests are typically scheduled to begin at 7:30 AM or 3 PM. You’ll need to arrive 30 minutes before your scheduled test time. If you’re late, the Test Administrator may not allow you to take the test and you will lose one of your test attempts, so plan for extra traveling time. Check for any of the following on the day of your test, as they could cause delays or road closures: 

  • Planned construction
  • Marathons, 5Ks, or other races
  • Concerts
  • Major sporting events
  • Other special events

Testing centers often remain open even during inclement weather; don’t assume it will be closed if you see some snow outside, and plan for even more travel time. If the testing center lets you in early, you might be able to begin before the scheduled testing time. 

If it’s feasible, drive to the testing center in the weeks before your test, and aim to go on the same day of the week at the same time. This will give you a good idea of how long it will actually take you to get there on test morning. 

When you arrive on test day, ideally you’ll have some extra time to sit in the car where you can take a few deep breaths and collect yourself before you enter the testing facility. You won’t be allowed to leave and come back to your car during the test, so bring any food or drinks into the testing center with you. 

Checking In at the MCAT

The first step when you walk into the testing center is to wait in line and check-in. You’ll need your valid (not expired) government-issued ID — a driver’s license or passport. The test administrator will also take your picture and scan your palm. He or she will also instruct you on how to use a locker for your belongings, and will also seal your phone and any electronics in a bag. You’ll also review the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) Candidate Rules Agreement and complete a digital signature. 

If you choose to bring your cellphone or other electronics into the testing center with you, you will not be able to take them out of the sealed bag until the test is over. You might also be asked to store items such as jewelry or watches. Don’t store your ID; you’ll need it to enter the testing room. 

After you do your initial check-in and store your items in your locker, use the bathroom, then wait for your number to be called. You’ll be directed to your testing room, where you’ll undergo another check-in process. 

Before you enter the actual testing room, don’t be surprised when you undergo something akin to airport security. To check for contraband, the Test Administrator might: 

  • Ask you to turn out your pockets
  • Ask you to pull your pants up to show your ankles
  • Inspect your hair; they might check a large bun or ask you to lift your hair 
  • Ask you to lift your hood or tie
  • Ask you to roll up your sleeves
  • Examine your glasses
  • Ask you to pat yourself down 

The Test Administrator will then show you to your seat. Do not be alarmed if you see people doing things differently than you or if they seem to be on a different timeline. There may be other people taking different tests in the same testing center.

Duration of the MCAT

Once you finally get into your seat, get comfortable. The total seated time for the MCAT (not including check-in) is 7 hours and 30 minutes. Here is how AAMC breaks down the test: 

MCAT SectionLengthTips
Certification4 minutes
Optional tutorial10 minutesDo the tutorial to give yourself time to settle in and make sure everything is working
Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems95 minutes
Optional break10 minutesTake the break!
Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills90 minutes
Optional mid-exam break30 minutesThis is a great time to have lunch
Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems95 minutes
Optional break10 minutesTake the break!
Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior95 minutes
Void question3 minutesOnly void if you were not able to complete the test
Optional survey5 minutes

The total content time amounts to 6 hours and 15 minutes. 

On the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems, Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems, and Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior sections, you’ll be asked to answer 59 questions. There are ten passage-based sets of questions containing four to six questions per set and 15 independent questions in each section.  

On the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section, you’ll be asked to answer 53 questions. There are nine passage-based sets of questions containing five to seven questions per set.

Taking the MCAT

The actual time you sit down to take your test might differ from the official start time. This is perfectly okay and is a result of the check-in process. As soon as you sit down, you’ll begin, which means everyone in the room will be on a different schedule. When you sit down, you might also notice that each test station is monitored and recorded. 

As long as you arrive on time, don’t stress if you see the start time come and go and you still haven’t begun testing. You will still be given the allotted amount of time to complete each section. 

At your test station, you’ll be allowed to keep your:

  • ID
  • Eyeglasses
  • Earplugs or noise-canceling headphones (provided by test center)
  • Storage key (provided by test center)
  • Noteboard booklet (provided by test center)
  • Fine-point marker (provided by test center)

If you need anything else for a medical reason, that needs to be approved as an accommodation before the test. 

Your provided noteboard booklet will include wet-erase pages, meaning you won’t be able to erase them yourself in the testing center. Don’t worry about running out of room; you can raise your hand and exchange it for a new one at any time. 

If you finish a section early, you don’t get to carry that extra time over, and you don’t get to take a longer break. When you have extra time, you can:

  • Check back through the questions in that section
  • Take a “mental break” at your seat
  • End the section and begin your 10 or 30-minute break. 

During the test, if you have a question or need to get out of your seat for any reason, raise your hand and wait for a Test Administrator to come to you. 

MCAT Breaks

Breaks during the MCAT are glorious — use them! You get two ten-minute breaks and one 30 minute break. 

A pain point for many people who take the MCAT is that it takes about four minutes to check out and back in, so ten-minute breaks are almost cut in half when you factor that time in. 

Before you get up and leave, you’ll need to raise your hand and wait for a Test Administrator to check you out. You’ll need to show your ID, scan your palm, and be checked for contraband any time you re-enter the testing room. You’ll definitely have time to go to the bathroom and get a quick snack, but don’t assume you have that full ten minutes. When you don’t arrive back in time, you may lose some of your test time on the next section. 

During breaks, you are not allowed to leave the building or the floor you’re on, which is why you should have any food or drinks in your locker. It’s a good idea to bring some cash in case there is a vending machine as well. You are not allowed to use flashcards or other study materials during breaks. 

You are allowed to take breaks in the middle of a section, but your test timer will not stop. If you absolutely need to, raise your hand for a Test Administrator to help you. As we said earlier, you cannot use extra time on a section to extend your break. 

To take a mental break in the middle of a section, you can close your eyes, look away from the screen, gently stretch your wrists, etc. 

On the longer break, most people choose to eat lunch. You are allowed to talk to other test-takers, but you cannot talk about the MCAT. 

How You’ll Feel When the MCAT Is Over

Your brain will feel scrambled. You’ll be exhausted. You might feel relief. You’re probably going to question yourself and fear that you did poorly. The MCAT is an incredible mental marathon, and your brain will be feeling it. 

After you finish the final section, you will be given the opportunity to void your exam. It won’t be scored, it won’t be sent to schools, you’ll lose one of your seven lifetime attempts, and you won’t find out how you did. 

Unless you got sick or had to click through the whole test without answering questions, it’s not a great idea to void. Many people who score very well think they did awful. You likely did better than you thought, and even if you didn’t do great, you do have the opportunity to take the test again. 

When you leave the testing center, the Test Administrator will give you a completion confirmation letter and unseal the bag with your electronics. 

After that, you’re free to celebrate completing the MCAT! 

MCAT COVID Precautions

Current COVID-19 precautions for the MCAT are subject to change, but currently include: 

  • Refund requests for COVID-19 reasons: You can request a refund if you cannot show for your exam for a reason related to COVID. If your refund is approved, you will still be marked as a “no show.” In some cases, you may be credited a testing attempt. 
  • Robust health and safety measures in the testing centers. 
  • Masks and social distancing requirements. 
  • Limited capacity in each test session. 
  • Available hand sanitizer; you may also bring your own. 
  • Cleaning and disinfecting between testing appointments. 
  • Each test taker must acknowledge that he or she meets health requirements and will follow health and safety guidelines. 

The Bottom Line

The MCAT is an extremely important test for those wishing to attend medical school, and doing everything you can to prepare will increase your chances of scoring well and getting into your dream school. By understanding how the day will unfold, you can allocate more brainpower to the test itself.

Last edited on: March 10, 2021

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