The MCAT is a necessary evil that almost all students have to face if they want to gain admission to a U.S. med school. The average score for the 2020-21 academic year sat around 506.4. Compared to the average MCAT score of accepted applicants (511.5), that says a lot about its difficulty!
So, why is the MCAT so hard?
The MCAT is hard because med schools want to attract the best (and most academically capable) students. As it’s an important differentiator, helping admissions boards reduce their shortlists, making MCAT questions “hard” makes sense. Those who score well generally perform better when faced with the academic challenge (and pressures) of studying medicine.
But although most of that is very obvious, many students interested in med still have a bunch of questions when it comes to the MCAT and its supposed difficulty. Is it really that hard? Or is it a myth?
These are the types of questions this article hopes to answer!
We’ll also cover:
- If the MCAT really is that hard (and if those average scores are a reliable indicator)
- What the hardest parts are
- How it compares to other major exams (SATs etc.)
- If you can pass it without actually studying
As a med student myself, and someone who’s spent hundreds of hours researching the process, I’m pretty well placed to explore the topic.
I hope, by reading this, you’ll get a better idea of what to expect with the MCAT and don’t jump into it naively.
Ready to learn more? Let’s go.
Is the MCAT really that hard?
You’ve seen the stats (and the difference between the average scores), but do they really tell the full tale?
Sadly, yes they do. The MCAT is very competitive. And, statistically speaking, it’s very difficult to score in the high percentiles.
Here’s what makes it super challenging:
- It’s broad: there are 230 questions covering difficult subjects like chemistry, physics, biology, biochemistry and many more.
- It requires application: the questions are passage based, not simple one line multiple choice types. That means you’ll have to infer what concepts questions are calling on. It won’t be spelled out directly.
- Time constraints: due to the question format, total question number and total MCAT exam time (6 hours, 15 mins), you don’t get a whole lot of time per question.
Now couple these challenges up with the idea that you’re competing with some of the top students in the country, who all want a highly prestigious and lucrative career, and the whole thing gets even more intense.
Don’t take the MCAT lightly. Even if you do consider yourself a gifted outlier.
What is the hardest part of the MCAT?
Aside from the factors mentioned above, the answer to this is highly subjective.
Many students taking the MCAT might have an advantage if they’ve been on the pre med track at undergrad or completed a degree in one of the science subjects the exam covers.
Those that haven’t, that may have studied something unrelated but still got a very good GPA, might find many corners of it hard. Especially if they’re learning things like biochemistry for the first time. Which requires a fair bit of foundational knowledge.
Many of these students complain that the competition from biology majors is intense here. Especially as their degree sets them up well for the MCAT.
Some of the hardest parts of the exam (that many students complain about) include:
- Physics (although it only makes up a small percentage of total MCAT questions)
- CARS (critical analysis and reasoning sections which can prove a little abstract)
Obviously different students, have different weaknesses.
Generally it’s the things they don’t have much practice with that prove the hardest.
How much do I need to memorize for the MCAT?
You’ll need to have a solid understanding of the concepts before memorizing the details. That’s because the MCAT is applied knowledge rather than factual recall.
Questions can be several paragraphs long. You’ll need to read them, pick out the major/important details and work out how the tested concept fits the question.
Memorization will help, but it will only get you so far.
Is MCAT harder than SAT?
The SAT is only 3 hours compared to the 6 hours plus that is the MCAT. The SAT also only assesses what you learned in high school. For that reason, it’s much easier than the MCAT.
The MCAT is many multiples more specific than the SAT. You need stamina, patience and confidence to do well in it. Many students claim doing well on the SAT with little to no study at all.
One of the areas of overlap is the CARS-style passages. Otherwise, despite the similar formatting, they’re quite different. Way more people do well in the SAT than they do the MCAT.
For help strategizing CARS, make sure you check out the following article…
Can you pass MCAT without studying?
Despite what some influencers, YouTubers or unknown web forum trolls may tell you, it’s impossible to score really well on the MCAT without studying.
The sheer length of the exam calls for solid and repeated practice. You can’t just show up to a 6 hour plus exam having never attempted to focus or concentrate for that amount of time and expect to do well. Your chances are infinitesimely small.
Now, there comes some debate as to how much you need to study for the MCAT to do well (that’s beyond the scope of this article). But there’s next to no debate on the subject of studying or not.
Of course you’ll get students playing down their study time (sometimes calling even a week of study “no study”), but these accounts are very hard to verify.
The only way it’s maybe possible (and even then only slim) is:
- If you’re a science professor (especially a multi-disiciplinary one who teaches most of the core topics)
- Someone excellently prepared on a pre med track that takes it while in college (and the info is still “fresh”)
- An MCAT question writer or tutor
But, for the most part, I’d argue you can’t pass the MCAT (sufficiently well) without studying.
Can anyone do well on the MCAT?
Here’s the good news. Anyone can do well on the MCAT with enough (and the right type) of preparation.
Just as I feel about med school; you don’t have to be particularly smart to do well. You just have to be dedicated, disciplined and very well practiced.
That means putting in a ton of hours in deep-focused study. As well as employing strong evidence-based study methods that help you recall information long-term (check out my MCAT anki deck recommendations for help here).
But there’s no real substitute for practice. You’ll have to do thousands of MCAT-style questions (as well as timed “mock-style” simulations) to really develop yourself.
Anyone is capable of that.
Yes, the MCAT’s hard but please don’t let that put you off.
Continue your research, gather your resources, set out a steady study plan. Most of all, believe in yourself. Thousands of students like you surprise themselves and smash the MCAT each year.
There’s no real difference between them and you!
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.