The Questions You’ll See on the MCAT – With MCAT Sample Questions!
The MCAT examination is designed to test your content knowledge in a variety of science subjects as well as your critical reasoning skills. The MCAT is broken down into four sections: General Chemistry/Organic Chemistry/Physics; General Biology/Biochemistry; Psychology/Sociology and CARS (critical analysis and reasoning skills). In this blog post, we will focus on the types of questions you’ll be seeing, and how you should approach them. We’ll include some MCAT sample questions to help out with this.
The 6-hour 15-minute exam consists of 230 questions. The breakdown of the questions in each section is 10 passages with 4-7 questions and 15 stand-alone questions in each of the three science sections and 9 passages in the CARS section.
One key to being successful on the MCAT examination is knowing the types of questions you will face and what they are trying to assess with these questions. Each section is a little different in this, so let’s discuss what type of questions you’ll see in each section.
Understanding the Science Sections
Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
In the first section of the MCAT you will be given 59 total questions. These will be divided into 10 passages that will have a total of 44 passage-related questions (although the exact number of questions for each passage will vary) and 15 stand-alone questions. You will be given 95 minutes for this, and all other sections of the MCAT.
The general breakdown of the topics in this section is General Chemistry (25-30%), Physics (25%), Biochemistry (20-25%), Organic Chemistry (15-20%), and Biology (5%).
In this section, you will be combining your understanding of chemistry and physics with that of biological sciences. It is important to have a strong understanding of these concepts so that they can be applied to mechanisms of the human body, which is a common way the MCAT sometimes likes to test these concepts.
Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
Just like the Chemical and Physical Foundation of Biological System section, it also consists of 59 questions where 44 are related to 10 separate passages and there are 15 stand-alone discrete questions.
The general breakdown of the topics in this section are: General Biology (60-65%) Biochemistry (25-30%), Chemistry (5%), and Organic Chemistry (5%). That’s right! You might still see some chemistry in this section, just as you might see biology in the Chemistry and Physics section. Intertwining these different topics to test various concepts is an MCAT favorite.
For example. they might be asking about pH within the body, making it a biology question but testing if you understand the general principle of free H atoms, acid/base, and pH calculations which are a chemistry topic.
Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
The Psychology and Sociology section of the MCAT follows suit with the other science-based sections. It is a 95-minute section with 44 passage-based questions and 15 stand-alone questions.
This section is broken down into Psychology/Statistics (65%), Sociology (30%), and Biology (5%).
This section was one of the biggest changes to the MCAT when the exam changed to its new format in 2015. The purpose of this important section is to assess how you understand research and statistical principles when they are applied to psychology and sociology. It also requires you to have a strong understanding of social determinants of health and health outcomes. Understanding how these principles affect biological health is important not just for the MCAT but for your journey to becoming a physician.
MCAT Passage Based vs. Stand-Alone Questions in the Science Sections: Sample Questions Included
As discussed, the three science sections all have 44-passage-based questions and 15 stand-alone questions.
The standalone questions are purely testing your understanding of a certain concept. If you have studied the material thoroughly you should be able to answer these pretty easily. Let’s take a look at some MCAT sample questions to see what this may look like. This one is a stand-alone question in the biology section:
A yellow flower is mated with a red flower, resulting in orange progeny. This is an example of:
- Incomplete dominance
- Complete dominance
This question requires you to know basic genetics principles, but you either know this is describing incomplete dominance (C) or you don’t know. The stand-alone questions are each designed to test a specific concept or two.
Passage based questions simultaneously test your scientific knowledge and your critical reasoning skills. To tackle these, you should first skim the first passage so you know the general concept of the passage (for example is this physics or organic chemistry or biochemistry), and then look through the answers. You might find there are questions you can answer without reading the passage! Let’s take a look at another one of our MCAT sample questions:
In paragraph 2, the scientists distinguish between the neurohypophysis and the adenohypophysis. Which of the following hormones are secreted by the neurohypophysis?
- A) Epinephrine
- B) Oxytocin
- C) Progesterone
- D) Aldosterone
A question like this is really just seeing if you know that the neurohypophysis refers to the posterior pituitary which only secretes oxytocin and ADH. Even though the question references the passage, it can be answered just using your scientific knowledge.
Another sort of passage-based question you may come across is those related to graph reading. They may say something like “According to Figure 2…” or “What conclusions can be drawn from Figure 1”. These questions are often just testing your graph reading abilities and can often be answered by just observing the figure and reading how the study in the passage was designed.
Finally, the most challenging types of passage-based questions in the science section are focused on testing if you really understood the passage. These questions can only be answered if you understood the main points of the passage. These questions can either ask you specifically about something in the passage or might even ask you to apply the concepts from the passage to another scenario. The latter type of question can be challenging as it requires you to reasonably extrapolate. Those MCAT questions might look something like this:
Suppose the lab has concluded research trials and has begun human trials with Drug X. If Drug X was given to a patient which of the following symptoms is this patient most likely to experience?
- A) Pupil constriction
- B) Increase in sweating
- C) Increased urinary output
- D) Blood vessel constriction
For a question like this perhaps they discussed an animal study and mentioned that a side effect of the drug was overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system. Then a question like this would require you to know what the differences between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are and how those manifest in humans. In this example, only increased sweating is a symptom of sympathetic nervous system activation. However, as you can see this requires you to put multiple pieces of information together. Although these questions can be challenging with some practice, you can tackle them!
Types of Questions in CARS: More MCAT Sample Questions
The CARS section is unique in that it only has passage-based questions. These questions can be divided into five big categories:
- Main Idea
- Passage Detail
- Implication/ Inference
The Main Idea questions are the most straightforward questions in the CARS section because they ask you if you understood the passage. Here are some MCAT sample questions to give you any idea of what this may look like:
“The author’s central argument states…”
“What is the author’s greatest concern?”
“Which of the following summarizes the main idea of the passage”
The Passage Detail questions are similar to the Main Idea questions in that the answer can be directly found in the passage. However, these require you to focus in on a specific section of the passage and test to see if you understood a specific point within the passage. These may look something like this:
“Based on paragraph 2, the work of Maya Angelou was primarily viewed as”
“The author believes all the following about the fall of the Roman empire except”
“Which of the following assertions most closely resemble the author’s belief on the role of Alexander Dumas on…”
Implication and Inference Questions are seeing if you understood the view of the passage as a whole so that you can “read between the lines”. These questions can be tricky as the answer may not be directly inside of the passage but often asks you to understand what the author is trying to say without explicitly stating it. Process of Elimination is the best tool to answer questions like these. They might look something like:
“Regarding Shakespeare’s twelfth night the Author implies which of the following?”
“The passage implies the difference between an MPP and MPH is primarily based on”
“It is reasonable to conclude the author believes what about Rudyard Kipling?”
“According to the author, those on the other side of this debate wrongfully assume which of the following?”
Arguably, the most challenging type of question in this section is the one that requires you to extrapolate based on the passage or the Application/Extrapolation questions. These questions require you to have a strong enough grasp of the knowledge that you are able to predict the outcome of a new situation based on what you read in the passage. These questions might look something like this:
“Based on the passage, what would the author most likely think of a modern rendition of Othello?”
“Based on the author’s opinion of George Washington, the author is most likely to disagree with which of the following statements?”
The MCAT is a long difficult exam, with many different questions and requires you to have a solid knowledge base on a variety of subjects.
However, a key part of doing well is understanding the type of questions you might be asked and how to tackle them. This is one of many tips and tricks to doing well on the MCAT and tackling this important and daunting exam, but with this knowledge, you are now one step closer to your target score!