MCAT vs GRE [2021]: Which is Right for Your Needs?


The final year of your undergraduate studies is filled with lasts.

Before you turn that tassel, you’ll walk to class, spend time on campus, and turn in your assignments, all for the l ast time. For many students, this is an exit point. They leave college and go on to start careers or families.

For others, however, it’s an exciting entrance to the next chapter of their academic careers. In spring 2021, national graduate student enrollment jumped 4.4% from a year ago, despite pandemic-related shutdowns. Before you can enroll, however, there are certain tests you have to complete, first.

The Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) and Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) are two of the top ones. Today, we’re diving deep into the differences between the MCT vs GRE so you can take your next steps in confidence.

Main Differences Between MCAT vs GRE

The main differences between the MCAT and the GRE are:

  • The MCAT is designed for students entering medical school, whereas the GRE is more general in nature and is accepted by graduate and professional schools around the world
  • The MCAT consists of four separate sections that measure health-related aptitudes, whereas the GRE covers three sections related to general math, writing, and reasoning
  • The MCAT is available 25 times per year, based primarily in the U.S. and Canada, whereas the GRE is available continuously, with a wider global presence
  • Prospective colleges can see every MCAT score ever received, whereas students can opt to only send in their best GRE scores

What Is the MCAT?

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a standardized, multiple-choice exam that aspiring healthcare professionals must take before entering medical school. It’s administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and has played a pivotal role in graduate school admissions for more than 90 years.

Each year, more than 85,000 students sit for the MCAT, which is entirely computer-based in nature.

To date, nearly all medical schools across the U.S. and Canada require that students take the MCAT as part of their application process. Increasingly, other health profession schools have also started accepting MCAT scores in graduate program applications.


MCAT: Type of Content Covered

The MCAT is designed to test incoming students on the industry-related skills and knowledge required for medical school success. Medical instructors, practicing physicians, and other medical students work collaboratively to create and update the exam content.

In general, the test is divided into four sections. Each section is considered to be a core prerequisite and an indicator of a student’s future performance. Let’s take a look at each section in greater detail.

Read our full guide to learn when is the best time to take the MCAT.

Section 1: Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems

In this section, students will solve problems that demonstrate their mastery of biological and biochemical concepts. They’ll also be required to showcase their approach to scientific inquiry, as well as scientific reasoning.

There are 59 questions on the MCAT devoted to Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems, including both passage-based and discrete questions. Students will have 95 minutes to complete this section and can reference the periodic table the entire time.

Section 2: Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems

In this section, students will demonstrate that they understand basic concepts concerning chemical and physical foundations. This requires answering questions that test their understanding of certain functions surrounding human organs, tissue, and organ systems.

As with Section 1, Section 2 also includes 59 passage-based and discrete questions. Students will have 95 minutes to complete it and can reference the periodic table.

Section 3: Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior

This section covers health-related functions that deal primarily with human and social issues rather than purely scientific ones. Section 3 also includes 59 passage-based and discrete questions. Students will have 95 minutes to complete it.

Section 4: Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

This section is structured similarly to many verbal reasoning exams. It’s designed to test a student’s critical thinking and reading comprehension skills, specifically concerning medical data.

Each passage will be between 500 and 600 words but are complex in nature. There will be 53 exam questions in all.

MCAT: Testing Timelines

Most of the time, students taking the MCAT do so in the calendar year before the year they plan to enroll in medical school.

The AAMC administers the exam around 25 times throughout the year, from late January through early September. While hundreds of testing sites are available throughout the United States and Canada, there are select global sites as well.

Testing Limits

The AAMC has established testing limits to control the number of times a student may take the MCAT in one calendar year. The following restrictions apply:

  • Three times in one calendar year
  • Four times over two years
  • Seven times per lifetime

Medical schools will be able to see all of a student’s collective scores, underlining the importance of early preparation.

Test Length

The MCAT exam is designed to take six hours and 30 minutes, not including breaks and setup time. The total seating time is around seven hours and 33 minutes.

MCAT: Scoring Rubric

The MCAT exam culminates in five distinct scores. There is a score for each of the four sections listed above, as well as one comprehensive, total score.

Each of the four sections is graded on a scale from 118 to 132. Then, the AAMC combines those scores to create a total score. This can range from 472 to 528.  Students should expect to receive their scores around 30 days after their exam date.


If students schedule their test in advance, the MCAT costs $320. If they wait until eight days before the test date to register, then that price jumps to $375. Some test takers may incur an additional $115 registration fee based on their location.

What Is the GRE?

The Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) is globally recognized as the most widely accepted graduate admissions test in the world. While the MCAT is strictly medical in nature, the GRE is applicable for graduate students entering a realm of disciplines, including business and law. It’s administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and has been in practice since 1949.

Each year, more than 700,000 students take the GRE. It’s computer-based in nature, though paper-based tests are available in locations where computer testing isn’t available.

GRE: Type of Content Covered

Most incoming graduate students will take the GRE General Test. This is a basic, all-encompassing exam that covers a broad range of subject areas. There are also GRE Subject Tests.

The GRE General Test includes three major question types. Here’s a closer look at what students can expect with each section.

GRE General Test: Verbal Reasoning

The Verbal Reasoning portion of the GRE General Test measures a student’s ability to draw conclusions and analyze meaning from a variety of text forms.

The questions will appear in two different sections. One section will involve reading passages and answering the questions that follow. In the other section, students are required to read passages and interpret them correctly.

Each section will include 20 questions with a 30-minute timed allotment.

GRE General Test: Analytical Writing

The Analytical Writing portion of the GRE General Test requires students to express and articulate themselves through the written word.

This test includes two different sections. In Section 1, students will have 30 minutes to analyze an issue of general interest. In Section 2, students will have 30 minutes to analyze an argument.

GRE General Test: Quantitative Reasoning

In the Quantitative Reasoning portion of the GRE General Test, students will showcase their ability to understand and analyze various types of quantitative data.

Students will have access to an on-screen calculator for this portion. The questions are divided into two different sections. There are 20 questions per session, and students have 35 minutes to complete each one.

GRE Subject Tests

In addition to the GRE General Test, the ETS also allows students to take GRE Subject Tests. Though this test isn’t usually required for entry into graduate school, it can be a smart way for students to stand out in a specific program of study.

These tests are paper-based and are only available in certain designated testing centers. GRE Subject Tests are available in the following subjects:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Literature in English
  • Physics
  • Psychology
  • Mathematics

Note that the Biology and Literature in English Subject Tests were discontinued after April 2021.

GRE: Testing Timelines

Students can take the GRE General Test on a computer at any time throughout the year. It’s available at more than 1,000 Prometric testing locations around the world, spanning more than 160 different countries. In almost every location, testing is done continuously. In some locations around China and Korea, the GRE General Test is only available three times per month.

If students live in a remote region where the computer-based test is not required, then there is an at-home alternative. This test is identical to the one given at a testing center and is taken under the guidance of a human proctor.

Testing Limits

Students can retake the GRE General Test once every 21 days. This can occur up to five times within any continuous year. On the other hand, GRE Subject Tests are only administered three times per year, in:

  • April
  • September
  • October

If students are required to take the paper-based GRE test, these are only available in October, November, and February.

Test Length

The total time for the GRE General Test is around three hours and 45 minutes. However, there will also be short breaks factored in, which can lengthen the total sitting time.

Each GRE Subject Test has a total testing time of two hours and 50 minutes.

GRE: Scoring Rubric

The GRE General Exam includes three different scores. The Verbal Reasoning section is scored on a scale of 130 to 170, using 1-point increments. The Analytical Writing section follows a scale of 0 to 6, using half-point increments. The Quantitative Reasoning section is scored on a scale of 130 to 170 in 1-point increments.

Each GRE Subject Test is scored on a scale of 200 to 900, using 10-point increments.

With the MCAT, admissions officers can see every score, every time a student receives one. However, the ETS established an option called ScoreSelect that allows students to only send the scores they choose.

With each test, students will receive four free score reports, which they can send to any academic institution that accepts them. They can choose to send scores from that day’s test, or choose from scores they’ve received over the past five years.

GRE Cost

Fees for the GRE General Test vary by location. In most areas of the world, it’s $205. However, the following exceptions apply:

  • Australia: $230
  • China: $231.30
  • India: $213
  • Nigeria: $226
  • Turkey: $255

GRE Subject Tests are $150 worldwide.

Comparison Table

Looking for a high-level overview of the MCAT vs. GRE? Here are the top comparisons to note.

General-purpose Admission into medical school Admission into graduate school, including law school and professional school
Dates available Around 25 times per year, from January to September Throughout the year (computer-based); three times per year for paper tests (October, November, and February)
Core areas covered  Biological and Biochemical Foundations of
Living Systems; Chemical and Physical Foundations of
Biological Systems; Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior; Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
Verbal Reasoning, Analytical Writing, Quantitative Reasoning
Total test time   Seven hours and 33 minutes Three hours and 45 minutes
Maximum score 528, with each section, scored up to 132 340, with each section, scored up to 170
Cost $320, jumps to $375 if scheduled within eight days $205 for GRE General Test (with geographic exceptions); $150 for GRE Subject Tests

Frequently Asked Questions

Do you still have a few questions about the MCAT and GRE? Here are answers to some of the most common ones.

Question: Is the MCAT or GRE easier?

Answer: Compared to the MCAT, the GRE is generally considered easier. This is because it does not require specialized knowledge in a specific field, but covers a wide range of less challenging questions. The GRE is also easier than other tests, including the LSAT and GMAT.

Question: Do medical schools require the GRE?

Answer: Most of the time, medical schools will not require incoming students to take the GRE. The MCAT is the standardized exam that most medical school applicants must take for admission.

Question: Is the GRE more difficult than the SAT or ACT?

Answer: Yes. Most test-takers consider the GRE to be more difficult compared to other standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT. This is true even though the math portion of the GRE is generally considered easier than either of those two tests.

Question: How long should I study for the GRE?

Answer: It’s best to pace your GRE prep, rather than pull an all-nighter cram session. Schedule your test a few months out, and spend a few hours each week reviewing the material. The ETS provides a range of online study resources to guide your efforts.

Question: What is a bad GRE or MCAT score?

Answer: A “bad” score on the GRE or MCAT score is below the threshold of the program you want to attend. That said, the bottom 10% of test-takers score below 139 in the verbal sections of the GRE and below 141 in the quantitative section. The bottom 10% of MCAT testers score between 488 and 491.

MCAT vs GRE: Which One Do You Need?

Now that we’ve covered the MCAT vs GRE debate in greater detail, you should be able to gauge which entrance exam is required for your next steps.

If you’re pursuing a medical degree, then the MCAT is your most likely choice. Otherwise, the GRE General Test will put you closer to your dreams of attending graduate or professional school.

Looking for test prep courses to help you score as high as possible? Check out our list of program comparisons and reviews today!

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