More Reader Questions on the MCAT

I got an email from a reader today and decided to post my response here:

I read your blog and i find it to be very down-to-earth and helpful. thanks for helping us pre-meds with these tips!

Thanks for the kind words. The last couple of years on this road has changed me in some rather unexpected ways, so it’s somewhat enjoyable to help encourage others along the way. For some reason, the premed world is consumed with bitterness, infighting, and other destructive behavior. I understand competition, and some good-natured competition among colleagues is probably a good thing, but the level of nastiness and general douchebaggery I’ve witnessed over the last couple of years makes me rather sad. One of the hardest things I’ve learned in this entire process is the necessity of being dependent upon others. There is no way I’d have gotten to this point or have had the experiences I’ve had if it hadn’t been for other people along the way. In my opinion, I owe it to them to encourage others along the way.

For more literary minded readers, the parallels between this medical school thing and my blogs namesake are pretty striking. Nearly every obstacle placed in Odysseus’ way on the journey back to Ithaca was only surmounted by the help of others around him. With Poseidon absent from Mount Olympus Athena intercedes with Zeus on his behalf, which ultimately leads to his release from the island of Calypso. After being shipwrecked by Poseidon, the Phaeacians offer him hospitality and ultimately return him to Ithaca in the middle of the night. And even at the end, Odysseus enlists the help of a slew of people in slaughtering the suitors that have set up shop in his home, eaten his food, drunk his wine, and tried to woo his woman. If you’re a premed reading this and think that you have nothing to gain from your classmates or others along the way, you’re a fool.

What do you think about the density of the bio passages for the last MCAT you took? I took one last year and i was so bogged down by the long bio passages and didn’t get to finish, which ended up hurting my score.

None of the biology passages that I’ve seen on either the practice exams or the real one felt all that long to me. Your timing problems could be due to a lot of things, but my guess is that you’re probably focusing on the details in the passage too much. My goal when I read those passages was to understand the experiment, how it had been performed and what the results were. The MCAT absolutely tests your ability to interpret graphs, tables, and that sort of thing. Focus on understanding and ignore the details – if a detail is needed to answer the questions, you can always go back to the passage and find it.

I have taken physiology, anatomy and other upper level bio courses that i think may help boost my MCAT score.

I found physiology and biochemistry extremely helpful. Genetics would have been useful if mine hadn’t been a completely waste of time. I took a full year graduate biochemistry course which really helped me integrate some of the more confusing chemistry concepts I had with my understanding of molecular biology. Upper division courses don’t automatically boost your score anymore than an MCAT prep course.

Do you think reading science journals would help with the dense bio section?

As I mentioned, I don’t think that the biological sciences section is really all that dense. Reading science journals might be helpful, I suppose it really depends upon your background and abilities. Reading and understanding scientific literature is a crucial skill though and something you should probably cultivate independent of whatever ancillary benefit to your MCAT score it might have.

One thing I alluded to earlier is the ability to read and interpret data in things like figures and tables. This is a key skill to doing well on both science sections of the exam – I can guarantee that it will be tested multiple times, so if you can’t read data tables or graphs, you’re going to be in trouble. Reading scientific literature can probably help you develop this skill, but I really can’t give you any firsthand information; I read and interpret data every day at my job. In my opinion, undergraduate science degrees do not teach this skill to students and it really hurts them on the MCAT.

I have way too many MCAT books that i bought that didn’t work (TPR, EK, Kaplan) and i am skeptical about adding TBR to this list. I wanted to see if there is another cheaper alternative out there. Currently i am using Barrons MCAT prep that i picked up in the library. I like it so far. (I know no one uses this but i am finding it less overwhelming to have just this ONE book Vs multiple books at a time.)

I’ve written about this before, but I’ll reiterate it here. For the most part, the materials you use do not really matter all that much. If you sample people that score greater than a 35, they will all have used different materials. A majority will have used Kaplan, with Exam Krackers, the Princeton Review, and all the rest having their fans. The common denominator among those students will not be the materials they used. They WILL share these though:

  • They will have made a study plan that included copious amounts of worked problems under timed conditions.
  • Most will have taken all their courses prior to starting their study plan.
  • They focus on learning the material in those classes, rather than just getting an A. When I took organic chemistry, there was a classmate that used to chide me for making such a big deal about understanding how different things worked. We had similar grades, but she scored a 26. Your goal in college should be to understand basic science and to think rigorously. Since the MCAT tests these, it would be natural to focus on learning those things in school. Sadly, too many students adopt the premed obsession with grades and miss that opportunity.
  • They didn’t take it until they were ready.

I’m not going to rehash all of my advice on studying for the MCAT, since my blog is littered with it. Ultimately, don’t stress over the books you use. The important thing is that you make a study plan, do things under timed conditions, stay consistent, and review.

Also, to those of you taking the exam this Saturday, best of luck. Think positively and focus on your successes.

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