Early Thoughts on the MCAT

I’ve spent the past couple of months slowly gathering my study materials, working on a schedule, and a few other bits and bobs all in preparation for this summer when I’ll be studying for the MCAT.  I wanted to write a little bit on my initial thoughts about the exam.  Hopefully in about 4 months, I’ll be able to look back and feel a sense of accomplishment and know that I did the best that I could on this exam.

I made a list of about a dozen topics that I need to self-study before I start content review and exam preparation in the first week of June.  Without exception, the topics I feel the most concerned about are the ones from classes that had terrible professors.  The mistake I made when I took the classes was not teaching myself the material when I could have.  Now, I feel like I don’t have enough time to learn it as well as I need to for the MCAT.  The lesson here: cherry-pick good teachers when you can and when you can’t, learn all the requisite material anyway.  I knew this but didn’t do it.  Anyway, over the next three weeks, I’m going to have some work to do.  After that, content review starts.

Anyway, here are my initial thoughts on the exam:

  • For the most part, I feel as if I understand a lot of the topics pretty well, but definitely think that I have some holes that need to be filled.  For example, I don’t really know what the action potential is and haven’t a clue how a muscle contracts or a nerve impulse is transmitted.  On the other hand, I also have a pretty strong understanding of the first semester biology topics, most all of the physics concepts, and the bulk of the organic chemistry covered on the exam.
  • I’m more than a little bit worried that I’m not going to be able to keep up at the pace I need to be going.  I work a full-time job during the week and have a few other isolated obligations, but I’ve set a pretty aggressive schedule for reviewing and I’m a little concerned that I’ll not be able to get it all done or that I’ll fall behind.  I work nine hour days and have every other Friday off so I’ll have several days during the week when I have large blocks of time.  Also, I tend to have a lot of down time at work, so I’ll probably be able to make review sheets that I can review while I’m stuck on a telecon or something like that.
  • According to some of the posters on SDN, the average student using a review schedule similar to mine studies about 50 hours a week or so, which sounds pretty extreme.  That’s probably not a realistic number for me to be doing considering all of the other things that I have going on.
  • One of the problems that a lot of students have is that they tend to think that they understand a topic when they actually don’t.  My problem is quite the opposite – the more I learn about a particular topic, the more I feel there is that I don’t understand about it.  I suppose a lot of that is due to the fact that I know more about the simple topics than you’re expected to know as a first or second-year student.  The deeper approach that my upper division coursework took convinced me that I didn’t understand all of the implications of basic physics and that there was so much more going on than I understood.  Of course, that’s probably not true – but it’s still had a profound impact on my confidence level.

As I’ve mentioned before, my target score is a 35 and I think that, once I’ve done some content review and taken a full-length exam I’ll probably start to settle down a bit, assuming my score isn’t in the toilet.  But, reading that test-takers are having to study 50 hours a week for three months to get above a 30 is a little bit jarring.  As much as I respect the sages resident on SDN, I’m a little bit skeptical about that number.  Here’s why.  Consider that 3 months is more or less a semester and assume for ease of estimation that a student takes all of the requisite courses in one semester.  The MCAT primarily tests a year each of biology, chemistry, and physics as well as what amounts to a semester of organic chemistry.  If we ignore the lab and recitation sections, that works out to be two lectures per week for each course at a nominal 50 minutes per lecture.  Now, assuming that the student is taking all seven semesters of the material at once, this works out to be 700 minutes of lecture, or about 12 hours, per week.  Now, if we apply the golden rule that one should spend three hours outside of class for every hour spent in class, you can see that a rough estimate for study time would be around 36 hours per week, far less than the 50 hour figure cited by SDN.  And these are just estimates for the amount of time required to cover the material for the first time!

36 hours a week of studying for all your classes might not sound like a lot, but recall back to undergrad – taking seven courses together would put you in class 12 hours a week, assuming that they were all back-to-back.  Recall also that I ignored recitations and lab sections.  My point in this little exercise wasn’t to argue that one could take all the medical school pre-requisites in one semester but to try to estimate the amount of time required to actually review the material covered by the MCAT.

So, how much time do I think is sufficient for me to study for the exam?  A couple of thoughts on that:

  • I trust in quality over quantity.  Sitting in a review class listening to a speaker or mindlessly leafing through an MCAT review book at a local Starbucks is not quality study time.  Far and away, the highest-yield technique seems to be timed practice passages, which is largely the reason that I chose to use the Berkeley Review instead of the ExamKrackers or Kaplan books.
  • No one can maintain a high-level of focus for 50 hours a week.  Our concentration wanes, we get distracted, etc.  If I were to try to work that hard for 50 hours a week chained to my desk, the quality of my time spent reviewing would falter and the gains would be negligible.
  • Truly focused and concentrated studying and timed practice passages 8 hours a day for 3 months is basically like taking an MCAT every day for 12 weeks – that’s not happening and anyone that says that is how they prepared for the exam is full of it.

Realistically speaking, my plan is to do timed practice verbal passages in the mornings before I leave for work (~ 1 hr).  After work, I’ll try to study before dinner (~ 2 hrs) and then another couple in the evening (~ 2 hrs).  That works out to about 5 hours per day during the week.  I work nine days out of every two weeks, so that’s 45 hours every two weeks plus 5 days with enough time to full-length exams and longer review.  But, since I’ve scheduled break days in there, that leaves only 3 days every two weeks with room for longer review, which I’ll budget at 8 hours each.  Combine them all together and you get right at 70 hours every two weeks or about 35 hours a week.

I can feel in my bones that this summer is really going to suck – I’ll try to take my bike to work so that I can squeeze in an hour ride or so at lunch, but I’m anticipating a lot of suffering and anguish.  But, if my goal is to get between 30 and 35 hours a week in reviewing for the exam, I believe that it is doable.  If I can do that, then I believe that the score I want is attainable.  Looks like we’ll find out soon.

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7 Responses

  1. Thoughts from a current MS-2 studying for the USMLE Step 1:

    – Do take a look at Gunner Training. It’s a newish flashcard and question – based study tool that was developed from research into spaced learning (i.e, you learn something the first time on day X, you’re shown it again at standardized intervals that are optimised for neurologic retention patterns, etc). They have online versions of it for both the MCAT and the USMLE; I’ve incorporated it into my boards studying and I can tell you that if the MCAT version had been available when I was prepping 3 summers back I probably would have destroyed the beast (as it stands, I ended up with a 31).

    • I’ve read about this idea of spaced-learning. Didn’t know that was what it was called, but I ran across an article a while ago that talked about determining the frequency of review needed for material given a particular test or evaluation date in the future. Wish I could find the article again or another source on it.

  2. I personally can’t stand standardized tests, and the MCAT is no exception. I’ve got a 3.97 GPA, and my major was Pathologist’s Assistant (pathology being the very foundation of what medicine is all about). With my work experience and soon-to-be volunteer experience, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be accepted solely because of a low MCAT score (say, low 20s…I’m taking it in January ’12, but that’s what the practice tests are showing). I’m still going to apply regardless, and if I don’t get an interview in 2012, someone’s dying, and it’s not going to be me…seriously.

  3. So, I also work full-time as an engineer (R&D for computer hardware), and have been studying for go #2 at the MCAT (I first took in 2009 while in the middle of school and generally half-assed it). It’s on June 16th, so very soon…

    I would actually suggest not starting “too early”. I began content review around April, working through the ExamKrackers books, and a lot of the early material I reviewed has kind of fallen through the cracks now. Get home from work around 6, work-out for a hour, shower, then content-review until bed around midnight.

    Really began “heavy” studying in May, using some Kaplan practice material. It was geared for the older MCAT (77 questions/100 minutes), but material is material. (Obviously I did not feel too bad about missing questions on benzene or alkynes). Really HEAVY studying started mid-May with the real AAMC FLs…I’ve taken all but one at this point. Weekends were prime for this; on weekdays I would have to cut the workouts, head straight to the library after work, and work through a FL + review. Performance on the late weeknight FLs paled to my performance on the ones on the weekend, so burn-out is definitely an issue.

    With the attitudes you’ve shown in your past posts (pertaining to study techniques at the importance of physics), I don’t think you’ll have a single problem whatsoever. My first MCAT was in July 2009, with one semester of Orgo I far in the past, no Orgo II or biochemistry yet, “studied” for two weeks and I managed to engineer my way through it to get a 31. Actually reviewing the material (which I was wish I had been mature enough to learn and study the FIRST time…) and developing a MCAT intuition of sorts should easily let you hit that 35, especially with this material fresh in your head and the *way* you’ve learned that material.

    • Thanks for the encouragement. I hope you’re right – a 35 feels pretty distant right now. Some of these review passages are absolutely demoralizing. I won’t be taking any of the AAMC exams until some time in August. You’re right about weekends – although, I’ll most likely do a few of them during the week to squeeze them all in. I have a very flexible schedule, so I’ll probably just take the afternoons off when needed.

      Best of luck on your exam this week – let me know how it goes.

      • Yeah – the Kaplan passages made me feel pretty dumb, but I think there’s two aspects to that. 1: it’s designed to get you to really think and learn the material. 2: More of a cynical view, a lot of test prep companies guarantee your money back if you don’t improve. If you’re doing terribly on artificially hard passages, you will in all likelihood “improve”.

        I’ve got one more CBT (10) to do, going to try and relax a bit, kinda casually go through it tonight and then I’m done studying. T-48 hours!

  4. Well, exam done and over with…felt absolutely awful afterwards, but that’s the norm I guess. BS was surprisingly difficult in my humble opinion…make sure you use a BS prep source that hits you with some research-heavy passages. (EK does not.)

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