Thoughts on Preparing for the MCAT

I apologize that it’s taken me this long to get a post up on how I studied for the MCAT. I’ve been really busy with work lately and, to be perfectly frank, I’ve more or less forgotten about the MCAT entirely.  Although, last night I did have a nightmare that there was a second entrance exam for medical school that I didn’t know about. The weird thing was that it consisted of fighting vampires and lycans, along with a substantial amount of platforming. I’m not going to lie – I’ve been playing a lot of Castlevania and Deus Ex on my Playstation over the past few months.

As much fun as all of that is, I want to lay out my thoughts on preparing for the MCAT for several reasons. First, I feel somewhat obligated to all those that came before me for sharing their thoughts and experience. In particular, I really should single out the long-running thread on SDN which provided me with the framework I used to structure my study time. Second, I’d like to help others that are going to be taking the exam and hopefully help them avoid some of the mistakes that I see a lot of students make. Finally, one of the things I hope to do is encourage those of you out there that haven’t put the exam in the rearview yet. One of the things that I learned about the MCAT, or studying for any professional school exam for that long, is the huge emotional roller coaster you’ll be on. I’ve got some thoughts on this at the end.

With all that said, let’s dive in. Let me qualify my remarks here a bit – most of this is really oriented for people that will be taking the exam in its current format. The MCAT is scheduled to undergo a major overhaul in a couple of years, so if you aren’t taking it for 3-4 years, not all of what I have to say will be directly applicable to you.

First, some general advice on how to be successful on the exam:

  • Focus on learning the material in the classes. This probably gets mentioned (and ignored) more than any other piece of advice, but it is absolutely true. The worst thing you can do for yourself is obsess about your grade and not learn the material. There will undoubtedly be a couple of topics that you need to learn from scratch for the exam, but if you don’t know anything about physiology and want to prepare for the exam, you have some hard yards ahead of you.
  • Don’t start reviewing for the MCAT until you have taken all the prerequisite material. This is really just a restatement of my earlier comment, but it gets all the time by premeds. There are people that do it, but I suspect that they are less than satisfied with their MCAT scores.
  • Do not take the MCAT until you know you can and will be ready to take it. I have personal experience with this – two summers ago, I was studying for the exam and after about 10 weeks started realizing that I wasn’t read and was having to learn a lot of new material. I concluded that I really needed some time to fill in the holes, so I took a year long graduate biochemistry sequence and a semester each of physiology and genetics. It set my application back by a year, but there is no doubt in my mind that my score on the MCAT was all the better for it.
  • Do not get impatient and decide to take the exam earlier than when you will be ready. A bunch of my classmates did this and wound up with mediocre scores because of it. In one case, a friend of mine scored something in the mid-20s and it completely derailed his application.
  • Do not adopt the attitude of “I’ll take it to see how I do”. MD schools see all of your attempts, so don’t be a fool here. One shot. One kill.

Here’s my opinion on prep courses.

  • They are expensive and, in my opinion, often give students a false sense of preparedness. A lot of students I’ve seen take a prep course during the spring and prepare to sit the exam thinking they are ready when in reality they are not.
  • They force a schedule upon you which may or may not be beneficial. A prep course for me would have been a huge waste of time because it would have spent ages in physics and molecular biology, none of which would have been necessary for me. In hindsight, I could have probably reviewed MCAT physics in a few sessions. On the other hand, I really needed to spend a couple of days on electrochemistry because it was something I had never covered. Prep courses typically do not have the flexibility to do that sort of thing.
  • For some people, particularly those that are not able to rigorously stick to a review schedule, prep courses may make sense. If you cannot discipline yourself to study and review at the appropriate time, a prep course might help you out.
  • One final thought on prep courses. If you take one and it helps you review, that’s great. But it’s only part of the game. You have to do practice exams under actual exam conditions. There were people I knew that showed up to take the exam with me and I was shocked how many of them took a prep course and had only done one practice exam. Unwise.

Now onto prep material. As I mentioned a while ago, I don’t think that the material is really the determinant for doing well. I believe practicing questions under timed conditions and heavy review is the key to success. That said, here are my thoughts on the different review systems out there:

  • Kaplan – Their subject review material is absolutely terrible and riddled with errors. I’ve heard that the material available in their classes is better, but I’ve not seen those. Also, their ‘MCAT in a Box’ is a giant waste of money.
  • Princeton Review – Didn’t use any of this, although their Hyperlearning series is rather legendary from what I have heard.
  • ExamKrackers – I felt their content review was rather cursory and I found myself constantly needing to supplement it, particularly with their chemistry section.  Their verbal review book was fantastic and, as much as I hate to admit it, their Audio Osmosis series helped tremendously with knowing the things which were going to be covered on the exam and what I could safely ignore.
  • The Berkeley Review – Hands down the best review materials I used. The format of their passages is really well suited to timing and learning to think the way the MCAT requires. I will say that their material is far over the top – if you use the Berkeley Review, do not let it get you discouraged when you wind up missing half the questions on practice passages.  I attribute my success on the exam in no small part to the fact that I got hammered on a regular basis by the passages in those books, particularly the biology book.

Now we get to the meat of how to make a study schedule and stick to it. As I mentioned, I heavily leveraged what was recommended on SDN, so if you want more details, check it out there.

  • Register for the exam and know when and what date you will be taking it.
  • Figure out how much time you have to devote to the exam. 3 months is very aggressive if you have a full-time job or other responsibilities. 4 months of studying worked well for me but you need to schedule a lot of break days, or you will get burnt to a cinder. I was ready to be done after about 10 weeks or so. People that talk about hardcore studying for 6 months are lying. Anything more than 4 months and you’re going to be a crispy critter come exam day.
  • Set a tangible and realistic goal for yourself. Some people set their goal to be a 40 or a 45. To me, this is foolish. Something like only 8 people out of 1000 score over a 40 and no one gets a 45. My goal was a 35 and I would have been pleased if I’d wound up with a 34, but a little disappointed. Happily, as it turned out, that didn’t happen. Make sure that your goal is realistic, but not something you’ll be devastated by if you miss it by a point or two.
  • Count backwards about 4 weeks and schedule the 8 practice AAMC exams, leaving at least two days in between to review the exam and do practice questions as review. Also, make sure to schedule a day off every week or so – for me, burnout set in after about 12 weeks and I really needed time to unwind occasionally, or I was going to go crazy.
  • Count backwards another 3 months and fill in your study schedule. I found that doing the practice exams after the review was far more beneficial than doing them once my content review was complete. Not everyone does it this way, but it worked for me.
  • Don’t let the exam consume you.  You could literally spend the rest of your life studying the concepts tested on the MCAT.  Anyone that thinks they understand all of this stuff completely is kidding themselves.
  • A lot of people, after the fact, will look back and say “I really shouldn’t have worried about it so much” or “Put the MCAT in perspective”.  I think that’s a bunch of crap because for 3-4 months of your life, it really needs to be the most important thing under the sun.  That’s a crappy deal, I know, and yeah, it isn’t the only part of your application.  But let’s face it – schools screen based in large part on your MCAT score.  I’m not going to say “I shouldn’t have worried about it so much” now.  I crushed the MCAT mostly because I DID worry about it so much.  I didn’t ride my bike for 4 months.  I didn’t get to hang out with friends much during that time either.  I’m not saying you should live like a monk or anything like that – I drank my share of beer and played a lot of Oblivion – but if you want to give yourself the best chance to do well on the thing, don’t listen to anyone telling you to relax or not worry about the MCAT.  I know lots of people that weren’t worried about their MCAT performance.  I did a lot better than they did.

For studying, I would set a 50 minute timer and focus on getting good work done. After 50 minutes, I would take a 10 minute break, check my email, talk to the Dr. Lady, and get something to eat or drink. Then I’d go back and repeat. I found that studying at the office after everyone had left to be very effective. The only times I went to the coffee shop were when I wanted coffee. There were people there with their MCAT books and I marvel that they were able to get anything done.

Once you’ve gotten started, understand that, regardless of the time you set aside, you will fall behind. You have to keep going. As you start doing more passages and reviewing them, particularly if you adopt a cyclical approach to studying, you will find that you wind up filling in a lot of holes, so don’t get hung up on getting every problem worked or every detail figured out.

If you want more detail on how I actually studied, as in the day-to-day work, check out the SDN post on MCAT studying or feel free to ask in the comments or in an email.

The emotional part of the process is what I really wanted to talk about. I was unprepared for the constant ups and downs of the process. I remember missing questions, not understanding a particular concept, or making mistakes and I realize now that I let it negatively affect me when it came to working passages or taking the practice exams. Probably one of the most important things to learn is confidence and it only comes with time. This is part of the reason why I recommend against practice exams prior to review or a ‘diagnostic exam’. The last thing you want the day of the exam is to be thinking about all the questions you missed or the mistakes you made on practice exams.

I had planned to write a lot more about my thoughts on preparing for the exam, but ultimately I think each person needs to tailor something that will work for them. I was pleased with the approach that I took and how the results turned out.

On a personal note, I really need to say thanks to a few people.  First, the Dr. Lady.  She help me keep going when I scored below the multiple guess rate on a set of biology passages (yes, the Berkeley Review is that hard) and reminded me of good performances when I needed to hear it.  My buddy Little Ben for making sure we got together for a beer once every month or so, lest I forget that life exists outside of the exam.  And lastly, I really need to say thanks to all of you guys for the encouragement over the past year.  Knowing that all of you were waiting for practice exam results made it a lot easier to struggle through all those practice passages.  Hopefully, the application cycle will work out alright and I’ll find myself looking back with another milestone in my rearview.  Thanks!

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8 Responses

  1. I think you nailed it with your work ethic and tenaciousness. I used a slightly different approach (prep class, 10 weeks of constant studying around a full time job), but I had more of a time crunch and I hadn’t taken gen chem in 10 years or some such. Be prepared: a lot of med school is just like studying for the MCAT — only you have to do it every day for 3 years. Woo! You’re going to do great.

  2. Excellent detail. One thing – where’s the link to the SDN thread?

  3. Congrats on a great score, so i’m assuming you used the EK method for tackling the passages. Could you please post more tips on verbal?

  4. Thanks for the comments on the different review materials. Would you recommend if my approach was to use EK,TPR,TBR respectively from cover to cover until my exams. I feel like am not so strong at the subjects and need that repetitive horning at the material. Thanks.

  5. Nice write-up on the MCAT study experience. As someone who is currently using TBR and EK verbal for the MCAT, the ups and downs (especially with bio) really resonate with me. There have been times when I wanted to tear my book in half after doing some passages.

    • The first rule of reviewing biology with the Berkeley Review is to not get discouraged. There were evenings that I left my study sessions absolutely demoralized because I had missed more than half of the questions. I remember one Saturday morning where I scored below the multiple-guess rate. Don’t worry – it will all be worth it in the end, if you persevere.

      If you stick with the Berkeley Review, I can almost guarantee that the easiest day of your entire study plan will be the day of the real thing. Best of luck!

  6. Does it matter which version of the Berkeley Review or the ExamKrackers review books to study with in terms of the years in which they were published; are there any differences between the newer versions and the older? Also you said the following:

    “I found that doing the practice exams after the review was far more beneficial than doing them once my content review was complete.”

    Could you specify what you mean by review as opposed to the content review? Could you also give some details about how the courses of science subjects you took prepared you for the exam? Would have done equally as well if you had used a textbook in biochemistry to self-study instead of an actual class (taking into account that many lectures are just the professor copy and pasting the textbook into a powerpoint).

    Thanks

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