Standardized Exams in the Health Professions
The MCAT Exam
Jasmine Lopez, B.S.
MCAT Introduction, Content, and Timeline
The MCAT is the entrance exam for pre-medical students who desire to attend medical school. The four sections of the exam, in order, include: Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems, Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS), Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems, and Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior. Each section is one hour and thirty-five minutes long, except CARS, which is one hour and thirty minutes long. Each section contains 59 questions, including a combination of passages and free-standing questions, except for CARS which contains 53 questions and zero free-standing questions.
When should you take the MCAT exam?
In college, if you decide not to take a gap year before medical school or want to take the exam after completing pre-medical courses (not limited to Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry, Statistics, Psychology, and Sociology), you may take the MCAT exam between the spring or summer between their junior and senior years. Without planning for a gap year, then you would begin your medical school application before or after taking the MCAT exam during the spring of your junior year. The AMCAS application for M.D. medical schools usually opens in May.
If you decide to take a gap year before medical school, you may choose to take the exam in the spring (before graduating) or summer (after graduating) of your senior year of college. Similarly, since the medical school application process begins the year before you intend to begin medical school, you would begin your medical school application before or taking the MCAT exam. The AMCAS application opens at the beginning of May but is usually not available for submission until the end of May. Applications are first sent out to M.D.-granting medical schools around the end of June.
The AAMC Premed Calendar and AMCAS M.D.-medical school application are helpful resources for determining your timeline for applying to medical school and learning more about the process. Determining your timeline for applying to medical school and completing your pre-medical courses are important when creating a plan to set yourself up for success on the MCAT exam. The examples of choosing not to take a gap year or to take a gap year above are only two examples of timelines. Everyone’s journey, needs, and timeline differ. You may also find that you wish to retake the MCAT exam for various reasons. Furthermore, you may be a non-traditional student who took pre-medical courses a long time ago, or you may decide to take more than one gap year. Many factors go into planning when is the best time to take the MCAT and apply to medical school. At whatever point you’re in during your pre-medical journey, especially during the beginning, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the MCAT exam. The best line of action is to reflect actively and progressively on your goals and needs each year of your pre-medical journey so that you can plan in advance for your success. When deciding your timeline, t’s also important to note that MCAT exam scores may only be valid for applying to medical schools for two or three years after taking the exam.
MCAT Exam Materials & Resources
It’s important to assess the pre-medical courses you’ve taken and those you may need to take. To get an idea of pre-medical courses you will need to take in preparation for applying to medical schools, you can reference this list from the AAMC MSAR that lists each individual M.D. medical schools’ required prerequisite courses. A good rule of thumb* both for preparing for applying to medical school and for the MCAT exam is to take:
- At least 2 semesters of Biology courses with labs
- 2 semesters of General Chemistry courses with labs
- 2 semesters of Organic Chemistry courses with labs
- 2 semesters of Physics courses with labs
- 2 semesters of English courses
- 1 semester of Psychology
- 1 semester of Sociology
- 1 semester of Statistics
*Disclaimer: I am not an expert nor a pre-medical advisor. I recommend speaking with a pre-medical advisor to assess the classes you may need to take and the AAMC Medical School Admission Requirements.
If you do not have access to a pre-medical advisor, you may consult this NAAHP website to get in contact with a volunteer Health Professions Advisor.
Below are resources for planning your timeline of applying to medical school:
- AAMC Timeline for Application and Admission to Medical School
- AAMC Timeline for Application and Admission to Medical School PDF
I recommend planning for which courses you’ll take on your pre-medical journey in accordance with your plan for taking the MCAT exam and applying for medical school. Determining this timeline at the start of your pre-medical journey may be confusing, especially when you don’t know what to expect from the MCAT exam or how to plan for applying to medical school. Additionally, being the first person in your family to attend college or to pursue becoming a doctor, and/or are underrepresented in medicine, along with many other factors, may add layers of feeling alone or confused on your pre-medical journey. I’m here to help! Rest assured that SHPEP is here rooting for you, celebrating you, and supporting you. We want to see you succeed, achieve your goals, and become a physician.
I’ve included further resources below to help you plan your timeline and become familiar with pre-medical courses to take:
- AAMC Prepare for the MCAT Exam
- AAMC The MCAT Prep Snapshot
- Kaplan Pre-Med Timeline: 4-Year MCAT Plan
- AAMC Fee Assistance Program
- AAMC How to Create a Study Plan for the MCAT Exam
- AAMC Getting Into Medical School
Preparing for the MCAT exam may feel isolating, but know that you are NOT alone, and there is an entire community that understands your feelings and experiences. Videos from students who’ve taken the exam and MCAT exam professionals are very helpful and insightful:
- AAMCtoday Preparing for the MCAT Exam Using the Free Khan Academy MCAT Course with Med Student Austin Rios
- AAMCtoday What Would You Do Differently if you Could Prepare for the MCAT Exam All Over Again?
- AAMCtoday Knowing When to Begin Studying a New Content Area
- AAMCtoday Using Your Break Time
- AAMCtoday When is the right time to take the MCAT Exam?
- AAMCtoday Practicing targeted studying with the Free Khan Academy MCAT Course
- AAMCtoday From Premed to Med Student: Student Tips for Successfully Preparing for the MCAT Exam and Medical School
Below are MCAT exam preparation resources:
- Khan Academy MCAT Test Prep
- This is the free resource Austin Rios, a SHPEP alumni, discusses in the AAMC Today video above
- AAMC Free Planning and Study Resources for the MCAT
- AAMC MCAT Official Prep Free Practice Exam
- AAMC MCAT Official Prep Products
Many different types of MCAT exam preparation companies vary in materials and prices. I recommend applying for the AAMC Fee Assistance Program (FAP) to see if you are eligible to receive FAP benefits, including the AAMC’s MCAT Official Prep Online-Only Bundle (the website says this may be subject to change). Furthermore, I recommend making informed decisions about which MCAT exam preparation products to potentially buy and if they come with the AAMC MCAT Official Prep products (so that you don’t accidentally purchase two of the same products). I also recommend not overloading yourself with too many resources! You want to feel confident with the resources you’re using to prepare for the MCAT exam. You can read reviews online, ask fellow students for their recommendations, and start with using the free resources available to you (Khan Academy MCAT Test Prep, AAMC free resources, online flashcards through Anki or Quizlet).
Accommodations for the MCAT Exam
Please refer to the AAMC website and the links below for the process of seeking accommodations for the MCAT Exam:
- AAMC MCAT Exam with Accommodations
- Here is a link to the video, “Learn about MCAT Accommodation Services,” published by AAMCtoday
- Here’s another link to a video published by AAMCtoday on “Testing with Accommodations”
MCAT Exam Personal Advice
- The MCAT exam is a great opportunity to learn and hone how you best study (for example, visually through videos, reading textbooks, or using flashcards). For the MCAT exam, a combination of study techniques may work best for you. A technique I highly recommend is committing to practice problems every day and following a study plan.
- An example study plan: on certain days (for example, Tuesdays), you may decide to prepare for the Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems section. You could spend time reading a chapter in a MCAT exam textbook with content on these subjects, then do practice problems on the subjects you read, and make flashcards based on concepts you got wrong on the practice problems. You could review those flashcards afterwards and throughout the week to cement those concepts and fill in gaps.
- During your college coursework, I recommend taking notes, making flashcards, and saving your study content to refer to when you prepare for the MCAT. The content covered in the MCAT may parallel the content you learn in pre-medical courses (such as General Biology and General Chemistry).
- Reflect on your motivations when things get difficult or stressful (e.g., your family, your community, your future patients, etc.). I encourage you to reflect deeply at the beginning of your MCAT exam journey. You may have days that are harder than others. When these days happen, reminding yourself repeatedly of your motivations you may help you persevere and focus on your ultimate goals.
- Equip yourself with a robust support system and relaxation mechanisms. This may look different to everyone, such as spending time with family and friends, making time to exercise at the gym, listening to music, meditating, listening to affirmations, journaling, and painting. Identifying your support systems and hobbies throughout your journey is key for sustaining and taking care of yourself.
Casper Situational Judgement Test (SJT)
Omar Alzeir, MS1
I am writing about my experiences preparing for and taking the Casper test. Casper is an online situational judgment test (SJT) that is required by several medical schools across the US and Canada. Many classmates and I took Casper after taking the MCAT in the period between May and early June. Casper assesses constructs and skills, including communication, ethics, collaboration, professionalism, problem-solving, and empathy. More test details can be found on Acuity Insights, which currently offers the Casper test.
When it comes to preparing for Casper, I personally didn’t spend money on external resources. I just used the provided practice test and looked at content online on places like Reddit to get a feel for the type of questions asked and the expected typing speed. My preparation for Casper was closer to my preparation for an interview than a test. Make sure to be comfortable with your testing environment and have a professional appearance. I also didn’t spend more than a few hours over a couple of days preparing for the test. Some of the methods I used to answer many ethical questions addressed the Fundamental Principles of Ethics: beneficence, nonmaleficence, autonomy, and justice. For some questions, I also used the PPRDJ method, which stands for “problem, perspective, responsibility, decision, and justification.”
MCAT and USMLE Step 1/2
Marlin Amy Halder, M.D.
Do not try to cram for these exams. They’re testing your knowledge as well as your endurance. My tip is to do as many practice tests as possible to simulate the real deal and to build up stamina leading up to the test. Trust your knowledge, trust your judgment, and trust that the information is in your head.
In terms of when you’re taking the test, try your best to focus on each question, but don’t get hung up on any questions that may deter your attention from the next block of questions. Use your scratch paper to make notes and return to the question when you have the time. Use your breaks! Do not try to power through it all!
You’ve got this; best of luck!
Recommended Step Exam Resources
Boards and Beyond, Pathoma for knowledge, and UWorld for questions.
What do the Step exams test? When should I start preparing?
Step 1 is pass or fail. It tests mainly the first two years of medical school, including concepts like pathology, biochemistry, immunology, and statistics. I’d say to start preparing for it after the first semester of medical school!
Joy Zhou, B.S.
In order to apply to dental schools, one must take the DAT. The DAT comprises six subjects: biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, reading, math, and the Perceptual Ability Test (PAT). The DAT is five hours and fifteen minutes long, with a break in between, which is optional. In general, people take the DAT after they have completed prerequisites in biology, general chemistry, and organic chemistry. Taking the DAT one year before the application cycle is also highly recommended. I recommend arranging your test appointment a minimum of three months in advance of your preferred test date to secure available seating. Once you have signed up, I will suggest spending a full 3 to 4 months studying for the test solely without distraction; however, everyone is different, so it’s important to study at your own pace. It is doable even with a full-time job if you make good use of your daily time and give yourself a decent break to avoid burnout. If your practice test scores were not as expected or too low, you can also reschedule your test for a fee. I highly recommend that people take the test when they are prepared!
When I studied for the DAT, I used both DAT Bootcamp, DAT Booster, and Chad’s videos for chemistry. Either DAT Bootcamp or DAT Booster is sufficient! I also found Chad’s videos very helpful in understanding general chemistry and organic chemistry. I have a list of must-dos every day, besides completing the assignments following the schedule that DAT Booster provided. I would make sure I read science articles for one hour every day to improve my reading speed, practice PAT using the DAT Bootcamp simulator for 15 minutes, and review biology materials using Anki. Anki is a flash card program that uses spaced repetition, and I highly recommend using it to memorize everything for biology.
Brianna Leach, B.S.
DAT Resource and Study Advice
As a SHPEP alum interested in applying to dental school, I found the DAT difficult, like many students. After using DAT Booster, my scores improved between my first and second exam attempts.
For my first exam attempt, my study resources were not effective, nor were my studying techniques. The study material contained too much information and wasn’t exactly comparable to the information that was on the exam.
For my second attempt with DAT Booster, I felt assured that my score would be higher. The quality of the content and helpful videos and notes facilitated my higher score. During my final days of studying, I took all ten practice exams that were offered. I retook each exam twice, the second time being the timed version of the original exam. Taking a timed version of the exam is very important to mimic realistic testing conditions. By following this routine, you’ll be prepared for success. Best of luck to all who are interested in dentistry as well as any other health profession! You will do well! Take it one day at a time.