The MCAT is one of the biggest roadblocks standing in the way between premeds and medical school acceptance – and it’s only getting harder. Every year, the average score for medical school applicants and matriculants inches steadily upward and the bar is raised a little bit higher. If your dream is to become a doctor, it’s more important now than ever to do well on your MCAT.
More students applied during the 2021-2022 medical school application cycle than ever before – approximately 62,000 compared to just 53,000 the year before. As such, it is becoming more and more important to make your application stand out amongst the thousands of other applicants, and one way to do that is to have a stellar MCAT score.
The problem is, the MCAT is known for being one of the most difficult exams you will ever take. It’s nearly 8 hours long, covers a wide variety of subjects, and has the added pressure of being one of the first metrics that admissions committees look at on your medical school application. Doing well on it is much easier said than done.
Here are 5 tips to help you maximize your MCAT prep and achieve your dream score.
1 | Building the Foundation
Start by building a strong foundation. A common misconception is that MCAT prep starts in the months leading up to the exam. In reality, it actually starts the moment you step into your first biology or chemistry class as a premed.
When going through your prerequisite classes, focus on building a foundation of knowledge – not just so you can get an A in the class, but so you can learn and retain the information in the long term.
The best way to accomplish this is by utilizing the spacing effect. Study a little bit each day over the course of weeks to months instead of trying to cram everything at the last minute.
By repeated exposures to a piece of information at increasing intervals between each repetition, you can optimize memorization and retain the most amount of information in the least amount of time.
We know from neuroscience that repeated recall of information strengthens neuronal connections in the hippocampus where episodic long-term memory is stored. In short, stronger connections are formed with multiple repeated exposures spread out over time as opposed to one intense cramming session.
I was fortunate enough to have realized this early in my college career and focused on building a strong foundation of knowledge.
In doing so, by the time I was preparing for my MCAT, I was able to score in the 67th percentile on my first practice test before diving into studying. If I had goofed off during my classes and crammed at the last minute, I may have scored 20th percentile and had a much larger gap to fill to achieve my desired score.
The general rule of thumb is to spend 2 hours every week studying for every hour you spend in class. Consistently putting in the hours is only the first part of the equation though, you also need to spend that time efficiently. The same goes for your MCAT prep.
2 | Active vs Passive Study Techniques
You want to prioritize active learning techniques over passive ones.
We tend to default to passive learning techniques because that’s how we’re taught to learn from an early age. We are told that if you want to reinforce the information, you have to read and re-read your notes and listen to lectures repeatedly until it sticks.
The issue with this approach is that it is painfully inefficient. Although repetition is important, this method takes much longer to consolidate key facts to memory than if you were to spend that same time doing active learning in the form of practice questions and flashcards.
It also makes it more difficult to determine what areas need the most improvement. When you are reading through content books or listening to lectures and have the information available to you, there is a tendency to overestimate how well you know the information. Once you take your notes away, however, it’s often a much different story.
When I was preparing for my MCAT many years ago, I made the mistake of relying too heavily on passive learning techniques. I would read through content review books, highlight the important points, and re-read the highlights repeatedly until they stuck.
It wasn’t until I got into medical school and drank from the proverbial fire hydrant of information that I realized the power of active learning techniques – namely practice questions and spaced repetition with active recall. By using these, I was able to optimize my studies and learn more information in less time.
I have found that students are often scared to use practice questions until the end of their MCAT prep. This is a huge mistake as practice questions can be a great way to learn information in addition to honing test-taking strategies. I started doing practice questions from the get-go and took my first full-length test within the first 2 weeks.
The key isn’t just to get through the practice tests but to review all of the questions thoroughly. I made sure to go over every single incorrect answer as well as any I guessed on or got correct by luck. I believe that starting practice questions early was one of the best things I did during my prep and contributed heavily to my 99.9th percentile score.
Flashcards are also often underutilized during MCAT prep. Active recall with spaced repetition is one of the best ways to consolidate information to long-term memory – which is incredibly important for the MCAT given the sheer amount of information you are expected to know. In addition to not using flashcards enough, many students also don’t know how to create good ones.
It wasn’t until after years of making my own flashcards through medical school and residency that I realized how subtle and nuanced the best flashcards are.
To make the most effective flashcards, you need to have a mastery of the subject at hand. For the MCAT, you must understand related concepts that contrast with the topic, whether it’s high-, medium-, or low-yield, and how it’s tested on the exam. If you’re looking for high-quality flashcards and a learning experience that’s better than any premade Anki deck, be sure to check out Memm.
No matter how much you refine your study techniques and use spaced repetition, you will eventually start forgetting information. This is where having an effective MCAT study schedule comes in.
3 | Building an Effective MCAT Study Schedule
I’ve seen countless students plateau with their scores despite dedicating several additional months to MCAT prep. The issue is that the more time you spend studying for the MCAT, the more likely you are to start forgetting information.
After working with hundreds of premeds, I’ve found that a few months of intense, high-quality studying will often beat out a year of low- to medium-intensity studying. For most students, two-and-a-half months at the lower end to six months at the upper end is the sweet spot for MCAT prep. This time frame allows you to maximize information acquisition and retention and minimize forgetting.
You want to find a time where you can dedicate a few months to full-time, high-intensity MCAT study – ideally about 40-50 hours a week for about 3 months. For most students, this will be during the summer after either your sophomore or junior year.
Dedicated studying in the spring prior to applying is also popular, but that comes with the added stress of working on your medical school application concurrently in addition to your regular college coursework.
Once you have your timeframe picked out, you need to come up with a schedule for when you are going to review each subject. For science-based subjects, I recommend rotating between each subject daily.
I prefer this method of jumping around for a few reasons. To start, it prevents you from getting bored, burned out, or sick of the material you’re reading – especially if there’s a particular subject that you don’t enjoy studying.
Next, it avoids the issue of reviewing certain content too far away from the exam. You want to be constantly reviewing each subject, bit by bit leading up to the exam. This will keep each subject fresh and allow you to gradually reinforce the material and peak come exam day.
The one exception I have found to this is the Critical Analysis & Reasoning Section or CARS for short. The best way to improve your score on this section is by doing low-duration, high-frequency practice.
When preparing for my MCAT, I did 30 minutes every day, 5 days per week for 2 months, and was able to gradually elevate my score. It’s certainly helpful to learn about techniques and strategies for CARS in the beginning, but that’s all meaningless if you don’t get your reps in every day.
Once you’ve built a schedule that works well for you, the next step is to stick with it. Find ways to hold yourself accountable. If you have a classmate that’s also studying for the MCAT, try becoming accountability buddies and keep each other on track.
If you have a particularly difficult time sticking to a schedule though, you might want to consider working with an MCAT tutor. Not only will they be able to keep you on track, but they can also help you craft a custom MCAT plan, overcome issues with challenging concepts, and help with test-taking strategies and overcoming test-taking anxiety.
4 | Don’t Try to Learn Everything
To optimize your time and fit your MCAT prep into just a few months, you also need to be particular with what you’re spending your time learning.
When I was studying for the MCAT, I made the mistake of trying to learn everything – no matter how small the detail.
If it was in the content review book, like every single detail of the sound conduction pathway from the external ear to even details of the brain nuclei, I wanted to memorize it. I thought that by knowing all this low-yield information, I would transform my good MCAT score into an exceptional one.
Most low-yield information is beyond the scope of the MCAT and contributes nothing to your score. As such, it’s a much better use of your time to master high- and medium-yield information than it is to try to learn everything.
Every minute you spend learning some minute detail that is unlikely to show up on the test is a minute you could’ve spent learning something that is likely to show up.
This is much easier said than done though. Given the breadth and depth of knowledge you are expected to know for the MCAT, it can often be difficult to determine what is high-yield and what is not.
5 | Focus on High-Quality Resources
This brings me to my final point, which is to focus on high-quality, high-yield resources.
When deciding which MCAT resources to use, remember that there is an opportunity cost that comes with whichever one you choose. The time that you spend going through one resource is time that you could’ve spent going through another, higher-yield one.
If you truly want to maximize your MCAT prep, you need to choose resources from trusted experts – those who not only secured 99.9th percentile scores and crushed the exam themselves, but who have also spent years distilling the process and tutoring other students to similar results. Being a top scorer isn’t enough – you want someone who also has a track record in teaching others how to become top scorers as well.
You want resources that help you navigate the MCAT material and determine what information you absolutely must know, what might show up but is lower priority, and what is not worth your time.
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Unlike other resources, we don’t just stop at content either. We cover the details that separate the top scorers from the rest – like study strategies, schedule, and even your self-talk and mindset.
From the start of the course, we will walk you through a cohesive plan and help you develop optimal MCAT performance from every angle. If your MCAT is coming up in the next year, learn more about our course.