First of all, to anyone reading, I would like to say thank you for your support throughout this incredibly daunting season in my life. I made it through and I hope this is the first and last time I have to take that test. I’ve heard from several peers that the MCAT is the most important standardized test throughout the extent of your medical training. At first I didn’t believe it. Medical students, residents, attendings… take standardized exams all throughout their education. The MCAT, however, is what sets up the possibilities of those. It tests your mental stamina, proves that you have the persistence to become a doctor, reassures you’re becoming one for the right reasons, and tests several other traits of character. There is nothing more humbling than thinking you did really well on a practice exam and reading your score realizing you did far worse than you imagined. This is my experience and how I can help you!
*I want to make a disclaimer that it is extremely important to note that my experience is what I did, what worked (or didn’t work) for me and my experience. I am writing this to help anyone out there through my perspective. That being said, every student is unique and what worked well for me may not for you.*
Alright, let’s jump right in!
The Time Frame:
Many resources, student forums, and supporting peers recommend anywhere from 3-6 months to really dedicate time to study for the MCAT.
I deeply studied for about 2.5 months and began reviewing about 6 months before that.
The majority of students taking the MCAT take it after their junior year in order to apply to schools prior to graduating. I took it after my 5th year of college. I had just finished biochemistry, taken 20+ credits in sociology throughout my undergrad, and used my MCAT review books alongside some of my last undergrad courses to familiarize myself with the content the MCAT tests on. There is no “right” or “wrong” time to choose when to take the test. It depends on:
- how much dedicated time you think you need
- how “fresh” you feel the material is/how much material you think you need to learn
- how graceful you can be to yourself allotting for days you NEED off [for a mental break]. And trust me, you’ll need them.
I recommend making a list of the content areas you need to review the most, including specific topics. I wrote down all of the sections of the Kaplan books (such as electrochemistry, glycolysis part I, the immune system, etc), and then crossed them out as I went through them.
I did my best to obtain as many free resources as possible. However, I feel it’s extremely important to purchase some kind of comprehensive review books regardless of the test-prep company. I purchased Kaplan from Amazon, but I’ve heard good things about Next Step as well. Point being, it doesn’t matter which books. As long as you have something to base your review on. Below are the free resources I used and what I used them for.
- The MCAT Podcast/The MCAT CARS Podcast by Medical School HQ. Specific subjects, pearls, and questions.
- Jack Westin CARS passages ~ if you subscribe by email, you get a CARS passage daily. It’s amazing. I did this almost daily.
- UWorld MCAT [free trial] ~ practice questions. You can select the content areas you want to get questions on. Upgrade for longer access.
- Khan Academy MCAT ~ select from all content areas – including CARS – watch lesson videos, do practice questions with instant feedback.
- Next Step MCAT ~ free diagnostic half length exam, free full length exam, free question banks!!!
- Kaplan ~ I purchased the review books and received 3 complementary full length exams with the code that came with my books.
- AAMC Full Lengths ~ the American Association of Medical Colleges – ie, the company that GIVES the MCAT. I recommend purchasing and taking their full length exams at the end of your prep. I’ve heard these are the ones that give you the most accurate prediction as to what you’ll score on the real thing. This is the same site you use to sign up for the MCAT.
All of these resources in combination helped me substantially. I listened to both the podcasts on my way to class my last semester of undergrad and caught myself shouting out the answers when Dr. Gray + Clara would ask them. 😀 The CARS podcast was extremely helpful in familiarizing myself with how the CARS section aims to function. Additionally, I spiral-bound my Kaplan books (cheap at your local office supply store), and took then with me everywhere. I annotated them, marked them up, and I’m fairly certain I answered every single practice question offered throughout them. Again, you NEED some form of review book that lays out what you will be tested on, but I firmly believe it doesn’t matter which. Kaplan was great for me.
The first month and a half (halfway through May after graduation), and the majority of June, I reviewed material for about 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. I spent most days early in the morning, studied until lunchtime, ate and decompressed, then returned for an afternoon session.
After reviewing the material, I began learning the format of the exams by doing practice questions (mostly to assess knowledge), practice passages (to get a feel for the way the questions are asked), and full-length practice tests. Up until my test date, I had taken 8 practice exams. After each practice exam, I reviewed each question and learned what my weak (as well as strong) areas were. I would use the following day to review the weak areas and re-learn the content.
While I believe the MCAT should be your life in the time you’re preparing, it is necessary to allow time for yourself. Regardless of what that is – using weekdays for longer prep days and weekends for shorter, more relaxed prep, making equal prep on all days for shorter studying in duration, or whatever works best for you. I was able to stick to my schedule while accounting for exercising 5-6 days/week, working one 12-hour-shift per week, and other social events I had throughout the summer. Knowing myself, I knew needed game nights with my roommates, long talks, walks, and my amazing social network.
MCAT prep is not specific on testing what will be on your test on any given test day. That being said, the safest way to prepare is to know everything. I’m not joking, either. The Kaplan books do a great job of outlining what is considered “high yield” (or most likely to be on the test). Those are the topics one must know like the back of their hands. The rest, you better believe you should know, also. “High yield” simply means those are the topics most likely to show up on test day. Knowing that helped me in my prep. Here’s a few things I think you NEED to know for test day.
1.AMINO ACIDS. Like you’ve never known anything else. You must know the names, the properties, the three-letter abbreviations, the one-letter abbreviations, which are most similar to each other, etc. Throughout my MCAT experience, I had found that there were amino acid questions throughout both the chem/physics section as well as the biology/biochem sections. Sometimes the questions will display themselves in a very discrete manner such as, “which amino acid is cyclic?” and you’ll be given options in the form of the three-letter codes. Others are not-so obvious… “As described in the passage, which amino acid could also be used for X, Y, Z?” leaving you to deduce which AA of the given options is most similar in nature to the other – property-wise. In these cases, it helped me to take each multiple choice answer and list the properties. If you truly know your stuff, the right answer will scream out at you. If you know anything for the MCAT, make sure you know the amino acids ever-so-thoroughly.
2. Psychiatric Disorders. I haven’t heard a lot of talk about this, but on several of my practice tests, a discrete question would present itself asking which disorder a patient had based on the given symptoms. Have a general idea of the classes of psychiatric disorders, and you’re guaranteed to get at least one question correct on your test. 😉
3. Terminology. ESPECIALLY in the psych/soc section, I believe the terminology is very specific to the MCAT. Sure, these terms are psychological & sociological terms, but the ones you need to know are very MCAT-specific. In undergrad, I had taken 21 credits in sociology (I strongly, strongly recommend if you have the option), and 9 credits of psychology, but prior to studying for the MCAT, I had no idea what “self-serving bias,” the differences between “foot-in-the-door” technique an “low-ball” technique, and what the heck “groupthink” was. While all of these terms sound like you could make an educated guess as to what they mean, in which you’re probably right, do not be too confident. These terms are often very similar to each other and the test will likely make you decide between two options which are indeed, very similar. This is why you NEED TO KNOW your stuff. As I prepared, I found it extremely helpful to write down a term as you see it; on a practice test, while reading, in the podcast, etc. and writing it down and defining it in YOUR terms. Then study that extensively. 🙂
4. CARS. Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills. Vital to becoming a physician. In this section, you’re given nine passages and 53 questions to answer about them. Then can be on anything – architecture, Roman/Greek history, ethics & medicine, sociology, you get the point. Not what us pre-meds are accustomed to – we want the science and hard evidence. Many students (including myself) find CARS the most daunting section simply based on the aspect of unfamiliarity. When I took my diagnostic test, I was mortified by my CARS score. But it didn’t stay that that way. By the end of my prep, I ended up scoring higher on CARS than the science sections. All I did was figure out HOW to tackle CARS. It took me a while to understand that CARS is not about comprehension, it’s about inference. What is the author’s attitude about the topic? What is the tone of the overall passage? What is the underlying message? Shifting my perspective on it gave me a much better shot at it.
5. Punnett Squares. I cannot even tell you how many times I drew these out during my practice. If you don’t remember how you survived freshman biology and then a semester of genetics, I HIGHLY suggest learning how to draw and solve Punnett squares and then interpreting them. Learning the inheritance patterns as well as the basics of genetics will benefit you plenty – I can almost guarantee it.
Here are the test-taking strategies that worked for ME when I took my eight practice tests and carried over into test day:
- Discrete questions first. In each of the science sections (chem/physics, bio/biochem, psych/soc), there are 59 questions. Most are passage-based, but nestled between passages are several questions that are not related to a passage and ONLY require outside knowledge. These were my favorite questions. On each section, I went through and did these questions first. Why? Due to time constraints, I didn’t want to risk getting those “simpler” questions wrong in the event that I’d run out of time. These questions, overall, I tended to do better on in comparison to the passage-based questions, so I made sure I did them first. I’d then go back and do the passage-based questions. If you decide to do this, make SURE you go back to all the unanswered questions. 🙂 Sounds obvious, but you never know how you’ll act under pressure.
- Recognizing pseudo-discrete questions. While there are obvious discrete questions on the MCAT, there are also what we call “pseudo-discrete” questions. These are passage-based questions that have very little to do with the passage. LOOK OUT FOR THEM. They’re really just a knowledge-based question and testing what you know. 🙂 recognizing this early helps you save time and not scan through the passage when you don’t have to!
- Outlining CARS. Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills was not what I thought it was, as previously discussed. As I mentioned previously, my CARS section improved the most over time. A lot of this I can attribute to both reading the text out loud, and outlining the passage. My outlining did get a bit excessive, but I am a kinesthetic learner, so this was the missing piece I needed (see above). This is what I did on the last 2 practice tests I took, and the exact strategy I used on the dry erase board I was given on test day. I used so much ink and I do not regret it.
No one’s MCAT story is perfect, and mine was far from it. The best piece of advice I can offer is TAKE PRACTICE TESTS. Again, I ended up taking eight total. The best part of this is that walking away on test day, I didn’t feel surprised by anything: the content, the way the test was formatted, the length of the breaks, and mentally working with all the consequences of taking a 7+ hour-long-exam. I cannot emphasize this enough. I walked out of my test feeling probably as good as I could’ve mentally, and I believe I can attribute that to knowing how the test would be formatted. Another note to the good was that, I found a great balance with my flexible job, working one 12-hour shift per week, consistently exercising, and maintaining (somewhat of) a social life. I believe I can attribute this to having been busy most of my undergrad, but I also believe if you make studying your priority (hello, YOU want to be a doctor!!!!) you can achieve a good balance, too.
I will not sugar-coat anything that has to do with this process. There were several, several times throughout my preparation that I doubted myself, felt like I was wasting my time, and questioned the worth of the process. And there were lots of tears throughout the months of preparation. The material was challenging, frustrating, it took up the majority of my summer, and I had a little bit of FOMO when seeing others’ “fun” summers. I had just graduated and completed FIVE years of college for Pete’s sake. I kept telling myself this was part of the process and I heavily relied on my social support system. I cannot thank everyone enough for this. My family, friends, roommates, coworkers, tennis league friends, etc … the kind words did not go unappreciated. Another difficult part about the process was not being able to work as much as a normally do and I was therefore making less money. I scaled back on things and attempted to prioritize my spending. Overall, the MCAT was simply a season of my life and I’m looking to appreciate that part of my plan as much as I can.
There is not much to say about the test itself. As mentioned previously, I was accustomed to the format, the content, and during my very last week, I felt like there was nothing else I could do to make my test day any better than I could’ve. Some of this could’ve been the feeling of burnout, sure, but I felt mentally ready. The test itself happened. The testing center staff was phenomenal. During my second break, the only 30 minute break, one of the staff members came out to check on me because she had thought I exceeded my break (she thought it was another 10 minute break), and wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing out on precious time. Each time I signed back into the secured testing center and handprinted my way in, the staff wished me good luck. When I finished my test, in the extremely quiet testing room, I raised my hand per protocol and soon heard “YOU’RE ALL DONE!!!” I must’ve had a shocked look on my face, but as the testing facilitator approached me, I realized I was the last test-taker to finish. I was 1 of 3 students taking the MCAT that day; and the last of the 3 to check in (the others were mostly taking the NCLEX and education cert exams). I had never felt so relieved. The kindness of this testing center’s employees made my experience far more relaxing than it could’ve been. This just shows how a little kindness goes a long way.
I walked out of the testing center with tired eyes (despite wearing glasses with blue-blocker lenses). My phone screen looked like I needed a magnifying glass; the text looked so small compared to the previous screen I had been staring at for 7+ hours. I bought myself a coffee, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the feeling I had when I was sitting in Starbucks waiting for my coffee. I was oddly hyper-aware of my surroundings and slightly in shock that I had just finished the MCAT. Three + whole months were done in a painstakingly long 7+ hours. I then took a nap, and enjoyed drinks and dinner. My overall feelings about the test are rather consistent with how I felt about my practice tests; like mentioned previously, nothing was shocking or uncomfortable after walking out. Now, I just wait until early September to find out! This post MCAT life? Well, it’s a much more relaxed season of life. 🙂
MCAT-taking friends, please, PLEASE, let me know if any of this information helps you in your preparation. I wish you all of the success in your preparation + on your test. And always remember, it’s a standardized test that does not define your worth. It’s simply a number that allows you to apply to medical school. Let the admissions committee decide if your score is “good enough;” not you, not your peers, not your parents!
Thanks for reading!