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Why Is the MCAT So Hard?

By Nikhil Jaganathan

The Medical College Admission Testis ultimately the determining stage of whether or not you have the ability to achieve medical school admission. How hard is the MCAT? The MCAT test is infamously one of the most difficult standardized exams and may be one of the most important. But although it is difficult, it is manageable. The average result for students accepted into medical school typically falls within the range of 510 to 511.

Knowing how to stop procrastinating and how to memorize the content you learn in your MCAT prep plan will definitely help your chances of passing the standardized test with your ideal MCAT score. Three main aspects of the MCAT prep course—the content, applications, and practice—each have their own unique hurdles, and we’re here to walk you through all of them!

The Content Phase

What makes the knowledge base for the MCAT so daunting is the sheer diversity of content on the exam. Because of this, it is almost necessary to have taken several college-level courses recently (optimally within the past 2 years), including Biology, General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Physics (Mechanics and Electricity/Magnetism), Psychology, and potentially Biochemistry, Human Anatomy, or Sociology. 

While the MCAT exam focus is not overly detail-oriented, the aspect of the MCAT that is most intimidating is that you have to remember facts from such a broad spectrum of topics to achieve a good MCAT score. The quantity of information on the MCAT can be overwhelming, so adapting your approach may be the best option, whether that is changing your environment, developing mnemonics, or even just taking a break.

The sheer amount of content review, such as vocabulary, formulas, and pathways, makes continuously refreshing content absolutely crucial before your test date, whether you are reviewing flashcards, writing out/rehearsing pathways, or even just doing a few discrete questions by topic daily, to keep even the most minute details fresh on your mind. 

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The Application Phase

The MCAT exam is notorious for being unlike any college exam in that it doesn’t evaluate memorization abilities. Even the best students at memorizing knowledge often struggle with the MCAT because of the test’s tendency to force you to apply your learned knowledge and reasoning skills to new situations and experiments that you do not yet know about. So, you have to think critically, and, ideally, you must be able to have the level of mastery of the content so you could teach the information to others. This ensures that you are fluent in the subject matter and can effectively compare/contrast, chronologically order, or explain the cause/effect of a process, all of which are examples of skills crucial for the MCAT test day

Plus, if you tend to struggle with taking the content you have learned through your MCAT preparation and applying it to new contexts, consider whether you need to 

1) strengthen your foundations with additional content review or 

2) elevate your level of practice, whether that is through practice exams or practice questions

Like we said in “Debunking Common Myths About the MCAT,” missing questions may not be a sign of content gaps. This is often indicative of misreading or misinterpreting questions, passage, or answer choices. After seeing hundreds of passages on each subject, you begin to develop the ability to recognize question types quickly and understand patterns for how to answer questions. 

The Practice Phase

Ultimately, the MCAT is so time-intensive because it takes a few hundred passages to start building an MCAT study schedule and strategy that works best for you. Additionally, the pacing of the MCAT is often extremely challenging, with little time to reread a passage or to debate answers. So, an effective process of elimination skills as well as continuous practice is fundamental to reach the answer while staying on pace. 

Finally, full-length practice tests are one of the most essential components of practicing for the MCAT because doing so allows you to develop endurance, which is vital for a 7-hour exam. You must be able to take enough full lengths (typically 6-8) to allow you to finish the exam without fatigue. 

So How Hard Is the MCAT, Really?

Although it can be subjective, the Medical School Admissions Test is much more difficult than the typical college exam in terms of the breadth of content covered. 

It’s not a memorization test or pure knowledge test – it is a test of how well you can transfer your knowledge to critical analysis for novel scenarios. Whether it is a new technology, niche experimental technique, or a pivotal psychological study, the MCAT strives to test what you can truly do with your knowledge. 

For many students, the MCAT is the first standardized test they have taken since the SAT or ACT. The MCAT CARS section is very different than an SAT/ACT reading section in terms of the level of analysis required as well as the pacing of the section, so it is crucial not to underestimate this section. Plus, the SAT/ACT math and grammar sections are not as content-based and are more a culmination of your math and grammar education throughout your childhood and adolescence. 

In contrast, the MCAT often makes you study new concepts you do not have a strong foundation in, due to the wide scope of information presented.

As if that’s not enough, the attention and endurance for the 7-hour MCAT is way more strenuous than any college exam or SAT/ACT. In essence, the MCAT is a very difficult exam to tackle, but understanding why it is so difficult is the first step to surmounting this obstacle. 

So, What Can You Do?

The good news? The MCAT is absolutely manageable if you approach it with commitment, diligence, and an effective plan. By analyzing your personal weaknesses and what YOU find difficult, you will be able to ace the exam and hopefully even look back and realize that it wasn’t too difficult after all. If you need an extra boost, head over to our free resources, including flashcards, a study planner you can personalize and content guides!


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