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by Duke University Medical Students | March 10, 2009

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The Medical College Admissions Tests (MCAT) is a computer-based multiple choice examination used by medical school admissions officials to predict future success. The MCAT is designed to test your problem-solving skills, critical thinking abilities, and writing skills, as well as your knowledge of basic science concepts. The test consists of 3 hours and 20 minutes of multiple-choice testing, plus one hour devoted to a writing sample. With all of the administrative details and breaks, the exam can last for 5= hours.

The MCAT is primarily a thinking exam, testing your thought processes, as well as your knowledge of science. You will have to know the fundamental concepts of physics, general chemistry, biology, and organic chemistry. However, knowing these basics is just the beginning of doing well on the MCAT.

Physical Sciences

Time: 70 minutes

Format: Total of 52 multiple questions

Topics Tested:
General Chemistry
Basic Physics
Analytical Reasoning
Data Interpretation

The content tested on the physical sciences section of the MCAT is drawn from physics and general chemistry. Questions are roughly divided between the two and are mixed throughout the section. Tested physics concepts include Newtonian mechanics, thermodynamics, magnetism, light and optics, nuclear physics, and atomic phenomena. Chemistry concepts that you can expect to see include quantum numbers, the Periodic Table, reaction types, bonding, phases of matter, and acids and bases.

Passages describe experiments, situations, or ideas from which questions are drawn. The information may be presented in the guise of journal or textbook articles, experimental research, data analysis, or scientific-style editorials. This passage-and-question based structure allows you to demonstrate many skills, including understanding the science presented in the passage, no matter how obscure or foreign and confidently connecting elements of your scientific repertoire to new situations. In addition the format tests your ability to quickly assess the kinds of situations feasible given the information in the passage.

What about formulas and math?

Contrary to what many believe, the MCAT isn't math-intensive. All you need to know are the basics, like algebra, exponents, logs, and a bit of trigonometry. There isn't any calculus, differential equations, or matrix mechanics. Similarly, many of the scientific formulas needed to work through problem and answer questions are provided on the test.

Verbal Reasoning

Time: 60 minutes

Format: Total of 40 multiple questions

Topics Tested: Critical Reading

The Verbal Reasoning section is perhaps the most recognizable section of the MCAT since it's similar to the reading comprehension sections of other standardized tests. Verbal Reasoning is primarily designed to test your ability to read critically and actively, comprehend written material, capture the essence of a passage by recognizing its main idea, intuit a writer's tone, and draw inferences/conclusions.

The questions appearing in the verbal section require a lot of thinking--asking you to interpret an author's opinion, to apply information to a hypothetical situation, or to break down an argument into its component parts. The passages you'll confront probably won't be much fun to read. But part of the challenge is to concentrate and glean the meaning regardless of the nature of the text.

A note of caution: Many people underestimate the challenges of this section. This makes it a great opportunity for you to score well and set yourself apart from other test takers.

Writing Sample

Time:60 minutes

Format: 2 essays questions, 30 minutes per essay

Topics Tested:
Critical Thinking
Intellectual Organization
Written Communication

The Writing Sample requires you to write two essays, each within a half-hour allotment. Like the verbal reasoning section, the Writing Sample tends to be underestimated by MCAT test takers. Many think that they can just apply their everyday writing skills to the essays and do well. This is a dangerous presumption. In every facet, the MCAT is a test of analytical reasoning--even in the Writing Sample.

Your essays will be written in response to a stimulus. For example:

True leadership leads by example rather than by command.

The stimulus can be an opinion, a widely-shared belief, a philosophical dictum, or an assertion regarding general policy concerns in such areas as history, political science, business, ethics, or art. You can be sure that it will not concern scientific or technical subjects, your reasons for entering the medical profession, emotionally charged religious or social issues, or obscure social or political issues that might require specialized knowledge.

Three Tasks

Though worded slightly differently each time, the instructions that follow the statement will ask you to perform three tasks. When completed properly, the following tasks create a balanced essay:

Task One: Provide your interpretation of the statement. The degree to which you develop the statement in this first task dictates the depth and sophistication of your entire essay.

Task Two: Offer a concrete example that illustrates a point of view directly opposite to the one expressed or implied by the statement. You must give a counter-example; it can be factual or hypothetical.

Task Three: Explain how the conflict between the viewpoint expressed in the statement and the viewpoint you described in the second task might be resolved. You'll be coming up with a rule that you could apply in situations to see whether or not the statement holds true.

Many test takers make the mistake of confusing the essay stimulus with a platform from which to emote, lecture, or convince. Instead, your goal should be to analyze the statement, present it from two perspectives, and explain how and when you might apply it.

Biological Sciences Time: 70 minutes

Format: Total of 52 questions

Topics Tested:
Biology
Organic Chemistry
Data Interpretation
Analytical Reasoning

The Biological and Physical Sciences sections on the MCAT are very similar in their structure and format. Questions in the Biological Sciences section are drawn from biology and organic chemistry, with a slightly greater emphasis on biology. Tested biology concepts include cell division, muscular and skeletal systems, the lymphatic system, respiratory and circulatory systems, enzymatic activity, viruses, and the nervous system. Organic chemistry concepts that you can expect to see include nomenclature, stereochemistry, spectroscopy, hydrocarbons, amino acids and proteins, laboratory techniques, and hydrolysis and dehydration.

Passages describe experiments, situations, or ideas from which questions are drawn. The information may be presented in the guise of journal or textbook articles, experimental research, data analysis, or scientific-style editorials. This passage-and-question based structure allows you to demonstrate many skills, including understanding the science presented in the passage, no matter how obscure or foreign and confidently connecting elements of your scientific repertoire to new situations. In addition the format tests your ability to quickly assess the kinds of situations feasible given the information in the passage.

Your Score on the MCAT

Each section on the MCAT receives its own score. Verbal Reasoning, Biological Sciences, and Physical Sciences are each scored on a scale ranging from 1 to 15, with 15 as the highest. Your Writing Sample essays will be scored alphabetically on a scale ranging from J to T, with T as the highest. The number of multiple-choice questions that you answer correctly in each section is your "raw score." Your raw score will then be converted to yield the "scaled score," falling somewhere in that 1-15 range. Medical schools will receive these scaled scores as your MCAT scores. In addition to your scaled scores, your score report will reflect the national mean score for each section, standard deviations, national scoring profiles for each section, and your percentile ranking.

What's a good score?

There's no such thing as a "good score." Much depends on the strength of the rest of your application and on where you want to go to school. For each MCAT administration, the average scaled score for each Verbal Reasoning, Physical Sciences, and Biological Sciences section is approximately 8. The average scaled score for the writing sample is "N." You will need scores of at least 10-11's to be considered competitive by most U.S. medical schools. And if you're aiming for the top, your goals should be 12's and above.

 

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