Home » USMLE vs MCAT


21 min


A student taking a standardized exam such as USMLE and MCAT.


There are a lot of exams that stand between med students and the title “Doctor.” These tests may seem daunting, but with the right preparation and MCAT study schedule, you can conquer these obstacles to get the USMLE or MCAT score you want. The key to preparing for exams like the MCAT and USMLE is to take the time to really understand the material, the structure of the exams, and the scoring methods. In this blog, we will cover the MCAT vs. USMLE exams, the basics of both and important differences between them.



MCAT vs. USMLE: General Differences and When They Are Taken


The MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) is an exam developed and administered by the AAMC. It’s a multiple-choice exam that aims to assess your problem-solving, critical thinking, and knowledge of certain areas of the pre-medical curriculum. This is the test you take before you apply to medical school. Your MCAT score is an important piece of your medical school application, along with your essays, undergraduate GPA, and letters of recommendation.


The USMLE (United States Medical Licensing Examination) is a three-step examination for medical licensure for students living in the United States. Students take these exams during their medical training (i.e. medical school and residency) and assess the ability of a physician to apply the knowledge they have learned to treat patients.


The first USMLE exam, also known as USMLE Step 1 or Step 1 for short, is taken at the end of the second year of medical school. USMLE Step 2 CK (Clinical Knowledge), the second part of the USMLE tests, is usually taken during the fourth year.


Finally, the last USMLE, USMLE Step 3, is taken towards the end of the intern year of residency. Once you pass this third exam you are eligible for a medical license.


Many medical students may find themselves wondering, “Is USMLE Step 1 harder than the MCAT? And what is the difference between the MCAT and USMLE?”


In this article we’re going to answer all of these questions regarding the MCAT vs. Step 1.



MCAT vs. USMLE Content and Format




The MCAT is a 7.5-hour exam that consists of four sections, including:

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

These four sections test the broad clinical skills that you need to know in order to get into med school.


All the sections, except for CARS, include 59 multiple-choice questions, which you will have 95 minutes to answer. The CARS section is 53 multiple-choice questions that you have 90 minutes to answer. You will have two 10-minute breaks and one 30-minute break during the duration of the exam.


Biological and Biochemical


The Biological and Biochemical section, also known as the Bio/Biochem section, will require you to read passages and answer questions regarding the material you’ve encountered in introductory biology and first-semester biochemistry.


Some examples of topics you will have to be familiar with to pass this section include the cell, embryogenesis, the endocrine system, the immune system, the cardiovascular system, genetics, amino acids, DNA/RNA, biological membranes, and metabolism.


Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems


The Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems section, also known as the Chem/Physics section, will require you to read passages on and solve problems regarding chemistry, physics, organic chemistry, and some biochemistry. These questions will cover the material you learned in introductory college courses. In addition, this section will require you to do some basic math without a calculator.


Topics you will have to be familiar with in order to pass this section include:

  • Stoichiometry
  • Chemical interactions
  • Redox interactions
  • Work and energy
  • Chemical kinetics
  • Wave and sounds
  • Thermodynamics
  • Fluids
  • Isomers
  • Nucleophiles/electrophiles
  • Enzyme kinetics
  • Laboratory techniques, etc.


Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior


The Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior section, also known as Psych/Soc for short, assesses your ability to look at psychology/sociology research and apply statistical principles. In this section, students assess behavioral data and sociocultural determinants of health.


Some examples of topics you will have to be familiar with for this area include behavior, psychological disorders, consciousness and sensation, stress, motivation, identity, development, social inequities, and demographics.


Critical Analysis and Reasoning Section (CARS)


Finally, the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Section, also known as CARS, will test your ability to read a passage, process and interpret the information, and answer questions about the passage. The topics of these passages can range from anything from literature to history to politics to philosophy. This is the only section where outside knowledge or previous memorization is not needed.


While studying for the MCAT, students will utilize a variety of different MCAT study resources, take multiple practice tests, and answer numerous practice questions.


Like any admissions exam, studying for the MCAT is a significant undertaking. Students should prioritize the exam and have ample time to study prior to taking their MCAT, regardless of what kind of test taker they are.


The MCAT is administered at Pearson testing centers in many cities across the country and students register in advance for a specific test day.





The USMLE exams are designed to test whether or not you’re ready to be a licensed physician. These exams test at a much deeper and more nuanced level than the MCAT and focus on content learned during medical school and residency.


USMLE Step 1


USMLE Step 1 is a one-day test that students will have eight hours to complete. The exam is divided into seven 60-minute blocks and each block has up to 40 questions. You will have one hour of break time that you can divide how you wish during test day. USMLE Step 1 tests the medical knowledge learned in the first two years of medical school.


Primarily, it focuses on the basic science underlying human disease states. Success on USMLE Step 1 requires in-depth understanding of human physiology, pathophysiology, pharmacology, and treatment paradigms spanning all medical disciplines. Medical students are often given multiple weeks of dedicated study time for USMLE Step 1, colloquially known as “dedicated,” in which students focus entirely on preparing for this examination.


Students often take multiple practice exams and do thousands of practice questions to prepare for USMLE Step 1. Step 1 is administered by Prometric at testing centers across the world. Students sign up for a test day well in advance.


USMLE Step 2


USMLE Step 2 CK is a one-day test that takes place during a 9-hour testing session. It is divided into eight 60-minute blocks and each block has up to 40 questions. You have up to one hour of break time that you can divide how you wish during test day.


Unlike Step 1, Step 2 CK focuses on evidence-based best practices and treatments across all medical disciplines. For example, Step 1 might test the molecular changes and basic science behind a cancer subtype, while Step 2 CK may test the specific screening guidelines and specific treatment protocols for said cancer.


Step 2 CK is often thought to be a comprehensive test of the third year of medical school. During MS3, most U.S. medical schools require students to pass “Shelf” exams for each clerkship. These shelf exams are specific for each clinical rotation.


For example, after you finish the OB-Gyn clerkship, you’ll have to pass the OB-Gyn shelf exam, which tests clinical best practices for OB and Gyn conditions. Step 2 CK is often thought of as a comprehensive combination of shelf exams of all the core clinical clerkships.


For U.S. M.D. schools, passing scores on both the USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 CK are required to graduate.


USMLE Step 3


USMLE Step 3 is a two day exam. The first day is a 7-hour testing session consisting of 232 multiple choice questions divided into six 60-minute blocks of 38-40 questions. There are 50 minutes of total break time that you may divide as you wish.


Day two is a 9-hour test session. This day includes 180 multiple choice questions divided into 6 45-minute blocks of 30 questions. There is also a 7-minute CCS tutorial that is followed by 13 case simulations, each of which is allotted a maximum of 10 or 20 minutes of real-time. There are 45 minutes available for break time on the second day.



MCAT vs. USMLE: How Are These Tests Scored and What Does My Score Mean?


For both these types of examinations, you will receive a scaled score, and you will not see your raw score. The conversion of the raw score to the scaled score is to compensate for small variations between questions, tests, and examinations.


MCAT Score


The number of correct answers determines your MCAT score. Wrong answers are scored the same as unanswered questions and do not affect your score. The MCAT examination is not graded on a curve. Instead, the MCAT examination is scaled and equated so that the score has the same meaning regardless of when you took your examination and how the other examinees did.


For the MCAT, you will receive a score for each section. These scores can range from 118 (lowest) to 132 (highest) with a midpoint of 125. You will also receive a total score which will be a sum of these four sections that will range from 472 to 528 with a mean of 500.


For example, if a student scored 127 on Bio/Biochem, 129 on Chem/Phys, 125 on CARs, and 127 on Psych/Soc, their total score would be 508.


You will also receive a percentile rank for your MCAT score. Every year, the AAMC updates the percentile ranks based on the last three years of data. Based on the 2021-2022 percentile, a score of 508 is in the 72nd percentile.


In comparison, a score of 490 is in the 17th percentile, a score of 500 is in the 45th percentile, and a score of 520 is in the 92nd percentile. The percentile ranks per section and total score can be found on the AAMC website.




Similarly to the MCAT, the USMLE raw score is converted to a three-digit scaled score. In addition, analyses are performed to identify any testing candidates who had an aberrant score pattern, and these students may be asked to provide an explanation for their testing behaviors.


The USMLE Step 1 is a pass/fail exam, while Step 2 and 3 are scored.


USMLE Step 2 CK scores range between 1 and 300. The passing score for USMLE Step 2 CK is 214. This exam is often considered the most important of the USMLE series, as the score has an effect on residency applications.


The USMLE Step 3 is similar to USMLE Step 2 where examinees receive a score between 1 and 300 with a passing score of 196.



How Long Does It Take to Get Your USMLE vs. MCAT Scores?


How Long Will It Take to Get My MCAT Score?


According to the AAMC website, scaling and equating the raw MCAT scores takes approximately 30-35 days. During these 30-35 days, students may also submit any concerns about exam questions or testing conditions. After 30-35 days you will receive your MCAT score by signing into your AAMC account.


How Long Will It Take to Get My USMLE Score?


Finalized scores from USMLE examinations should be received about three to four weeks after your test date. However, occasionally delays occur for various reasons that can result in a delay of up to eight weeks.


When it’s ready, you will receive an email that your USMLE score report is available and you are now able to access your score report. This report can be accessed for up to 365 days after you have taken the examination.



MCAT vs. USMLE Final Thoughts


When comparing the MCAT vs. the USMLE, all four exams (MCAT, USMLE Step 1, USMLE Step 2 CK, and USMLE Step 3) can seem overwhelming, particularly when you are new to medical school.


However, with the right amount of preparation, you can be very successful in these exams. Remember to give yourself enough time to study the material and focus on high yield content during your review. In addition, do plenty of practice questions and practice exams, as this is one of the best ways to prepare for exams like these.


Finally, use all the study resources available to you, and don’t hesitate to ask for help when you need it. For more help studying for medical exams, consider enlisting the help of an Elite Medical Prep 1-on-1 tutor! Schedule your complimentary consultation today to learn more.

Need additional
help with an exam?

Elite tutors are qualified, professional, and 100% online.

Schedule a Consult