Our nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has made it fundamentally clear that one of the greatest obstacles facing healthcare today is the flood of misinformation fueling a distrust in the scientific enterprise. This surge of misinformation, however, has weaved its way into far more than politics and the pandemic.
Having recently undertaken my journey in conquering the MCAT, I spent this last year deeply immersed in the online MCAT world constantly scouring articles and posts for advice and strategies that I could incorporate into my personal MCAT armamentarium. The unfortunate reality, however, is that a great portion of the information online is saturated with fallacies and misperceptions about what it takes to dominate this test.
There are far too many online MCAT gurus propagating misconceptions that leave test-takers with massively unrealistic expectations to strive for, and in failing to meet those expectations, both burnout and self-doubt are fueled; moreover, there are people preaching that students leverage subpar study strategies, inefficient resources, and surface-level testing advice. Ultimately, the implications of this are profound: students are dragged along a more arduous journey laid with greater learning challenges, obstacles, and possibly a compromised score; or they are left questioning if they are fit to conquer this exam, whether medicine is right for them, and strained with an exhaustive mental burden.
I’ll separate the reality from the fluff.
My intent in organizing this nine-article series – the Dominating the MCAT series – is to distill everything I have learned in the process of conquering my MCAT into a comprehensive, actionable framework that you can harness and tailor to optimize each aspect of your preparation and test-taking. This is the first of nine articles outlined below – in this piece, I’ll lay three fundamental takeaways that you need to carry forth from day one of your journey. I’ll also delve into my background deeply – my life before college, during college, and my MCAT experience.
Before we dive in, I want to preface this series with three points.
Firstly, while the advice in this series is representative of my views alone, this series has been thoroughly dissected and refined by the team of physician-educators here at Med School Insiders – you can rest assured that this series has been taken apart and deeply examined several times to ensure that it serves all readers fruitfully.
Secondly, when organizing this series, I first identified the major deficiencies in the most popular MCAT posts online and wrote each article with two goals:
- to provide a deeper level of insight than is available anywhere else on the internet.
- to map out and synthesize every bit of advice in an actionable manner.
With respect to the second goal, I’ve written out every article narratively, painting the broad overarching concepts and my thoughts on each subject first, and then narrowing the focus of the article to a set of rules or principles to follow, making clear exactly what lessons to takeaway from the read. Be on the lookout for sections entitled “guideline/guide/how to,” each of which will entail either a checklist or a list of rules or principles that you can use, as well as the summarizing takeaways at the end of every article.
Feel free to revisit these summaries as you progress in your MCAT journey to refresh your memory of best practices and strategies for each individual challenge.
Thirdly, admittedly, I was reluctant to write this series because I am concerned that students will perceive the information as if it has to be followed concretely for success – that is surely not the case. Each of us has a fundamentally unique set of challenges to overcome in dominating this exam, and it is critical that you recognize that there is no linear, singular, replicable methodology that you can rely solely upon – not even this one.
However, that doesn’t mean that you have to figure this all out by yourself.
There is a set of fundamental principles that each test-taker should be leveraging to optimize their test preparation and test-taking. These principles are the basis of these 9 articles, and I’m confident that if you can dedicate the time and attention it takes to closely read each of these articles (perhaps take notes on a few things here and there), you’ll extract a great deal of value that you can apply both to your MCAT and academic life broadly.
1 | A Message to All Test-Takers | 3 Fundamental Takeaways
There are three fundamental takeaways that should be instilled within all test-takers.
Firstly, it is imperative that you embark upon this road placing faith in your capacity to master every ounce of material on this test and to score highly on test day. Regardless of one’s age, former experiences, institution, or academic background, nobody is predisposed to failure. If you have already incorporated an academic weakness or an expectation to do poorly as part of your identity, you need to dissolve that piece of your identity completely. It doesn’t serve you well.
I understand that this point may sound cliche and unrealistic. How can every single one of us have the potential to dominate this exam?
Again, while there is no linear, replicable methodology that everyone can rely solely upon to achieve a stellar score, there is a set of fundamental principles every student should be leveraging to maximize their score potential – unfortunately, most of these have been completely overlooked by the MCAT posts on the internet. These principles converge into a system that I leveraged throughout my journey, which I’ll refer to as the Dominating the MCAT Framework. This framework defines the parameters, or the structure, that one’s mindset, self-dialogue, study strategies, routine, approach, and test-taking need to be tailored within to dominate this exam. The key lies in tailoring this framework to redress your individual weaknesses.
That said, while incorporating the different aspects of this framework into your preparation will surely serve you well, harnessing the framework doesn’t go far enough – it only lays a path to follow. The rate-limiting step of your score potential is your mindset, internal dialogue, and self-narrative, which can either reinforce the effectiveness of this system or compromise its efficacy and your ceiling.
Each of these factors should be regularly examined and fine-tuned to maintain a growth mindset that embraces the uncertainty, self-doubt, and discomfort that is intrinsically part of this journey. It is critical to also maintain a sense of trust in your capacity to improve and faith in the system, strategies, and processes that you’ll be leveraging.
The reality is that many of us have imposed upon ourselves certain expectations that limit the bar on what we can achieve. If you’ve informed yourself that you aren’t good at standardized tests, or managing stress under time-sensitive conditions, or perhaps kinematics or acids and bases, and if your self-dialogue stops there, then you have imposed upon yourself an expectation that will constrain your performance on test day.
If you have embedded any such impressions into your identity as a student or test-taker, I would advise you to revisit your internal dialogue and self-narrative. Acknowledge the fact that you are weak at a certain academic niche, but don’t end the narrative there. Inform yourself that despite being weak in that domain, you will target it, immerse yourself within it, embrace the messiness and discomfort that comes with learning something challenging, entrust in your capacity to improve, and ultimately set yourself up to master the material. It will take time, but it is doable. After all, if others can do it, why can’t you?
The question is not whether you are capable, but whether or not you will carry forth a willingness to improve on every aspect of this test – your knowledge base, your testing capacity, your mindset, and your ability to face discomfort and unprecedented obstacles and still trust in yourself and remain grounded.
Making progress on each of these fronts is not as difficult as everyone makes it out to be.
There’s a renowned cardiac surgeon, Brian Lima, author of HEART to BEAT, who wrote
“Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds.”
Dominating the MCAT comes down to steady, consistent improvement – and all it takes to improve one topic at a time is about 30 minutes of focused attention and an unwavering willingness to persist in the face of difficulty. This applies to test-taking as much as it does to content.
Nothing on this exam is beyond your comprehension – the MCAT is not like most college exams. This isn’t a test of the depth of your knowledge. For the most part, you need to have a mastery of big-picture concepts, each of which is more than manageable to grasp given sufficient time and effort. If it is the testing variable that intimidates you, I can assure you that with deliberate practice, and with the strategies I’ll lay clear in this series, you can hone your capacity to perform on test day.
At the end of the day, you should also remember that mastery of the material on the MCAT is only an asymptote towards which you can strive – there will always be gaps and room for improvement. However, if you’ve strived towards that asymptote with integrity, adhering to the Dominating the MCAT Framework, dedicating yourself entirely to improving at each variable on this exam, and developing your ability to break down complex ideas into key insights, then with sufficient time, a high score potential is in your reach.
All readers should carry forth three takeaways:
Firstly, put faith in your fundamental capability to improve and master every ounce of material on this test and crush it on test day.
Secondly, ensure that your internal dialogue is liberated from any preconceptions that will ultimately define your expectations, and performance on test day.
Thirdly, embrace the uncertainty and the self-doubt that is intrinsically a part of this process. For comfort, entrust that by girding your mindset appropriately, leveraging the underlying principles of the Dominating the MCAT Framework, and tailoring them to your personal nuances, you are on route to crushing this exam.
Again, when it comes to the MCAT, despite your age, institution, academic background, or whether you’ve already taken this test once before and struggled, nobody is predisposed to failure.
I would like to acknowledge, however, that if there is anything at all that limits one’s potential to clear this academic hurdle, it is finances. I deeply sympathize with any student who feels like his or her dreams and capacity to conquer this obstacle are compromised by their financial standing. If you’re in any such position, you should note that many of the resources described in this series provide discounts to students who can demonstrate financial need. If you fall into that category, reach out to the company and see what they can do to help. Most will at least provide a substantial discount with proof of financial need.
The socioeconomic inequities plaguing this nation (and being accentuated with time) are a massive barrier to minorities when it comes to pursuing a career in medicine, a predicament with profound implications for patients. The unfortunate reality is that some of us aren’t in a financial position to acquire a premedical education, sufficient MCAT resources, and to focus exclusively on this exam for an extended duration of time. Don’t hesitate to reach out to these companies if you are financially constrained – our healthcare system is quite literally counting on you.
2 | My Journey | Why Nobody is Predisposed to Failure
This series is going to be lengthy and detailed and to forge some trust between myself and all the readers out there, I’ll shed some light on my background in this section. I’ll delve into my life as a student before college, during college, and end the discussion describing my MCAT experience.
I strongly believe that conquering this test is something we are all intrinsically capable of – it does not matter what institution you study at, what professors you learn from, or whether or not you have a lifelong record of academic success.
To understand my rationale, you need to understand my story.
Currently, I am a junior in college attending an out-of-state school, and I took my MCAT in September of this year, dedicating the months between my sophomore and junior year of undergrad to completing this exam.
Before college, I attended a very competitive high school – my high school was built approximately ten years prior, and given its age, its ranking was relatively low, limiting the college prospects in reach to the student body. Given cultural pressures and the fact that acceptance into top-tier institutions could only be achieved by a select few (unlike certain high schools that would have upwards of 20+ students attending top-tier schools), the students in my class were pressed (largely by parents) to strive for excellence in every domain of their life; this pressure ultimately diffused across the rest of the student body, and my graduating class developed a reputation for being cutthroat and hypercompetitive.
Now while I had peers who had put their heads down and dedicated themselves to get into a top-tier university from day one of high school, I, on the other hand, started off high school very differently.
Early on, clueless and ignorant as a freshman, I was wandering around aimlessly with a very weak understanding of what was required to be competitive for a top-tier university. My only priority, admittedly, was putting on muscle after school, and I made the mistake of thinking that grades weren’t a big concern – I thought that the weightage (analogous to grade inflation) that came with my honors and AP classes would carry to me to an A and that I could just float by from there. Ultimately, not having taken my coursework seriously, my academic performance and college prospects took a hit by the end of my first year of high school.
Even though school wasn’t the biggest priority to me at that point in my life, there was a clear difference between my academic performance and that of my peers around me – this difference had prevailed from the time I was a kid, and while I always strove to excel academically in the classroom, I struggled to overcome this difference.
During my sophomore year of high school, I achieved a growing sense of clarity on what I wanted to pursue professionally and how I wanted to lead my life. I came to realize the implications of my relatively poor grades from freshman year after having immersed myself in different crowds and becoming close with a group of highly driven peers – with the grades I had, I was far from being competitive at top-tier universities. I felt like I had closed off so many doors and dug myself into a hole so early on.
Filled with a deep sense of regret, halfway into my sophomore year, I committed myself to remedy this situation.
I found myself fueled by an unwavering drive to prove two things: firstly, I wanted to prove to myself that despite my subpar academic standing, I was just as academically capable as my peers around me; secondly, I wanted to traverse my way out of the hole I had dug myself into by excelling academically for the remainder of high school and doing everything that I could to reopen the doors and opportunities that I had closed off the year prior.
The only way I could make up for my freshman year performance and set myself up to be competitive at top-tier schools was if I could ace every class and assignment that came my way. I strove for quite literally perfection, aiming to acquire a 100 on everything so that the weightage (grade inflation added to my honors and AP courses) could carry me over 100 and cancel out the effect of my freshman year performance on my cumulative GPA – this was an extremely demanding task but I remained committed to doing everything in my reach to bring this goal to fruition. It didn’t help that the peers around me were just as competitive and striving for no less.
I let this drive fuel me throughout high school and was motivated beyond belief to outwork every student around me through brute force and dedication, guided by the mistaken fallacy that the key to thriving academically lied in being the hardest worker in any classroom. By dedicating more time and attention to my academic life, I saw my performance improve substantially – the goal at hand forced me to develop a rigorous work ethic and I started excelling in much more challenging coursework. However, I wasn’t thriving as I hoped to.
The concepts of efficiency and optimization were foreign to me for all of high school as I fiercely, and again, mistakenly, believed that academic success was reaped only by those with an inextinguishable work ethic. In trying to outwork everyone around me, staying up ridiculously late into the night or waking up between 2-4 AM to get extra studying in before school, I compromised foundational elements in my life – sleep, exercise, relationships – all of which led to weight gain and a tremendous burden of unnecessary stress. Again, this was only high school – and yes, upon reflection, high school should not have been taken that seriously by myself nor my peers.
In the months before college started, I immersed myself in books that fundamentally altered how I approached my life – my time management, my professional and personal goals, my value systems, my study strategies, and my mindset. That summer, I relearned how to learn information and delved into topics that enriched my perspective and instilled within me a framework and set of strategies that I’ve been leveraging since in the face of each academic obstacle.
Since starting my freshman year of college, my life has been radically different from what it was when I was deeply immersed in the competitive culture at my high school. Having approached every premed course with the intent of achieving mastery of every topic and leveraging the strategies I had learned, I’ve been fortunate enough to earn straight A’s and sustain my performance at the top of every class – admittedly, this has been far more manageable than I expected it to be.
Be it organic chemistry or biochemistry, the stress has undoubtedly been there at times when there’s been a deluge of information to learn, but I’ve never found any academic obstacle to be insurmountable – in fact, I truly believe now more than ever that no matter the cards I’m dealt, I can achieve mastery of any material and earn an A if I work hard, leverage the most efficient study strategies, maximize the yield of every hour, fall upon the study habits I’ve uniquely developed and refined, and approach my coursework with integrity and honesty.
I think the same applies to all students – the prospect of achieving academic success is not a question of whether or not you are capable, but rather two fundamentally different, nondiscriminating things.
Firstly, it’s a question of whether or not you are willing to work exhaustively hard at times, persisting in the face of difficulty day in and day out. Secondly, it’s a question of whether or not you are leveraging the most efficient study strategies.
The first point is a no-brainer to most students – we all know that nothing comes easy. If you want to dominate the MCAT, you need to be prepared to put in hundreds of hours of time and commit yourself to push your understanding and test-taking ability every single day. But that doesn’t go far enough.
The second part of the equation – the study strategies and approach to your life and work – seems to be what most students my age miss. There are few students I’ve met who put in a deliberate effort to constantly reevaluate whether or not they are optimizing their studying, their time, their efficiency, their productivity, etc. Again, there are a set of principles and strategies that each of us should be falling upon to maximize the yield of every hour of effort.
The problem is that these things haven’t been taught to us – most college students don’t have a guideline or framework in mind to continue optimizing these variables.
That is where this series comes in. The principles I’ll describe are what led me throughout my MCAT journey and equipped me to conquer the beast that is this test.
Coming back to my story, leveraging these new strategies, today my life as a premed student is vitally different from my life as a high school student: the academic self-doubt that prevailed for years on end in high school has only dissipated as I’ve delved deeper into college.
Funnily enough, one year ago, I found the ease of college alarming. With each science class that I came to believe was manageable and dare I say easy – radically different from my perception that these courses were meant to break our soul and take up 100% of our time, attention, and, to some degree, happiness – I felt a growing concern that my institution wasn’t as academically rigorous as it was supposed to be. Despite the positive academic experience I was enjoying, I came to question whether my college experience was deceitful, leading me to falsely believe that I was more academically fit than I really was.
I set my eyes on the MCAT knowing that it was a national, standardized exam taken by premeds at Harvard and premeds at lower-tier institutions like myself. For me, the MCAT was more than a premed obstacle: it was a fundamentally personal hurdle that I wanted to clear to demonstrate to myself that the transformation I felt I had undergone as a student was authentic and legitimate.
My institution is not a top-ranked research institution and while I’ve had some incredible professors, it probably is not unrealistic to say that there is a difference in the quality of education I’m receiving versus that being delivered elsewhere in the country. That said, I wanted to also demonstrate to myself that despite not attending a top-tier research institute, I can push myself sufficiently enough to ace this exam and score as highly as students elsewhere.
If I could ace the MCAT, it would validate that I had grown since high school and that the student and individual I had evolved into was more truly more academically fit than in the past. If I didn’t do well on this exam, I’d have to honestly evaluate whether I had grown much since high school and whether the academic success I was experiencing in college was deceptive.
Ultimately, my desire to conquer this exam and demonstrate to myself that I had grown since high school could be traced to self-doubt – a wavering self-doubt that had emerged time and time again in the face of each next academic obstacle over the last seven years and left me questioning my true academic potential. If I could prove to myself that the academic success I was experiencing at college prevailed beyond my college experience, specifically demonstrating itself on the MCAT, then I could put faith in the changes I had incorporated in my life and extinguish this self-doubt to a significant degree, if not entirely.
With my mind set on dominating this exam, I adjusted my academic plan, completed biochemistry by the time I finished my sophomore year, and dedicated 4 months of intense, exclusive preparation to the MCAT, taking the test in September of this year. I strove to complete at least 8 hours of focused work every day and constantly evaluated whether or not I was leveraging the most efficient study strategies and spending my time as optimally as I could.
My academic coursework didn’t fully align with the MCAT material and I had to strengthen my foundation substantially over the course of these four months. I also had to perfect my ability to pace myself during the exam, manage time, and combat testing anxiety. This wasn’t much of a problem throughout college given the confidence I had developed in my studying and testing approach, but when it came to this test, the self-doubt and nerves would always kick in and were hurdles that I needed to learn how to clear.
Ultimately, after what is arguably the most arduous academic obstacle I’ve faced to date, my efforts culminated in a 97th percentile score on test day. Given the rigor of this journey, I am committed to doing everything I can through this series and other projects to guide students throughout this process and lay clear a more effective, efficient, and less stressful path to dominate this test.
Having shared this, I think it’s important to note that I’m not from a top-tier university studying under the Professors whose textbooks we all read. I also wasn’t a great student for most of my life. If there’s anything you take from my story at all, it should be that whether or not you have a past record of academic success, you are not predisposed to failure or a low score on the MCAT or any academic domain of your life.
If you can work exhaustively, embrace self-doubt, constantly reflect on and improve your study strategies and habits, leverage the most efficient learning strategies, and put faith in your capacity to improve with time, there is nothing stopping you.
It comes down to the process – the mechanism, the strategy, the attention to detail, the effort, the means by which you lay the paint – that determines whether or not you succeed – it isn’t talent nor is it intrinsic capability.
While I admit that I have a lot to figure out, I do believe that my experience in having grown from a subpar student to one at the top of my class consistently is a testament to the idea that we are all capable of reorienting the trajectory we are on.
Excelling academically and doing well on the MCAT is within everyone’s reach – again, it all comes down to whether or not you put in sufficient effort, and whether or not you are leveraging the most efficient principles and study strategies.
That said, welcome to this series. I hope you enjoy reading these articles. Evaluate everything I’ve written thoroughly, incorporate these principles into your life, shatter that ceiling on test-day, and dominate this exam. I’m here to help out in any way I can. Don’t ever hesitate to reach out or send questions.