Is The MCAT The Most Difficult Standardized Test?

Medical students are no strangers to the standardized test.

According to Sam Houston State University, a standardized test has three possible purposes. One is to diagnose a student’s strengths and weaknesses. Another, to create instructional plans. The last is to select students for a particular program.

There are two kinds of standardized tests: achievement tests and aptitude tests.

There are several traits every standardized test shares. Standardized tests make it so each test-taker answers the same questions while under the same testing conditions. These conditions include a similar testing location and time limit. Another trait is that all tests are scored and evaluated by the same standards.

Standardized tests have varying levels of difficulty. Factors such as the depth and complexity of the subject matter tested, the strategy a test taker uses to prepare, time duration, and the administering of the test will affect how difficult a test is.

One notorious standardized test with a complex subject matter, a long duration, and months of preparation is the MCAT.


A student’s Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) score indicates their potential to perform in medical school. Medical schools seek a particular score range of the MCAT in which their potential medical students must fall within to apply.

The countries that use the MCAT to evaluate their potential medical students are the United States of America, Canada, Australia, and the Caribbean Islands.

The duration of the MCAT is seven and a half hours. That’s more than double the total time of the ACT and SAT, as well as the GRE. The MCAT is a computer-based test. The computer-based format can be another source of discomfort for test-takers.

Both the preparation and the undergoing of the MCAT are demanding. Students must be well-versed in the test material long before the test day if they aim to score high.

MCAT Contents

According to the Association of Medical Colleges of AAMC, the MCAT consists of four subtests. Each subtest has its own set of questions and time limit:

  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

The first subtest, Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems, consists of 59 questions with a time limit of 95 minutes. The second subtest, Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems, consist of 95 questions and has a time of 95 minutes.

The third subtest, Psychological and Physical Foundations of Behavior, has 59 questions with a time limit of 95 minutes. The last section, Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills, consists of 53 questions with a time limit of 90 minutes.

The range of subject matter is that of first semester biochemistry, sociology, and psychology. Then there is the year-long course equivalent to one year of chemistry, physics and biology.

Standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT focus on topics that a student studies throughout their academic career. The MCAT differs in this way because the knowledge required for it specializes in science and sociology.

Depth and Complexity of the MCAT Questions

Petros Minasi is the senior director of pre-health programs at Kaplan Test Prep. He says, “It’s a year’s worth of organic chemistry, a year’s worth of general chemistry, a year’s worth of physics, a year’s worth of general biology, a semester’s worth of upper division biochemistry, and topics from introductory psychology and sociology.”

The questions on the exam test a student’s knowledge of the identified scientific topics. They also require the application of this knowledge. Exam items require students to demonstrate critical thinking and also their ability to show the relationship between similar scientific concepts.

Test takers must read tables and graphs to draw conclusions and predictions from them. They must be able to identify main ideas and concepts within given passages to be read.

These are all skills that the AAMC believes will be necessary when a student enters medical school.

Strategy While Taking the MCAT

Minasi says there is a strategy and a mindset a student should take while doing the exam. It’s important to understand that some questions are simple, requiring a short answer. Others require three to four steps to be able to answer. Some other questions appear to require a lengthy answer but need only a short one.

The strategy is to know which questions to skip and come back to. A student should focus on the questions they are confident in first and answer those. They have to have the ability to skip questions and come back to them later.

Scoring and Evaluation

Each of the four sections score on a scale from 118-132. The final score of the MCAT is the sum of the four scores.

The total score ranges from a minimum of 472 to a maximum score of 528.

Every student who takes the MCAT will receive an MCAT score report. The information in this report shows how the student performed on each of the four sections individually.

After calculation, students also receive a score profile when each of the scores for the four sections. This profile is part of the score report.

The score profile indicates a student’s strengths and weaknesses based on their numerical score. Students can also see what percentile they fall under for each of the four sections based on the other test takers’ results.

The score profile also indicates a confidence band. A confidence band is a range of scores that indicate a skill level. This confidence band helps clear up small differences between scores to avoid over-interpretation.

For example, a student scores 500 on the MCAT. There is a confidence band between the scores of 498 and 502. Students who scored as low as 498, or as high as 502, are likely just as capable as those who scored 500.

The confidence band indicates ranges in which the score of the student most likely lies. It compensates for possible factors fatigue during the test that may have caused the student to underperform. It helps medical colleges who are reviewing the report to see where a student’s skill level is.

2017-2019 Test Taker Performance on the MCAT

The Association of American Medical Colleges or the AAMC, collected data from MCAT scores from 2017-2019.

The average score over these three years of more than 200,00 test takers was 501.1, or 94%.

Preparing for the MCAT

Part of the difficulty of the MCAT is the time it takes to prepare for it. Some test takers devote full-time hours to their studying for the test.

Students must strategize their studying too because scientific concepts build on one another.

This strategizing means studying the exam topics in a specific sequential order. One must understand the first basic concepts to understand the more advanced concepts.

Minasi recommends that students spend between 240-300 hours in preparation for the MCAT. The hours spent studying should be spread over 3-5 months.

Test takers of the MCAT prepare in a variety of different ways. Some choose commercial study programs, similar to those of SAT or ACT preparation. Some even take courses based in university that will prepare them.

A large percentage of test-takers will enroll in biology, chemistry, psychology, and statistics before undergoing the test. Some also take courses in sociology and research methods.

There are free online videos, test preparation books, practice tests and other material that test-takers can make use of to prepare for the exam.

Beyond the MCAT

Students should keep in mind that their score on the MCAT is considered in addition to other factors when applying to medical school.

Schools will also look at undergraduate GPA, clinical and social work, and their reasoning for attending medical school–their statement. Medical schools want to know that students are conscious and hopefully experienced in volunteering service.

Students must prepare for the MCAT, while also considering factoring in time for these considerations.

Final Thoughts

Every standardized test will assess a unique skill set. They require varying amounts of preparation and have different time constraints. These differences make it impossible to compare each test to say one is more difficult than the other.

While some tests are longer, more in-depth, or more complex than others, much of the difficulty level for a test lies within the test taker’s abilities and knowledge while they undergo it.

With that said, the MCAT cannot objectively be called the most difficult standardized test. However, an argument can be made that the MCAT is one of the more difficult standardized tests offered today.

The MCAT is a time investment, both in preparation and during the test itself. The focus of the test and the sheer depth of its questions require the student to master topics in a specific order. The MCAT means months of studying, preparing, and strategizing.

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Matt Lane

Matt graduated with a BSEd in Kinesiology from University of Georgia and is now pursuing a medical degree. He enjoys sharing his experience with other ambitious young people.