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Topics Covered on the PCAT

by Jennifer Holzman, Ph.D.
Performance on the PCAT is an indicator of potential success in pharmacy school; the rigorous curriculum ensures the highest level of competency when pharmacists enter clinical practice in the field.

Performance on the PCAT is an indicator of potential success in pharmacy school; the rigorous curriculum ensures the highest level of competency when pharmacists enter clinical practice in the field.

Approximately two-thirds of pharmacy schools in the United States require students to take the Pharmacy College Admission Test as part of their application for admission. The PCAT not only measures general academic abilities and scientific knowledge essential for success in pharmacy school, but also assesses communication and reading comprehension skills.

General Test Format

The PCAT is a computer-based test that consists of 240 multiple-choice questions and two writing samples; the test is approximately four hours long. The six content areas covered on the PCAT are tested in seven separate sections. It is important to note that not all questions on the exam will be included in your score. Each multiple-choice section has 48 questions, but only 40 are scored; the remaining eight are experimental, but you will not know which ones they are.

Writing

There are two writing samples, and you must complete each in 30 minutes. Only one essay will be scored, but you will not know which one. The test begins with one of the writing samples, and the second writing section occurs after the chemistry portion of the test. The essay prompts will address a problem, and your writing sample must provide a solution. The topics in the writing sections can relate to health issues, such as medicine, therapies, and public health; social, cultural, or political issues, such as law and policy; or science issues, including research, education, and scientific controversies.

Verbal Ability

The verbal ability section is 30 minutes long and tests skills in nonscientific vocabulary and usage through analogies (60 percent) and sentence-completion questions (40 percent). The analogies address word relationships through similarities and differences, association, classification, whole-part or part-whole, and characteristic. The sentence-completion questions consist of complete sentences that will be missing one or two words or grammatical phrases. The correct answer can be a noun, a verb, an adjective or a combination of multiple parts of speech.

Biology

The biology portion is 30 minutes long and is designed to test your mastery of several fields in the biological sciences. The topics cover general biology, including cellular and molecular biology and genetics (60 percent); microbiology, including infectious diseases and immunity (20 percent); and anatomy and physiology, including cells, tissues, and organ systems (20 percent). The questions in the biology section come in two formats -- the sentence will appear either in the form of a question or as an incomplete sentence with a blank that you must fill in correctly.

Chemistry

The chemistry section is 30 minutes long and measures your knowledge in general and organic chemistry. General chemistry topics cover approximately 60 percent of this section and can include atomic theory, chemical bonding, reactions and mechanisms, kinetics, and solutions, including pH and acid-base chemistry. The remaining 40 percent of the section covers organic chemistry topics, such as structure, oxidation-reduction reactions and hydrolysis. Questions can also be drawn from basic biochemistry topics, such as DNA, RNA, lipids, and proteins, and the question format is the same as in the biology section.

Reading Comprehension

In the reading-comprehension section, you will be presented with six passages designed to test your ability to understand scientific topics you have not seen before. You will answer questions in three different content areas over 50 minutes. Approximately 30 percent of the questions will test comprehension, which includes recognition and understanding, definitions, main ideas and drawing conclusions. Forty percent of the questions test your analytical skills by asking about relationships between ideas or an interpretation of the author’s purpose, tone or opinion. The remaining 30 percent of the questions address evaluative skills, such as determining bias or point of view.

Quantitative Ability

The exam ends with a 40-minute quantitative section with items that can be in the form of a question, in the form of an incomplete sentence that must be completed or in the form of a sentence with an equals sign. The content objectives tested in this section include basic math concepts, such as fractions, decimals, percentages and unit conversions. You will also be tested on algebra concepts, including functions, expressions, equations and inequalities as applied to problem-solving situations using absolute values, quadratic equations and rational expressions. In addition, you'll be tested on concepts in probability and statistics. Finally, this section can include pre-calculus and calculus concepts, including logarithmic and composite functions, vectors, limits, derivatives and integrals.

About the Author

Dr. Holzman earned a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Emory University, and taught introductory biology there for 10 years. She also holds a teaching license in high school biology, and has extensive experience with curriculum development and implementation in both college and high school classes.

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