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As a pre-medical student, preparing for and taking the MCAT will probably be one of the most difficult and daunting things you must do. As someone who has taken the MCAT, here are some tips and tricks, in no particular order of importance, that can make your study time more efficient and less stressful.
1: Do not cram.
Trust me, the last thing you want to do for this exam is to memorize all of the information last minute. Because of the amount of material you will have to cover, I recommend having at least three months of study time.
Now, depending on when you are taking this exam and your own daily schedule, you might need more than that. For instance, if your MCAT test date is during the school year, account for the fact that you might be studying for the exam while dealing with college courses, extracurriculars, etc. In this case, account for more study time. On the flip side, if your test date is towards the beginning of the academic year, then three months during summer vacation may be all you need.
2: Take a baseline test.
Begin your study period by taking a practice MCAT test as a baseline exam. Try to take it in one sitting, with no distractions and the allocated breaks and times. Once you have finished the exam, score the exam and analyze your strengths and weaknesses. Make a note of which topics you will need to focus more time on and whether or not your timing and stamina to take the test needs improvement.
3: Practice, practice, practice.
One of the biggest things that helped me understand the material was doing practice questions. I, like many students, made the mistake of attempting to (somehow) memorize every piece of information by reading my MCAT books a million times cover-to-cover. As a result, I was apprehensive of “wasting” practice material by taking them before I felt I fully understood all of the material. The issue with this was that by the time I went to take complete practice exams, I ended up forgetting some of the material anyway; it was difficult for me to retain all that knowledge without having a way to apply it. The moment I began to do practice question after practice question, however, I found myself retaining information and improving exponentially from one exam to the next.
Doing practice exams will also help you build the stamina and speed needed to take the MCAT. That being said, I do not recommend going full steam ahead. Besides taking a full-length practice test as a baseline to assess your strengths and weaknesses, do not take any other full-length exams in the beginning stages of your study period. Instead, build up to it by doing a couple of practice sections untimed. Later, once your accuracy improves, begin to record the amount of time it takes you to complete a couple of sections. Eventually, lead yourself up to completing practice sections or exams within the time allotted. If at any stage you feel that you are beginning to sacrifice accuracy, move back to the previous stage, do more content review, and work on accuracy until you feel comfortable enough to move onto the next stage again.
I also recommend that once you have begun to take full-length practice exams (take as many as you can!!!), make sure to simulate actual MCAT conditions. Take it as a timed test in one sitting with the allotted break times and no distractions around you. Additionally, I recommend starting your practice exams at the same time of day as your scheduled exam. This will allow you to get a feel for your alertness levels during those 8 hours and help you understand what snacks or meals may suit you best on exam day. For example, I learned early on that drinking coffee right before taking a full-length practice exam worked against me, so on test day, I avoided caffeine despite having an evening exam.
4: Review, review, review.
After taking an exam or practice sections, go back through each question and fully understand why the wrong answer choices were the wrong ones and the correct answer choices were the correct ones, no matter if you got that question right or wrong. Note these reasons down in a notebook, highlighting any new pieces of information. Recording this information will allow you to pick up on patterns in test questions and notice the gaps in your knowledge. After reviewing the exam, do more content review specifically addressing those gaps. This way, you can cut down on time wasted on content review and allocate more time to practice questions.
5: Rote Memorization (for some things)
While rote memorization is not ideal, there are some topics that you can’t get away with not memorizing. Some topics include:
- A lot of the psychology/sociology terms and definitions
- Amino acids, their abbreviations, and their characteristics
- Steps of the major metabolic pathways
- Major hormones and enzymes (i.e. structure, function, where they are produced, etc.)
6: Mode of Study
Studying for the MCAT can also be very costly. As such, make sure to really review your study options and pick the one that is right for you. For instance, if you thrive in a structured learning environment, then perhaps investing in an MCAT prep course, such as The Princeton Review or Kaplan, is right for you. However, if you like operating on your own schedule, investing in a course may not be necessary. Sketchy MCAT has become a popular resource for visual learners.
Additionally, gently used MCAT preparation books can be found on sites like eBay, helping you save some money in the process. If you are taking a preparation course, make sure you check whether the class price includes the provision of MCAT books/other study resources so that you don’t double buy these resources.
7: Essential Study Resources
No matter what your mode of study for the MCAT is, the one resource that I recommend every pre-med student to invest in is the AAMC MCAT® Official Prep products. Again, for those signing up for prep courses, make sure to check if they provide these resources, as many do.
For essential free resources, the Khan Academy is an excellent place for finding content-review videos, practice questions, and videos explaining many tough concepts. Additionally, the AAMC has a 230-questions online practice exam they provide for free. You can use this exam to get familiar with the online format of the MCAT exam. The only downside to this is that it does not provide you with a scaled score. The AAMC also provides a free 6-step guide to creating your own study plan and schedule. Having a study schedule is essential to keep you on track, whether that means you are tailoring one to your own needs or using a prep course that gives you a ready-made one.
Some of the top resources to consider, depending on your budget, are:
- Kaplan MCAT® Prep ( Self-Paced / Live Online )
- The Princeton Review MCAT® Prep
- Quizlet (a great resource to build your own vocabulary sets as well as finding pre-existing ones made by past students)
- Sketchy MCAT (use promo code EVERYTHINGMEDSCHOOL for 10% off)
- Blueprint Prep
- Magoosh MCAT® Prep (very affordable)
8: Don’t Forget to Have Fun
It’s easy to get consumed by the stress, so make sure to incorporate some fun into the schedule. Whether that be organizing your study plan, so you get a day or two off every week, giving yourself ample 1-hour breaks to switch your brain off, or even simple incentives like eating a couple of M&Ms for every section you complete! Most importantly, don’t bottle up the stress and emotions you are feeling; be open with loved
ones and peers!