No silver bullet
A little while ago, a friend asked for some study tips as she prepared to take the Medical College Admission Test. After self-studying for the MCAT twice (and doing much better the second time around), I had learned five key strategies, all of which required daily discipline and hard work:
Commit to the process, focus on your weaknesses, practice for the real thing, manage your time, and sharpen the saw.
My MCAT mulligan
The first time I wrote the exam, I sh*t the bed. With a September test date looming, I procrastinated the entire summer, letting myself become distracted by silly stuff. Instead of studying in the evenings after work, I talked on the phone with my long-distance girlfriend. On the commuter train to work, I read Harry Potter instead of reviewing my notes. I even found hours to update my LinkedIn account instead of hitting the books. By the time that my test date arrived, it was clear that I wasn’t ready. In fact, as I sat in the silent testing room, I felt so clueless that I voided my score at the end, rather than let medical schools see my poor results.
The next day, I signed up to take the exam again, this time in January. I was frustrated with myself for wasting so much time and money, and I was determined not to repeat the mistake. (It helped that my girlfriend broke up with me shortly after my first MCAT attempt, fueling me with plenty of heartbreak angst.) Even though self-study didn’t work well the first time around, I didn’t have the money to pay for a prep course. So I assessed my failures and changed my approach to flying solo. Ten weeks later, I walked into the testing site feeling as ready as I could be.
Here are five strategies that helped me:
1. Commit to the process
Know what you are getting into. Before you commit yourself to the MCAT, you have to understand what you are going up against. Check out the website of the Association of American Medical College for details. Calculate the costs. Talk to students who have already sat for the exam. Read articles and watch videos. Learn as much as you can. And make sure to register as early as possible so that you can get a seat at the testing center. Finally, I strongly recommend checking out Medaholic’s great post on how to self study for the MCAT; this and several of his other pieces helped me immensely.
Keep your eyes on the prize. The most important difference between the way I prepared for my first and second attempts at the MCAT was how committed I was. The first time around, I let myself lose sight of my goal: to practice medicine and care for patients. Remind yourself every day why you signed up for the damn thing in the first place.
You get out what you put in. Likewise, you can also find meaning in the process itself. Of course, earning a competitive score is important for your application, but the skills and experience that you gain from preparing are even more valuable in the long run. The rigor of preparing for the MCAT will help you become a more organized worker, a more knowledgeable scholar, and a more resilient person.
Put first things first. The MCAT is tough, so you need to be brutally honest when asking yourself if you can commit to the preparation required. I recommend spending two to four months getting ready. During that time, you may need to ask family, friends, and significant others to help you/let you focus on your studies. Working full-time while studying is definitely doable if you are in the right mindset, but I recommend cutting back on hours if possible.
2. Focus on your weaknesses
Find your weaknesses. To perform at your best, you need to be understand the key material in all four sections of the MCAT, as well as basic test-taking strategy. Before starting to study (and maybe even before signing up) you should set aside a day to take a practice MCAT under test conditions. This is a great low-cost way of becoming familiar with the content and format of the test. But more importantly, your score will tell you your strengths and weaknesses.
Use the 80/20 rule. Take a big-picture approach, focusing on the key things that will give you the most bang for your buck. Preparing for my second MCAT, I took a practice test before setting up my study schedule. As expected, the section I did the worst on was Chemistry/Physics, by far. That low score scared me, so most of my time studying was spent learning and reviewing chem and physics material. And it paid off. By focusing most of my energy on where I needed it, I turned my weakest section initially into my second strongest on the real exam.
Monitor your progress. Review your mistakes. Whenever you are solving problems or taking notes, make sure to go back to see how you did. Keep an eye out for concepts that are taking extra time or that are important for understanding later material. I recommend keeping an Excel workbook to keep track of your mistakes, along with explanations of why you answered incorrectly. Are there questions that completely stumped you, that you misinterpreted, or that you answered incorrectly but that you thought were easy? More importantly, do you understand how to figure out the correct answer?
Another great way to monitor your progress is to teach what you are learning. If you can explain MCAT material in a way that a middle schooler can understand it, then you probably will do well in that area on the real exam.
3. Practice for the real thing
Learn actively, not passively. The MCAT is not going to test how much material you can recite back from your study guide. It’s going to test you in your ability to analyze information quickly and apply key material to solve problems.
Solve problems regularly. Spend time regularly going through problems similar to those you’ll see on the real exam. The AAMC and most prep companies offer problems for purchase, and there usually problems can be found at the end of each section in review books. (I recommend using AAMC’s resources before those from private companies for two reasons. First, the AAMC is the organization behind the MCAT, and, second, the AAMC’s materials are generally cheaper. Regardless, shop around before buying!) Check out resources like MCAT Question of the Day for extra problem-solving practice.
Time yourself often. Budgeting for time is an important part of the real exam. Make sure you know how to use your time effectively and efficiently. Take the amount of time given for the section you’re practicing for, and divide that by the number of questions in the section. Your answer will be a time-per-question rate, which is the absolute longest that you should spend on any one question. Make sure to flag the problems that give you trouble so you can go back to review them. Use the test’s highlighter function to focus on key information in the passages. And remember that a guessed answer is better than a blank answer, since you have a one-in-four chance of guessing correctly.
Memorize some things. Don’t skimp on the few items you’ll have to know by heart, like all 20 amino acids, common organic functional groups, and simple physics equations. Using mnemonics can be helpful here.
Simulate the real exam. The goal here is that when you arrive at the testing center, you will feel like you are just taking another practice exam. So at least six weeks before your exam, take one day per week to simulate the event by taking a full length practice test. I recommend having at least five practice tests under your belt before the real thing. (I used both of AAMC’s full-length exams and some available from Next Step.) Then, spend a few hours the next day reviewing your mistakes. If you want to be extra nerdy, record your mistakes and explanations in an Excel spreadsheet.
4. Manage your time
Set and stick to a schedule. Setting and following a study schedule was where I really dropped the ball the first time I prepared for the MCAT. The second time around, I began with the end in mind, figuring out how many weeks I had left before my January test date and working backwards. To really light a fire under my behind, every morning I counted the number of days I had left until my test date.
There are many tools available for creating your schedule; I just used Google Calendar. Block out time that you know you cannot spend studying, such as when you are at work, are volunteering, or when you are spending time with family. Beginning at the halfway point to your test date, schedule time on a weekly basis to complete your uninterrupted practice test.
Eliminate distractions. That means going to a place where you won’t be disturbed by other people and won’t fall asleep. Disconnect from the internet whenever possible (especially from social media) and turn on your phone’s Do Not Disturb mode. Find a soundscape that is conducive to studying–I like silence or quiet instrumental music because lyrics always distract me.
Take breaks and move around. I would usually set a timer for 90 minutes and study straight through. Then, when the alarm went off, I would take a minute to finish what I was doing and then set the alarm for a 15-minute break. Sitting for extended periods is not healthful, so I would almost always get up and walk around, doing household chores or going outside to get some fresh air. For folks who have a harder time concentrating for long periods, setting up a study schedule based on the Pomodoro may be helpful, but remember that you want to be as used to the MCAT’s format (four 95 minute-long sections) by the time your test date arrives.
Study anywhere and everywhere. Don’t let waiting time become wasted time. Pull out flash cards to review if there is down time at work. Listen to prep audiobooks or videos while driving to and from your job, or solve problems on the train or bus.
5. Sharpen the saw
You’re only human. As you saw away at your MCAT goals, your mind will start to dull if you don’t take time to care for it. Even though I do recommend putting non-MCAT activities on the back burner as much as you can, you should still schedule regular activities to keep you sharp:
Physically: Exercise at least 150 minutes per week (even a brisk walk or doing household chores will do), eat well (minimal junk food), and get enough sleep (at least six hours per night).
Socially/Emotionally: Laugh often, and don’t take the MCAT or yourself too seriously. Spend quality time with loved ones and people who respect/support your efforts to do well on the exam.
Intellectually: Read something that is not related to the MCAT or to medicine. Watch a good movie here and there, but be careful not to get sucked into a Netflix binge!
Spiritually: Meditate or pray, and give thanks. Practice an activity that helps give life meaning, something that keeps you from throwing your note cards in the air and your computer out the window. Keep things in perspective.
Although I didn’t earn stellar results, I did well the second time I wrote the MCAT, placing in the 84th percentile with an overall score of 510. Of course, without results from my first MCAT, it is difficult to tell just how much using these strategies improved my performance. Regardless, I believe that these are commonsense ways to approach the exam, and I believe that they can help you do well, too. Good luck!
If you found this post helpful or have suggestions, please leave a comment. I appreciate the feedback.
I’d like to thank AK Lectures, Khan Academy, Medaholic, MCAT Review, Moof University, Derek Owens, The Physics Classroom, and The Physics Hypertextbook for providing great online educational content free-of-charge. Check ’em out!
Edit as of December 2019: UWorld now offers MCAT practice problems and exams. This company offers the standard for USMLE prep once you are a medical student, so check them out!