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A Complete Guide to the PCAT: Scores, Practice, and More

Posted by Ashley Robinson | Jan 3, 2020 10:00:00 AM

General Education

 

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MCAT, GRE, GMAT...there seem to be a million different tests to get into graduate school, and the PCAT is one of them. Students who want to go to pharmacy school are often required to take the PCAT exam as part of their admissions packet. 

But what is the PCAT, exactly? What’s the format of the exam? And what kind of PCAT scores do you need to get into pharmacy school? 

Well, fear not! We’ve put together an expert introduction to the PCAT exam. In this article, we’ll cover:

  • The unique features of the PCAT
  • An overview of PCAT registration
  • What to expect when taking the test
  • The typical PCAT scores required for pharmacy programs

Having a good understanding of the PCAT can save you a lot of trouble later, so read on!

 


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What Is the PCAT?

PCAT stands for “Pharmacy College Admission Test,” and it is the main standardized test that is used to determine potential students’ readiness for a pharmacy program. In other words, the PCAT’s job is to help admissions committees determine whether you’re academically prepared for their program. 

If you’re serious about becoming a pharmacist, it’s important that you get high PCAT scores, which is a key step to getting into your first choice pharmacy program. 

Like most specialized standardized tests, the PCAT looks at both knowledge and skills. Generally speaking, the PCAT tests five different knowledge and skill categories through a series of subtests. Here’s the high-level breakdown of what you’ll be tested on: 

Subtest Section 
Knowledge Areas
Writing
Written communication 
Critical thinking 
Logic and argumentation 
Biological Processes 
General Biology 
Microbiology 
Human Anatomy and Physiology 
Chemical Processes 
General Chemistry 
Organic Chemistry 
Basic Biochemistry Processes
Critical Reading 
Comprehension 
Analysis 
Evaluation 
Quantitative Reasoning 
Basic Math 
Algebra 
Probability & Statistics 
Precalculus
Calculus

 

As you can probably guess, preparation for the PCAT test will involve both memorization and practice problems. It also means that you’ll need to start studying early and often if you want to ace the PCAT exam. (More on that in just a moment!)  

 

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If you want to become a pharmacist, you'll most likely need to take the PCAT.  

 

Who Should Take the PCAT? 

Obviously, most people who take the PCAT are people looking to begin a pharmacy program. Like we mentioned earlier, many pharmacy schools require potential students to take and submit their PCAT scores as part of their application packets.

When determining whether you need to take the PCAT, it’s important to make sure it’s a requirement for your particular program. While more than 80% of pharmacy schools require the PCAT for admission, not all do! 

You don’t want to waste your time and money studying for a test you don’t need, so make sure to do a little research now to save yourself a ton of headaches later. 

 

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When Should You Take the PCAT? 

While the requirements for each individual pharmacy program are different, the general rule-of-thumb is to take the PCAT before or during the application season for pharmacy graduate programs. For most students, this means taking the PCAT during their senior year of their undergraduate degree programs. 

However, some programs that are all-inclusive (allowing students to earn both a bachelor’s and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree, usually within a shorter time frame) require high school students to submit PCAT scores with their application, though this is not typical.

We also recommend taking the PCAT well before your school applications are due. Most pharmacy school application deadlines are in May or early June, but the actual due date varies from program to program. (You can find a list of schools and their application deadlines here.

Waiting until the last minute to take the PCAT exam means you may get stuck with PCAT scores you’re not happy with. High scores are key to getting into the program of your dreams, so leave yourself plenty of time to study and/or retake the exam if necessary. We recommend that you create a spreadsheet with the application due dates for your potential pharmacy programs so you can keep your scheduling on track. 

One quick tip: potential pharmacy school candidates are limited to taking the PCAT five times. While you can take the PCAT more than that, it requires additional approval and documentation. That’s just one more reason why it’s important to schedule yourself enough breathing room study...and, of course, to do well on the exam!  

 

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PCAT vs. MCAT

The MCAT and PCAT seem similar in name but are extremely different in purpose. The MCAT is the Medical College Admission Test, and, like the PCAT, is a standardized test that’s used to gauge your readiness for graduate-level study. 

Some pharmacy schools will accept either the MCAT or the PCAT, but those schools tend to be in the minority. The rule of thumb tends to be that pharmacy schools require the PCAT, whereas medical schools require the MCAT. 

Let’s say you’re applying to a school that will accept either test. How do you decide which one to take? If you’re certain that you want to go into pharmacy, then the PCAT is most likely the better option for you. Total testing time for the PCAT is only around four hours in comparison to the MCAT’s over six hours, and there are fewer subtest sections. Additionally, the PCAT tests a more limited knowledge field, so you’ll have a narrower band to topics to study. This will make your test prep simpler, allowing you to focus deeply on a few topics instead of trying to cover everything the MCAT requires.

Our recommendation is that if you have an option, it’s more beneficial for you to take the PCAT to get into pharmacy school. But once again, make sure you’re checking with your individual program!

 

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PCAT Registration

Once you’ve decided you want to go to pharmacy school—and after you’ve started studying for your PCAT exam!—it’s time to register for the test. 

Just like any standardized test, you’ll need to think ahead about when you will take the PCAT. First, you’ll need to consider when each school’s deadlines for submitting your PCAT scores are, and then decide budget time in case you need to retake the test. 

You’ll also need to make a goal of how much you need to study. Studying a little each day will help you more than studying all at once close to the test, so come up with a plan to maximize your time. 

Once you have a rough idea of how much lead-up time you’ll need for the PCAT exam, it’s time to look at the PCAT testing dates. A schedule of PCAT registration is in the table below, but for fully-updated information, you’ll need to check the official PCAT website.

PCAT Test Dates
Registration Opens
Registration Deadline
Late Registration Deadline
Cancellation Deadline
Scores Received By
January 6-7, 2020
April 15, 2019
November 1, 2019
December 18, 2019
December 20, 2019
February 11, 2020
February 1-14, 2020
December 18, 2019
January 15, 2020
January 22, 2020
January 24, 2020
March 20, 2020
Additional Information
12:01 AM (CT)
All Deadlines are at 11:59 PM (CT)
Requires a fee
Partial Refund Only
Approximately 5 weeks after the exam

 

Luckily, the process of PCAT registration is simple. The earlier you book, the more likely that there will be enough spaces left in the testing center you want, so getting ahead of the game is always a good idea. 

To book, click this link and then create an account. Fill out all of your personal information, choose three schools to send your PCAT scores, and then select your testing date based on the registration windows that are open. Finally, choose the city you would like to take the test in. 

After you confirm the information you’ve put in and paying for the test (subject to change, but usually $200), you’re booked!

 

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The best way to prepare for any test is to learn more about it. Keep reading to get the inside scoop on everything you can expect to see on the PCAT!

 

What to Expect From the PCAT

Now that you have a general idea about what the PCAT exam is, who should take it, and how to register for it, let’s take a closer look at what’s actually on the test itself. 

 

Test Format

The test is given by computer only and is made up of five sections in this order: writing, biology, chemistry, critical reading, and quantitative reasoning. Below is a table detailing the time and number of questions for each section. Note that between chemistry and critical reading, there is an optional fifteen-minute break

Sections

Total Time

Number of Questions

Time Per Question

Writing

30

48

1 paragraph per 6 minutes

Biology

45

48

1 question every 55 seconds

Chemistry

45

48

1 question every 55 seconds

Reading

50

48

1 question every 57 seconds, or approx. one passage per 8 minutes

Quantitative Reasoning

50

48

1 question every 57 seconds

 

Also, testing centers do not allow you to bring a calculator or any other aid for taking the test, but a calculator or Periodic Table may be provided in sections where you might need them.

Keep in mind that Pearson, the company that administers the PCAT, does allow special accommodations for students with demonstrated need. You can check out the Pearson website for more information. 

 

Scoring

There is no official scoring calendar for the PCAT, but scores will be given no later than five weeks after the test has been taken and are available online. Because most of the questions on the PCAT are multiple choice, everything except the writing section is graded electronically. Your essay from the writing section is read by scorers who have been trained to look for two main writing capabilities: grammatical correctness and problem-solving ability.

PCAT scores overall range from 200-600, where 200 is the lowest possible score and 600 is a perfect score. This number does not include the writing section, where a respondent’s essay is read by two readers, rated on a 1-6 scale by each person, and averaged. 

When it comes to calculating scores, the PCAT only counts correct answers. That’s why filling in every question is vital, as incorrect answers are not counted against you. So while it’s better to know the information (so you don’t have to guess in the first place), make sure you don’t leave any answers blank! 

 

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The 5 PCAT Sections

Like we mentioned earlier, the PCAT is broken into five testing sections, sometimes referred to as “subtests.” Here’s what you can expect on each one. 

 

Writing

The writing section, made up of one essay question that you answer over the course of 30 minutes, requires good knowledge of grammar and critical thinking skills. The goal of the writing section is to provide an organized and effective argument based on the prompts, which always fall under one of three categories:

  • Health Issues
  • Science Issues
  • Social, Cultural, or Political Issues

It might be tempting to spend lots of time reading up on these topics before taking the PCAT exam. While it’s always important to know about the hot-button issues in your field, prior knowledge of any subjects brought up in the prompts isn’t required. Instead, the scorers simply want to see if you can think logically through a problem and clearly present a solution in a thoughtful, articulate manner. 

 

Biology

The biology section, formally called “biological processes,” requires you to answer 48 questions over the course of 45 minutes. Questions often ask for the correct term for a particular process or biological factor. That means knowing key terms and definitions is key to succeeding on this subtest. 

The biology section’s questions fall into one of three categories, with their distribution in parentheses:

  • General Biology (50%)
  • Microbiology (20%)
  • Human Anatomy & Physiology (30%)

An official list of the topics covered in each category is available on the PCAT website, but in general, memorization of everything from cells to systems will help you on your way to a great score. 

 

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Chemistry

Like the last section, the chemistry subtest also has 48 questions which you’ll answer in 45 minutes. Questions in this section are formatted very similarly to the biology section, with multiple choice questions that are often accompanied by a short passage, data set, or visual. 

When studying chemistry, focus on:

  • General Chemistry (50%)
  • Organic Chemistry (30%)
  • Basic Biochemistry Processes (20%)

Unlike biology, chemistry requires that you understand and recognize several key theories (e.g. kinetic theory). You’ll also need to be able to apply that information to different problem sets.

 

Critical Reading

The critical reading section gives you 50 minutes to answer 48 questions, where all of the questions are spread across six reading passages. Put another way, you’ll have six reading passages, and you’ll have to answer 48 questions about the information in them. 

While the passages are usually not very long, the topics can be dense and difficult to read. The main types of questions in the reading section are:

  • Comprehension (30%)
  • Analysis (40%)
  • Evaluation (40%)

The challenge with the reading section is its place immediately after the break and in between the science-based sections and the mathematics section. It requires you to shift the way you’re thinking pretty quickly, so you’ll need to be prepared! 

 

Quantitative Reasoning

The final section is mathematics, or quantitative reasoning. It asks you to answer 48 questions during the course of 50 minutes. The format is similar to each of the scientific sections, though each question requires some computation and application of mathematical equations or principles. The subjects covered are:

  • Basic Math (25%)
  • Algebra (25%)
  • Probability and Statistics (18%)
  • Precalculus (18%)
  • Calculus (14%)

Though the quantitative section is 50 minutes long, the challenge here is time management. Many of the questions can take quite a bit of time to answer, so you’ll want to have a strategy in place for how to maximize your time.  

 

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PCAT Practice Test Questions

It’s always helpful to look at some real-life practice questions to get a better feel for an exam. While we definitely recommend taking some PCAT practice tests  (or maybe even getting a PCAT study guide!), the following section will give you a better sense of what questions of the PCAT exam look like. 

 

Writing

The good news about the writing section is that there is only one question for you to answer in 30 minutes or less. The challenge is coming up with a cohesive and persuasive answer in essay form in that short amount of time. Below is an example prompt you could expect to see on the PCAT.

Discuss a solution to the problems involved in raising children in a country that allows few restrictions on the mass media.

 

Like we mentioned earlier, you don’t really need to have a ton of outside knowledge to answer this prompt, As long as you know what “mass media” is, you can start to formulate an argument based on your own knowledge. That’s ultimately what graders are looking for: can you think on your feet and write logically--and persuasively--about a problem. 

The best writers take the time to think through the points of their argument and come up with persuasive sub-points to back up their claims. Each of the points of their argument go to supporting their overall conclusion. The five paragraph essay is the most often used template to tackle this section, and given the short amount of time, it’s usually very effective.

 

Biology

A large portion of questions in this section will involve familiarity with biology in general. Each question is multiple choice with four choices provided.

Here’s an example of a multiple choice question you could see on this section of the PCAT exam.

Which of the following would increase the pH of the blood?
  1. Severe damage to the kidneys
  2. The digestion of a big meal
  3. An increase in anaerobic respiration
  4. An increase of the blood pCO2

 

The correct answer here is B. That’s because during digestion, the stomach releases hydrochloric acid into the blood, exchanging it for bicarbonate. In turn, this increases the pH of the blood!

 

Chemistry

Like biology, chemistry questions are all multiple choice with four answers available. Chemistry questions are formatted similarly, where a graphic is sometimes used to give context to a question. Here is a PCAT practice test question to try:

A 50mL solution of HCl is diluted into 250mL at 10M. What was the initial concentration of HCl?
  1. 500M
  2. 50M
  3. 5M
  4. .5M

 

What answer did you select? The correct answer is B. 

To find this answer, you must know how to put the information from the question into an equation and balance it. Because the final volume is equal to the initial volume, you solve for the unknown quantities, and thus 50M is your answer.

 

Critical Reading

Answering questions from the critical reading section involves reading the passage and then answering the questions. It’s pretty straightforward! 

 A section of a passage from an example section is below, along with one PCAT practice test question.

Sickle cell disease (SCD) affects millions of individuals worldwide, and it is estimated that 70,000 to 100,000 individuals have SCD and 3 million individuals have the SCD trait. While SCD is known to primarily affect individuals of African American descent, individuals from South America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East can also have SCD or the SCD trait. SCD is characterized by episodes of acute and chronic pain. By increasing awareness about SCD and promoting patient education, health care professionals can help patients and their families cope with SCD and better manage the associated pain.

 

What steps can health care professionals take to help patients and their families cope with SCD?

  1. Raising awareness and advocating patient education
  2. Overestimating the number of individuals affected by SCD
  3. Focusing on the potential for addiction and adverse effects
  4. Distinguishing the difference between chronic and acute pain

 

The answer is A, and it’s based in the final statement of the first paragraph where the author offers a solution for those health care providers with patients facing SCD. 

Note that reading comprehension is measuring your ability to recall and interpret information, not to choose the answer that makes the most logical sense to the problem in your opinion. It’s a common misconception that can cause even the smartest test-takers some problems!

 

Quantitative Reasoning

Finally, quantitative reasoning requires you to use your problem-solving skills quickly and across several different kinds of mathematics. The calculator provided to you during the test has limited functions, so you need to know how to solve equations quickly and simply.

Let’s take a look at a sample question: 

What is the third derivative of -3sin(x)?
  1. -3cos(x)
  2. 3cos(x)
  3. -3sin(x)
  4. 3sin(x)

 

The correct answer to this problem is B. To answer this question, you must know the principles of derivatives, where sin(x)=cos(x) and cos(x)=-sin(x). If you do, solving this problem is a piece of cake...with or without a calculator!

 

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What PCAT Scores Do You Need for Pharmacy Schools?

At this point you’re probably wondering, “what PCAT scores do I need to get into pharmacy school?” 

There’s no simple answer to this question. A few top-tier pharmacy programs may not even require the PCAT, though most don’t dissuade you from taking since it helps your chance of admission.

The average PCAT score is 400, and most top-tier pharmacy schools prefer a 400 or above. Keep in mind that you can retake the PCAT, though it is limited to five times. The best strategy in this case is to study hard to limit the number of times you need to retake the PCAT exam. 

Here are a few examples of the scores required for two top-tier and two middle-tier schools from around the United States.

School Name
Tier
Recommended Percentile and Score
Writing Score (If Applicable)
Top
70th percentile (approximate score of 420)
Minimum of 3
Top
70th percentile (approximate score of 420)
N/A
Mid
40th percentile minimum (approximate score of 380)
N/A
Mid
50th percentile (approximate score of 400)
N/A

 

As you can guess from the percentiles and scores, the PCAT is a tough exam. That’s why it’s important that you put together a study plan—and study early and often! 

 

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What's Next? 

If you’re thinking about becoming a pharmacist, it’s important to get a sense for the profession before you commit. After all, it can take up to eight years to graduate from pharmacy school! That’s why we’ve put together this guide on what a pharmacy career looks like, which includes information on how much pharmacists make annually.

If you’re still in high school, one of the best ways you can prepare for a career in pharmacy is to take advanced biology and chemistry courses. Here’s everything you need to know about AP Biology and AP Chemistry courses. (Taking IB Biology or IB Chemistry? We’ve got you covered, too.)

Our blog also has comprehensive study guides on some of the topics you might see on the PCAT exam. You can browse the topics yourself, or you can check out our articles on mitosis and eukaryotic cells to get started. 

 

These recommendations are based solely on our knowledge and experience. If you purchase an item through one of our links, PrepScholar may receive a commission.

 

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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.



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