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.

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!

#AAMC 10…Or Why I Should Lighten the Hell Up

Just finished up with the next to last AAMC full-length.  After all my freaking out…here it is:

Physical Sciences: 14
Verbal Reasoning: 11
Biological Sciences: 13
Comprehensive: 38

Just a few more days left and it looks like I was finally able to escape the doldrums of the mid-30s.  I was hoping to get a couple of practice exams above my target score, and it looks like I have.  Most premeds would probably be dancing on the tables and I have to admit, I did allow myself to get somewhat stoked afterwards, but I’m still worried.  I know….I can hear the eye-rolling from all of you now.

Perhaps part of the reason that I’m worried about the exam is that, as you learn and understand more things, the more that you realize that there are things you don’t understand.  A lot of my classmates from my post-bacc think that a high score in the physics section is a lock for me because I’m a physicist.  But that is a mistake – there are so many basic, simple physics questions that you could ask me that I don’t know.  For me, momentum and energy conservation get really complicated because I have a hard time looking at situations from a simple perspective.

In my mind, I’ve sort of created an ideal of the exam as a test that is built out of all the topics I don’t understand all that well.  Immunology?  Well, I sort of understand that stuff, but I couldn’t diagram the entirety of the immune system from memory.  Reproduction?  Well, I get dudes pretty easy….sperm is made here, and sperm goes out there.  Not too complicated.  Chicks, not so much.  They have these hormone things, which sort of vary with time, and there is some feedback and inhibition, except when there isn’t inhibition, and then when there is or isn’t pregnancy, there are more hormone things that sort of change.  Organic?  Yeah, I’ve taught a lot of it to others, but I’m still not sure that I get all the details of things like aldol condensation, elimination, or addition reactions.  And I must confess, I have never understood Zaitsev and Hoffman elimination.  Then there are all the complicated types of questions about meiosis that one could dream up.  Oh, and solubility questions too – there are a lot of bizarro, confusing types of questions that you can cook up on a lot of these subjects that totally confuse me.

So, you see, no matter what score I get on a practice exam, I’m going to find a way to convince myself that I’ve been lucky enough to dodge all the questions I don’t know.  That’s really what freaks me out sometimes – it’s been a problem for me ever since undergrad.  At the end of the day, I need to just settle down, be confident, and trust that my chops are decent enough to get me a decent score on the MCAT.  Because let’s be honest, any premed complaining about a 38 on a practice exam a few days before the exam is a douche nozzle and needs to shut the hell up.

Labor Day

The Doctor Lady is in town this weekend, so we made dinner together last night – andouille sausage and peppers with penne noodles – and then watched a couple episodes of Game of Thrones.  I introduced her to them a couple of months ago when I was visiting her, and she is hooked!  I think we have two more episodes in season 1 left to go.  Luckily, I have season 2 as well, so the mammoth cliffhanger at the end of the season won’t be too hard to handle.

I just got back from lunch with her – had gyros and chicken shawarma.  Now I’m sitting down at the office to knock out the fifth installment of the AAMC full-length exams and then will head home to review it.  I’m planning to do the remaining three exams on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.  On the other days, I’ll keep working through the remaining subjects that I need to spend some time on.  Hopefully it will be enough.

I don’t feel like I’ll ever be ready – it always seems like there is more that I should know from physiology and microbiology, but short of getting another degree in those fields, I don’t think there is much more that I can do.

Only 7 Days of Studying Left

I’m taking the exam a week from Tuesday and I plan to take the day before off and just relax – nothing MCAT related at all, except for checking to make sure i have all my paperwork and crap ready.  I’ll probably go into the office that day, but I’m taking the exam day and the day after off.

Between now and then, I had a pretty hardcore review cycle in mind, along with the last 4 practice exams, but I’ve sort of changed my mind.  Instead of reviewing subjects that I’m pretty sure I already understand, I’m going to focus on learning the basics of the things which I don’t know at all.  So, the basics of immunology, a review of reproduction, reinforcing hormones, some of the details of microbiology (e.g., fungi, spores, etc.), a whirlwind review of the molecular biology stuff from the Berkeley Review books, and that’s it.  I’m not going to try and review everything else.  Just these targeted topics that I know I’m weak in and reviewing the practice exams, which I’ll be taking every other day between now and next Sunday.

I’m tired of studying.  I have MCAT dreams.  There are dreams where everything I read including restaurant menus, stop signs, emails, and the labels on the side of the cereal box are verbal passages.  I’ve had a recurring dream where I was given the ability to fly like Superman, but had a really hard time getting off the ground.  I had it again last night and finally realized it was because I wasn’t generating enough lift, which meant that I needed to run faster or maximize my surface area relative to my angle-of-attack vector.  I also find myself imagining MCAT exams made from all the questions that I’ve had in the past four months that I didn’t know the answers to.

Tell me that I’m not the only one that has felt this way.

Seriously Exam Krackers?

I took an Exam Krackers full-length verbal exam last night and wound up scoring around an 8 last night.  I’d been scoring somewhere between 10-11 on all of them and I felt really good on most of my answers, so when I scored it, I was a bit surprised and more than a little bit worried, since my exam is only two weeks from now.  I’m still really nervous about verbal, since I’ve heard so many people talk about how impossible it is to do well on that section.

Anyway, I told myself that it was all just a fluke, took another one this evening, and scored a 9.  This really pissed me off, since I really felt like I had nailed the section.  So, I started looking at the solutions….turns out that the answer key and the actual answers in the back didn’t agree.  Apparently, during one of the revisions, some of the answer keys weren’t updated.  Once I graded my exam using the correct solutions, I wound up with an 11, which makes me a lot happier.

From looking at the questions I’ve missed, at least on the EK exams, it looks like most of the ones I’ve missed are more or less cases where I’ve narrowed it down to two answers and then taken my original answer and second-guessed myself.  Hopefully, a few more practice EK exams and the rest of the AAMC full-lengths will get me there.

Just to be clear.  I absolutely hate studying for this exam.  I’m exhausted.  I’ve only done laundry 3 times in the past 4 months.  I haven’t ridden my bike since April.  And my apartment looks like a frat house after a 5-alarm kegger.  Two more weeks to go.  I feel like I don’t know anything about physiology, or chemistry, or physics and I’m terrified that the MCAT is going to be an exam made up of all the topics that I don’t know.