MCAT vs. USMLE: What’s the Difference?

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Let’s be honest; becoming a doctor entails having to take several exams during your time as a medical student. And while these tests can be challenging and overwhelming, the right study schedule and preparation can take you a long way. For exams like the USMLE and MCAT you have to really understand the structure, material, and scoring methods. Keep reading as we delve into the MCAT vs. USMLE debate and touch on the crucial differences between them.

MCAT vs. USMLE: Key DifferencesMCAT vs. USMLE: Key Differences

First, let’s consider the key differences between the MCAT and USMLE exams:

Topics Covered in MCAT vs. USMLE


The MCAT takes around 7.5 hours to complete, and the MCAT syllabus consists of four sections, including:

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

We will now explain what each section covers:

a) Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Section (CARS) assesses your capacity to comprehend and analyze a passage, draw conclusions, and respond to questions based on the text. These texts can cover various subjects, encompassing everything from the arts to historical events, governance, and even philosophical discourse. This particular section is unique because it does not require prior knowledge to answer questions with ease.

b) Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems

The section on Biological and Biochemical Foundations requires you to read passages and respond to questions based on foundational biology and the basics of biochemistry as typically introduced in your early semesters.

To navigate this section successfully, you’ll need to be well-versed in several topics, such as cellular structure and function, embryonic development, circulatory system mechanics, genetic inheritance patterns, the architecture and role of biological membranes, metabolic processes, and much more.

c) Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behaviour

The Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior section is designed to evaluate your proficiency in analyzing research from psychology and sociology, followed by applying statistical concepts. You will have to read through behavioral data and the sociocultural factors that influence health.

It’s in your best interest to have a solid grasp of topics like human behavior, psychological disorders, stress mechanisms, the impact of social disparities, etc.

d) Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems

This section involves analyzing passages and addressing problems related to chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, and physics. The questions asked will require you to reflect on the knowledge you would have learned in entry-level college science courses. Additionally, you will have to carry out basic math without a calculator. Some topics in the Chem/Physics section include:

  • Chemical interactions
  • Chemical kinetics
  • Enzyme kinetics
  • Fluids
  • Laboratory techniques
  • Thermodynamics
  • Stoichiometry
  • Waves and Sounds


If you wish to become a licensed physician, you will have to clear the USMLE exams. The USMLE syllabus focuses on material learned during residency and medical school, and these three exams test med students on a much more nuanced and deeper level:

a) STEP 1

Essentially, the USMLE Step 1 focuses on the fundamental science that provides insight into the conditions affecting human health. Students must have a thorough comprehension of human physiology and pathophysiology, as well as a solid grasp of pharmacology and the treatment frameworks applicable across different medical specialties. It is common for medical students to receive several weeks to prepare for Step 1. This period is informally termed “dedicated,” during which candidates devote their full attention to studying for this critical exam. So, if you’re wondering whether the USMLE Step 1 is harder than MCAT, the answer is yes.

b) STEP 2

Unlike Step 1, Step 2 CK will test you on the application of evidence-based practices and treatments encompassing all medical fields. Where Step 1 might assess knowledge of the molecular alterations and foundational science of a particular cancer type, Step 2 CK is more likely to evaluate understanding of the appropriate screening strategies and established treatment options for that cancer.

Step 2 CK is usually seen as an assessment of a medical student’s third year, a crucial  time in medical education. In America, during the third year of medical school, students are required to succeed in “Shelf” exams that cater to each clinical rotation they undertake.

c) STEP 3

This exam is the last one in the USMLE series and is an essential step for those who want to practice medicine independently. USMLE Step 3 tests whether you possess medical knowledge and understanding of both biomedical and clinical science for managing patients in an outpatient setting without supervision. The content of the examination, which comprises both test items and clinical cases, is similar to clinical scenarios that a general physician is likely to face. The areas covered in the exam are disease categories, human growth and development, general principles, and basic concepts.

Exam Structure in MCAT vs. USMLE


The MCAT is administered by the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges). This multiple-choice examination is designed to measure your problem-solving abilities, critical thinking skills, and grasp of key concepts within the pre-medical curriculum. It serves as the gateway test that prospective medical students must take and pass before submitting applications to medical schools.


The USMLE is a three-part exam necessary for licensed practitioners in the U.S. The purpose of these exams is to gauge a physician’s competency in applying their medical knowledge to patient care. Step 1 is typically taken at the end of a student’s second year at medical school, while most students sit for STEP 2 in their fourth year. Finally, STEP 3 is taken in the latter part of the residency’s intern year. The STEP exams are several hours long with multiple-choice and block questions.

MCAT Scores vs. USMLE Scores


Your performance on the MCAT depends on the number of questions you answer correctly. There is no penalty for incorrect answers, as they are treated the same as questions you don’t answer. There is no curve score that compares test takers against each other. Rather, the exam uses a scaling method, ensuring that scores are consistent across different test dates and are not influenced by the performance of others who took the exam at the same time.

Each of the four sections of the MCAT has its own scoring range, with the lowest possible score being 118, the highest 132, and a median score 125. The sum of these section scores gives you your total score, which ranges from 472 to 528.


Like the MCAT, USMLE results are not sent as raw scores but are converted to a three-digit scaled score. This standardization process ensures comparability across all test forms and administrations. For the USMLE Step 1 passing score, your result will be given as either pass or fail, which means the actual score doesn’t matter. However, for Steps 2 and 3, exact scores are provided.

The scoring for USMLE Step 2 CK falls on a scale from 1 to 300, with a minimum passing score of 214. And while USMLE Step 3 also operates on the 1 to 300 scoring scale, there is a slightly lower passing threshold set at 196.

When to Take MCAT vs. USMLE?

Perhaps you’re unsure when to take the MCAT vs. USMLE. Fear not, because we explain when both exams should be taken by medical students below:

  • The USMLE is taken after graduation and during medical school, while the MCAT is taken before you join medical school.
  • Your MCAT results are mainly significant for medical school admissions. In contrast, USMLE results are utilized by residency programs to determine whether you will fit into their program.

MCAT vs. USMLE: Exam Preparation and Strategies

MCAT vs. USMLE: Exam Preparation and Strategies

Sure, both the MCAT and USMLE exams are hard, but that doesn’t mean they’re impossible to pass or even ace. With the right preparation, you can successfully clear them and come one step closer to moving up in your future career. Here are some effective exam preparation strategies you can implement for the exams to do well:

MCAT Study Tips

When preparing for the MCAT, a strategic and well-structured study plan is crucial:

  • Establish a Balanced Study Schedule: Dedicate a consistent number of study hours each week to ensure that you cover every MCAT section thoroughly. Try finding a balance between study time and breaks to maintain focus and prevent burnout.
  • Understand the Exam Structure: Familiarize yourself with the format of the MCAT, including the types of questions, section timings, and the scoring system. This will help you manage your time effectively during the actual exam.
  • Focus on High-Yield Material: Concentrate on topics that are frequently tested. While it’s important to have a comprehensive understanding, prioritizing major topics can make your study sessions more efficient.
  • Practice with Full-Length Tests: Regularly take full-length practice exams under timed conditions, as this will help you get accustomed to the pace required for the actual MCAT.
  • Review Your Answers: After completing practice tests or questions, thoroughly review both correct and incorrect answers to understand your reasoning and learn from any mistakes.
  • Join a Study Group: Collaborating with peers can provide support, allow knowledge sharing, and make studying for the MCAT more engaging.
  • Focus on Critical Analysis and Reasoning: Improve your CARS section performance by reading diverse materials, practicing passage analysis, and developing critical thinking skills.
  • Maintain Physical and Mental Health: Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and adequate sleep are crucial. They can improve your cognitive function and overall efficiency in studying.

USMLE Study Tips

Steadfast dedication, combined with these strategic study tips, will prepare you to perform your best on the USMLE exams:

  • Study Clinical Scenarios: Given the clinical focus of the USMLE, especially in Steps 2 and 3, integrate your study with clinical scenarios to improve your medical knowledge and application.
  • Incorporate Review Courses: Consider enrolling in specialized USMLE review courses since these can offer a structured and focused study approach tailored specifically for the exam’s unique format.
  • Master Time Management: Practice pacing yourself to handle the USMLE’s lengthy blocks of questions within the allocated time.
  • Emphasize Step 2 CK and Step 3 Preparation: Focus more on the clinical aspects of medicine, as these will be heavily tested in the later steps of the USMLE, compared to basic science in Step 1.
  • Utilize Clinical Vignettes: Use resources that offer clinical vignettes, as these are a staple of USMLE questions and demand a different approach compared to basic science questions.
  • Focus on Diagnostic Skills: For USMLE preparation, prioritize developing your diagnostic skills, which will be crucial for answering the clinical case questions accurately.
  • Regularly Update Your Knowledge: Keep up with updates regarding clinical guidelines and treatments because USMLE questions often reflect current best practices in medicine.
  • Engage with Clinical Rotations: If you are at the clinical rotation stage, use them as a live study aid and apply what you learn each day to your ongoing USMLE prep.

MCAT vs. USMLE: Which Exam is Harder?

MCAT vs. USMLE: Which Exam is Harder?

So, which is harder? MCAT or USMLE? Determining whether the MCAT or the USMLE is harder is subjective and varies based on individual strengths and academic backgrounds. The MCAT is considered a gateway exam that tests foundational knowledge and reasoning skills required for medical school admission. On the other hand, the USMLE assesses one’s ability to apply medical knowledge in practical, clinical scenarios progressively through medical school and into residency.

Each exam presents unique challenges; the MCAT covers a broad range of pre-medical knowledge, whereas the USMLE series demands a deep understanding of clinical medicine and patient care over several years of study. For this reason, some may find the breadth of topics on the MCAT daunting, while others may struggle with the depth and clinical application emphasized in the USMLE.

What Exam Should You Take First Between MCAT and USMLE?

What Exam Should You Take First Between MCAT and USMLE?

You’ll need to take the MCAT first, as it’s the test for getting into med school. Think of it as your ticket into the medical field. After you’re in med school and learning about treating patients, that’s when you’ll tackle the USMLE exams. The MCAT is about showing you’re ready for med school, while the USMLE is for when you’re on your way to becoming a doctor. So, start with the MCAT, and then, as you go through med school, you can work on the USMLE.

Wrapping Things Up: MCAT vs. USMLE: What’s the Difference?

Now that you know the major differences between all the exams, such as MCAT vs. USMLE, USMLE Step 1 vs. Step 2, MCAT vs. USMLE Step 1, etc, you can start the journey of preparing for these exams. All four of these exams can be overwhelming, especially if you’re about to start med school. Don’t hesitate to ask for help and use the various study materials provided to you. Remember, anything is achievable if you give yourself enough time to study and attempt all the exams with confidence.

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Professor Conquer

Professor Conquer started Conquer Your Exam in 2018 to help students feel more confident and better prepared for their tough tests. Prof excelled in high school, graduating top of his class and receiving admissions into several Ivy League and top 15 schools. He has helped many students through the years tutoring and mentoring K-12, consulting seniors through the college admissions process, and writing extensive how-to guides for school.

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