The surge of misinformation bringing question to the scientific enterprise has weaved its way into far more than politics and the pandemic. Far too many online MCAT gurus are propagating massively unrealistic expectations about what it takes to conquer this test; others are misguiding students to leverage suboptimal resources and inefficient study strategies.
I’ll separate the reality from the fluff.
This is the fifth article in this nine-article series – the Dominating the MCAT series – where I will distill everything I have learned in conquering my MCAT into a comprehensive, actionable framework that you can harness and tailor to optimize each aspect of your preparation and test-taking.
If you missed the first article, I would advise you to start there, where I lay three fundamental takeaways that students should carry forth from day one of their MCAT journey and background on my personal experience.
I’ve written this article with the intent of dissecting the testing process and making clear exactly how I approached every full-length. I’ll also delve into how you should review – this applies to the questions you get correct as well as those that you get incorrect on full-lengths, individual blocks, online sources, etc.
1 | Setting Yourself Up For a Full-Length
I would advise all students to try and take their full-lengths in a different room or environment from where they regularly study. I think this is a largely overlooked factor in the online discourse on practice testing.
When you are testing in the same position where you regularly study, you have a context-dependent memory advantage that will be absent on test day. Likewise, assuming you find yourself mentally comfortable in that environment while studying, you’ll also have a state-dependent memory advantage that will be absent on test day. Both these variables are on the Psych/Soc section so look into them if you aren’t familiar with them.
Taking your exams in a new environment may actually force you into a greater state of discomfort than if you were to take your exam where you regularly study – this is great. As with all challenging things in life, you want to get comfortable being uncomfortable – and in the context of the MCAT, studying in a new environment entirely will increase the likelihood of unexpected obstacles arising. This will serve you well because you need to be prepared to keep yourself grounded in the face of any unexpected hurdles on test day.
Personally, when it comes to sustaining alertness and a high intensity of focus, I find that I function best with a reduced caloric intake and while regularly sipping alongside something caffeinated. On test-day, I consumed two servings of oatmeal in the morning (approximately three hours out from my test) and I snacked on high-nutrient pumpkin seeds between each section. I also had one serving of oatmeal during the 30-minute break, and I sipped on a triple-shot energy drink (225 mg of Caffeine) over the course of my test.
The night before each practice test, I strived to consume a higher quantity of food to load on carbohydrates – I’m not too familiar with the science behind this, but the literature led me to believe that consuming a high volume of food the night before could ensure that my body was fueled with sufficient energy reserves to expend during the exam the next day.
I personally did not use coffee and would advise students to experiment with it – for me, as a diuretic, it increased my urination frequency to the point that I became distracted during my practice exams.
You should start every full-length practice test at the same time as the start time on test day. Aim to take an exam the same day of the week as your exam on test day. By doing this for weeks on end, your mind and routine will adapt to focus attention at that intended time on the intended day of the week, which will ease the transition into each test.
2 | Testing Strategy: Highlighting & Rearranging Info Diagrammatically
My testing strategy could be distilled down to two things:
- Identifying the most important pieces of information and highlighting them
- Extracting the most important pieces of information and rearranging them in a diagrammatic manner on paper, synthesizing the overarching “big-picture” efficiently and quickly in an illustrative form
When it comes to identifying the most important pieces of information, you need to be deliberate about reading with close attention to detail and focus on piecing together the big picture, or the overarching context and underlying concepts being discussed. Initially, MCAT passages may seem challenging to break down, but with deliberate practice, you’ll start to read them almost as if you are flowing through the text, keeping track of everything that is presented to you, and piecing new ideas together within the surrounding context and information that you’ve already processed. This capacity to synthesize an overarching picture will be developed with time, and it will empower you to more easily identify the fundamentally important insights from the background information and data.
To refine your capacity to discern the most important pieces of information in the text from the less relevant pieces, you need to leverage the highlighter. The technique I used to strengthen my ability to identify text worth highlighting involved two things: firstly, each time I read a passage, I would highlight with the goal of identifying the most important bits of information. Then, after completing my questions and delving into my review, I would devote more attention to the questions that I missed and I’d try to revisit the passage and figure out what bits of information I missed or should have paid more attention to and highlighted. This strategy, upon extensive repetition, will empower you to gradually develop a deeper familiarity with the pieces of information that the questions can be centered around; you’ll eventually develop an “eye” for these pieces of information, and your highlighting will gradually be steered towards the pieces of text worth highlighting.
Don’t be too hard on yourself if a lack of attention to detail is costing you early on – it takes extensive practice for this familiarity to develop. The same applies to questions: when reading question stems, focus on breaking down the text entirely – after extensive practice, different “pieces” or “components” of a question stem will pop out to you, and you’ll catch the necessary details that you would have otherwise missed early on. The months of experience you will accrue will also empower you to think about the key pieces of a question through a specific lens, or framework. The AAMC material, to some degree, is repetitive and predictable. Make a deliberate effort to understand their question style and the pattern of questions that arise with different topics so that you know how to respond to different bits of information appropriately.
The second part of my testing strategy involved rearranging the most important pieces of information into a diagrammatic manner on paper (or the whiteboard-like paper given out on test day). By reading with the goal of extracting the key components of the text, delineating the relationships between them, illustrating the surrounding apparatus or environment, and mapping the information out, I constructed a visual representation that my brain could retain for longer and make sense of more easily. It facilitated a deeper level of engagement with the text and forced me to clarify the implications of what I was reading before I answered questions. Given that in some passages, you’ll encounter molecules named something like rCDC/AMPFK/INTF1, it is easy to get lost in the details and the names and to forget minute aspects of the portrait they’re presenting – organize this on paper to understand the information more deeply. With time, you’ll learn how to do this rapidly and efficiently.
This diagrammatic presentation of the information has a secondary advantage: when you finish your test early and revisit the questions you flagged, you’ll likely have greater retention if you put the information into a diagram. If you’ve forgotten information, you can reference the diagram and recall several pieces of information at once (and how they relate to each other). This allows you to transition back into a passage you read earlier more efficiently, and in trying to corroborate whether the diagram you initially drew aligns with the information in the text, you’ll also have a deeper level of engagement the second time. Once you hone this strategy, it will enable you to clarify your understanding of any subject matter presented to you, especially after months of insight into these scientific topics.
This is a tough skill to transmit through this article alone – if you check out the Med School Insiders MCAT Course, you’ll find videos where I will work through individual passages and question sets, making clear exactly how I delineate between most important and less relevant pieces of information, and then extract those ideas and organize them into a comprehensive diagram.
Experiment and tailor the pacing strategy below to provide yourself with timing landmarks that you can reference during your test to ensure that you are on pace to answer each question. If you fall behind these landmarks, that should serve as an indicator to increase your pace slightly. You should aim to finish 30 questions before your timer hits 50:00. I personally strived to finish with 5-10 minutes left, increasing my pace slightly towards the end to ensure that I could thoroughly review all 59 questions – this was not manageable with the third-party material, but was surely manageable with the AAMC Material.
- 01:35:00 – Start
- 01:16:00 – 2 Passages + 1 Discrete Section Done
- 50:00:00 – 5 Passages + 2 Discrete Sections Done (strive to complete up to question #30)
- 24:00:00 – 8 Passages + 3 Discrete Sections Done
- 00:00:00 – 10 Passages + 4 Discrete Sections Done
3 | How to Review Questions, Practice Tests, and Mistakes
When it comes to reviewing practice tests and questions, you should review both the questions you missed and those you got correct. There is always an opportunity to learn from both categories of questions if you break the questions and the options down closely enough.
Use whatever platform works best for you, but be organized and center your review process around typing and concisely articulating the reasoning behind every correct or incorrect choice. This forces a deeper level of engagement with the material than simply glossing over and vaguely understanding your mistakes mentally.
In articulating a clear, concise rationale, your thoughts will be clarified on this subject and you’ll come to identify what you don’t fully understand – you can then target that deficiency of knowledge and come back with a deeper understanding and a greater capacity to articulate your thoughts.
Don’t hesitate to be verbose and extensive when trying to explain the rationale behind the incorrect/correct choices; however, if you are verbose, then take a second attempt at concisely articulating the reasoning into a line or two that is consolidated and can be retained more easily. If you can come up with a strategy or Mnemonic to navigate your way through a similar topic in the future, write that down.
I personally used Notion as the platform where I organized all things-MCAT, and I created a page to review every practice test. From there, I created four sections, one for every section of the exam. I leveraged the toggle option, making clear the topic that I got wrong and the type of mistake that I made at the very top. Below, upon toggling, I pasted the exact question and I explained why three of the choices were incorrect, articulated the reasoning behind the correct choice, and explicitly wrote out what I have to do next time (or avoid doing) to navigate my way through this topic. After completing my review of an entire set of questions, I would revisit my highlights in the passage and type up of every bit of information I should have highlighted but failed to.
Notion is great because whenever I encountered a topic that I felt like I had made a mistake on in the past, I could search that topic up and it would take me to every record where I had written about it – this gave me an opportunity to cross-examine topics from the record that I was developing over the course of this journey. Eventually, towards the end of my MCAT preparation, I had dissected so many questions that I could look up any topic on Notion and different bits of information would become immediately available – this enabled me to retain insight into the mistakes I had previously made and lessons learned.
There’s a lot of great Youtube videos with MCAT-Notion templates – take a look at them, and figure out a system early on that works for you.
4 | Four-Step Checklist for Reviewing Questions & Passages
There is a four-step guideline you can directly follow when reviewing practice tests upon their completion:
1) Do not look at the answer key. Use Post-It notes to cover up any icon that may reveal what the incorrect and correct answers are.
2 ) Read each passage very slowly and thoroughly for each question set – use this second read of the passage as an opportunity to more thoroughly understand the subject matter and make sense of 100% of the information presented, looking out for details that you have missed while testing.
3) Work through every question (again) and try to select your way to the correct answer – For every single incorrect question, imagine that you have a second opportunity to answer the question and work your way to the correct answer, eliminating options that seem to be incorrect – do not just look at the answer and work backwards. Then, write out the mistake that you made the first time – was it a lack of attention to detail; was it a knowledge gap? Create a set of categories of mistakes and make clear what you did wrong.
3) For every single question that you struggled with, regardless of whether you got it correct or incorrect, type out an explanation as to why three of the four options are incorrect – if you cannot figure out why each of the three are incorrect, there is a deficiency in knowledge that you need to resolve. Target the topic, and come back and take a second attempt at articulating the underlying reasoning clearly. Then type out a thorough explanation behind the correct option, breaking down the underlying concept and making note of anything you may have missed or should keep in mind during future questions for similar concepts or topics.
4) Categorize the question you’ve reviewed by topic, question style/pattern, and the type of mistake you made. This will allow you to figure out what topics you need to target the next day more deeply, and it’ll make clear the question patterns that you are struggling with and the types of mistakes you are repeatedlyly making. Personally, I categorized my mistakes by the following: lack of attention to detail on my behalf; content gap; misinterpretation of text/data; etc.
By categorizing questions based on topic and question style/pattern, you can also do a search in the platform you are using (Notion) when that topic or question style arises, and you’ll have access to any previous mistakes made – this is very useful because you’ll have the opportunity to revisit relevant context in the face of future mistakes, which will enhance your understanding of the material and improve your retention. I won’t share too much on how to stay organized because you have to leverage what works best for you based on the systems and processes you’ve been using throughout the years. I would recommend scouring Youtube to see what others have done.