MCAT: How to Study and Prepare for the MCAT

The importance of sufficiently preparing for the MCAT cannot be overstated. Take a moment to consider the job of a medical school admissions committee. Most medical schools receive thousands of applications each year. Every single one of those applications is from a student who has survived the rigors of premed curriculum, the MCAT, and at least made an attempt with premed extracurricular activities. Some applicants are stronger than others, but all of them have made sacrifices beyond the normal undergraduate experience. The admissions committees and teams have the difficult task of deciding to whom they should extend interviews. Time and information are both limited, thus increasing the weight of easily accessible metrics like MCAT scores. A high MCAT score is not enough to get admitted to medical school, but a low MCAT score is the quickest way to be overlooked. 

Yes, the MCAT is daunting. However, with the right preparation, tools, and execution, you will be successful. Create a study plan and begin studying early. To understand when you should take the MCAT, see this article. Set your tentative date, then move forward. Regardless of your length of study, you will need test prep materials and practice tests at the minimum.

All of you are smart students, so do your research on test prep materials, courses, and other products. Start and end with AAMC material, but use other companies in between. The AAMC material, obviously, has the highest fidelity to the real exam; however, they do not have enough material and other companies provide better offerings. To learn about test prep material, talk to friends with high MCAT scores and read multiple online reviews (emphasis on read).

You need to decide whether you will self study or take a test prep course (in-person or online).

I self-studied my way to a great MCAT score. Self study worked for me and has worked for others, but some people do better with a course. I decided to self study for three reasons. First, I did not like the options available for in-person courses in my area (although now there are online courses which seem much higher quality and much more affordable). Second, I had financial pressure to avoid taking a course if possible. And third, I realized my time would be better spent studying by myself than driving to and sitting in a prep course. These are personal preferences and styles of studying.

As a self studier, you will need material to direct your efforts. Taking the MCAT requires the prerequisite knowledge gained in your premed classes, but it is also a skill that needs to be honed. You will need material specific to the MCAT rather than simply using your old textbooks. I used test material from a variety of companies and organizations, but I directed my study efforts with the Examkrackers Complete Study Package. Friends and internet reviews praised this book set for being the most representative of and well-adapted for the new MCAT. I could not have been more pleased with their books. They are easy to use and strictly focused on MCAT material. It also includes explanations to help you understand the exam and apply effective strategies. This book set directed my study efforts. If you self study, schedule time to review all of the concepts with an end date of 6 weeks prior to your exam date. After completing your content review, your focus shifts to practice tests. The results of your practice tests will inform your need for more content review of specific subjects.

If you do choose to enroll in a prep course, ask friends and classmates about their experience with each program. Many of my friends and classmates complained that their courses were overpriced and their assigned tutors were ineffective. However, other people swear their course and tutor made a drastic difference. Ultimately, the decision comes down to your study style, financial situation, and your tolerance for risk of getting a sub-par tutor. Also, look into online courses. Online courses are great because the quality of the instructor tends to be higher and you have the convenience of taking the course from home.

Regardless of your study plan, take lots of practice exams. Start taking practice exams early. Don’t let poor performance discourage you. You will significantly increase your score over the months of preparation (that’s why you are studying). Take a full length practice exam at least every other week until 10 weeks before the exam. Then increase the frequency to once per week until the final 6 weeks when you should double the frequency again to two full length practice exams per week. The day after a practice exam, review every single question, including the questions you answered correctly. Ask yourself these three questions: why did I select this answer? If I was wrong, how do I get the right answer? Is there a quicker and more efficient way to answer this question? At the end of the review (which will take around 7 hours), identify weak areas. Can you see certain subjects that need to be reviewed? Then do content review to brush up on weak areas.

For each exam, try to simulate testing conditions as much as possible. For example, turn off your phone, take the test away from friends and family, and stick with the time restraints of the exam and exam breaks. As the exam gets closer, start replicating the food and drink you will consume during breaks (seriously). If you are in the middle of the 95 min BB section and suddenly you have to use the bathroom because you drank too much water and/or coffee, then you are hurting your exam performance. You want to minimize surprises on test day, because surely something will unexpected will happen. During my test, I had to wait nearly two hours to start the exam due to a technical difficulty at the testing center. You can’t let those things throw you.

In short, prepare well and you can earn a high MCAT score. I often hear a misnomer with the MCAT and other standardized tests that students can only prepare so much before they reach their plateau. They think scores above that plateau are unattainable. I strongly disagree with this claim. There is a positive linear correlation between quality MCAT prep time and MCAT score. If a student plateaus, they need to adjust their study strategy. It seems most students don’t max out their intellectual capability, rather they run out of patience, time, and/or energy. So remember to start studying early, study smart, and be patient with your progress.

Good luck studying for the MCAT and let us know if you have any specific questions. Cheers!




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