In addition to four years of undergrad and four years of medical school, there are several exams you’ll take to become a doctor, including some very high stake ones like the MCAT and USMLE. One of the most valuable resources to prepare for these exams is practice questions and practice tests. Here’s how to use them most effectively.
As Sun Tzu states in the Art of War, “know your enemy.” There’s no better way to familiarize yourself with an exam than proper use of practice questions and practice tests. Oftentimes, these questions are lifted straight from old exams. In addition, it helps you build stamina to get through a multi-hour exam. While flashcards and prep books may seem more appealing, there is no better way to prepare than to sit down and grind through questions and take full-length practice exams.
I can read about how to shoot a basketball all day, but unless I get out on the court and practice, I won’t see meaningful improvement. With that said, there are good ways and there are bad ways to utilize practice questions and practice tests. Here are some good starters:
1 | Understand the Utility of Practice Questions vs Tests
Before we dive in, understand that practice tests are full length and simulate your real test day environment. These generally mimic the same testing interface, and you should treat them with the same block time limits and break lengths.
Practice questions, on the other hand, are generally standalone and don’t include multiple sections with breaks. For the MCAT or USMLE, these can be part of a question bank, whereby you can create a block of questions and go through them at your leisure. Whenever possible, we still recommend you stick to a time limit per question block, as operating within the time restriction is key to a strong test day score. You can also combine practice questions into impromptu practice tests, as many do with the AAMC question packs to make equivalent practice full-lengths.
Practice questions can also be in the back of a class textbook or can occur standalone in another resource. In these instances, resist the urge to cheat and look at your notes or look up the answer. A large part of the benefit in practice questions is the active learning process. By taking a peek at the answer and explanation or your notes, you’re short-circuiting the system and significantly decreasing its utility.
2 | Use Practice Tests Early & Regularly
Most students studying for the MCAT or USMLE make the mistake of waiting too long into their study period to take a practice test because they don’t want to “waste them.” That’s going to hold back your score.
You want to establish a baseline early on to track your improvement throughout the process. In addition, you want to assess your strengths and weaknesses so that you can tailor your studies.
Practice questions also serve as a form of active learning and are highly effective as an actual study method too. If you use practice questions and practice tests properly, you’ll actually learn a great deal of content in the process, which we’ll get to shortly.
Leave the historically most “predictive” exams to use closer to your exam date. For example, that’s the AAMC Full Lengths for the MCAT and the NBME exams for Step 1.
Assuming you’re like most students and block off at least 6-10 weeks when studying for a major test like the MCAT or USMLE, it’s critical to use practice tests with sufficient frequency. During this study period, you should take a practice exam at least once every two weeks to start. Ideally, once per week. This helps with not only tracking your progress and identifying weak points, but also teaches you elements such as pacing, how the exam will likely test concepts, and of course, you’ll learn content in the process too.
3 | Simulate Testing Conditions
Many students experience test-taking anxiety. Therefore, knowing what to expect on exam day can help boost your confidence and keep you calm. Try to simulate your test day routine and the testing environment when taking practice tests. The MCAT and Step 1 both start early in the morning, typically at 8am, and you want to arrive at least 45 minutes before then to check-in.
You should wake up at the same time you would for the real exam, and go through the same routine as you would on test day. Wear the same type of clothes, and eat the same breakfast. You should ideally take your practice exam at a location other than where you normally study. This will help simulate the discomfort of a new environment, including any unexpected annoyances and sounds. Libraries are great since they are mostly quiet but are still crowded spaces with lots of people studying – just like test day. This strategy helps prepare you for background noise, but you should also try earplugs or earmuffs as you’ll probably use them on the big day.
The practice exams will include regularly scheduled breaks just like the real thing. Take these breaks so that you can become more comfortable with what you will do on test day. Some people like to use the restroom during this time or eat a quick snack. Others just like to power through. This is the time to experiment. For most students, multiple brief breaks at the beginning of the day are best, with longer breaks saved toward lunchtime and the second half of the day.
Even if you’re not doing a full-blown practice test, do your best in giving practice questions your full attention. Much of the utility is lost if you’re doing them only haphazardly, without intense focus that you would approach questions with on test day.
4 | Review Questions (Both Right & Wrong!)
This is one of the most important steps, but surprisingly one that a shocking number of students skip. When I studied for my MCAT, I would spend the rest of the day just reviewing my exam, or taking part of the next day to review, question by question. I did the same for Step 1, taking about 1 hour to do a block, and an additional 2 or 3 just to review it properly. It would often take me longer to review the exam than it did to take it!
It’s important to review both your correct and incorrect answers, as you can get a question right for the wrong reason. That’s a learning opportunity, and this can translate to substantial point differences on test day. Similarly, you can get a question wrong despite knowing the content like the back of your hand. This is also a crucial learning opportunity to see where the error occurred. Did you misread the question? Maybe you confused similar concepts. Use this opportunity to learn from your mistakes so you don’t repeat them on test day.
It’s not only important to understand why an answer is correct, but it’s also important to know why the other choices are not correct. You can do this by yourself or with a study partner. Reason through each question and make sure you understand the concepts behind them. Make flashcards for concepts and questions you find yourself missing repeatedly. Anki is a great resource for making and reviewing your own flashcards.
5 | Target Weaknesses
Practice exams and practice questions will provide clarity as to what areas you should address with further attention. Some practice tests will even give you a detailed breakdown by category to show your relative strengths. This is a useful way to identify areas requiring additional review, such that you can tailor your studying appropriately.
For example, let’s say you’re studying for the MCAT and keep missing questions on optics for physics. In that case, make sure to focus on that, either with additional content review or additional targeted practice questions, depending on where the deficiency is, but usually a combination of both.
6 | Leading Up to Test Day
If you’ve been sleeping and waking up regularly in preparation for what you’ll be doing on test day, then just continue on with your routine as planned. The nerves from an upcoming test can often lead to insomnia for many students, myself included, which highlights the importance of a regular sleep and wake routine well in advance of test day.
The day before, don’t go too hard on studying. Understand that, at this point, doing extra studying is more likely to hinder you through suboptimal recovery or increased stress. You’ve done all the heavy lifting, and now it’s time to trust your preparation. Now is also not the time to try a radical new workout plan or diet. Stick to your routines and take it easy. Do a double-check that you have everything situated for the morning, including your ID, your test center paperwork, snacks, water, earplugs, layers to accommodate for temperature fluctuations, and a face mask given the current times.
Approach this day just as you would any other day when you took a practice test. Regardless of whether this is a final for a class or a higher stakes exam like the MCAT, it’s always a good idea to show up earlier than you need, just in case there are unforeseen delays. This also gives you a bit of time to use the bathroom and get situated.
The reality is that exams are a recurring and high stakes part of becoming a doctor. But with the right preparation and approach, you’ll be able to knock them out of the park. And that’s what we specialize in at Med School Insiders. I’m excited to announce our all-new Premed Roadmap to Medical School Acceptance course, which is on sale until the end of July with the coupon code ROADMAP20 for 20% off, and comes with a 30 day 100% money-back guarantee. It was designed from the ground up by myself and our team at Med School Insiders and is the culmination of our collective expertise. It includes 45 videos, about 5 hours of content, and lots of information that you won’t find anywhere else because these are the tactics that only the top performers even know about. This isn’t stuff you’re going to find on SDN or Reddit or your premed advisor or even students years ahead of you. Good luck with your tests, and we hope to see you on the road to success!