Wanna Be a Doctor? You Need Psychology – Guide to the new MCAT

doctor-BG-blue-worldPsychology has finally become recognized as an study necessary to become a doctor, according to the non-profit organization AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges). This has ramifications for the rest of the world, as its famous medical exam – the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) – is used in 114 countries across the world. The test has undergone major changes that will come into effect in 2015, and one of the changes is the substantial addition in testing psychology knowledge.

Transitioning to the New MCAT

The Current (i.e., soon-to-be-outdated) MCAT

In the current edition of the MCAT, there are three sections:

  1. Physical Sciences – Questions are about 50-50 regarding to physics and general chemistry
  2. Verbal Reasoning – Tests you on how well you can understand complex information and utilize it in new situations. Content knowledge is not required – the information from the passages presented should be enough for students.
  3. Biological Science – 70-80% of questions are about biology, whereas 20-30% are regarding organic chemistry.

There is also a voluntary fourth section (unscored), which AAMC uses to test students on questions that they are making for future exams (i.e., they want to know if the questions are too hard or too easy). The advantage of doing this optional section is that you would receive a $30 gift card from Amazon. Of course, that would be an extra 45 minutes.

In total, the current MCAT takes about 5 hours and 10 minutes (not including the check-in time, but including 10-minute breaks after the physical sciences, verbal reasoning, and void option sections).  The sections of the test are as followed:

  1. Preparation – Up to 40 minutes (if the testing center is busy) of checking in, a 10 minute tutorial, a 10 minute non-disclosure agreement
  2. Physical Sciences – 70 minutes
  3. Verbal Reasoning – 60 Minutes
  4. Biological Sciences – 70 Minutes
  5. Void Option – 5 minutes to decide whether or not did so badly that you want to expunge the entire test-taking experience from all records (you won’t get a refund, but no one will know you ever took the test this time)
  6. Voluntary Unscored Section – 45 minutes
  7. Survey – 10 minutes

The New MCAT (starting in 2015)

There are many differences to this test. First of all, biochemistry will be emphasized more than before, and both chemistry and physics concepts will be put in the context of biological systems. Natural science and technology topics won’t be in the Verbal Reasoning section. Also, there will be a behavioral sciences section, which will mostly test people on psychological concepts.

The extra content you are expected to know is scary for some people. But there is certainly time. According to the Princeton Review, most medical school admissions boards  (not all – check with the school you apply to, just in case) will accept the 2013-2014 (i.e., soon-to-be-outdated) version of the MCAT in 2015 and 2016. However, starting from 2017, the new requirements will be expected to be met.

So what do the sections look like now? Here is the timeline of sections (time may vary slightly):

  1. Preparation (the same as before, about an hour depending on how busy the test center is)
  2. Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems – 95 minutes
  3. Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior – 95 minutes
  4. Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems – 95 minutes
  5. Critical Analysis and Reasoning – 90 minutes

Unfortunately, the additional content being included means that with all the surveys, non-disclosure agreements, breaks, etc., the new MCAT actually takes 2 more hours than the old one. The new MCAT will take approximately 7 and a half hours to complete. In terms of actual testing time, it is an increase of almost 50%. Yikes! In terms of content, the current MCAT entails 144 questions and 2 essays; the new test will have 255 questions and no essays. It seems there may also be a lunch break. Therefore, this is not just a long test, but a whole day-long event.

Sections in Detail – A Concise MCAT Guide

Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (i.e., the Psychology Section)

This is the name of the brand new section to the MCAT, and it entails about 67 questions, 9-10 passages for reading, and 3-4 sets of freestanding questions. This section takes 95 minutes, so it is a significant addition. Questions will be drawn from five foundational concepts

1. Biological, psychological, and socio-cultural factors influence the ways that we, as individuals, perceive, think about, and react to the world. (Questions include sensation and perception, attention and cognition, consciousness, emotion, stress and language)
2. [Such] factors influence behavior and behavioral change. (Questions include motivation, attitudes, personality, theories of learning, as well as culture, socialization and group processes, in addition to biological bases of behaviour such as neurons, neurotransmitters, behavioural genetics, the central nervous system)
3. [Such]  factors influence the way we think about ourselves and others. (Questions include identity, prejudice, bias, and discrimination, social behavior and elements of social interactions)
4. Cultural and social differences influence well-being. (Questions include social institutions, culture and demographic structures of society, as well as social change)
5. Social stratification and access to resources influence well-being. (Questions include spatial inequality, social class, as well as health (and healthcare) disparities)

To categorize the content of this section, approximately 60% of the questions will relate to psychology, 30% to sociology, and 10% to biology.

Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (i.e., the Biological Section)

As I mentioned above, biochemistry is emphasized much more than before, and this is the section where you’ll find it. Organic chemistry will now be put in the chemistry section. There are also some general chemistry concepts that will appear here (such  as colligative properties, osmotic pressure, concentration cells, and the Nernst equation).

This section will be split into three foundational concepts:

1) Biomolecules have unique properties that determine how they contribute to the structure and function of cells and how they participate in the processes necessary to maintain life. This will test you on:

• Amino acids
• Protein structure
• Non-enzymatic protein function
• Enzyme structure and function
• Control of enzyme activity
• Nucleic acid structure and function
• DNA replication/repair of DNA
• Genetic code
• Transcription
• Translation
• Eukaryotic chromosome organization
• Control of gene expression in prokaryotes
• Control of gene expression in eukaryotes
• Recombinant DNA and biotechnology
• Mendelian concepts
• Meiosis and genetic variability
• Analytic methods in genetics
• Evolution
• Principles of bioenergetics
• Carbohydrates
• Glycolysis, gluconeogenesis, pentose phosphate pathway
• Principles of metabolic regulation
• Citric acid cycle
• Metabolism of fatty acids and proteins
• Oxidative phosphorylation
• Hormonal regulation and integration of metabolism

2) Highly organized assemblies of molecules, cells, and organs interact to carry out the functions of living organisms. This will test you on:

• Plasma membrane
• Membrane-bound organelles
• Cytoskeleton
• Tissues formed from eukaryotic cells
• Cell theory
• Classification/structure of prokaryotes
• Growth and physiology of prokaryotes
• Genetics of prokaryotes
• Viral structure and life cycles
• Mitosis
• Biosignalling
• Reproductive systems
• Embryogenesis
• Mechanisms of development

3) Highly organized assemblies of molecules, cells, and organs interact to carry out the functions of living organisms. This will test you on:

• Plasma membrane
• Membrane-bound organelles
• Cytoskeleton
• Tissues formed from eukaryotic cells
• Cell theory
• Classification/structure of prokaryotes
• Growth and physiology of prokaryotes
• Genetics of prokaryotes
• Viral structure and life cycles
• Mitosis
• Biosignalling
• Reproductive systems
• Embryogenesis
• Mechanisms of development

To categorize that, about 65% of this section will regard biology, 25% biochemistry, and 5% organic and inorganic chemistry each.

Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (i.e., the Chemistry & Physics Section)

As I mentioned above, the chemistry and physics tested in this exam are now tested in the context of biology. Organic chemistry has almost entirely moved to this section (from the biology section in the previous version) and physics will be slightly decreased. In the previous version, where you might see a physics question about forces and tensions in a pulley system, you would now see a similar question asked in the context of skeletal muscles during running. As you can imagine, this is more geared towards the medical profession.

Removed from the soon-to-be-outdated version of the MCAT are physics questions related to: translational/rotational equilibrium, momentum and collisions, much of mechanics (forces, motion, gravitation, uniform circular motion, friction, etc.), some waves and periodic motion (although sound waves will remain), and properties of solids/materials responses to stress.

Removed from the general chemistry questions are those related to: Electron quantum numbers, electron configuration for noble gases and transition metals, Coulomb’s law, lattice energy, and much of colligative properties. Organic chemistry is also removing questions related to: Physical properties of hydrocarbons, ring strain/radical stability, free radical halogenation, nucleophilic substitutions, elimination reactions, formation of alkyl halides, reactions of alkenes and alkynes, aromatic compounds, Wolff-Kishner reaction, haloform reactions, Wittig reaction, cycloaddition reactions, and reactions of monosaccharides.

This section will be split into two foundational concepts:

1) Complex living organisms transport materials, sense their environment, process signals, and respond to changes using processes that can be understood in terms of physical principles. This will test you on:

  • Translational motion
  • Equilibrium
  • Work
  • Energy
  • Fluids, including circulatory system
  • Gas phase
  • Electrostatics
  • Circuit elements
  • Electrochemistry, including nerve cell
  • Sound
  • Light/electromagnetic radiation
  • Molecular structure and absorption spectra
  • Geometrical optics
  • Atomic nucleus
  • Electronic structure
  • The periodic table: classification of elements
  • The periodic table: variations by group/row
  • Stoichiometry

2) The principles that govern chemical interactions and reactions form the
basis for a broader understanding of the molecular dynamics of living
systems. This will test you on:

  • Acid/base equilibria
  • Ions in solutions
  • Solubility
  • Titration
  • Covalent bond
  • Liquid phase intermolecular forces
  • Separations and purifications
  • Nucleotides and nucleic acids
  • Amino acids, peptides, proteins
  • Three-dimensional protein structure
  • Non-enzymatic protein function
  • Lipids
  • Carbohydrates
  • Aldehydes and ketones
  • Alcohols
  • Carboxylic acids
  • Acid derivatives (anhydrides, amides, esters)
  • Phenols
  • Polycyclic and heterocyclic aromatic compounds
  • Enzymes
  • Principles of bioenergetics
  • Phosphorus compounds
  • Thermochemistry/thermodynamics
  • Kinetics/equilibrium

To categorize that, about 30% of this section will test you on inorganic chemistry, 25% on organic chemistry, 25% on physics, 15% on biochemistry, and 5% on biology.

Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (i.e., the Critical Thinking Section)

This section replaces the Verbal Reasoning section on the current MCAT. But unlike the last the current edition, it won’t include passages based on the natural sciences, technology, or engineering. The idea of this section is that you won’t need to know anything going into the section – you will be asked to read a passage and take the information from it to answer the question. There are also several new topics being added to this section, including geography, ethics, cultural studies, population health, and dance. Yes, dance.

This is a considerably important section for future doctors. Considering science has advanced to the point that no human could possibly learn all there is to know about every aspect of medicine, students will be tested on their ability to pick up new information and use critical thinking to deal with it and sort it out. Medical schools don’t just want people who know a lot – they want people who can learn effectively.

There are three skills this section will assess students on:

  1. Foundations of Comprehension – Understanding the main parts of the text; and inferring meaning from rhetorical devices, word choice, and text structure
  2. Reasoning Within the Text – Integrating different parts of the text to increase comprehension
  3. Reasoning Beyond the Text – Applying or extrapolating ideas from the text to new contexts; and assessing the impact of introducing new factors, info, or conditions to ideas from the text

What Math You Need to Know for the MCAT

Math is an important thing to know, though this is not its own section. Calculators will not be allowed during the exam, nor will the be required. The math is therefore intended to be straightforward and easily completed, or estimated. The math does not test you beyond basic trigonometry, vector and addition and subtraction, and Algebra II. Calculus is not required, but I’m sure it couldn’t hurt. Here is a list of concepts that will most likely come up on the exam:

  1. How to analyze data from graphs, tables, and other figures, including linear and logarithmic graphs, and slope calculation
  2. Basic statistics as used to determine if data is meaningful (e.g., standard deviation, mean, correlation, etc.)
  3. Significant digits and numerical estimation
  4. The metric system and the ability to convert between metric and standard systems (conversion factors are provided if needed)
  5. Ratios and proportions, percents, square root estimates, probability
  6. Natural and base ten logarithms, scientific notation
  7. Basic and inverse trigonometry functions (sine, cosine, tangent), values of these functions at 0, 90, and 180 degrees, right triangles
  8. The right-hand rule, vector addition and subtraction


The scoring system on this exam is a bit odd, to say the least. Each section of the exam will be scored within a 118-132 range, with a median score of 125. Therefore, your total score will range between 472 (the worst score) and 528 (the best score). On the bright side, if you completely bomb your exam, you can always tell people “I got a 472 out of 528.”

Having looked at the categories of questions within each section, we can break down the overall exam in the following categories:

  • Biology – 27% of the total exam
  • Psychology – 20% of the total exam
  • Biochemistry – 13% of the total exam
  • Inorganic chemistry – 12% of the total exam
  • Organic chemistry – 10% of the total exam
  • Sociology – 10% of the total exam
  • Physics – 8% of the total exam

Suggested classes you should take before taking the MCAT include:

  • Chemistry: General Chemistry (two semesters; with lab), Biochemistry, Organic Chemistry (with lab)
  • Biology: General Biology, Cell Biology, Molecular Biology, Genetics
  • Physiology: Physiology, Anatomy
  • Physics: Physics (2 semesters)
  • Social Sciences: Psychology, Sociology
  • Courses that require a lot of detailed reading: Literature, History, Humanities, etc.

The Bottom Line

These changes reflect the demand for doctors to understand the less direct concepts that can affect the well-being of their patients, and make them more effective doctors, such as psychological factors related to motivation, interactions, decisions, biases, etc. Of course, many others are upset with the new changes, arguing that the new sections would demand more time and money for students to waste on lessons that they would get in medical school anyways. Also, the price will increase, which I’m sure no student is happy about (the price varies on a few things, but you can expect to pay around $300).

Of course, the new section is not the only change. The test is also of course being geared more towards the medical context, which I think is a very good thing. Instead of asking people questions on arbitrarily hypothetical scenarios, putting questions in a medical context seems much more apt for a medical exam.

If students wish to prepare for taking the MCAT, it would be recommended to go through each section in this guide and develop a working knowledge of each concept listed. Medical school is extremely competitive, and studying for this 7.5-hour exam will be a commitment of at least a couple of months (depending on your situation), if not years.

Best of luck.

Thanks to Judene Wright for the Princeton Review whose “Sneak Peak” at the 2015 MCAT was the main source for this article
This entry was posted in Medicine & Health, Psychology, Science and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Wanna Be a Doctor? You Need Psychology – Guide to the new MCAT

  1. Sophelia says:

    Sounds like some very sensible and useful additions, although my sympathies are with anyone taking an all day exam!
    Just pointing out a typo: “two hard or two easy”

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