It’s a bold statement, but it’s true: making optimal MCAT cards on Anki when you’re studying for the MCAT is impossible. It’s not just difficult. It’s not just time-consuming. It’s impossible. In order to make a comprehensive card, you need to have full command of the concept you’re creating the card about. If you had full command of each MCAT concept, you wouldn’t need to be studying.
Learn more as we discuss the knowledge gap, how the knowledge gap degrades flashcard best practices, and what to do instead of making your own Anki flashcards for the MCAT.
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When you’re studying for the MCAT, it’s because you don’t yet know all of the information you’ll be tested on. If you did have a complete understanding of all the information, you wouldn’t have a need to create flashcards.
Completely understanding a concept goes far beyond surface-level knowledge. You must also understand:
- Related concepts that contrast with the topic
- Whether that concept is high-yield or low-yield
- How the concept is tested on the MCAT
If you don’t have an infallible understanding of each concept and how it will be tested on the MCAT, you literally cannot make a comprehensive flashcard for that concept. If you had that knowledge, you wouldn’t be studying in the first place.
Although creating cards on Anki is free, it also requires a large amount of time and effort—time that you probably don’t have when you’re studying for the MCAT. Even if you do take the time to create your own cards, you’ll likely end up making a bunch of cards that are no good. This is a waste of time while you’re making them, and it wastes even more time if you continue to study from them.
A common reason students cite for creating their own Anki flashcards is the fact that creating cards is an active learning strategy. While this is true, it’s still incredibly time-consuming and far less efficient than studying high-quality pre-made flashcards.
You may be thinking that you know flashcard best practices and you’ve spent time learning how to use Anki—surely you can figure out how to make good cards. Think again.
The Knowledge Gap Impedes Best Practices
The overwhelming majority of students make poor MCAT flashcards on Anki because it’s difficult and time-consuming to follow flashcard best practices. Even if you are an expert on the topic, making great flashcards is just plain hard. Dr. Jubbal, the founder of Med School Insiders, spent medical school residency creating flashcards and learning best practices. Even after all that experience and practice, he still needed to improve and tweak flashcards to get to the point today where he can provide high-quality flashcards to others.
Add on the fact that you cannot have full command of the concepts as someone studying for the MCAT, and once again we come back to the word: impossible. Some of the common mistakes we see people make when creating their own flashcards are:
- Making too many cards
- Putting too much information on each card
- Not testing the right information
- Including low-yield information
Let’s break down each of these flaws.
Too many cards:
When you don’t have a full grasp of the concept, you might be tempted to make too many cards. It makes sense: you know that you don’t understand something well, so you overcompensate by creating more and more cards on that topic. Because it’s impossible for your cards to be well-written, you’re not just going to have a lot of cards; you’re going to have a lot of poorly-written cards.
The problem here is that you will never get to all of these cards. Even if you do make it through a large majority of them, you’ll be wasting your time reviewing cards that aren’t written well.
Too much information on each card:
Putting too much information on each card is another problem that’s often a consequence of not fully understanding the topic. When you don’t understand something, you’re liable to overcompensate by explaining too much. This often results in one very wordy flashcard that could have been many simple cards.
Creating cards with too much information often leads to cards that include a lot of low-yield fluff. It can also cause you to miss key information when you’re studying. For example, you might only focus on one part of the card each time you review it. You might also review the same card too many times if there is a difficult sub-item on the card, which would mean you see other cards less frequently.
Notice, however, that we see test takers who try to make their own flashcards create both too many cards overall and cards that include too much information. Thus, breaking down every complicated card into many simpler cards doesn’t solve the issue either, and leads us to the next problem we see.
To make effective Anki decks, you need to strike that balance between having simpler cards with less information while still keeping a lower number of cards overall. The only way to do this is to have a strong enough command of the topics to include the right information.
Not testing the right information:
When you’re studying and don’t have a strong command of the topic, it’s difficult to know exactly which information you need to review. Test takers typically make cards that reinforce pattern recognition rather than memorization and comprehension.
Reinforcing pattern recognition leads to a reliance on the visual cues of the card to recall the answer. Rather than stimulating the neural loop you need to recall the information based on a similar cue you might see on test day, you’re short-circuiting that path and recognizing the card to remember the answer.
The best MCAT flashcards include only the information you need to know, leaving out all the fluff. They also include the information in the same way you are likely to see it on the exam. This helps you maximize your time because each time you review a well-written card, you’re studying exactly what you need to know, the way you need to know it.
How can you make sure you’re testing the right information on your flashcards? Only by being an expert, which won’t be the case while you’re still studying.
Including low-yield information:
The last problem we tend to see among test takers who try to make their own Anki flashcards is too much fluff and low-yield information. This circles back to the problem of having too much information on each card. It wastes time, and it won’t likely increase your ultimate score.
The reason many people do this is because they don’t truly understand the scope of the MCAT. They err on the side of caution, including way more information than necessary just in case they’ll need to know that information. Overall, they’re wasting time learning information that will do nothing to improve their MCAT score.
When You Should Make Your Own Flashcards
Is it always a bad idea to make your own flashcards? No, it’s not terrible. As we mentioned above, creating flashcards is an active learning strategy that helps you dive deep into a topic, which can increase your comprehension. However, when you only have three to six months to study for the MCAT before you start sliding onto the wrong side of the forgetting curve, making your own flashcards is a suboptimal use of your time. You can certainly learn by creating your own flashcards, but you’ll learn much faster and more efficiently with high-quality pre-made flashcards.
If you really want to create your own cards for the MCAT, or if you want to learn how to make them once you’re in med school, there are resources to help. Our partners at Memm have spent years perfecting flashcard technique and learning how to create good study materials. Some of our top tips include keeping decks simple; understanding before memorizing; and including images, photos, or figures.
What To Do Instead of Making Anki Flashcards
You can always use pre-made Anki decks, although those have their drawbacks as well. Whether they’re using pre-made decks or their own flashcards, many students who are studying for the MCAT get frustrated and give up on Anki. The software has a steep learning curve, the pre-made decks don’t typically follow best practices, and you’ll come across a lot of low-yield information.
We’ve created Memm as an MCAT study tool that doesn’t require card creation, doesn’t have a steep learning curve, and includes additional resources like high-quality review sheets. Our flashcards are made by two physicians who scored in the 99.9th percentile on the MCAT. We’ve spent years perfecting flashcard technique and helping students crush the MCAT.
We always provide context to each fact so you can ensure you truly understand a concept before you try to memorize it. We even allow you to add notes and images to your cards so you can still add that touch of customization and personalization to your cards without having to learn how to make top-notch flashcards.
The proof of the efficacy is in our user success stories. The average MCAT score improvement for students who use Memm is 27 points, and 95% of users would recommend Memm to other MCAT test takers.