MCAT vs. USMLE: What’s the Difference?
As someone who is interested in pursuing a career in medicine or has already begun that journey, you might know that there are a lot of exams that stand between you and the title “Doctor”. These tests may seem daunting, but with the right preparation, you can tackle these tests to get the USMLE or MCAT score you want. A key to being prepared for exams like the MCAT vs. USMLE exams is really understanding what these exams are testing, how they are structured, and how they are scored.
What is the Purpose of the MCAT vs. USMLE Exams?
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.
USMLE (United States Medical Licensing Examination) is a three-step examination for medical licensure for those in the United States. These exams are taken during your 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.
What is Tested on MCAT vs. USMLE?
The MCAT is a 7.5-hour exam that consists of four sections: 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).
All the sections except for CARS are 59 multiple choice questions that you 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.
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 for this area include: the cell, embryogenesis, the endocrine system, the immune system, the cardiovascular system, genetics, amino acids, DNA/RNA, biological membranes, and metabolism.
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. They will span the material you cover in the introductory level of these courses in college. In addition, of all the sections this section will require you to do some basic math without a calculator.
Some examples of topics you will have to be familiar with for this area include: stoichiometry, chemical interactions, redox interactions, work and energy, chemical kinetics, wave and sounds, thermodynamics, fluids, isomers, nucleophiles/electrophiles, enzyme kinetics, laboratory techniques, etc.
The Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior also known as Psych/Soc for short assess your ability to look at psychology/sociology research and apply statistical principles. You will also be asked to 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.
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.
In studying for the MCAT, students will utilize a variety of different study resources, take multiple practice tests, and answer numerous practice questions. Like any admissions exam, studying for the MCAT is a significant undertaking and students should prioritize having ample time to study prior to taking their exam. 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 your preparation 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 instead of what was learned during the pre-medical curriculum in undergrad. USMLE Step 1 is a one-day test that takes place during an 8-hour testing session. The exam is divided into seven 60-minute blocks and each block has up to 40 questions. You are given 1 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, and students sign up for a test day well in advance.
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 1 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. MD schools, a passing score on both USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 CK are required to graduate from medical school.
USMLE Step 3 is a two-day examination. 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 is 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.
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 also not graded on a curve. 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, is a student scored 127 on Bio/Biochem; 129 or 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 three years of data. Based on the 2021-2022 percentile ranks for the MCAT a score of 508 is 72nd percentile. In comparison, a score of 490 is 17th percentile, a score of 500 is 45th percentile and a score of 520 is 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.
Starting January 26th 2022, USMLE Step 1 will become pass/fail. Prior to this, examinees received a score between 1 and 300, however most testers fall in the range of 140 and 260. A score of 194 was needed to pass. Prior to the change of USMLE Step 1 to pass/fail scoring, a medical student’s Step 1 score was significant aspect of residency applications.
Similarly, USMLE Step 2 CK scores range between 1 and 300. However, the passing score is higher than USMLE Step 1. The passing score for USMLE Step 2 CK is a 209. Since USMLE Step 2 is not a pass/fail exam as of 2022, it is thought that the emphasis that used to have been placed upon Step 1 scores for evaluation of residency applications may be shifted to USMLE Step 2 CK.
The USMLE Step 3 is similar to the other USMLE examinations where examinees receive a score between 1 and 300 with a passing score is a 198.
How Long Does It Take to Get USMLE and MCAT Score?
How Long Will It Take to Get My MCAT Score?
According to the AAMC website, scaling and equating the raw MCAT scores to the scaled 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?
All USMLE examinations take about 3-4 weeks after your test date. However, occasionally delays occur for various reasons that can result in a delay of up to 8 weeks. You will receive an email that your USMLE score report is available and can access your score report. This report can be accessed for up to 365 days after you have taken the examination.
When considering the differences between MCAT vs. USMLE, all four exams (MCAT, USMLE Step 1, USMLE Step 2 CK and USMLE Step 3) can seem overwhelming when you are early on your journey to becoming a physician. However, with the right kind and right amount of preparation you can be very successful in these exams. Remember to give yourself enough time to study and learn the material and focus on high yield content during your review. In addition, do enough practice questions and practice exams because this is one of the best ways to practice 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.