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 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 fourth 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. In the second article, I shed light on the productivity and study strategies that accelerated my rate of improvement on the MCAT. In the third article, I delve into the most efficient resources you should be prioritizing and shed light on the time you frame you should be completing your MCAT within and the course plan you should be following.
I’ve written this article with the goal of mapping out the study plan I would leverage if I could back in time and prepare for the MCAT again for a four-month duration. As I’ve described, I believe that students should strive to prepare for and complete their exam within 2-4 months of exclusive, dedicated studying during which there are almost no other extracurricular or academic responsibilities. I personally studied for 4.25 months, having pushed my exam a few weeks given a life transition I was unexpectedly forced to make; if I could go back, I would strive to complete my studying within 3 months, and 4 latest.
1 | The 4-Month Study Plan I Wish I Had
While this study plan is designed for four months of preparation, don’t hesitate to tailor it to a three-month plan. At the end of the day, it is a guideline – not the end-all-be-all. If you were to cut anything at all, I would advise you to shorten the number of weeks dedicated to third-party material practice tests and possibly increase the frequency of tests in the preceding weeks to get through more. I’ve also provided a detailed rationale behind this design later in the article. Again, no singular approach works for everyone – so reference this, scrutinize it, and figure out what is worth incorporating into your personal MCAT journey.
You’ll be leveraging the resources in the sequence below:
- Review Books → Memm → UWorld → Blueprint Practice Tests (1-6) → Anki P/S Milesdown Deck → Altius Practice Tests (5 FL’s minimum) + Chem/Phys and Bio/Biochem Question Blocks → AAMC Bundle
- Once you begin using Memm, you should keep up with your daily deck of cards until Test-Day. The same applies to the Anki Milesdown Psych/Soc deck of cards.
Month 1 – Foundation Building & Content Review
Goal #1 | Immersion in the Material
The overarching goal of your first month is to deeply immerse yourself in the foundations of this exam and learn all that you possibly can, delving into the review books, instilling the information into your long term memory with Memm, scouring Google and Khan Academy for details you don’t understand, and applying what you’ve learned to UWorld. With UWorld, use timed conditions only and start developing a strategy to accomplish 59 questions in 95 minutes (except for CARS – that is 90 minutes) – see my testing strategy in the section below.
Treat every topic you encounter as a stone that you must turn before you move on – do not write these topics down for “later” or study them on a surface level, expecting to revisit them. To maximally strengthen your foundation, you need to spend each and every day pursuing mastery of whatever topic falls in front of you – by being stringent and rigorous, targeting every difficult topic that you encounter, and moving on only once you’ve achieved absolute mastery, the compounding effect will play to your advantage and have a lasting impact on your long-term foundation.
Throughout all of this, find joy in the opportunity to learn – you are synthesizing everything that you’ve spent the last few years studying, so embrace the opportunity to mentally map out all these different subjects, their topics, and their overlap. If you are struggling to find joy in this process, remember that we as humans always like what we are good at – if you can get a strong grip on each and every topic, you’ll enjoy engaging with the material; and you surely can get a strong grip on each and every topic by putting in the time.
Remember, all it takes is 25 minutes of focused time and effort to learn what others will give up on in 30 seconds – Brian Lima, MD
Also, practice gratitude – your perspective will start to shift for the better within a few days of practice. Mastery is within your reach, and if you can find meaning in this journey, each and every day will feel less of a burden and more of an opportunity – this difference in your perspective can have a lasting impact on what you accomplish day in and day out, and eventually on test day.
Goal #2 | Iterate With and Perfect a Routine
The second goal of the first month is to implement a sustainable routine. Start working towards your intended sleep and wake time on test-day, incorporate exercise and a rejuvenating block of downtime every day, and ensure that your nutrition is optimized for learning. Throughout this transition period, treat yourself with compassion. If you feel a surge of motivation, ride it and let it fuel long hours of work. However, if you are struggling with this transition, then tailor the daily demand to something that is more reasonable for you, and remember that this is a marathon, not a race.
Month 1 – To-Do List & Approach for Each Resource
- Deeply read & dissect the general chemistry book
- Deeply read & dissect the physics book
- Deeply read & dissect the biology book
- Deeply read & dissect the biochemistry book
- Read the organic chemistry book only if it is a weak spot
- While I would advise all students to at the very least skim the first four books listed, I don’t think it is essential to read the Organic Chemistry review book. Personally, my foundation was strong and I only read and deeply studied the section on separatory and lab techniques, and I’d encourage other students to do the same.
- It should be noted that MCAT organic chemistry is very different from college organic chemistry – instead of being tested on different mechanisms, reagents, and products, the MCAT is assessing primarily whether or not you can glean insight into how different biological structures were derived – specifically, what constituents may have reacted (atoms, nucleophile, electrophile) to achieve the final configuration. It also tests very heavily on lab techniques. Ultimately, I think if you have studied organic chemistry very deeply and mastered the subject in school, then the MCAT organic chemistry questions won’t be a massive challenge – they may take time to adjust to, but they are some of the easier questions, from my experience.
- Make Major Progress on UWorld – Aim to finish and review at least 59 questions (timed) every day; spend almost twice as much time reviewing the questions.
- I would encourage you to interleave (mix up the topics being tested), but mix these topics in limitation – do not test yourself on 10-20 topics at once. Test yourself on topics that you have deeply read about through the review books or topics that you have a strong foundation in, but don’t mix up more than 2-3 subjects and 4-6 topics at once. Also, chunk the topics and subjects appropriately – don’t be afraid to test yourself on Chemistry and Physics at once or Biology and Biochemistry at once, but avoid testing yourself on Chemistry/Biology at once.
- This is a more ordered approach to UWorld. Again, while others will advocate that you should test yourself on everything randomly to simulate the real MCAT, the fundamental purpose of leveraging UWorld in the beginning of your preparation is to strengthen your foundation and familiarize yourself with managing timed conditions. If we choose our topics deliberately and in limitation, choosing only what we have already reviewed or have studied in detail in the past, we are narrowing our attention to a specific domain and leveraging this tool as a learning extension, diving deep and allowing our brain to piece together a robust mental schema with associations between the topic and the question patterns. It’ll be easier to identify what your knowledge gaps are and to close them if you are limiting your attention to a limited range of topics.
- While a more randomized approach is useful in the second pass of UWorld that I would advise you to strive for towards the end of your studying, this linear, ordered method is better in the beginning when your fundamental priority is to learn everything thoroughly and deeply.
- When using UWorld, I advise all students to practice their questions under timed conditions only. Arguably the hardest part about the MCAT is the rigorous time conditions that you need to get comfortable with. You need to learn how to fall behind and still catch up and to manage panic in the face of time-sensitive conditions.
- The primary goal of leveraging UWorld is to build one’s foundation – this comes from reviewing questions thoroughly, during which you’ll close content gaps. Some students are eager to use Tutor Mode when leveraging UWorld to take things slowly and learn as they go – I think this could be helpful, but it sacrifices the secondary opportunity to hone in on a pacing and testing strategy. Instead, if students use UWorld solely under timed conditions, and review each block thoroughly, they are improving at two things – their foundation, and their ability to manage time. See my pacing strategy under How to Take a Test.
- Aim to do 2-5 CARS passages every day.
- Make major progress on Memm – even if you haven’t read certain material in the review books or studied it deeply recently, Memm should be used as a learning tool just as much as a spaced-repetition tool. Don’t hesitate to start going through cards and review sheets for the material you haven’t learned. I personally did not fully read the Khan Academy or 100-Page Psych/Soc document; instead, I relied solely upon Memm’s flashcards & review sheets to learn the material and memorize it, and I eventually also leveraged the Milesdown Psych/Soc Anki Deck for a second presentation of the material. This same strategy applies to the sciences – you do not have to read or process the information to start working through cards. Ultimately this approach culminated in my scoring a 132 in P/S on test-day, which I had never done on a practice test prior.
Optimizing Efficiency – Key Principles
- Don’t wait until you’ve thoroughly reviewed or studied a topic or subject to test yourself on UWorld. If you’ve briefly read about a topic or have extensively studied in school (even if that was over a year ago), don’t hesitate to dive right into flashcards and UWorld Question on that area. While you may not remember details, you will have sufficient context to try and work through those problems – again, learning should feel messy, not comfortable. Embrace the messiness and dive right into those topics, then thoroughly dissect and review them, visiting any resource you need to resolve a content gap and strengthen your understanding.
- Don’t spend too much time reading the review books – process the information, draw out spider-web diagrams to practice recall if necessary (note-taking described here) but do not outline or take extensive notes, especially not bullet-point notes. Spider web diagrams allow you to start with the big-picture in mind and then piece together the details, and they provide a visual-spatial retention advantage that you don’t get with bullet-point-written notes.
- When reviewing, read the material, process it, and then transition into leveraging Memm’s flashcards to instill that information into your brain. Don’t outline. Memm is more concise than the review books but is designed with sufficient detail to master the content.
- Center your studying around Memm and UWorld, focusing most of your attention and energy there earlier in the day, and read the review book later in the day as it is a passive, lower-yielding study tactic that you should engage in once your energy dips.
Month 2 — Foundation Building & Third-Party Testing
There are two overarching goals for your second month: continue building your foundation and familiarize yourself with the testing process.
If you haven’t reviewed all of the review books and finished UWorld, continue making progress on those two fronts. Remember that in this early stage of your journey, your fundamental goal is to ensure that no stones are left behind – whatever information you encounter, break it down and pursue mastery of it. Aim to finish your foundation building within the 5th or 6th week, and then take your first practice test.
It is totally fine if you haven’t finished learning everything – mastery of all topics is again an asymptote towards which you should be striving – not the end-all-be-all. There will always be more information to target.
In summary, your second month should be split between finishing the bulk of your content review and foundation building and delving into your practice testing. Once you start testing, you’ll need to dedicate at least three days for a Practice Test Day, a Review Day, and a Target Day. I personally dedicated four days sometimes, as I would oftentimes take two days to review my test thoroughly, dedicating 3-5 hours for Chem/Phys and Bio/Biochem each, and a few hours for CARS and P/S.
Practice Test Day – Take your first third-party exam (I would recommend starting with Blueprint if you’re using both Blueprint and Altius) and focus entirely on understanding the testing component to this test: what it feels like to manage 59 questions under 95 minutes, the endurance requirements, managing panic and time pressure, etc.
Review Day – The next day (or over the span of two days), review the test thoroughly. Break every question down whether or not you got it correct— reviewing is the most important part of your journey and if you can optimize it, extracting tremendous detail from each and every session, you’ll make leaps. You should be identifying where you fell behind with time, figuring out how you can improve upon your testing strategy, reflecting on how you can better approach the exam and passages next time, and working through content gaps extensively.
Target Day – On the third day, target the weak spots that you had identified, even if you thoroughly studied them during your review. Revisiting these topics and tackling practice questions the day after you’ve thoroughly studied them will improve your retention of the information substantially, given that we forget around 50-80% of newly learned information within 24 hours of learning. I would leverage Memm, UWorld, Khan Academy videos and questions, youtube videos, MCAT review, and any other source you can find on the internet. I’d also advise students to consider leveraging Berkeley Review for Chemistry and Physics (PDFs online) for tough topics – they are brutal and long but can provide a deep, extensive learning opportunity and practice. I would not use them as a core resource because they are tough to work through efficiently – some of the other tools I’ve described are better.
On both review days and target days, you should center your studying around answering questions and not just passively absorbing material from videos and reading. Continue working away on CARS and Memm.
- Continue making progress on UWorld and aim to finish your first pass of the material (Biology, Biochemistry, Physics, General Chemistry, and Psychology – I would not prioritize CARS as much) by the 5th or 6th week of your studying.
- This will be tough and requires dedication but it can be accomplished. There are 1684 questions on UWorld (non-CARS), and that should take approximately 30 days to complete if you’ve done 59 a day. I would also practice CARS but focus more on finishing the sciences first.
- By the 5th or 6th week take a Blueprint or Altius Practice Test (see testing strategy)
- If you are using both, I would start with Blueprint (it is devastating and harder) and prepare yourself to be challenged profoundly.
- Do not wait longer than 6 weeks. My rationale for waiting at least 5-6 weeks and not taking a test immediately is described below.
- In the days leading up to the first FL test, I would take the Blueprint or Altius Sample Test, which is a half-length exam to get a feel of the exam.
- Take a test once a week thereafter.
- Each time you take a practice test, dedicate at least three days – one for a practice test day, one for a review day, and one for a target day.
- Review each test thoroughly (follow review strategy)
- Feel free to give yourself 2 days to review each test. Some students advocate that you should review the entire test within 1 day of taking it – I never did this and always found it unreasonable. I would personally dedicate 3-5 hours simply to reviewing Chem/Phys in detail, and another 3-5 hours to Bio/Biochem in detail. Don’t be reluctant to review Chem/Phys and CARS on one day and Bio/Biochem and Psychology/Sociology on a second day – reviewing is where the magic happens.
- This is by far the most important part of your studying and you should not be afraid to dedicate massive portions of time (15-20 hours) to review your entire test
- The more attention you devote to it, and the more you derive out of it, the greater your rate of improvement.
- If you try and complete the entire review in one day, you might be compromising the depth of knowledge you could’ve extracted from the questions you missed, assuming you aren’t delving as deep as you could doing two sections each day over the span of two days.
- Thoroughly target weak spots identified while reviewing
- On your Target Days, you should target weak areas that you have identified even if you made deep sense of them during your review.
- Find other sources of information on the internet, examine them from the lens of different sources, and if needed, leverage the online Berkely Review Book PDFs for Chem/Phys (Bio/Biochem was not that great) – that book is tough to work through, so don’t rely upon it too heavily but it can provide ample opportunity to practice engaging with challenging topics.
- Also, leverage the Khan Academy practice questions, the MCAT Review, UWorld, and youtube videos, and create mnemonics or visual illustrations.
- In the days where you are not testing, reviewing, or targetting, continue working away at UWorld, complete individual 59-question blocks from third party full-lengths (ex: Altius C/P block 59 questions in 95 minutes), or continue targeting and strengthening your foundation on weak spots.
- You will inevitably fall behind in certain areas and should leverage these days to chip away on any unfinished front. Again, prioritize answering questions over anything else.
- CARS – Continue completing 2-5 passages every day, even if you take a practice test that day.
- Third-party cars blocks are different from AAMC material but leveraging them will force you to refine a strategy that you can then use towards the AAMC CARS material.
- Finish your first pass of every topic on Memm and continue working through your daily flashcards.
Key Principle of Efficiency: this 3-4 day process (test day, review(s) day(s), target day) provides a thorough opportunity to enhance your understanding of weak topics – it will ensure that you haven’t left any stones unturned.
Month 3 — Perfect Your Testing Routine/Strategy | Third-Party Testing
The overarching goal of your third month, given that you’ve done the major lifting in building your foundation at this point in time, is to delve deep into the testing variable and refine your testing strategy; the secondary goal is to continue strengthening and embellishing your foundation, identifying specific topics that are weak and targeting them in pursuit of mastery.
Embrace the fact that this month will force you to push yourself more than any other part of this journey – it’s like the third leg of a 400-meter race; you need to push through and embrace this compressing, but transformative part of the journey.
Don’t stress over test scores – solely focus on refining the system and strategy that you will be leveraging. You will be primarily working through third-party tests (Blueprint and Altius) so the scores will undoubtedly be demoralizing, but again, focus your attention entirely on three things:
1 | Building endurance
2 | Learning to encounter anxiety-provoking situations and managing accordingly
3 | Strengthening your understanding of weak areas.
If the plan below is too rigorous, don’t hesitate to cut the frequency of testing down to once a week. If you are working with a shorter plan (perhaps 3 months), then cut the number of third-party testing weeks, and consider increasing the frequency of third-party tests during the weeks where you will be testing with third-party material.
I want to make it fundamentally clear that if you start to experience burnout at this point in time, adjust. The priority of this month is not to get through 8 tests – it is solely to test regularly at a pace that is comfortable for you and won’t lead to burnout. You still have the AAMC material to get through and shouldn’t burn all of your energy this month trying to finish these third-party tests. Whenever I felt extremely exhausted, I adjusted my studying accordingly – instead of doing full-length tests, I would complete individual blocks of questions (ex: Altius Chem/Phys 59 questions in 95 minutes). At the minimum, I would strive to do at least one test a week.
Eventually, you’ll experience a breakthrough and a bounce in your performance if you can push through the rigor of this period and trust in the fact that improvement will become apparent with time, even if it hasn’t demonstrated itself early on.
- Aim to take 1-2 exams every week. Alternatively, complete 1 test every week and work through individual subject blocks of 59 questions (timed)
- Aim to take one test every 3-4 days and give yourself two days max to review and target the tests – your pace of reviewing and targeting should be increased slightly from what it was in the past month to ensure that you can take a test every 3-4 days.
- Take a test on the same day of the week as your actual test day; if that happens to be Friday, take a test on Friday and take your second test on Tuesday.
- If you start to feel burned out, lower the testing frequency and don’t be afraid to reduce the count of tests per week to one. From there, focus on taking only Chem/Phys or Bio/Biochem or CARS blocks from third-party tests (Altius C/P and B/B is great).
- Deeply review each block of questions and leverage these individual blocks to enhance your understanding and your strategy and timing on these sections. The priority is practice under timed, testing conditions.
- Review each and every exam thoroughly, dissecting every mistake you’ve made and synthesizing unique ways to tackle similar problems in the future.
- Target weak spots thoroughly after reviewing.
- On days where you aren’t taking practice tests, or on days where you don’t have the energy to take a second test, focus on working through the Chemistry/Physics blocks and Bio/Biochemistry blocks provided by Altius.
- CARS – Continue completing 2-5 passages every day, even if you take a practice test that day.
- Third-party cars blocks are different from AAMC material but leveraging them will force you to refine a strategy that you can then use towards the AAMC CARS material.
- Continue working through your Memm flashcards every day.
- Anki Psych/Soc Milesdown Deck– this is the only deck I would advise using with Anki because it is helpful to see a second presentation of the psych material to further hone your understanding of it.Optimizing Efficiency – Key Principles
- Center your attention around optimizing your testing strategy, nutrition during a test day, internal dialogue, sleep/wake times, capacity to manage panic and time pressure, etc.
- Focus your studying around answering questions – don’t get caught in the trap of passively absorbing information from videos and text without actively engaging with it via questions and recall.
- This month is rigorous so prioritize optimizing your downtime – give yourself at least a few hours off after every practice test, and take at least one day off every single week.
Month 4 — AAMC Material: The Endgame
The overarching goal of your fourth month is to disconnect yourself entirely from the demoralizing, devastating third-party material that possibly broke your soul in the preceding months. Now you are transitioning into the AAMC material – the representative material that you need to center all of your attention around. The material you encounter will likely feel easier given that it is at a lower level of difficulty than the other resources – use this to your advantage and come into this month with a renewed focus and a commitment to extracting as much knowledge and testing insight as you can from the questions that you are presented with. Personally, my real MCAT was very similar to the AAMC FL’s – in fact, the illustrations and experimental designs were almost identical to what I had seen before (for a few questions), and I leveraged my experience to tackle those questions with confidence on test day. If you are battling anxiety or uncertainty, that is completely normal – reference the last few parts of this guide. Trust that with 4 weeks of deliberate practice, your content gaps will be filled, and focus on piecing together a strategy to optimize your mindset, internal dialogue, response to anxiety-provoking situations, etc. See Dominating the MCAT | Optimizing Your Mindset – Combatting Anxiety & Uncertainty for insights on how to manage testing anxiety and keep yourself grounded. You’re in the endgame now, so give it your best and leave no stones unturned.
- Center your attention around mastering the style of the AAMC, their question patterns, their rigor and level of intensity, etc. Dedicate any free time to UWorld, which is a level of difficulty higher than the AAMC and relatively representative of the AAMC material – don’t use any third-party material. You want your thinking to be enveloped around what you will see on test day and third-party material deviates too far from what you’ll see on test day.
- Week 1: focus entirely on the Chemistry/Physics Section Bank, Biology Pack 1, Biology Pack 2, and CARS Pack 1 — the section bank and CARS are brutal but don’t stress. That’s expected. The section bank is the hardest material so scrutinize it and dissect every detail you can out of it. I personally never finished both of the Bio Packs but would advise students to use them and every bit of material provided by the AAMC. Work on the Online flashcards every night before bed – I also didn’t finish these as I ran out of time, but I’d advise all students to work through these at night early on to ensure that they end up finished. Take the Sample Test, review it, and target weak spots. If you have free time, focus on UWorld – complete each section in 59 question timed blocks; your performance on this second pass of the material will give you a confidence boost and allow you to close in on very minute details that will be relevant (at least tangentially) to the AAMC material. Prioritize UWorld and don’t touch any more third-party material.
- Week 2: focus entirely on the Bio/Biochem Section Bank, Chemistry Pack, Physics Pack, and CARS Pack 2 – the physics pack and the Bio/Biochem section bank are very hard but fantastic learning tools. The CARS pack 2 is also hard but fairly representative of test day so put a lot of energy towards it. Take AAMC FL 1, review, and target weak spots. Also start reading the Khan Academy document or the 100-page P/S document in detail. Focus on your second pass of UWorld if you have the free time – continue leveraging UWorld, Memm and Anki P/S and don’t touch any more third-party material.
- Week 3: focus entirely on finishing up anything that wasn’t finished or thoroughly reviewed, and I would put a lot of attention on the CARS diagnostic tool – it may feel hard but is also representative of what you will encounter on test day so try to really break down and derive every bit of insight you can from this pack. Take AAMC FL 2, review, and target. Read the Khan Academy and 100-page P/S document in detail and close off content gaps. Take some time out to review the mistakes you made on the Sample Test, AAMC FL1, and AAMC FL2 together, moving through the Chemistry/Physics of each test first, CARS second, Bio/Biochem third, and Psych/Sociology last – this thorough review should give you a deeper understanding of the question patterns.
- Week 4: focus entirely on completing and thoroughly reviewing the Psych/Soc section bank – doing this the days before the test will allow the Psych/Soc section on test-day to feel very comfortable because the section bank is very hard – you’ll surely feel a stark contrast between it and the material you’ll see on test day. I would also take AAMC FL3 and FL 4, thoroughly review them, and target those topics. Aim to finish up the Khan Academy and 100-page P/S document in detail. The day prior to the exam, review the mistakes you’ve made from all the AAMC practice tests section by section (as described above).
- In summary, 1 AAMC practice test every week (Sample, FL1, FL2, FL3, FL4 is the sequence I used), and 2 in the final week of test day. I personally did FL 3 on the Sunday leading up to my test, FL 4 on that Tuesday, and took the real test that Friday — while this sounds tough, and while many others advise against pushing this hard the week of, the high frequency of testing for this week can be very helpful because you’ll have a great deal of familiarity with the AAMC testing routine leading right up to the exam.
Test Day — Trust in the Work & Crush it!
- Go into test day expecting the unexpected. The night before I developed a runny nose and woke up the morning of with some digestive problem – this could have been attributed to stress, but regardless, I had prepared myself to encounter the unexpected and was able to keep myself grounded.
- Carry an emotionally-neutral, girded mindset – you need to keep your internal dialogue dialed in.
- Do not go into test day with expectations about the level of difficulty. Every time you take a practice test, you should have zero expectations. As I learned from the score drop I experienced in FL 3 , when you have expectations about the level of difficulty of an exam, your perception may not align with reality, and this can throw off your internal dialogue and affect your performance substantially.
2 | The Rationale for This Plan
First and foremost, I know that this plan is demanding. There is no doubt about that. This plan is organized with the assumption that you are aiming to score within the top 5 percentile – depending on your goals and your unique strengths, weaknesses, testing capacity, and individual subtleties, this plan may not be necessary.
Using this plan as a general structure, you’ll be taking at least 10 FL practice exams (possibly more). I laid a guideline for maximizing the hourly yield and overall daily productivity throughout your MCAT journey – if you can adhere to this guideline closely, you should be able to make consistent progress on this plan.
My rationale for the high third-party testing frequency stems from the fact that there are so many variables you need to master besides the content alone – you need to be able to manage panic, time pressure, unexpectedly challenging passages that throw you off your pace, endurance, nutrition, and several other factors. Third-party tests are brutal but their level of rigor and the frequency of testing outlined in this plan provide ample opportunity to engage with and master these variables before you delve into the AAMC material – moreover, they allow you to strengthen your foundation greatly, especially Altius when it comes to C/P and B/B. There were undoubtedly days where I deviated from this structure and plan and took it easier – if I didn’t have the energy to take two tests a week, I focused instead on completing individual Chemistry/Physics and Bio/Biochem blocks by Altius, using up half their tests in this fragmented manner.
Again, I want it to be fundamentally clear that students should not hesitate to adjust their testing frequency, reducing it from two tests a week to once a week, or the number of weeks dedicated to third-party material testing. The priority is not simply taking two tests a week. That’s a massive oversimplification.
The priority is to facilitate a consistent testing schedule and push yourself to test regularly at a pace that is comfortable for you and will not lead to burnout.
If you can manage this level of intensity and then transition into the AAMC material, the transition will feel like butter – smooth and comfortable – and you can focus on tailoring and fine-tuning the details behind your strategy and system. You can also refine your foundation in accordance with the question patterns and testing style of the AAMC, and the scores will be more representative of what they’ll be on test day, giving you better insight into your performance.
In the last week of my MCAT journey, I took AAMC FL3 on Sunday of that week, AAMC FL 4 on Tuesday of that week, and I took the real test on Friday of that week. Many people would caution against this – personally, I felt a massive surge of motivation in the week leading up to test day and had prepared myself mentally to push as hard as I could. I understand that this level of intensity may not be reasonable for everyone, but take the time to reflect on the pros and cons of this strategy. In testing so frequently 6 days out from my exam, I was able to crystallize the routine I was relying on for test-day: the nutrition, the sleep, the breaks, etc. Also, in the days leading up to test-day, the stress was kicking in to a far greater degree and if I hadn’t pushed myself beyond my comfort zone and distracted my mind with this workload, my thoughts would have wandered in a manner that left me more uncomfortable.
At any point, if you experience burnout and a dip in your wellbeing, adjust accordingly. Once that burnout sets in, your motivation, mood, and mindset will all take a hit and this can have a profound impact on your productivity. Take the time you need to rejuvenate, lighten the workload to something more manageable, and destress and remind yourself that this is a marathon, not a race, and that more MCAT progress is made than you realize with each hour of studying.
Lastly, if you see a definitive trend of improvement and then notice that the returns on each additional practice test seem to have diminished, don’t hesitate to transition directly into AAMC material – again, this is a 4-month plan, but 2-3 months is also an ideal frame of time to complete this test within and students should not hesitate to tailor these demands (and shorten them) based on their goals.
3 | When to Start Taking Practice Tests
I do strongly believe that practice tests are arguably the most important instrument for learning massive quantities of information and making massive MCAT progress. However, I would caution against taking a practice test until you’ve accomplished four things:
1 | Immersed yourself in content review for at least 2 weeks and developed an evolving foundation for most science subjects on the test.
2 | Completed a substantial count of UWorld science passages and questions, as well as CARS passages.
3 | Built the endurance to manage 59 questions in 95 minutes and iterated with a testing strategy and managing time – this can be accomplished via UWorld.
4 | Built the endurance to manage two blocks of questions back-to-back and practiced leveraging a testing strategy and managing time – again, this can be accomplished via UWorld.
Leveraging the platform to get comfortable with 59 questions timed, and eventually, two sections back-to-back provides a gradual transition into the endurance requirements of the real test. Also, substantial engagement with the content on the test and MCAT-style passages and questions will force you to develop a strategy to break down passages in a time-sensitive manner.
My rationale for holding off until these four things are accomplished stems from the fact that third-party tests are devastatingly hard, and a disastrous testing experience could be demoralizing and set a bad taste for what the rest of the journey holds. Without iterating with a testing strategy, learning to manage time, figuring out how to break down passages, and making sense of the style of the MCAT first, the first practice will feel like a huge surprise – students might struggle to manage their time, they’ll fall behind and compromise their performance in the process of making up for lost time, and the experience could influence their perception of their testing capability for weeks on end.
Most online articles advise students to take their first practice test either at the beginning of their MCAT journey or within two weeks of studying.
Personally, I think the key is to take a practice test as soon as these four items have been accomplished – this took me 5 weeks personally, though I’m sure it could’ve been sooner had I known how to optimize my studying. The plan I’ve laid above incorporates testing within week 5 or week 6 – assuming this is a 4-month plan, regular testing can be sustained for 8-10 weeks, and holding off isn’t necessarily a problem.