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.

The Game’s Afoot

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

– Henry V, Act III, Scene I

It’s official – I registered for the MCAT this afternoon and have a seat reserved for Sept. 10th at 1:00.  Over Christmas break, I wrote out a study schedule for the exam and, now that I have a date, will start studying in earnest June 2nd.  That gives me about 100 days to review for the exam.  I plan to spend about 3-4 hours a day during the week studying, probably do some verbal passages in the morning, and content review and practice passages in the evenings.  On the weekends and the last few weeks before the big day, I’ll do timed full-length exams.

As much as I don’t like the sensationalizing that’s omnipresent on SDN, I’ve found lots of useful recommendations and advice on the exam, particularly here.  My study schedule is heavily drawn from what is described there.  Also, the consensus seems to be that the Berkeley Review is to be preferred for content review and practice problems, so after reading through them and the ExamKrackers books – really like these too- I chose BR.  Once I’ve sat the exam, I’ll post my thoughts on their quality.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to devote enough time and effort to preparing for the exam – I’m shooting for a 35 which I think is doable, but will definitely be a challenge.  I’ll post regular updates as to how things are going.  Thanks for reading.