The Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) is considered to be the gate-keeper of medical school admissions. Even if you’ve done well in your undergraduate courses, participated in a wide variety of extracurriculars, and secured strong letters of recommendation, a poor score on the MCAT can keep you from being admitted to medical school. Given the nature of the MCAT, appropriate planning and effective preparation are a must to maximize the odds of your success.
Understanding the MCAT
To successfully prepare for the MCAT, it is essential that you understand its components. This exam tests several different components that contribute to being an effective doctor. These include your critical thinking skills, knowledge of the basic sciences, and endurance.
1) Critical thinking skills. Effective doctors have to make correct decisions (often under time constraints) so it’s easy to understand why this is such a major focus of the MCAT. At its core, critical thinking is the act of simplification. Can you determine what’s really important and what’s only secondary? Can you extract what is being asked in a complicated question stem? Can you simplify figures to make judgments and inferences about the results of research? Can you look past your own biases and focus on facts? And most importantly, can you do all of it in an effective and time-sensitive fashion? The more you can simplify and the quicker you can train yourself to do so, the easier the MCAT will be. Changing how you think can be difficult but it is a necessity to prepare properly for the MCAT!
2) Basic science knowledge. The MCAT is heavily focused on the application of topics to the human body. Some topics from your undergrad such as special relativity won’t be tested and others like protein structure will come up frequently. The AAMC (the organization that writes the MCAT) has published lists of the topics that will be tested on the exam that can be a helpful resource to guide your study. Note that this resource does not describe the depth and breadth of how those topics are tested. We’ll discuss how to use that below.
Additionally, be aware that the MCAT will test your knowledge of the basic sciences in ways that may be slightly different than your undergrad courses might have. Instead of regurgitating memorized information, you will need to have a conceptual understanding of scientific concepts to reason about their relevance to the passage or question.
3) Endurance. Including breaks, the MCAT takes about 7.5 hours for completion, with 6 hours and 15 minutes of timed testing (though this has been altered for the remainder of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic – see here for more information). Maintaining your focus and critical thinking for this long is grueling, but it shows that you’ll be able to manage a career in medicine. To get used to the sheer length of the test, you’ll have to train yourself and develop strategies for conserving your energy and sharpening your focus throughout the test.
Essential Components of MCAT Prep
MCAT prep is extremely individual and there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” approach that works for everyone. However, the objectives of the test above shine light on some general principles that can guide you during your preparation.
1 | Establish A Baseline
At the beginning of your prep, take a timed diagnostic test to get an idea of where you currently stand. This diagnostic is simply to establish a baseline – don’t let it stress you out. The reason you are dedicating time to this is to improve, but you need to know how far away from your goal you currently stand. Take the test, get an idea of your current strengths and weaknesses, and use this score as your starting point for developing a study schedule.
My recommendation is the AAMC Sample Test. Currently, it costs $25 but will become free for all examinees in September 2020. Do not use the full-length AAMC practice exams (Exams 1-4) at this point as they should be reserved for the testing portion of your prep. More on this later.
2 | Pick A Single, Trusted Content Resource
It can be helpful to have an interdisciplinary approach to content review, but don’t overload yourself with too many resources. Most resources cover the essential topics in a fairly consistent way and by using multiple resources, you can spread yourself too thin and not learn content efficiently. Pick a single, trusted content resource, and use it for the vast majority of your content review. For any topics that you struggle with, use Youtube videos to improve your understanding.
As you study content, capitalize on your efforts by incorporating spaced repetition. This will help you stay fresh with your understanding of facts and concepts, particularly in the Psychology and Sociology (PsS) section where much of your score will come from being able to correctly remember and differentiate a vast number of definitions. My personal recommendation is Memm or Anki.
3 | Use the AAMC Official Prep Material
The AAMC offers an MCAT prep bundle that will give you the most realistic feel of how you’ll be tested. This is perhaps the most valuable resource you can use during your prep, as it not only will help you get used to the test, but it will give you valuable information about how each science concept will be tested. In general, most content resources do a good job at teaching the important topics but struggle at allowing examinees to understand which topics are either unlikely to come up, or will only be tested in a certain way. By seeing how the AAMC tests each topic, you’ll be able to be more focused and efficient during your content review.
All resources in the bundle aren’t created equally, with the Practice Exams 1-4 being the best and most important. The Section Bank, Sample Test, and Questions from the Official Guide are quite good and should be used. The science question packs are composed of questions from the old exam (pre-2015) and don’t have the same style as the current MCAT. If you have to omit anything due to a time crunch, eliminating these is fine but make sure you are diligent in mastering the other resources. Note that the CARS question packs are excellent and should not be confused with the science question packs.
There are over 2,000 questions in the AAMC material, however, if you find yourself wanting more practice, I would highly recommend investing in a subscription to UWorld instead of doing the AAMC materials twice. UWorld has long been the standard for board prep during medical school and their MCAT question bank is equally as good. Incorporating more active recall into your study can be a gamechanger. Remember, active recall is by far the most effective method of learning. Combine this with spaced repetition as part of the core of your learning.
4 | Develop and Stick to a Schedule
Having a schedule is a crucial component of your MCAT prep. As a guideline, I recommend that 1/2 of prep time be devoted towards content, 1/4 towards practice questions, and 1/4 towards practice tests. Initially, start with a focus on content and after a few weeks, begin adding in practice questions at a steady rate. Gradually increase the load of practice questions until you finish the content review, then spend the last 4 weeks of your prep with practice tests and questions. During these 4 weeks, take the AAMC Practice Exams a week apart, with the last one at least 3 days before your test day to allow yourself time to recover. Feel free to supplement with other 3rd party practice tests, but be careful as the quality of these tests varies widely.
Sticking to a well-thought-out schedule is key to making sizable steps towards your goals. However, MCAT prep is individual and there is no one-size-fits-all approach that will guarantee your success. Start with the most basic components of effective preparation, analyze your strengths, weaknesses, and goals, and keep in mind that your schedule will need to be adjusted to accommodate changes. If you find yourself struggling with your preparation, consider partnering with one of the expert MCAT tutors at Med School Insiders who can help you get back on track.
5 | Trust the Process
Don’t get married to an arbitrary test date. Yes, there is the application timeline. Yes, you have other things going on. But don’t take the MCAT before you’re ready. Understand that it is inevitable that obstacles and setbacks will happen and that you’ll need to respond to them appropriately. Commit to the process of preparing as much as you need to so that you can be confident on test day and avoid having to retake this test. There is no shame in taking the time you need to do things right the first time around.
Instead of seeing the MCAT as another form of pre-med limbo, love the process of becoming a great physician. During this time, you’ll have the opportunity to learn to think more critically, gain a better understanding of the basic sciences, and develop a growth mindset. You’ll learn to persevere in the face of adversity and incorporate a greater degree of discipline into your life. By embracing this as a part of the journey, you’ll be much happier in the present and maximize the odds of your success.
MCAT Score Isn’t Everything
When you get your MCAT score back and you’ve achieved your goal, celebrate! You’ve shown that you’re capable of thinking critically for long segments of time and that you have an understanding of the basic sciences. You’ve overcome one of the most daunting tasks along the pre-med path. However, a high MCAT score does not guarantee admission to medical school. As you write your personal statement, primary application, secondary application, or prepare for interviews, maximize your odds of success by working with one of our experienced advisors.