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What can I expect in the Physical Sciences section?

The Physical Sciences section consists of 52 multiple-choice questions either passage-based or discrete. Of the 52 total questions, 39 are passage-based and 13 are discrete. The questions test your reasoning in general chemistry and physics. The scientific competencies you will be expected to demonstrate are drawn from basic principles and concepts in these two disciplines and are taught at the introductory level at the vast majority of undergraduate institutions. Advanced coursework in chemistry and physics is not needed for the test.

See the cognitive skills tested as well as the topics tested on the physical sciences sections on the Preparing for the MCAT Exam page. You are expected to be able to apply your background knowledge of these topic areas and their subdivisions to situations or problems you may not have previously encountered.

Do I have to know the equations?

You should know those equations and constants commonly used in introductory courses as well as those listed specifically in the content outline. Other necessary constants and conversion factors are provided with the test questions. In addition, a periodic table of the elements, including atomic numbers and atomic weights, is provided in the exam.

Does the content of the exam differ from the content in my classes?

Because the content outline focuses primarily on areas necessary to preparing for the study of medicine, it may differ in several important ways from the content of your introductory courses:

  • Some topics, which are important to the discipline as a whole and normally covered in undergraduate courses, have been omitted from the MCAT because they are not as relevant to the study of medicine as are the topics included.
  • The organization of the topics in the outline may differ from that of the topics presented in your courses.
  • Some of the topics included in the outline may not have been emphasized in your school's introductory undergraduate courses.

Treatment of the topics included on the test varies among institutions in terms of approach and depth of coverage. Despite this variability in undergraduate courses, adequate information on the outlined topics can be found in introductory college science textbooks.

What types of questions are on the exam?

The passages accompanying each set of questions on the Physical Sciences section will be presented in one of four formats. The number of problem sets in each format is approximately equal.

  • Information presentation. These passages are presented in the form of textbook or journal articles. The materials assume the appropriate background knowledge but also contain new information or new uses of information. The accompanying questions test your understanding and evaluation of the given information and your ability to use the information in various ways.
  • Problem solving. These passages describe problems of general chemistry or physics. The questions require you to determine the probable causes of the situations, events, or phenomena described and to select appropriate methods for solving the problems.
  • Research study. These passages document all or part of the rationales, methods, and results of research projects. The questions test your understanding of the projects.
  • Persuasive argument. These passages are designed to convince the reader that particular perspectives, methodologies, pieces of evidence, or products are correct. The passages may express single viewpoints or two opposing points of view. The questions test your understanding of the arguments presented in the passages and ask you to evaluate the validity of the arguments.

How much math do I need to know?

To solve some of the problems in the Physical Sciences section, you will need to understand and be able to use the mathematics concepts listed below. Such knowledge is typically required of students in introductory science courses. This includes:

  • The ability to perform arithmetic calculations, including proportion, ratio, percentage, and estimation of square root.
  • An understanding of fundamental topics in the following areas (at the level of second-year high school algebra coursework): exponentials and logarithms (natural and base ten); scientific notation; quadratic and simultaneous equations; graphic representations of data and functions including terminology (abscissa, ordinate), slope or rate of change, reciprocals, and various scales (arithmetic, semi-log, and log-log).
  • The knowledge of the definitions of the basic trigonometric functions (sine, cosine, tangent); sin and cos values of of 0º, 90º, and 180º; the relationships between the lengths of sides of right triangles containing angles of 30º, 45º, and 60º; the inverse trigonometric functions (arcsin, arccos, arctan).
  • The use of metric units; the ability to balance equations containing physical units. Conversion factors between metric and British systems will be provided when needed.
  • An understanding of relative magnitude of experimental error and of the effect of propagation of error; an understanding of reasonable estimates and the significant digits of a measurement.
  • The ability to calculate at an elementary level the mathematical probability of an event.
  • An understanding of vector addition, vector subtraction, and right-hand rule is required. Dot and cross products are not required.
  • The ability to calculate the arithmetic mean (average) and range of a set of numerical data; an understanding of the standard deviation as a measure of variability; an understanding of the general concepts of statistical association and correlation. Calculation of statistics such as standard deviations and correlation coefficients is not required.
  • An understanding of calculus is not required.

How much chemistry do I need to know?

You should be familiar enough with such topics as solution chemistry, thermodynamics, kinetics, and electrochemistry and with the fundamentals of stoichiometry, electronic structure, bonding, phase equilibria, and acids and bases to solve basic chemistry problems and evaluate research in general chemistry. These concepts constitute the background knowledge you will need in order to answer questions, even though the questions may deal with situations or problems you have not yet previously encountered.

How much physics do I need to know?

Topics also include mechanics, wave motion, electricity and magnetism, light and optics, and modern physics. You should be prepared to apply your knowledge of these concepts to experimental situations. You will also need to be familiar with the conventions of problem solving in physics.



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