How to Kill the MCAT in 5 Weeks
Hey everyone! Sorry for the lack of posting these past few months. It’s been a whirlwind, with schoolwork, starting to apply to medical school (HCEC >__>), studying and taking the MCAT, writing an honors thesis, preparing another manuscript for publication, etc. I’m happy to say that I’m (mostly) back and will be trying to answer all of your questions! But this post is mostly dedicated to how I studied and prepared for the MCAT. While a lot of people spend months preparing for the exam, I didn’t start studying until the beginning of winter break and spent only 5 weeks (albeit a brutal 5 weeks) preparing for the exam. Scores were released yesterday, and I’ll just say that I’m very happy with my score. I’ll be discussing many aspects of how I prepared, and hopefully it’ll help someone out there.
If you really think about it, studying for the MCAT should really just be review. You’ve learned 95% of the material in your classes before, so re-learning it shouldn’t be as hard as the first time. In my opinion, the new MCAT really favors students who work in research labs since there are a lot of passages that require data interpretation. The exam seems also to focus heavily on biochemistry. I was lucky and took biochem just this past fall, along with another course called “Nutrition and Disease” (NS4410). Surprisingly, a lot of the content in NS4410 ended up being on the MCAT as well. Having taken biochem so recently, most of it was fresh in my head so it was not nearly as difficult to learn as it should have been. Realistically, you probably will only really remember material from classes you took from the past year - anything past that you’ll likely have to re-learn. My recommendation would be to take biochemistry right before the exam, since it is such an important component on the MCAT and you want it fresh in your mind. What is on the MCAT is really just a watered down version of all your premed classes - don’t forget that. It may seem like a monster to study for, but all the knowledge is somewhere in your brain - you just have to dust it off.
2. Study Materials
Personally, I am a self-studier. I’ve never done well with prep courses. I don’t really know why, but for some reason I think there’s always a part of me that feels like I’m getting ripped off since they are so expensive. There’s no reason you can’t self-study, especially since that’s what you do during the school year. As for me, I decided to go with the full set of books from ExamKrackers (EK) and Kaplan, which together totaled around $350 (vs. a $2000 Kaplan course). EK, in my opinion, is great because they explain everything so well and succinctly and are able to cover 95% of what is on the exam in half the length of other prep material. EK splits each book into chapters, and each book consists of anywhere from 4-7 chapters (each 60-70 pages long). For example, chemistry (organic and inorganic were combined) had 7 chapters and consisted of around 450 pages of content. The organic chemistry book alone for Kaplan, on the other hand, was 400 pages (general chemistry was ~600 pages). Since I was trying to get through all of the content within 2-3 weeks, EK was great because it was so short. EK also had practice passages in the back, which aren’t the same as the actual exam (they’re a bit more difficult) but are good for practice. I used Kaplan mostly for practice, since the full book set also came with online materials (including 3 full length tests). What I didn’t like about Kaplan was how long it was (as I mentioned before) and how detailed it went. They seemed to focus much more on facts unlike EK which focused on concepts. I also bought both full-length tests from AAMC (which together cost $60).
The one comment I have is about the psychology and sociology section is that I felt neither really adequately covered what I was tested. I had bought the Kaplan books because I heard they covered the psych/soc sections much better, but in the end there were a ton of terms on the actual test that weren’t covered in the books. I think this will improve as time goes on and more tests are released, as the test companies will get a better understanding of what is actually on the test.
3. Study Schedule
I set a very strict schedule for myself. I began studying the day after I got home from my last final. I studied every single day of winter break, 10-12 hours a day for 5 weeks straight (there were about 3 days [holidays] where I only studied ~4 hours). It’s brutal and takes discipline, but for me, this was the right decision since I knew spreading it out over the course of 3 months would be excruciating and I wouldn’t be able to retain the information as well. I promised myself that I would work through 2 chapters of EK each day, which is around 120-140 pages of content and I thought was very reasonable (I’m also a bit of a slow reader). At this rate, I was able to finish all the content in 2.5 weeks. After going through all the material, I took a single full-length practice test from Kaplan. The next day, I reviewed the test and spent the next week and a half going over every single subject again (doing 1 subject, like physics, every day). This entailed redoing all the practice passages in EK, all the book problems in the Kaplan books, and all the practice online passages for Kaplan that pertained to that subject. I spent the entire last week doing the other passages (the remaining 2 full-length Kaplan and the 2 full-length AAMC). I did a test every other day, and every day in-between I would go over the previous day’s test. On days that I did tests, I would watch a movie afterwards (as a reward for having just taken a 7.5 hour test), eat, and then go straight to sleep.
The best way you can study is practice. A realization I had while studying for the MCAT was that this, like many other standardized tests, is one that can be learned. There are very obvious patterns to questions (especially in CARS), and EK was great at giving you pointers for choosing the right answer. It’s tricky because something as simple as a single word could mean that an answer is wrong. So much of the MCAT is strategy and endurance, so be sure to take multiple full-length tests. Diversifying your study materials will help you adapt to different types of tests. For me, CARS was my weakest section, and I needed tons of additional help on it. I used Khan Academy’s free materials (they have 50+ passages you can practice on). Also be sure to review answers you got right (and why you got them right) in addition to the answers you got wrong. The two AAMC full-length tests are very good predictors of how you will do, in my opinion. There aren’t many full-length tests out there, so treat them preciously. Once you take one, you can’t really take it again as if it were “new.” It’s important that you don’t take a full-length test until you finish reviewing all the material at least once because there’s really no point in taking it if you’re going to get a bunch of questions wrong. On days that you take full-length tests, try to emulate test day. Go to sleep early the night before, wake up early, eat breakfast, find a quiet spot you can work for several hours, and begin your test before 8AM. Do NOT go on your phone or on the internet during your breaks. Treating the test as if it were real helps with mental preparation for the actual test along with time management.
To put things in perspective, I scored a 506 on my full-length Kaplan test, which was 2.5 weeks before my actual test. Following a week of review of all the content, I scored another 506 on a Kaplan test (which was pretty discouraging). I next took the scored AAMC test, which I scored a 513 on. I took another Kaplan test and scored a 510, and my final AAMC test I scored ~518 (it’s not scored, but that’s the approximate score according to the percentages). Improvement can be quick and drastic when you’re taking multiple full length tests.
5. Test Day
How you treat test day plays a large part in how well you will do. This is where taking practice tests and treating it like the real thing helps. For me, I had been taking practice tests for the entire week so it was kind of like just waking up and taking another practice test. Trust that you’re prepared, even if you don’t 100% feel it (no one ever feels 100% prepared going into these tests!). I went to bed early, but was pretty nervous and woke up a few times during the night. I didn’t feel particularly tired, however, and I felt surprisingly calm going into the testing center (besides the normal level of nerves). I know it’s easy to say “stay calm” when it feels like your future is on the line, but just take a deep breath every time you feel your heart beat getting a bit faster. Mentality is everything. There will be a surprising amount of security at the test center, but just roll with it. The testing center will have noise cancelling headphones, but since you’re in a pretty quiet room I didn’t find them necessary (I actually put them on for a second but found them to be quite uncomfortable, and I had been studying at a noisy Barnes & Noble so I was used to any noise). People may be coming in and out of the room (quietly), so try to request a computer farther away from the door. Once you start, just let your instincts take over. You’ve been preparing for this - you know how to do it, you’ve just spent weeks/months studying!
Here’s my biggest piece of advice: realize that every single question on that test has an answer and can be answered. If you read a question and are very confused because nothing in your studies covered the topic, then the answer is in the passage. The MCAT will NOT give you a question that cannot be answered. If the question seems to be discrete but you just seemingly can’t figure out the answer, refer back to the passage and look for the answer. It’s there! I promise!
At the end of the MCAT, you will have the option to void your score. Resist your temptation to void your score. No one ever feels good coming out of that test - it’s absolutely normal. You’ve worked so hard for the test - trust that your preparation was sufficient. Unless you actually like fell asleep and didn’t answer 50% of the test, do NOT void your score.
Congratulations! You’re done!!! Go and celebrate! Do something to take your mind off all things MCAT! I went and saw a broadway show with a friend, and it was amazing. The next month of waiting will be excruciating, but you’ll get through it! The day of score release, I had such bad anxiety the entire day (I had woken up at least 8 times the night before). When my score came out, the website crashed and I wasn’t able to see my score for over an hour (which was the worst). When I finally saw my score, however, I was ecstatic. All my hard work had paid off, and to be perfectly honest, I was crying tears of joy. If you’ve worked as hard as you can, then be confident that you’ll be happy too.
I hope this helps someone out there. I won’t post my score right now (perhaps after I get accepted somewhere), but I will say that my score will allow me to be competitive at the top 10 schools. The MCAT is intimidating, but it’s possible to crush it if you work hard. Put things in perspective: this is only the first of many tests you’ll have to take if you want to be a doctor. It’s just a stepping stone in your career, and you’ve already made it this far.