How to Prepare for the MCAT
What Is the MCAT?
The Medical College Admissions Test is a standardized, multiple-choice examination that, along with your undergraduate GPA, admissions use to predict your ability to succeed in a medical school setting. The exam, comprised of four sections—Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, Biological Sciences, and a Writing Sample—assesses the exam taker's mastery of basic concepts in biology, chemistry, and physics; facility with problem-solving and critical thinking; and communication and writing skills.
Preparing for the MCAT
I spent about six weeks studying for the MCAT. The first thing I did was retake the free Kaplan practice test I had taken three months earlier. After this, I printed out the solution guide to the entire test and read through it in order to get an idea of the kind of logic, language, and reasoning used to approaching the problems.
After a day or so, I read up on the MCAT itself. The first thing I recognized about the MCAT was that, while the physical sciences section is split 50/50 between chemistry and physics, the biological sciences section is 80% biology and only 20% organic chemistry.
Having had the least exposure to the subject that affects your grade the most, biology, I first bought the Princeton Review biology book and spent about a week and a half reading and taking notes on the entire thing.
I printed out the exam topics from the AAMC Website and made sure to take notes on all of these topics, in addition to my own notes on what I felt was important. After this, I borrowed a Kaplan Biology book from a friend and spent an afternoon, about three hours, going through this book.
The Princeton review biology book was incredible, it really delves into the biology with more detail than you probably need to know, but as a post-bacc and having not taken a lot of classes in biology, physiology, anatomy, etc., it was great preparation. The Kaplan bio book (and most of their books in general) are much lighter and tend to skim a lot of topics, so it was good to read into depth and build a good understanding with Princeton Review and then go through Kaplan to bring you back to the surface with what you really need to know for the MCAT.
At this point, I began going to Barnes and Noble and reading books there. I read through the Kaplan physics/chemistry, and Princeton Review organic chemistry (waste of time except for the amino acids section), completing all of the end of chapter questions and timing myself for the practice sections at the end of the book.
They have many other books there (MCAT ELITE for Princeton Review, a book with two full-length tests by Kaplan, etc.) and I really made it a point to do as much practice as I could. It could be noisy, but you can always wear earplugs, and it is probably not such a bad idea since you're going to be wearing them on test day anyways.
Also, the people at the book store don't mind, and this will save you hundreds of dollars on books that you would only use once anyways. Great resource. I was there six days a week.
As an aside, I'd like to warn you not to buy the book 16 Mini MCATs from ExamCrackers. It's a cool idea, but an awful book. Half of the time the exam key is wrong, the print is awful, and there are a lot of misspellings and repeating paragraphs.
Kahn Academy: Amazing Resource!
Founded by Salman Kahn, Kahn Academy is an amazing resource for just about anybody, but it is particularly important for those studying for the MCAT. Whether you need help on concepts founded in physics, chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, or mathematics, there are over 3,500 free video lessons available. Sal received 3 degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard, went on to be a hedge fund manager before he quit his job and turned his focus to education.
AMCAS Practice Tests
Unfortunately, I took my first AAMC MCAT test only a little over three weeks before my actual MCAT date; it should be one of the first things you do. Taking this first practice test really drove home the fact that the MCAT is not about being a master in any certain area.
At the end of the day, you're going to get about 25 questions maximum for any given topic. It is really nice if you could give a graduate school lecture on the central nervous system, but if this doesn't come up on a given MCAT, then you don't get the opportunity to show this knowledge and, well, who cares. The MCAT is about being broad. You shouldn't read to deeply into any given subject, but try to be well rounded. Also, these tests are amazing practice. I ended up taking five. The first one is free; each one after that costs $35.
I also bought the 'MCAT in a Box' flashcard set from Kaplan. I've read online and a lot of people seem to think that these are a waste of money and that you are skipping the most meaningful part of flash cards: making them. I disagree. They do a great job covering topics, especially biology, and I feel like I would have gone out of control doing my own flashcards (everything seems important), and wasted a bunch of time doing it. Definitely recommend.
Strategy for Studying for the MCAT
I treated this as a full-time job. But that didn't mean eight hours a day five days a week. Some days you are on fire, and some days things are just not clicking. I would go with how I was feeling that day, and if it wasn't happening for me maybe I would study for two hours, or if I was really feeling it, I might stay for 13 hours. The point is to maximize your studying, not to force it. Relax the day before the actual test!
I'm absolutely sure it varies from person to person, but I do believe you need as much time to be as prepared as possible. Could I have taken the test after a few weeks of studying and done just as well? Sure, maybe. But I feel like approaching the MCAT like this leaves things up to chance.
You want to be well rounded for the MCAT and prepared for anything they throw at you. You don't want to hope that an individual MCAT that you take happens to cover materials that cater to your strengths. Whatever score you get is going to stick with you through the application process.
It is also partly psychological: did I need until the end of July? Probably not. But it felt a lot better going into the test feeling saturated instead of wishing I had covered this or that more thoroughly. It sort of puts your mind at ease.
Also, it is easy to overlook the time that you are going to need to spend writing your personal statement, completing the AMCAS application, figuring out what schools to apply to, applying to jobs, and even finding a new apartment/moving (a lot of leases go from August-August). Even though you might like to picture it in your head, you won’t be able to devote all of your time towards studying.
MCAT Prep Course?
I'm sure this also varies from person to person, but I am glad I did not take a prep course. I studied with a few people who had taken the Kaplan course and it seemed to me that they were relying on the prep course to carry them through, instead of relying on their own motivation and work ethic.
At the end of the day, I am not sure how long you can talk about testing strategies and no one can teach you the MCAT except for you. I am not sure the prep class is worth the time, even aside from the $2000. And sure, there were certain times during my preparation where I felt lost, but just sit down, take a breather, organize yourself and get back at it.
I didn't do nearly as well on the verbal/biological sciences sections as I had hoped and had been doing on the practice tests, and my overall score was a bit lower than I wanted. It all comes down to one single day, and anything could happen, but I did work hard at this and feel like I put myself in good shape to do well.
My last tip would be not to drink too many liquids on the day of the test. I had this insane idea that I had to be the most hydrated person on earth on test day, and overlooked the fact that when you leave the test to go to the bathroom you have to show the test admin your driver's license, sign out, do a fingerprint scan, sprint to the bathroom, show the test admin your license again, sign in, do a fingerprint scan, pull all of your pockets inside out, and have the admin run a metal detector over your entire body, then run back to the test.
So, instead of 30 seconds, a bathroom break is going to take more like seven minutes. And that is if there is not already somebody being checked out ahead of you. This happened to me on both the physical and biological sciences sections and, beyond losing valuable time, you are going to be very stressed/irritated that you lost that valuable time. Do not do this!
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