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How to Conquer the MCAT

Updated on April 17, 2016
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Katie graduated with both a BA in Chemistry from BYU and a BA in Spanish from UVU in 2016. She began medical school in July '16.

Finding Success on the MCAT

Keep the MCAT in Perspective

Always keep the goal in mind and keep the journey in perspective.
Always keep the goal in mind and keep the journey in perspective.

Studying for the MCAT can be one of the most stressful times of a pre-medical student’s undergraduate career. However, if you manage your MCAT experience instead of allowing the MCAT to manage you, it can be an enjoyable time as well.

You should plan to put in several hundred hours of studying. Register for the test well in advance. Give yourself a period of time, preferably several months, when preparing for the MCAT is the only thing you’re doing. Although it can be done while working full-time or going to school, it’s not ideal. (I took it in August after studying from April-August while working full-time and got a 35, which is the 96th percentile. So, doing other things while you’re studying for the MCAT is doable, but it’s not ideal.)

Don't Let the MCAT "de-Humanize" You

You're human.  That means you have to eat, stay hydrated, exercise and sleep to be successful!
You're human. That means you have to eat, stay hydrated, exercise and sleep to be successful!

Reality Check: Don't Forget You're Human

Although pre-medical students occasionally do the super-human and leave other people awed by their dedication, at the end of the day, we’re still human. This means your body requires sleep, food and exercise to function. It is tempting to skip working out, cut sleep to 3-4 hours a night and not eat well when experiencing stressful things like studying for the MCAT. However, this will make your study time less than efficient. Don’t do it. You should spend an hour a day exercising and sleep 7-8 hours a night, or as long as you need to be rested and alert. Get into a routine and follow it.

The MCAT is a Mind Game

Attitude is half the battle in the study process.  If you want studying for the MCAT to be miserable, it will be.
Attitude is half the battle in the study process. If you want studying for the MCAT to be miserable, it will be.

Should You Take a Prep Course?

There are several exam prep companies out there that would love to take your money. If you fear you don’t have the dedication and self-discipline to study for the MCAT without a babysitter, sign up. (Be honest, if there’s a chance you need someone to motivate you, consider a course.) Otherwise, you may not need a course to succeed on the MCAT. This is especially true if you have access to TA help labs or professor office hours. I took a less expensive prep course through my university. Taking that course was good because it helped me identify my weaknesses, it gave me names of professors who were willing to help me during their office hours, and the verbal reasoning portion was taught by a member of the law school faculty who really helped me understand how to study for the verbal reasoning section. I was glad that I didn’t spend extra money on a more intensive course because lecture time isn’t where points are secured. Those points are secured in practice time and in studying concepts you don’t understand at your own pace. While there were perks to the class I took, you can do just as well as I did without taking a course if you follow the study plan I outline.

1001 Biology Practice Problems

1001 Organic Chemistry Practice Problems

1001 Chemistry Practice Problems

Get the Right Materials: An Examkrackers MCAT is a Successful MCAT

Instead of paying for a course, I recommend getting 2 different comprehensive reviews, Examkracker’s 1001 series, Examkracker’s 101 passages in MCAT verbal reasoning, and all the practice problems from www.e-mcat.com you can. You’ll also want to make friends with www.wikipremed.com and www.khanacademy.com. Although wikipremed.com hasn’t been completely updated for the new MCAT, it’s still a valuable resource as the spiraling curriculum, which I’ll get to in a minute, helps students make new connections and remember the material better.

When it comes to review books you can get any set you want, but I used Kaplan’s and Examkracker’s and they worked well for me. I recommend getting more than one set because it is easy to get an incorrect notion about a concept by just reading one book. By reading a second book you have a better shot of understanding anything you didn’t understand from the first book and clearing up any misconceptions. You’ll also get twice as many test taking tips.

In addition to the review books, get Examkracker’s 1001 series. Although the questions are a little different than what you’ll see on the MCAT, the problems are set up so you’ll make the same mistakes on the practice problems as you will on the test. The series does a GREAT job at making sure you have problems that will help you practice every concept and at helping you avoid common pitfalls. Between the practice problems in Kaplan books and the practice MCATs I took, I had plenty of experience with MCAT-like questions come test day.

Your Study Plan

Once you have your materials, you need to come up with a study plan. Find a consistent way to work through the material so you know you get through all the material before the test. Spend more time on the material you’re least comfortable with. Pace yourself so you know you’ll get through everything and have time to review the hardest concepts third and fourth times before the test.

As I studied the review books, I outlined the main points, helpful test tips, mistakes to avoid and made vocabulary flashcards as I read through the books. Then I worked all the sample problems in the review book, as well as the correlating problems in the Examkracker’s 1001 book. Using the Examkracker review book was nice, because they follow the same outline as the 1001 books. I just had to find the correlating material in the Kaplan book, instead of trying to correlate 3 systems. After I had graded the practice problems I identified weak points, kept a summary of how to avoid making the mistakes I had made again, and kept a list of the problems I had missed. Then I watched Khan Academy videos and Wikipremed videos to clarify subjects I didn’t understand well. If I had done really poorly on the practice problems for that section I redid them after I watched the videos.

After I made it clear through the review system once I went back to the 1001 books and reworked the problems I had missed without looking at my list of earlier mistakes. As I did so, I added new mistakes to the list, and kept a list of subjects I still wasn’t confident on or needed to review the week of so I didn’t confuse little details come test time. I re-read review sections and re-watched Khan Academy videos to answer any questions I had as I re-did the practice problems I missed the first time through.

Once I had redone the problems I had missed the first time, I focused on the concepts that I had identified as needing more review. I just kept watching videos, reading old textbooks and review books and working problems until test time came. I wasn’t as confident in my physics as I was in the other sections, so I purchased an AP physics review book that had several hundred practice problems and did that as I was going back through the material, as well. Whatever plan you come up with, adjust it as you go along so it’s most effective, figure out what works for you, and continually work to remember strengths and refine weaknesses until you take the test.

By the time I took the test I had done over 8,000 unique practice problems, and some of them several times. Studying for the MCAT is a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself. Set goals. Reward your successes and find joy in the journey.

Study for Verbal Too!

Most people struggle with the verbal section. This is because we know how to read a passage and understand what the passage is telling us, but that isn’t what the MCAT tests. The MCAT tests how well you can analyze how the article told you what it told you, not what it actually said. Well-intentioned people are going to tell you to read a lot in preparation for the test. Many of those same people are also going to tell you to read the questions, read the passage, and then re-read the questions. That’s not going to help you. Don’t listen to them. What’s going to help you is taking a bunch of practice tests, getting a group together to compare and defend your answers BEFORE you check your answers, and learning the timing and a few analysis techniques. The techniques I found most helpful were learning to picture the author and the prime audience member, and learning to classify the basic types of questions that are typically asked. Kaplan is excellent for this. Timing will come. You need to practice doing full tests in under an hour. Not all passages are created equally, so timing just one passage isn’t an accurate measure of your time management. You need to do full verbal tests on at least a weekly basis. Examkracker’s has a great book for this!

Practice Tests are Essential to Success

Start your study journey with a full length, timed practice test under test like conditions. This will give you a baseline and make it easier to track progress. It’s a lot easier to stay motivated if you can see your progress when you get discouraged along the way. Once you make it through your review books for the first time, take another full length test. They’re available on www.e-mcat.com for a reasonable fee. As you continue reviewing, take a full length test every week. You want to take at least half a dozen full length tests before the real test. The endurance required needs to be built and you need to be able to feel the appropriate timing without stressing yourself out about timing so you can worry about getting right answers on test day.

Plan to take your last full-lengthed practice test at least 2 weeks before you take the test. Your confidence needs to be intact come test day. Self-deprecating comments will reduce your endurance and make “failing the MCAT” become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You want to be completely humble and honest while you’re studying so you cover every weakness thoroughly, but come test day, you want to be so confident you’re bordering cocky. Don’t let that test wear your endurance down!

Developing Confidence in Your MCAT Abilities

MCAT Test Day

Arrive at the testing center with plenty of time. The check-in process and security measures can be a little over the top and time consuming. You don’t want environmental stress hurting your score after spending months to prepare. Make sure you’ve met your physical needs (sleep, food, exercise) and you’re alert and ready when you go to take the test. Good luck!

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