Dominating the MCAT Pt. 9 | What I Wish I Knew Before

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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 ninth 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.

 

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 1 | Everything You Need to Know Going In

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 2 | Optimizing Productivity & Studying

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 3 | Resources & Timeline

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 4 | 4 Month Study Plan

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 5 | Test-Taking & Reviewing | Strategy for Success

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 6 | Mindset, Testing Anxiety & Managing Uncertainty

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 7 | How I Scored a 132 on P/S

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 8 | Deciding Whether or Not to Push the MCAT

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 9 | Tips, Tricks, Rules & What I Would Do Differently

 

In this piece, I have distilled everything that I wish I knew earlier when it comes to optimizing your MCAT progress and thriving on this journey. I will share the rules I encourage all students to impose on themselves to maximize their daily MCAT studying and productivity, and I’ll lay the lessons I’ve derived from my mistakes when it comes to learning, productivity, studying, exercise, nutrition, etc. Feel free to skim the bullet points and incorporate whatever feels best for you.

 

1 | What I Wish I Knew Before | Tips to Optimize Your MCAT Journey

Studying & Learning

  • Do not outline any review book – that’s a waste of time. Read the review books, trust that you will retain more than you think, and immediately start leveraging Memm to imprint the information you read about into your long-term memory. I understand that this shift away from note-taking is extremely uncomfortable to make as college students (it felt very strange to me) but try it and embrace it because you won’t have time to take extensive notes in a later stage of your medical training, and this is a change you need to undergo at some point in time.
  • Do not use the CARS or P/S Review Books – they’re a waste of time. Use Memm and the Anki Milesdown Psych/Soc Deck instead as your primary learning tools for P/S – even if you don’t know the material, the information isn’t difficult to learn. You can leverage the cards as a learning instrument and supplement weak spots with Khan Academy videos.
  • For P/S, use the Khan Academy Document or the 100 Page Document on Reddit at the very end of your MCAT journey, and only use the Khan Academy videos when you are confused – I personally held these off until the very last few days before my MCAT to cram minute, lower-yield details into my short-term memory (and admittedly did not finish either of them), but I worked through Memm and Anki P/S, which worked wonders. This was the first half of my strategy that led me to scoring a 132 on P/S.
  • There seems to be a possibility that P/S has increased in difficulty over the years. The AAMC P/S sections on FL 3 and FL 4 are harder than FL 1 and FL 2. To ensure that on test day the P/S section feels comfortable, complete the P/S Section Bank the days leading up to your real MCAT. The section bank is organized at a higher level of difficulty, and by using it in the days leading up to the test, you’ll be able to facilitate a smooth transition into the P/S section on test-day. You’ll experience contrast in difficulty, and the real section will feel a lot simpler and smoother to work through than the section bank. Embrace this smooth transition and leverage it as a confidence booster to further trust in your decision-making. There is not much room for error on this section, and you need to be able to encounter concepts you have not seen before and ambiguous questions, and trust in your critical thinking and capacity to delineate between various nuanced pieces of text. This part of my strategy really helped me acquire a 132 as I felt extremely confident with my decision-making on test day and wasn’t bogged down with much uncertainty and doubt in the decisions I was making.
  • Center your MCAT studying around the process of answering questions. Passive study approaches like reading and watching videos are ineffective and a waste of time done alone; it is the process of remembering information and answering questions that instill information into your memory on a deeper level.
  • Dissect every mistake you make and ensure that you get some lesson out of that mistake – if you make a mistake, you should break that concept down to its very fundamentals strategically and ensure that you never make that mistake again. Don’t hesitate to spend 10-45 minutes trying to understand something – that is where the magic happens.
  • Every time you make a mistake, you should be typing up a synthesis into a platform like Notion or Excel; this synthesis should be a concise, clear explanation as to the concept, the rationale behind why three of the four choices were incorrect, the rationale behind why one choice was correct, and you may have to type this up in a verbose manner and then retype it up in a concise manner. This forces a deep level of engagement and serves as a form of recall, which maximizes retention.
  • To make major progress on UWorld, prioritize answering a set number of questions every single day (timed only; not tutor mode) and do not hesitate to delve into material that you haven’t reviewed, read about, or touched since earlier in your premedical career.
  • The learning process should feel messy – don’t chase after a linear, comfortable process where you make sense of every minute detail as you move along the information. Focus on acquiring the big-picture first, embrace the messiness, and fill in the details from there.
  • Again, do not wait until you’ve reviewed information to start answering questions on UWorld or other sources – if you’ve taken most of your premedical courses, you have context. You may not remember what you learned, but the context you have is sufficient to start answering questions and reviewing, which will be a far more efficient use of time then reading and passively relearning. Again, learning should feel messy.
  • If there’s a topic you are particularly weak at, don’t worry. Keep at it. Trust that after months on end of revisiting MCAT material, the concepts you find challenging, in the beginning, will be mastered with time – all it takes is repetition and deliberate effort.

Productivity

  • In the face of difficult topics, remember that 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 and messiness. This applies to test-taking as much as it does to content.
  • Strive to optimize four things every day – your sleep, nutrition, exercise, and studying. These should be the pillars you prioritize and center your attention around optimizing.
  • To maximize the yield of every hour of your studying, you need to optimize three variables: intensity of focus, time invested, and the efficiency of your study strategies.
  • When studying, you should always have a countdown timer on Google for a set duration (1.5-4 hours). Do not get up from your study table until that timer hits 00:00 and if you have to, hit pause and resume it upon returning – also do not go on your phone or deviate from the work at hand until that timer hits 00:00. If you find yourself distracted or mind-wandering that’s okay. Refocus your attention on the task at hand. If you feel sluggish, that’s also okay – breakthroughs happen when you push through.
  • Every morning upon starting your studying, you should have a countdown timer on your phone for at least 8 hours. Start the timer as you initiate each study session and pause it each time you stop or take a break (even bathroom breaks) – strive to initiate 2-4 study blocks a day (for 1.5-4 hours) and do end your day until that timer has hit 00:00. It is the only means to ensure that you actually have an 8-hour study day.
  • Don’t be afraid to change your study environment every now and then – environmental changes can give you a surge of motivation.
  • Find an MCAT study group to hold yourself accountable, to practice the Feynman technique, and to navigate your way through the stress of this journey alongside peers who can relate to the rigorous nature of this journey – it will bring you closer together and serve as support. My peers and I would meet each other on Zoom and though we wouldn’t speak with each other, we’d be focused on our individual tasks in the presence of each other; which kept us accountable and encouraged us to remain focused.
  • Use Memm whenever you find yourself in a boring situation where you are forced to wait – ex: waiting in line at the grocery store, sitting on the toilet, waiting at the restaurant, waiting at the doctor’s office, cooking food, etc.
  • Choose a summer (or any three to four-month duration) to focus exclusively on the MCAT and not engage in any other extracurricular activities or courses to ensure that your attention isn’t fragmented on anything except this exam.
  • Set your academic schedule up to take Biochemistry before your 4-month intense MCAT period.
  • Avoid food comas by limiting consumption of carbohydrates and calorically-heavy meals during your 30-minute lunch break (but I’m not a doctor) when taking a full-length.
  • Experiment with coffee and avoid usage if it will increase your need to urinate frequently – you need to be able to focus your attention for 95 minutes at a time for each MCAT FL section, and if coffee disrupts that capacity, trade the beverage for something that isn’t a diuretic.
  • If you have sleep-onset insomnia, invest in a fan or some white-noise generator, find a means of lowering the temperature in your room, and eliminate all forms of light – if light seeps in through your windows, invest in some curtains. You should not be compromising on your sleep by any means or else your learning and productivity will also both be compromised.
  • Don’t give your emotions or testing anxiety too much weight and appraise any discomforting situation in a manner that serves you well – I know this is a simplification of a massive problem for test-takers, and testing anxiety was a huge problem for me, but take a read of the article to understand my rationale behind this claim and incorporate the tips described.
  • Don’t try to get control of anxiety, uncertainty, fear, and nervousness surrounding this exam – it’ll only make things worse. Embrace these feelings and discomfort emotions as normal parts of this experience and remind yourself not to give your emotions too much weight.

 

2 | Rules When Studying for the MCAT

  • Do not start studying for the MCAT too early. If you’ve scheduled a 2-4 month intense period to study for the MCAT, do not delve into the material earlier and hold off on thinking about it entirely. You do not need to prolong the stress of this journey, which will only increase your risk of burnout.
  • Upon entering college, focus on achieving mastery of your coursework by making sense of 100% of the curriculum – this will pay dividends in your grades and your foundation for the MCAT.
  • Whenever you take a break from a study block, do not look up anything MCAT-relevant on Google. Schedule some time at the end of the day to explore online content surrounding the MCAT.
  • Delete all social media until test day – not worth the time and not a great way to rejuvenate during breaks.
  • Only allow yourself to watch television while eating food or after completing your 8 hours of focused studying (monitoring that time with the 8-hour countdown timer approach).
  • Do not study in bed or on a couch (unless it’s flashcards, which is excusable but still not a great way to use them) — study solely at a table or desk.
  • Schedule one block of time (several hours) every single week where you can meet with peers and actively decompress and engage in something rejuvenating and entertaining.
  • Schedule one block of time every single day where you exercise or engage in a hobby that thoroughly rejuvenates you – ideally it should force you away from a screen.
  • Engage in some form of exercise every single day – sports, yoga, strength training, aerobic exercise, long walks, etc – this improves learning, retention, alleviates stress, and will elevate your mood and take you out of a rut if you’re having a bad study day.
  • Do NOT allow third-party tests to greatly influence your perception of your readiness for the real exam. They are greatly different (and much harder) than the AAMC material. You should only be using them as an instrument to build endurance, identify knowledge deficiencies, and strengthen your foundation.
  • Do not drink alcohol or engage in substances while studying for the MCAT – this will compromise your memory is arguably the worst thing you could be doing with your free time (but I’m not a doctor).
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