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.

Another Reader Email on the MCAT

Here are some excerpts from an email I got today and my response. I figured some of my readers that are locked in deadly combat with the MCAT might find them helpful and encouraging.

Hey MSO-
So I’m just two weeks away from the MCAT now. When you were taking your practice MCATs, did you ever have the feeling of “WTF did they get this stuff”? Especially on biology? I took FL5 the other day. What the hell was up with all of the insect stuff?

When I was taking my practice full-lengths, I actually felt like the science passages were all fairly well-written and legitimate topics. I don’t remember the insect passage, but there were definitely times were the material felt like it was beyond the scope of introductory classes. It feels that way because it is. There will be plenty of things which are beyond what you’ve seen in your courses and prep. That’s alright though – the MCAT isn’t testing content knowledge so much as whether you can figure out new things based on what you’ve already learned. The reason I don’t remember the insect passage is probably because it wasn’t asking questions about insects. For example, the MCAT might introduce an incredibly complicated topic from the field of particle physics. It might give you a really intricate explanation about the Z and W bosons, and then show you a plot like this one from CERN, which you have most likely never seen (unless you follow my Twitter feed).

Then, it might ask you to determine which interval recorded the most events per 5 GeV, say 10-100 GeV, 100-500 GeV and so forth. You might not have a clue what is being measured or how the data was taken and the MCAT doesn’t care if you do, because that’s not what it is testing. It’s testing whether or not you can read a plot with labeled axis and draw some very simple inferences from it. That’s a completely relevant skill to medicine, or at least, how I plan to practice medicine. The only reason I bring up CERN is because it was at the front of my mind – rest assured, there will be incredibly obscure topics on the MCAT that you will have never heard of before. The real trick to taking the MCAT is learning to find the simple question that the test writers have hidden among all the advanced stuff you’ve never seen before. If you can do that, then you REALLY know the science.

I remember on the real thing, I got squashed with this ridiculously complex passage that had all sorts of complications. I looked at it, completely befuddled by it, and then went back to what I had told myself for months: find the simple question. Then I realized that the question was really just asking if I could determine velocity and acceleration from a simple graph of position relative to time. I didn’t need to understand what was all over the chart, I just needed to remember that velocity was the time derivative of position. I looked at the chart, identified the quantity in question, circled the right answer, and went on. I later saw in the SDN forums that passage had absolutely murdered other students, but it was incredibly simple, but only if you could see the question the writers had cloaked in all the other stuff. I sort of felt guilty.

I understand your feelings about scoring well but still a little nervous. I am about in the same range that you were (upper 30′s) but still wish I was hitting at least 40, especially since I seem to miss some REALLY easy questions here and there, particularly on the PS if I miscalculate something. Those errors are so easy to make and there just isn’t enough time to double check all of your answers, which is what I am used to doing in class.

As far as scores go, if you’re in the upper 30s, you’re totally set, assuming you’re doing them all under timed conditions. Ignoring verbal, at this point your score is really a statistical fluctuation – it only takes a couple of problems to knock you a point or two and it isn’t something you should worry about. My advice, particularly in hindsight, is to focus on the fact that you’re crushing the practice exams, still have some time to go, and are continuing to improve. Make it about how much you understand well, how solid your test-taking chops are, and how the easiest day will be the day of the real thing. The emotional game of the exam is something that doesn’t get talked about too much, but it’s of huge importance. Second to timing and practice, managing the emotional uncertainty and anxiety is probably the most important thing, and I’m intentionally placing it above content review. All the knowledge in the world doesn’t help you if you’re letting your nerves get to you.

Go back and read my post on the last exam I took – I let a single error ruin me. I had become so accustomed to getting every question on the PS science correct that I let a tough passage burn 15 minutes of my time and absolutely demoralize me. The lesson I learned was to not let perfect become the enemy of the good. It’s really easy to do – you get a 15 on the PS section and figure that you should be doing that every time. Then a rough passage comes along, you get engrossed in it and refuse to let it go. That approach is really natural for people that really know the stuff, but it can absolutely devastate you. The real thing will absolutely have a passage or so in each section that is designed to do this. The writers are laying a trap for you and, if you take the bait, you’ll run out of time on one of the sections and will leave the last ten questions unanswered. I’m glad I tanked that last practice exam, because if I hadn’t, I’d have made that mistake on the real thing and gotten absolutely owned.

MCAT Suggestions to a Reader

I get a lot of email from readers asking about my MCAT strategy and I try to respond as often as I can. The last couple of months I haven’t had a lot of time, so if it’s taken me a while to get to your email or if I missed it, I apologize. Anyway, I got an email from a reader earlier today asking some questions about studying for the MCAT and I decided I would just post my reply here. The relevant parts from their email are in quotes.

First off I want to introduce myself, my name is <redacted> and I’m currently finishing a <redacted> program. I really enjoy reading your blog and congratulate you on your recent success (especially with the MCAT!).

Hi. Thanks for reading – I’m glad you like it.

I was hoping to ask you for your advice. I recently made the decision to push back my application until next year for various reasons. The main reason being, I felt like I was rushing my application and I still have yet to take the MCAT (my test is scheduled for May 30th). Right now my plan is to study for the MCAT as soon as my finals are over next week. I’m open to postponing my MCAT in the summer because I would really like a GREAT score especially since my undergrad GPA is not all that stellar (3.0). I wanted to ask you for your advice in terms of my study schedule.

I will make the assumption that you have completed all of the requisite courses by the time you start studying for the exam. If you haven’t taken all of the classes, then you should finish them all first. The folks on SDN commonly tell people that they don’t need to worry about some of them, namely second semester physics and organic chemistry, which I think is a big mistake. Don’t start studying for the exam until you’ve learned all the material. Reviewing for the MCAT should require very little in the way of learning new material.

If you were reading about 18 months ago, you’ll know that I postponed my application a year because I knew I wasn’t ready for the exam. I took two semesters of graduate biochemistry and a semester each of genetics and physiology then started studying for the MCAT again. World of difference.

In my opinion, postponing the exam for a year so that you can study sufficiently for it and have a score reported prior to application is of supreme importance. A lot of people seem to hurry to get their MCAT done and wind up with a lackluster score. Not a mistake that I would recommend people make. I can understand the impatience – I’ll be 35 when I apply to medical school. Again, this is just my opinion, but postponing a year can only help you and in the long run is worth it if it helps you get accepted the first time around. Application is a rough ordeal and it’s something I hope I only have to endure once.

My only other commitment starting after next week is my internship (12hrs/week). I’ve been working since I was 14 at my <redacted> and finally decided to let that go and dedicate myself fully to this test! Without classes and work this would leave me 5 days completely free to study during week (and maybe 4 hours each day the days I have my internship). I have at my disposal all the SN2ed books (as well as the PR science workbook). My Kaplan diagnostic (which i took last year) was a measly 18!!! :(. So i really need improvement. My question for you is what/how would you study in my situation?? I have read the forums in SDN and there are very few who go from 18 to a 35 or above (which is my goal). I’m willing to study during the summer and postpone too with the same time schedule as above.

Couple of thoughts:

  • There is a limit to how many hours a week you can legitimately study for the MCAT. People that say they study for 8 hours a day are not getting efficient work done and are probably only getting a couple of hours in per session. If any of that time is spent at a coffee shop, it’s probably less than that.
  • Also, you should completely purge your mind of that stupid Kaplan diagnostic test. First, it is beyond the scope and difficulty of the real thing by design. Since Kaplan markets their courses and materials as guaranteeing a particular score improvement, they give you a substantially harder exam in the beginning and then an easier one at the end, so that they can deliver on their promise. It’s made them one of the top MCAT prep companies, but that doesn’t do you any good.
  • Diagnostic tests are not just a waste of time, they are counterproductive. Since you haven’t reviewed at all yet, you should bomb the test. The problem then is that you’ll inevitably allow a miserable performance on that diagnostic test discourage you the entire time you’re studying. Put it out of your mind and do not think about. Don’t do practice full-length exams until you’ve finished your content review. I guarantee that if you do this and then, a month out from the real thing, start doing AAMC full-lengths, your scores will be great and you’ll start building confidence that last month. That’s how it worked for me and I heartily recommend it to just about everyone I know preparing for the exam.
  • I found that I could do about 3 hours a day during the week while I was working. The issue isn’t so much the quantity of time you spend, but the quality. People that are “studying” for many hours a day often spend the majority of their time reading. In my experience, this is a very low yield way to study for the MCAT.
  • The key to reviewing for the MCAT is in doing timed practice questions and passages. SDN actually gets it right on this one, although a lot of the people on that board can talk a good game. No question in my mind that the key to success is timed passages. This is the reason that I like the Berkeley Review so much – I attribute much of my success on the MCAT to the fact that I didn’t do a single untimed practice question for four months.
  • I think that a 30 is reachable for anyone – it’s largely a matter of understanding the basics well and having a decent handle on the timing. A 35 is a reach for most people, which is why I think it’s a great goal for people that are willing to work hard at it. I’ve known people that made a 40 or a 45 their goal, which is a huge mistake. Making an almost entirely unreasonable score their goal is guaranteed to discourage you and make studying impossible.
  • Once you have the material wired, the key to getting a 35 is timing and lots of practice. The MCAT does not really test content, although you do need to review it. The primary thing the MCAT seems to test is reasoning and this comes with practice. Learning to take the test and nailing the timing down is something that comes only by timed practice.

The reason I set such a high goal for myself is because after this quarter, I will finish with a 3.65 in my post bacc. Im thinking of taking 2 more classes next year to raise that to a 3.8.

I think a 35 is a fantastic score to use as a target and it is totally doable, but only if you study the right way. A lot of students set high scores, take a review class, and figure that will be sufficient. It isn’t and most of those people are the ones that wind up with lackluster scores. There are scores of people on SDN that do this and then complain about how the test is unreasonable. None of the people I’m aware of that score above a 35 on the exam get there with a prep class. It’s almost entirely done by crafting a schedule for themselves that accounts for their own strengths and weaknesses and then sticking to it. Also, as I’ve mentioned, the near universal comment I hear from students is doing timed practice passages was the key to doing well. I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s completely true.

I really apologize for the long email. I’m sure you must be really busy with all your other commitments, so if you get the chance to provide your input/advice I would really appreciate it!

No problem. Couple other thoughts  To get your study schedule nailed down, here is what I would do:

  • Determine your test and count backwards however many months you think you need to study for the exam. If you don’t have a lot of other obligations, three months is pretty good. I worked full-time and did some other things, so I stretched it out to four months and studied a bit less per day.
  • Schedule break days frequently. No one maintains perfect focus and you need to have days you can look ahead to and know that you’ll have a day off coming up to relax.
  • You WILL fall behind – know that in the beginning and accept it. Do NOT think to use your break days to catch up. That type of thing can be seductive, but you’ll burn out and fall even further behind.
  • Be specific in your plan. I mean real specific – I wrote down which passages and sections I would do every day. Making a study schedule took me a full Saturday to get wired.
  • Save all the AAMC full-lengths for the last four weeks. That might sound crazy, but if you’re everything under rigorous timed conditions, you’ll take the first one and you’re timing will already be nailed.
  • Again, as I mentioned, you have to be doing passages and questions under timed conditions. If you aren’t, then you’re really putting yourself at a disadvantage.
  • The SDN study method really hits all the high points and if I were going to do it again, I’d do something very similar. I did not use the ‘hat trick’ technique for a couple of reasons: 1) I already integrate material together fairly well and 2) I had limited time.
  • Review of past material is crucial to improving and fixing the gaps. It’s easy to focus on reading the texts but that is too passive. You learn by doing passages, failing, then reviewing why you missed or didn’t miss questions. Active learning is harder, but high yield. Passive learning is much easier, but very low yield. That’s why so many students avoid active learning.

Anyway, hope this helps.

A Quick Update

It’s been so long since I posted, so I just wanted to let everyone know that I’m still alive.  I’ve just been insanely busy.  A major project at work decided to bite like a cobra, so I’ve been on the road a decent amount and have been working crazy hours for the past couple of months.  I’m also deep in work on my committee letter application and, by extension, my medical school application.  I’m trying to put in an hour or two a night writing essays, but I’m not necessarily getting that in every night.  I have another 7 weeks before my committee letter applictaion is due, then I can start working on assembly my personal statement.  One of the essays I’ve been asked to write is probably going to morph into my personal statement I think.

I’m still working on that research project with a local physician and I’m hoping to have a draft ready by the end of February.  Quite a steep learning curve figuring out some of the statistics.  SAS / JMP works really well, once you know what to ask it for.  If you don’t, then you can stare at the screen for a while and not have a clue.  Luckily, the doctor I’m working with is really knowledgeable of statistics and very patient.

Anyway, hope you all are well.  I check in here every day and I can see that, from my search summary, a lot of visitors are getting started studying for the MCAT.  Best of luck to you all.  I’m also better about checking email these days.  Thanks again for reading guys.  It’s nice to know others are out there swimming against the current as well.

And now, back to work.

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!

Today, Life is Good

I’ve spent the last 30 minutes at work pacing the hallways sending out zillions of text messages to everyone I know.  The Doctor Lady is on a plane back from a conference, so she will unfortunately be the last to know.  Thanks to all of my friends out there on the internet and everywhere else for your encouragement – reading about your success and reminded that there is light at the end of the tunnel was invaluable.

Enough gilding the lily.  Here they are everyone:

Physical Sciences: 14
Verbal Reasoning:  11
Writing Sample: Q
Biological Sciences: 14
Composite Score: 39Q

I know this is just a step along the way – granted, a big one – but I’m going to try and remember today.  Today, life is good.

The Main Event

So, let’s get to the goods.  I took the MCAT yesterday afternoon as planned – no issues with the testing facility or anything like that.  Although, I did leave two hours early in case I got pulled over – I haven’t had a chance to renew my license plates since January and I was worried that, with my luck, I’d get nailed on the way to the testing center and show up late.

For those of you that haven’t taken the MCAT yet, examinees are prohibited from discussing specifics of the exam, so I can’t give any specifics out about the exam.  That said, I still have plenty to unload.  Understand that, right now, I’ve got a couple of imperial stouts onboard, so this should be a rather free-wheeling post.

Up front, let me be clear, anyone that thinks to take the MCAT without having taken all of the AAMC practice exams is a complete fool.  Taking the full-lengths under timed conditions and then reviewing them afterwards is the most important part of preparing for the exam.  Having a sense of the timing required is absolutely crucial and the only to develop that is by taking the practice exams.  I also did timed MCAT-style practice passages the entire time I was studying for the exam, and I really think this helped me get used to doing questions under test conditions.  As it turned out, even with all that, the timing on the real thing was auite a bit different than I had expected.

First, the physical science section was not all that different from the ones that I encountered on the practice exam.  In hindsight, I’m somewhat glad that I tanked this section on the last practice exam I worked.  There were two questions that really stumped me and I was relatively sure I had worked out answers, so I gave what I thought was the correct answer, marked it, and then went on to the next one.  I had about 4 minutes left at the very end and was able to go back and verify that I had the correct answer.  If I hadn’t gotten snagged on the timing that one time on the practice exam, I could have very easily burned too much time on those and not finished the section.  As it turned out, I’m pretty sure that I did fairly well on this section.  There were several very crafty passages that were easy, so long as you really knew the physics, but if you didn’t, would definitely leave you facedown in the dirt.

Now, for the verbal.  Really glad that I practiced these as much as I did.  The VR section was absolutely nothing like the practice exams.  First, the length of every practice passage I did was around 600 words or so.  On the real thing, the first three passages were easily 1200-1300 words.  Huge.  And the first few passages were aboslutely brutal.  I fell behind a bit on the first passage because of the length, so I stepped up the pace and got caught up by the third passage.  I never felt all that pressed for time and actually finished up about 6 minutes early.  The last few passages really cruised and I found myself reading the questions, reading the answers, bubble the right answer, and then cruising on to the next one.  Hopefully, that’s a good sign, but it’s hard to really know one way or the other.  On several questions, I knew exactly what the distractors were and felt confident that I was sidestepping the landmines that the test writers had lain.  As always though, it’s really tough to feel confident about any of these.  Hopefully I was able to score at least a 10 on this section.

The writing sample was more or less a break from the stress.  I sort of just tuned out the fact that I was taking the MCAT, relaxed, and acted like I was writing a blog post on whatever random topic they had assigned me.  What was interesting was talking with some of the other examinees.  I ran into a guy from one of my post-bacc courses who took one practice exam a couple months ago.  Another girl had taken the exam three weeks ago and scored something like a 25.  I was amazed at the super-gunner atmosphere there too – everyone that I interacted with were humongous douchebags.  I talked to one girl between sections and then wished her luck, and she acted like I’d tried to feel her up.  Those are the kinds of people that I want nothing to do with in medical school.

Finally, the biology section.  A lot of premeds count on the MCAT to not test much organic chemistry and many do not review it to any significant degree.  Big mistake.  There were at least three passages on organic chemistry, mostly first semester stuff.  There was also a rather nasty passage that asked a couple of questions that took me about 20 minutes to work out once I got home and had access to a biochemistry textbook.  Luckily, I didn’t let those questions trip me up – I gave them my best educated guess, marked them, and then came back to them.  There was one question on stereochemistry that I marked to come back to make sure that I hadn’t made some silly mistake.  As it turned out, I had, so I reworked it several times to make sure that I was correct, changed my answer, and then finished up the section.

After I finished up, there was the obligatory survey, where I just sorta relaxed and reflected on the exam.  My first thought after I was finished was that I’d probably gotten a 34.  My guess yesterday was a 13/10/11.  I have no idea how accurate that is.  Hopefully I was correct on a couple of the questions that I wasn’t absolutely sure on and will wind up doing better than I think.  Hopefully, I don’t score worse than that.  It’s hard to know – there were several questions that I felt were worded so ambiguously that they had two correct answers.  Anyway, I have no desire to spend the next 30 days freaking out about the exam.

The most hilarious part of my day yesterday was looking at the exam thread on SDN yesterday.  Listening to all the frantic premeds freaking out about how incredibly rough the physics and biology sections were was rather humorous.

Sometime in the next couple of days, I’ll write up what my thoughts on studying for the MCAT are, what I’d have done differently, what I found that helped me the most.  Anyway, I’m glad to be done with the exam, but I don’t feel relieved or any sense of success or accomplishment.  Hopefully, once I get my scores back, that will pass and I can check a >35 on the MCAT off my to-do list for this year.