COVID-19 MCAT – How to Come Out On Top

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In response to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the AAMC has made some significant changes to the MCAT for the duration of the 2020 testing cycle. Because the MCAT will be different, your preparation should be too. In this post, I’ll go over the major changes to the exam, how to modify your current study plans to accommodate those changes, and how to come out on top.

 

How Will The Exam Be Structured?

SectionPrevious Passages/QuestionsCOVID-19 Passages/QuestionsPrevious Testing TimeCOVID-19 Testing Time
Examinee Agreement and TutorialNANA15 minNA
Chemical and Physical Foundations of Living Systems (CP)10/598/4895 min76 min
BreakNANA10 min10 min
Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) 9/538/4890 min81 min
BreakNANA30 min10 min
Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (BB) 10/598/4895 min76 min
BreakNANA10 min10 min
Psychological, Sociological, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (PsS) 10/598/4895 min76 min
Void ScreenNANA2 min2 min
Total39/23032/1926 hr 15 min5 hr 15 min

 

When Will the Exam Be Administered?

The MCAT was shortened to accommodate 3 testing sessions per testing date, with exams beginning at 6:30 AM, 12:15 PM, and 6 PM. The AAMC has added additional test dates to the calendar, as well, which can be found on their website.

 

Will the Shortened Test Be Easier?

There is an idea circulating that this version of the MCAT will be easier than the longer version. At face value, it might appear to be easier due to the decreased length, however, it’s difficult to predict how the shortened break between CARS and BB will impact examinees, as this is regularly used as a time to relax and refresh yourself for the last 2 sections. It’s also difficult to understand how the different starting times (6:30 AM, 12:15 PM, and 6 PM) will affect examinees’ performance. Further, unscored questions (questions that don’t count against your score but are included for AAMC analysis for use in future exam administrations) have been removed, which throws another loop in the analysis.

With all these variables, it’s impossible to tell whether this exam form will be easier or harder than the typical form. As you’re analyzing the changes and how they’ll impact your experience, focus on the following:

  • If the exam form changes in difficulty, this will affect all examinees. For example, an examinee scoring a 510 (82nd percentile) will still need to score better than 82% of all examinees, whether on the regular form or the COVID-19 form. Taking a break thinking the exam is “easier” will only hurt you.
  • The topics and reasoning skills tested remain the same. You’ll still need to invest yourself in learning the content and developing the skills necessary to successfully apply your knowledge to a large breadth of passage and question types.
  • The MCAT is still 5 hours and 15 minutes of testing, which is likely to lead to over 6 hours of total time at the testing center. This length of the test is challenging and you will still need to spend substantial time building up your endurance, just as you did for the standard version.

Getting ready for the MCAT is a challenge for anyone and in my experience, most examinees don’t do enough to prepare (or do it ineffectively). Give your all to this experience – you won’t regret it!

 

How Should I Modify My Study Plan?

Building an effective study plan is paramount to your success. With the COVID-19 changes, here are a few effective changes you can make to your current plan to adapt for this form of the MCAT:

  1. Use this time to effectively restructure your study plan to focus on the highest-yield study techniques, such as active recall and spaced repetition.
    1. If you’re getting close to your exam but don’t want to put in the time investment of making hundreds of flashcards in Anki only to have them for a few weeks, I highly recommend Memm. I’ve been getting familiar with it and am very impressed with the concise and effective approach that it has to offer. 
  2. Use the AAMC practice exams but supplement with 3rd party modified exams to get the fine timing of the new exam down.
    1. Unfortunately, the AAMC hasn’t had the courtesy to modify the practice tests to have the same length as the COVID-19 version. However, the timing of the exam in terms of time per question has remained the same. Because timing has remained the same, these tests are still a viable method for tracking your progress. Yes, they are longer, but the examinees I’ve worked with have reported that this only made the COVID-19 version more manageable.
    2. Having completed the AAMC exams, you only need one or two third party exams to make sure you feel comfortable with the COVID-19 structure.
  3. Reserve the AAMC materials for closer to your test date in case your test gets rescheduled. This way you can preserve them for effective practice as close to your exam as possible.
    1. If you’ve already burned through these resources, a subscription to UWorld can go a long way in giving you effective practice.
  4. Adjust your sleep schedule to accommodate the time you’ll be taking the actual exam. You do not want the added stress of being tired to affect your performance.
    1. Take your practice exams at the time you’ll be taking your actual exam. According to the Theory of State-Dependent Learning, taking your practice examinations doing this will allow you to perform similarly on your actual exam, making these practice exams great practice.
    2. It’s unfortunate that the AAMC has let a standardized exam become unstandard in its administration; however, we have to deal with it. I’ll save my grievances with them for another post.
  5. Practice with exam center regulations. To comply with CDC guidance, you will likely need to wear a mask and gloves during your exam, as well as other test site-specific rules. Yes, this is going to be a challenge but it will be less likely to impact your performance if you have practiced it regularly.

With a few slight changes in your study plan, you’ll be ready for your MCAT test date! Well, partially. Adjusting your study plan is only half the battle examinees face during this time. The reality is that COVID-19 has taken a massive toll and dealing with it is a challenge. However, while you are challenged by this, so is everyone else and by honing your mentality, you can gain an edge over the competition.

 

Antifragility

In his book “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder”, Nassim Taleb discusses the Black Swan event, which is an unexpected occurrence that has the potential to be catastrophic. COVID-19 is a perfect example. It has affected nearly everyone, few people could have predicted it, and it has the potential for very negative consequences. Despite their potential for loss, Black Swan events have different effects on individuals and organizations – while some fail, some remain the same, and some even come out better than they would have without the Black Swan. Why?

As Taleb explains, things fall into one of three categories: fragile, robust, and antifragile. Things that are fragile break from stressors and disorders – think about a ceramic vase being dropped on the floor. Those that are robust are resilient to stressors and don’t change from stress – think about a thick piece of steel being dropped on the ground. However, things that are antifragile gain from stress and disorder, becoming better from them – think about the human muscle, which becomes bigger and stronger from exercise.

By nature, humans are prone to break down in the face of randomness and unpredictability. It’s difficult to know if this temporary change in format and testing procedure will change the ease of the exam, but we do know that when the Black Swan event occurs, we can draw a general conclusion: the fragile will fall, the robust will resist, and the antifragile will rise. While some individuals are unable to study due to stress and anxiety, others will seize the opportunity to change their approach and get into optimal headspace for the exam. The spread of examinee performance will increase.

It takes conscious and repeated effort to overcome our inherent nature to fall in the face of randomness and uncertainty. Most people aren’t putting in the work to become antifragile because it requires us to change – and change is hard. But if you’re willing to put in the work, it’ll yield amazing results. How can you develop an antifragile mindset? Three different but interconnected principles can make all the difference: Stoicism, embracing disorder, and an internal locus of control.

1 | Stoicism 

We are creatures of meaning. In each situation, we make observations and try to form a meaning that we can use to take action. It makes sense – our ancestors saw a bear and needed to quickly understand that death was imminent if they didn’t run. But life has become increasingly complex, and with the complexity of interconnections between the happenings of our daily lives, it’s difficult – if not impossible – to know how things will play out into the future. No matter how logical we think we are, the meaning we ascribe to events can be unproductive and even harmful.

I’ve learned this through personal experience. During my junior year of undergrad, my wife was pregnant with our first daughter. I was pushed to my limit with my course load of physics, organic chemistry, genetics, and upper-level physiology when she had some unexpected health complications that required my attention. There was only so much I could do in 24 hours and my grades suffered as I struggled to manage my roles of student and husband. Just before finals, I was trying to take a break from the hard semester by going boating with our family on the 4th of July. However, during a wakeboarding accident, I sustained a moderate concussion. 

The concussion made it difficult for me to study anything for finals and left me with strong feelings of anxiety and depression. While some of my professors were compassionate and helped me finish out the semester, others weren’t and I struggled through my finals. I spent a lot of time feeling bad for myself and complaining that life wasn’t fair. But at the same time, the compounding stress of my situation pushed me harder than anything ever had before and led me to seek out ways to manage my time and study more effectively. This is where I found the Med School Insiders Youtube channel

The new information I learned about the Pomodoro Technique, spaced repetition, and self-discipline transformed my ability to succeed in the classroom. I learned to manage my emotions more fully and was able to develop a deep relationship with my wife. By the time our daughter was born mid-semester, I had gotten ahead and was able to take some time off to enjoy that experience. Those experiences helped me get into a rhythm for the MCAT and excel, despite having a newborn daughter to help care for. My performance qualified me for tutoring opportunities that have helped me understand my passion for mentoring and provided an income for my growing family.

After my concussion, it felt like life’s forces were combining against me. In retrospect, I realize that adversity is part of life and without those challenges, I never would have grown or developed into who I am today. I’ve learned that it’s impossible to know what will happen with each experience, so in line with Stoic thinking, I’m trying to embrace each moment as it presents itself, riding the highs and lows as they come.

2 | Embrace Disorder 

Humans love order. A large part of our sense of security in the world is knowing what to expect. While this can help guide our efforts to organize and plan for the future, our desire for order can be paralyzing and counterproductive. By focusing too much on trying to maintain order, we waste valuable time that could be used to do something about the disorder.

Randomness is part of life and sometimes there is nothing we can do about it. We need to accept reality as it presents itself by focusing on what is in our control, embracing what is not, and maintaining this control through the highs and the lows.

3 | Internal Locus of Control

Having an internal locus of control is understanding and believing that we are in control of the outcomes of our life. Contrast this with an external locus of control, which is believing that outside forces or “fate” determine our outcomes. At first glance, this may seem in direct contradiction with Stoicism, but the two fit quite nicely together. Part of having an internal locus of control is accepting that there are things outside of our control – for example, if the AAMC decides to cancel your testing date. No matter how much you worry or stress, whatever emotion you feel towards something you can’t control is wasted energy. Having an internal locus involves identifying what events, or what parts of events, are within our control and what parts are not. Embracing what is not, we focus our efforts on what is. Those efforts make all the difference because they allow you to get ahead while others dwindle in disorder.

 

Conclusion

This is an optimal time to prepare for the MCAT. No, the circumstances are not ideal for anyone but to the antifragile, change breeds opportunity. Randomness and uncertainty increase the spread of human performance. By taking advantage of these opportunities, you can make a significant difference in your performance on the MCAT.

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