Information for Amherst College MCAT Self-Preparers

by Prof. Steve George


Many Amherst students don't need to take a commercial review course to do well on the MCAT.


This is especially true for science majors, and non-science majors who have done well in the premedical science courses at Amherst. Year after year, the highest scores any Amherst students and graduates receive on the MCAT are earned by students who prepared without taking Kaplan or Princeton Review courses.


It's important to prepare steadily over several months, and to do full-length practice tests.


The two most important components of successful on-your-own preparation are         

  1. having the discipline to set aside a modest amount of time regularly over several months before the date of the exam, and
  2. making good use of available materials, particularly practice tests. The preparation time required is a usually few hours per week over about 4 months, plus several all-day sessions taking full-length practice tests during the 8 weeks or so before the test date.


The MCAT has four parts, but only three of them are important.


The MCAT has four components, one of which (the Writing Sample) is mostly ignored by medical schools. The other three components, which are all about equally important in admissions, are multiple choice tests: Physical Sciences (PS), which includes non-organic chemistry as well as physics; Verbal Reasoning (VR), and Biological Sciences (BS), which includes organic chemistry as well as biology.


The test assumes only the content of minimum premed science courses.


The Physical and Biological Sciences portions are based on what the MCAT test-writers believe are normally covered in the minimum required premedical science courses, i.e. 2 semesters of introductory biology, 4 semesters of chemistry through organic, and 2 semesters of introductory non-calculus physics. Advanced material such as you would encounter in Amherst's Biochemistry course are not on the exam.


However, some assumed material isn't covered in Amherst's introductory science courses.


For example, Bio. 18 and 19 don't cover basic physiology (e.g. how the heart, kidney, and brain work), and also basic immunology (e.g. blood types), to the extent assumed by the test-writers. Also, physics subjects that are sometimes not covered in physics 16/17 or 23/24 are tested, including sound, elasticity, buoyancy, and optics. Therefore most of your preparation will involve review, but you do have learn a few new topics unless you happen to have studied these in upper-level biology or physics courses.


The MCAT format is nothing like tests in Amherst science courses.


The tests are much easier than most Amherst science exams, but you have to become familiar with the format. Most questions are associated with a "passage," which is a description of a scientific experiment, an area of research, or even a piece of scientific equipment. The passage is followed by between 6 and 9 multiple choice questions. Very often the answer to the questions is in the passage itself, or if it isn't there explicitly it can be found from the information in the passage by applying basic knowledge and skills, such as reading a graph or a table of data.


Different approaches work best for different students.


One of your goals in the early portion of your preparation for the MCAT will be to find an approach to the exam that you are comfortable with. You may do best by skimming the passages, then skimming the questions, and finally going back to the passage to answer each specific question. Or, maybe your most effective style is to read the passage more carefully before looking at the questions at all. What works best may be different for different components of the MCAT (VR, PS and BS) and is very dependent on how fast you work, since time is a big factor in the exam. For example, the PS and BS sections have 77 questions to be answered in 100 minutes, which averages to 1 minute and 18 seconds per question. So, a passage with 7 questions should take you 9 minutes altogther, including reading the passage. No single approach is right for everyone; it all depends on your style of reading and thinking.




The PS, VR, and BS test scores are reported on a scale of 1 to 15. Raw scores are scaled on each test to control for the level of difficulty of any given test. The scaling results in the national average for each test being approximately 8, with a standard deviation of 2.5. Thus each additional integer above or below 8 represents about 0.4 standard deviations away from the mean. If you look up a table of the normal distribution (don't worry - it's not covered on the MCAT!), this means for example that about 21% of test-takers score 10 or above on any given test. About 5.5% get 12 or above. Amherst students usually need a total score of 28 or 29 on the three tests to be accepted to at least one less-selective medical school, and 32-35 to be accepted to at least one of the more selective schools. It is preferable to have no single score below "9." Thus, with a 28 total, 10 9 9 may be OK, but 11 9 8 is less desirable.


Use official AAMC materials, and perhaps a non-AAMC prep book, to prepare.


The most useful materials are those published by the MCAT program itself, because they are authentic, rather than being someone else's idea of what may be on the exam. 


You should make use of all available free materials from the MCAT program:


(1) Access the AAMC's web site.  Check the information about registration (link in right-hand sidebar).            


(2)  Download and read the entire Student Manual, which is linked to in the right sidebar.  Read the Student Manual thoroughly.  The manual contains general information about the test; most important, lists of "sample topics and skills assessed" for each test. The "sample topics," which consist of detailed lists of subjects covered, are vital reading at an early stage in your preparation, to find out which subjects you need to learn anew, and which need only to be reviewed.


(3) Several sources provide passages and questions for practice without actually taking a full practice test.  The AAMC provides some sample items taken from a previous MCAT ("Test III"), but accessing these "wastes" that test for use as a full-length practice test. Those who signed up and received a packet of MCAT materials from Prof. George have two booklets of practice items, one for Verbal and one for Physical and Biological Sciences. Additional practice items are available in the Course Documents section of an MCAT web site managed by Prof. George.  Send e-mail to if you would like to have access to this site.


(4) Full-length practice tests - your most important resource; see the section on Practice tests below. 


(5) Many prep books by people and companies not associated with the MCAT program can be purchased new for around $50 - $70 each; used copies are cheaper.  An search on "MCAT preparation" turned up 141 entries.


Consider working with others as you prepare


One of the best ways to learn something is to teach it, as your Amherst profs. know from experience.  If you can, work with one or more other students who are preparing to take the MCAT at the same time as you will take it. Divide up the subjects you haven't studied yet, and prepare a "class" on the subject for the others, including some passages taken from sources of practice questions which you can work through together. Working with others also means scheduling times to get together, which can help in disciplining yourself to set aside time regularly. (Being forced to schedule time for MCAT preparation is the main reason cited by Amherst students who take one of the commercial review courses.)



Full-length practice tests from the MCAT program are the most important part of your preparation.


These are actual previously used MCAT exams, and as such they are absolutely essential in your preparation. The practice tests provided by commercial review

courses are not actual MCATs, and they may be written intentionally to be more or less difficult than the actual exam, because the review courses use their idea of psychology to make people feel scared or confident, depending on when the test is administered as their prep courses proceed.  Some of these courses "guarantee" a specific increase in scores, which induces them to start with hard tests.


Don't use the practice tests when studying particular subjects - keep them to take in the exact format and time of the actual test, so you will gain practice in how to approach the whole test day.


Nine previously administered actual MCAT exams have been released by the AAMC, although the first two (Tests 1 and 2) are no longer provided by the AAMC.  A new test has been released every couple of years since the current MCAT format came into existence in 1992. The more recently released tests are more useful than the earlier ones, since the recently released ones have more complete scoring (i.e. not just correct answers but also scaled scoring on the 1 to 15 scale), and tests 5 and 6 have explanations of each answer. So, take the tests in order. If at all possible and especially for the last few exams set aside a full day according to the exact schedule of the exam (9 AM to 4:15 PM), so you will become completely familiar with the rhythm of the test day.


Practice tests 7, 8, and 9 were released in the last 3 years, but these are available only by paying for on-line access, not for example .pdf which could be widely distributed (undoubtedly why they havenít made a pdf available!).   If you work through the 6 printed tests and still have time before the MCAT day, it may be worth the $40 they charge to access one or more of tests 7 - 9 online.


The 6 printed practice tests are included in a packet available at the Career Center.  Unfortunately there are only a few packets available. Here is the rundown on the availability of the 6 printed tests, if you don't have one of the packets:


Note two changes in tests from now on that won't be reflected in the existing 6 practice tests: (1) the order of the tests from now on is Physical, Verbal, Writing, Biological. The past order was Verbal, Physical, Writing, Biological, i.e. the order of Physical and Verbal was reversed. Take the practice tests in the new order, rather than the order in the test booklet. (2) The Verbal test from now on will contain 60 questions instead of 65. There will still be the same number of passages (9) and the test will take the same time as before (85 minutes) but there will be 5 fewer questions than before.


Here is the schedule for the test day.  Note Physical Sciences comes first now, unlike on the practice tests which have the old format of starting with Verbal Reasoning.  Follow this schedule exactly when you take your practice tests, so you will be familiar with the rhythm of the exam when you actually take the MCAT. 


9:00 - 10:40 Physical Sciences

10:40 - 10:50 Rest period

10:50 - 12:15 Verbal Reasoning

12:15 - 1:15 Lunch break

1:15 - 2:15 Writing Sample

2:15 - 2:25 Rest period

2:25 - 4:05 Biological Sciences


A suggested approach to self-study


One approach would be to devote time during Interterm to getting a good start on your studying. It will be easier to schedule study-group meetings with others during Interterm, and more possible to set aside full days to doing practice tests. Consider planning to take Practice Tests I, II, and III on three Fridays or Saturdays during interterm. This will give you a good orientation to the tests, and the results will show which subjects you need to concentrate on. Then take Tests IV, V, and VI spread out during Spring semester.   The April 2006 MCAT takes place on Saturday, April 22, so you could take the tests on Saturdays 6 weeks, 4 weeks, and 2 weeks before the MCAT. That's March 11, March 25, and April 8.


For almost all Amherst students, it is not the best use of time to simply go over textbooks and notes from science courses you have taken, except in cases where you know you lack basic knowledge. Most of your time should be spent in going over sample MCAT passages and questions, as well as taking practice tests, going back over wrong answers to see where you went wrong, and only then going back to texts and notes to learn what you were missing before. Passages can be taken from the Practice Items booklets, a prep book, or web sources.


Best wishes for a successful MCAT!


| Maintained by Steve George | Home page | Last modified: 12 July 2006 |