usmle vs mcat

USMLE vs MCAT: What is The Difference? [Fully Explained]

USMLE is another important exam a student will need to pass before being able to practice as a doctor. Read on to know the differences between USMLE vs MCAT.

June 14, 2022

It takes a lot of effort to get into the medical field. And many years of studies. It can be a very lucrative and rewarding endeavor, but it can also be extremely difficult. It’s challenging enough to get into a top medical school. In order to become full-fledged doctors of medicine, prospective medical doctors must also pass a variety of qualifying and licensing exams.

The MCAT and USMLE are two of the most important tests that aspiring doctors must take. What are these tests, though? Is USMLE harder than MCAT? And what are the differences between USMLE vs MCAT? Follow this article to find out the answers.

usmle vs mcat

Definition of USMLE Exam vs MCAT

Let’s start by defining these two medical exams so we can better understand why they’re both required to become medical professionals.

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a computer-based standardized exam for candidates applying for admission to medical schools in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the Caribbean Islands. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) manages it.

On the other hand, the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), is an exam for medical licensure in the United States sponsored by the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) and the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB).  This exam is required for physicians who wish to study medicine in the United States.

Purpose of The USMLE vs MCAT Exams

The American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) developed and administers the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test). It’s a multiple-choice exam designed to examine your problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and knowledge of pre-medical topics. This is the exam you must pass before applying to medical school. Your MCAT score is a significant part of your medical school application, along with your undergraduate GPA, essays, and letters of recommendation.

USMLE (the United States Medical Licensing Examination) is a three-part exam for medical licensure in the United States. These tests are given during your medical training (medical school and residency) and assess a physician’s ability to use what they’ve 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 medical school’s second year. The second part of the USMLE tests, USMLE Step 2 Clinical Knowledge, is normally taken in the fourth year. Finally, towards the end of the intern year of residency, the last USMLE, USMLE Step 3, is taken. You could apply for a medical license after passing this third exam.

Exam structure

The MCAT and the USMLE are very different in terms of how they are administered and constructed.

The MCAT is completely made up of multiple-choice questions and is divided into four sections, each of which is scored separately. Each section has 50 to 60 questions and takes 90 to 95 minutes to complete. The exam will last approximately 7.5 hours, including the time spent between sections. Students take the exam on a computer at a testing center in one day.

Meanwhile, the USMLE is very fragmented in that it must be taken several times throughout medical school and residency. Unlike the MCAT, the exam is divided into three parts and includes both computer-based tests and practical exams. Step 2, Clinical Skills, in particular, requires students to demonstrate their understanding of examining and diagnosing patients by encounters with standardized patients.

Step 1 is an 8-hour sit-in multiple-choice exam taken during the second year of medical school. Step 2 is a two-part exam taken during the fourth year of medical school. The first part, Clinical Knowledge, is a nine-hour multiple-choice and computer-based case simulation exam. The second part, as previously noted, is a hands-on exam called Clinical Skills.

The USMLE Step 3 exam, which is also a two-day exam, is taken during the first year of residency. The exam consists of multiple-choice questions and computer-based case simulations.

Content of the Exams

Test takers will notice that the MCAT and the USMLE have significantly different topics. The MCAT is divided into three sections: biological sciences, reasoning skills, and physical sciences, including chemistry. The content is not especially medical science specific. To further illustrate, here is a breakdown of the MCAT content in the following table:

SectionNo. of QuestionsMinutes
Chemical & Physical Foundations of Biological Systems5995
Critical Analysis & Reasoning Skills5390
Biological & Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems5995
Psychological, Social & Biological Foundations of Behavior5995

In contrast, the USMLE content is highly medical-specific.

  • In USMLE Step 1, the students will encounter topics such as biochemistry, anatomy, and pharmacology. 
  • In USMLE Step 2 Clinical Knowledge, graduates are tested on their understanding of particular medical procedures, like internal medicine, psychiatry, obstetrics, surgery, and, pediatrics. 
  • The second part of USMLE Step 2, Clinical Skills, focuses on the student’s ability and knowledge in acquiring patient information, diagnosing the patient, and reporting their results
  • Finally, the last USMLE test, Step 3, will contain questions on organ systems, prognosis, diagnosis, patient management, pathophysiology, and emergency care.


You will obtain a scaled score for both of these types of exams and will not see your raw score. The raw score is converted to a scaled score to account for small differences in question tests and examinations.

MCAT Score

Your MCAT score is determined by the number of correct answers. Wrong answers receive the same score as unanswered questions and have no effect on your total score. The MCAT examination is not graded on a curve, either. The MCAT exam is scaled and equated such that your score has the same meaning regardless of when you take it or how other examinees performed.

Each section of the MCAT will be given a score. With a midpoint of 125, these scores might range from 118 (lowest) to 132 (highest). You’ll also obtain a total score based on the sum of these four sections, which will range from 472 to 528 with a mean of 500.

For example, a student’s total score would be 508 if he scored 129 on Chem/Phys; 127 on Bio/Biochem; 127 on Psych/Soc, and 125 on CARs, their total score would be 508.

Your MCAT score will also be provided a percentile rank. The AAMC updates the percentile ranks every year with three years of data. Based on the MCAT percentile ranks for 2021-2022, a score of 508 is in the 72nd percentile. A score of 490 is in the 17th percentile, 500 is in the 45th percentile, and 520 is in the 92nd percentile. The AAMC website has percentile ranks for each section as well as an overall score.

usmle vs mcat


The USMLE raw score is converted to a three-digit scaled score, just like the MCAT. Furthermore, analyses are conducted to identify any testing candidates who had an aberrant score pattern, and these students may be requested to explain their testing behaviors.

The USMLE Step 1 test will be passed/failed from January 26th, 2022. Examinees previously received a score between 1 and 300, even though most testers fell between 140 and 260. To pass, you needed a score of 194. Prior to the change to pass/fail score on the USMLE Step 1, a medical student’s Step 1 score was an important element in residency applications.

In the same way, USMLE Step 2 Clinical Knowledge scores range between 1 and 300. The passing score, though, is higher than the USMLE Step 1 score. The USMLE Step 2 Clinical Knowledge passing score is 209. Since USMLE Step 2 is not a pass/fail exam as of 2022, it’s possible that the emphasis on Step 1 scores for residency application evaluation will be shifted to USMLE Step 2 Clinical Knowledge.

Examinees receive a score between 1 and 300 on the USMLE Step 3 exam, with a passing score of 198.

When to take the exams USMLE VS MCAT

A student should take the MCAT in April or May of the year before he or she decided to begin medical school. So, if the goal is to be a first-year medical student in the 2023 school year, the MCAT must be taken in April or May of 2022.

The multi-step USMLE exam is administered over the period of a person’s medical education. Step 1 is taken at the end of a medical student’s second year. The test is available all year and must be scheduled through a Prometric test center.

The USMLE Step 2 exam is usually taken close to the end of a student’s fourth year of medical school. Step 2 Clinical Knowledge is similar to Step 1 in that it is available year-round and can be planned with the exam center. Step 2 Clinical Skills, on the other hand, is only available at five testing centers in the United States, therefore confirming test dates with one of the testing centers is essential.

After a physician’s first year of residency, Step 3 of the USMLE is usually taken. The exam is also available throughout the year, however, a scheduling permit is required to choose a test date.

How Long Does It Take to Get USMLE and MCAT Score?

How Long Will It Take to Get My MCAT Score?

Scaling and equating raw MCAT scores to scaled scores takes about 30-35 days, according to the AAMC website. Students may also express any concerns about exam questions or testing conditions within these 30-35 days. By registering onto your AAMC account after 30-35 days, you will receive your MCAT score.

How Long Will It Take to Get My USMLE Score?

All USMLE tests take 3-4 weeks to complete following your test date. However, delays might occur for a variety of reasons, leading to a delay of up to 8 weeks. You will be informed through email that your USMLE score report is available, and you will be able to access it. This report will be available for up to 365 days after you have finished the exam.

The Bottom Line

When comparing USMLE vs MCAT, all four exams (MCAT, USMLE Step 1, USMLE Step 2 Clinical Knowledge, and USMLE Step 3) can seem overwhelming when you’re just starting out on your journey to becoming a doctor. However, with the correct kind and amount of preparation, these exams can be quite successful. Remember to set starting with the highest time to study and memorize the material, and focus your review on high-yield content. In addition, do enough practice questions and practice exams because this is one of the finest ways to practice for exams like these. Finally, make use of all of the study resources available to you, and don’t be afraid to seek assistance when necessary.

Don’t forget to take our free USMLE practice test at Medtutor to get familiarized with the format as well as the questions of the actual exam to strengthen your knowledge and skills, as a result, enhancing your chance to pass the USMLE exam with a high score on your first attempt. Good luck to you!