***Practical MCAT Tips based on my experience with the MCAT exam and preparation! Disclaimer: everyone is different. What worked for me may not work for you, but I do believe these tips can be generalized based, again, on my experience with the MCAT exam!***
I had a lot to say about this topic because of my personal experience of taking the MCAT exam 3 times! I learned that good MCAT test preparation is not just about the exam itself. A lot of preparation and research should be done prior to actually sitting down to study. I have therefore divided this topic into a 2 part series! You may find that some sections are longer than others but…hang in there! That just means lots more important information! I tried to put these “tips” in order but a lot of them are interconnected and reference each other! Happy reading, and as allways let me know your thoughts in the comments below! ^.^
1. Know the MCAT exam!
This is easily the first tip because you should know what exactly it is you are doing all this studying and preparation for! Do your research to know the content, structure, length etc. of the MCAT exam. I’ve outlined some of the basics in the tips below, but you should still do your own research and become familiar with the test for yourself. (For a complete breakdown of the MCAT exam content and structure, check out the information provided by the AAMC MCAT test makers HERE.) This is important so you know what to expect, but also because it will determine the course of your entire MCAT preparation plan beginning with tip number 2!
2. Do a self-assessment of your foundational background to determine when is the appropriate time to begin MCAT studying.
This is the very next thing you’re going to
want need to do before anything else! Hopefully you are familiar with the MCAT exam by now. If not, here’s a brief content summary: It has 4 sections and about 9 different subjects covered in varying amounts: biology, biochemistry, general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, quantitative reasoning, psychology, sociology, critical analysis and reasoning skills, and is scored on a scale from 472 to 528. As you may have noticed, these are some, if not all, of the same courses that are required as pre-requisites to medical school! Many of these courses overlap with course requirements for majors in biology, chemistry, biochem, cellular biology and more. I’m mentioning this because if you are currently enrolled in these courses, you should take them seriously! It is important to recognize the overlap and relation between these pre-requisite/college level courses and the foundational subject areas on the actual MCAT exam!
So, what does this mean for you now? Well, if you are currently in undergrad or in another program and are taking some of the subject areas mentioned above, then you are in a pretty good position going into MCAT studying and may not require as much time to prepare. On the other hand, if you haven’t taken some of these courses since your freshman year or if you are a little further removed from college and these subject areas, then you may have to spend more time doing content review or even take additional classes so you can have those foundational areas before jumping into the heart of MCAT studying.
This honestly varies from person to person. Even if your’e currently in undergrad, you may still need to adjust your study preparations accordingly. For example, if you are currently in undergrad and are taking both physics and biochem, but you are either A: not doing well or B: not understanding or grasping the material, or both, then you will have to spend more time learning or re-learning those subject areas. Unfortunately, if you’ve never taken any one of those subjects mentioned above, you will have even more work to do in your studying and preparations.
I personally found that having taken all those courses, some multiple times, tremendously helped to set the foundation for my MCAT studying and made it a lot smoother the final time I studied and took it. I was able to focus less on content review and more on what and how the MCAT was structured (more of this in part 2). Just be honest with yourself about where you are, what you know, and plan accordingly. Physics and organic chemistry are hard concepts to learn in a structured class setting and are even harder to learn on your own. This is not to say it can’t be done, but that it will be challenging. This is why it is important to do a thorough and realistic self-assessment of what you know to don’t know so you can determine how best to proceed.
This may be where your decision to do a post-bacc or masters program might weigh in, especially for non-science majors. In fact, some post-bacc programs of requirements or pre-requisites to apply. This means that there are some courses you have to take before you can even be considered for a post-bacc program! These coursed likely include the basics listed above like biology, chem, physics etc. So, do your research on any program of interest!
3. Decide how you want to tackle studying for the MCAT exam.
In addition to doing this self-assessment for your foundational knowledge, you should also consider how best you learn. Are you an independent and self directed learner? Or do you learn best in a structured environment? You should be asking yourself questions like these to determine if you are disciplined enough to tackle MCAT studying on your own or with a study group, OR if you need to take an MCAT prep course with a test prep company OR hire an MCAT tutor, OR do a post-bacc/Masters program. As you can see there are many options available! You should be thinking about this as you consider tip number 2 based on how much and what you still need to learn or re-learn during your MCAT studying.
If you decide you have a pretty good foundation going in and are disciplined enough to study on your own then go for it! Just know that it will require a lot from you. You have to be very focused with little distractions. This includes, work, extracurricular activities, family, friends etc. Not that you should isolate them, but that you’ll need to have balance, a set routine and understanding. This is also true for any of the other preparation options actually. Distractions can break your MCAT studying seriously. You have to make sure you are in an environment that allows you to focus when you need to. This includes the place where you plan to study, as well as the people that will be around you. I know people who have had to turn down summer opportunities or quit work to study for this exam, its not a joke! But if you are studying on your own, you can still seek outside help from professors or your peers by working in a group. Doing it on your own doesn’t necessarily mean doing it alone! (more on this in part 2).
I would say that I’m pretty disciplined on a normal day, however the MCAT exam is a beast of an exam. It is a 7 hour and 30 minute long passage based exam covering each of the subjects mentioned above! Any individual subject covered on the MCAT exam alone can be difficult enough to learn and grasp, but putting them all together… I knew that I personally needed that extra structured help. I tried the Kaplan MCAT prep course during the spring of my Junior year in undergrad and it was a mess for various reasons: I didn’t devote the proper time to the course as I was involved in various activities and working part time, but also because the Kaplan MCAT prep course was not fit for my learning style personally.
This is not bash on Kaplan at all as I know people who successfully completed the regular course and intensive summer course and did very well! So, I’ll leave it to you to do your research and decide for yourself. (Side note, test prep courses can be very expensive ($500-5000!!!). There are many test prep companies out there, so research to see if what they offer can work with you and your learning style.
If you are going to graduate soon or, have already graduated from college, and maybe struggled a bit in undergrad, then consider doing a post-bacc or masters program. If you’re currently struggling and are nowhere near graduation, still consider doing one! Although it was not my initial intention to do a post-bacc program, I am glad I did it and wished I had planned it out sooner during undergrad. Had I taken the time to do a proper self-assessment, I would have saved myself a lot of time and money applying to medical school prematurely! My post-bacc program was geared towards taking the MCAT exam first year, and preparation for medical school second year. There are many post-bacc programs out there; The AAMC has a list of them HERE.
I will go ahead and shamelessly pub for the MEDPREP post-bacc program that I did so check out the website HERE for more info. Keep in mind that these programs are not cheap either. Some are considered an extension of undergrad while some are considered graduate program. The MEDPREP program had the option of both. These programs can be great for MCAT prep, but also for GPA boosters. if that is something you need to bring up before applying to medical school.
You could also hire an MCAT tutor. How to find one? You can reach out through pre-med organization at your school or maybe you know someone who took it and did well that you can ask to tutor you. You can also search online for them; I think some test-prep companies have tutors on hand for hire but I’m not too sure on that, so research it! Tutors can be great because of the one-on-one help they provide and they can tailor their teachings for you and your study style. But…tutors are likely going to be pricey. However, if it’s someone you know you may be able to work something out.
4. Set realistic “MCAT score goals/expectations.
Now that you know what is going to be on the exam and you’ve assessed what you still need to cover, I recommend having a score goal or target range in mind before beginning your core MCAT studying. When you make this goal, it is very important to not set the bar too high, or too low! Your score goal is important because it can make or break your motivation while studying, and also because it gives you something to work towards so all your studying isn’t in vain.! I would suggests taking a practice full length exam initially before any major studying along with researching any medical schools of interest to see if they have any strict minimum cutoffs and then going from there.
Keep in mind though that some people score much higher and others score much lower than their practice exams so be prepared because it really is variable. It’s also more than okay to adjust your score goals/expectations as you study and take more practice exams. To my current knowledge, and as some of you may have heard, 500+ seems to be the “magic score” to aim for or higher for the MCAT. This is by no means absolute! There are many people that score below 500 on the MCAT and gain acceptance to Medical School just as there are many people that score over a 500 on the MCAT and don’t gain acceptance to Medical school! I personally know a few people on both sides of the spectrum. The MCAT score is just one of many areas looked at for medical school admissions and also varies by school. But in any case, be on the lookout for possible cutoffs and minimum requirements from schools, which brings us to tip number 5!
5. Research Medical Schools of interest.
As mentioned earlier, if your “dream” medical school has a specific MCAT cutoff number, that is a minimum score required to even apply and be considered at their school, then it probably would be a good idea to know what that score is! Some schools have strict cut offs, for example, SIU SOM requires 498 minimum to apply. Schools may have cut offs by total MCAT score or individual section scores. For example, Emory University SOM requires a minimum of a 500 overall OR a 123 or higher in each section to be considered.
I have been told by various medical school admissions staff that the importance of the MCAT score is mainly to show whether or not you can handle the rigors of medical School and is a good indicator of your likelihood to succeed once in medical school. There is data out there on the correlations between MCAT scores and Medical School success. The AAMC has some info about this and states:
Medical students who entered with scores of 494 and above showed similar, high progression rates.
You can read more about it on page 16 HERE. That is one of the reasons this exam is so important and weighed so heavily. I am not sure to what extent the correlation is as this exam is still fairly new.
On the other hand, some schools either don’t have any cutoffs/minimum requirements or don’t list any cut offs. A lot of medical schools are “Holistic” in how they consider applicants. You can easily find information like this on the admissions website of each medical school of interest. Knowing what score is or is not required should assist you in your MCAT preparations. Referring to tip number 4, if your’e constantly scoring above the score required by a medical school of interest, then you are probably in a good position to take the real thing and do well. Keep in mind that having all the right statistics or experiences (MCAT score, GPA, shadowing, volunteering, research, etc), does NOT guarantee admissions to any medical school.
6. Do your research on MCAT prep books and companies.
Whether or not you plan to study on your own or need a more structured format, you will be using a test-prep company for study materials. Each test company has a different style and format of how they present the information and questions in their practice materials. Keep in mind though that there is no practice exam out there like the real MCAT exam you will see on test day no matter how “good” each test prep company is or says they are. In my opinion, the AAMC practice exams and material are the best and most reliable out there currently simply because they are the ones who write the real MCAT exam! I personally scored right around where I scored on all the AAMC practice exams if averaged them together, but not everyone has that same experience. You can purchase the AAMC study materials HERE though. Many people tend to use these study materials in addition to other test prep materials.
With any test company, certain areas or subjects may be less representative of the real thing (some are harder/easier etc.) so do your research! You can research what is out there and what has worked for others. Aim to cater to your learning style and your content deficiencies (more on this in part 2). It’s not a bad idea to use different companies for different subjects based again on how they present the info, but at the end of the day, use what works for you. Its okay to change material even midway through your studying if its just not working for you. So far the popular names people use are Exam Krackers, Princeton Review, Next Step, Kaplan, Berkley Review, and Uworld. There may be more out there.
7. Determine how long to study for the MCAT exam and when to take it.
So, you’ve done all your research and know what test companies you want to try. You know if your dream school has a minimum MCAT score requirement and what it is. And you’ve decided to study on your own or that you need assistance. Now you need to set a designated time period to study and date for when to take the exam! I would recommend anywhere from 3-6 months of MCAT study time before taking the real thing. This time frame is so variable because everyone has different content backgrounds, strengths and deficiencies as discussed earlier.
Now there is a such thing as too much study time. You do not want to be studying for the MCAT exam for a year+, that’s just ridiculous! Its one thing to take a couple semesters or more time out to complete pre-requisite courses in preparation for the exam and another to have those under your belt and spend that same amount of time studying. The longer you prolong your studying the easier it is to forget what you’ve learned especially initially, not to mention FATIGUE! You will burn out if you prolong this process!
I prepared for the MCAT for a couple of years. Between my major in undergrad (Molecular and Cellular Biology) and first semester of my post-bacc program, I had plenty of content under my belt. However, I personally studied for the MCAT for only about 4 months, studying much harder around the last 2 months. I think that was enough time for me, but this can vary by individual.
So for you, once you’ve gone through the tips mentioned above and have finished all your preparations, decide tentatively how long you need to study, then pick a date after that set amount of time and try to stick with it! I took my MCAT exam mid-May and registered for that exam date the day the MCAT registration opened on the AAMC website. (Click HERE for the MCAT testing schedule/calendar). With my past experience of taking the exam multiple times and moving my date multiple times, I knew I did not want that same anxiety. So I picked my date and stuck with it because I also knew I had more than enough time to prepare if I did what I needed to do and you can too!
If you’ve made it this far the congratulations! You are now ready to begin MCAT studying!
Now theres a little more I would like to say about choosing your exam date and sticking with it etc. And as you may have noticed, I haven’t even gotten to actual MCAT studying tips yet! So, for the remaining information on specific MCAT study Tips, look out for Part 2 to this coming soon! If you found any of these tips helpful let me know in the comments below!