5 Things I Wish I Knew About the MCAT

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The dreaded MCAT is the most important test in determining whether or not you’ll have the opportunity to attend medical school and become a doctor. With this weight comes a great deal of myths and misconceptions that continue to be perpetuated today. Here’s what I wish someone had told me about the MCAT.

 

More Time Studying ≠ Better Score

Most students believe that more studying will result in more knowledge and therefore a better score, but that isn’t always the case. I’ve seen countless students plateau with their score despite spending several additional months dedicated to MCAT studying.

The reason is that while you can learn and retain information at a certain rate, you’ll also forget information at a certain rate. There are certain tools and strategies that you can use to increase the rate of learning and decrease the rate of forgetting, but the fact remains that at a certain point you will plateau with your score.

It’s for this reason that I find the best results from my tutoring clients when they are able to dedicate a few months of full-time, high-intensity studying to the MCAT. This will maximize information acquisition and retention and minimize forgetting learned information. In most cases, 3 months of high-intensity dedicated MCAT studying will beat out 6 months of medium-intensity studying while taking other college courses. In fact, I’ve seen this play out time and time again. Certain students will take 6 months, 12 months, and sometimes even longer preparing for the MCAT, but their score is usually worse than those who remained focused at high intensity for shorter periods.

 

Summertime = Best Time

There is no perfect time to take the MCAT, but the best time for most students is the end of summer. By taking the MCAT around September, you have the entire summer to dedicate fully to the test. That means at least 12 weeks, and sometimes more, to throw yourself at MCAT prep, day in and day out. By eliminating distractions and remaining focused, this time is often the best shot you have at achieving your score potential.

There are downsides to this approach. If you are applying during that medical school application cycle that begins in June, then you’ll be far behind the curve to be taking your MCAT in September. By the time your score is released and your application is fully processed, it will be October and you’ll be at a substantial disadvantage in your medical school application.

For this reason, taking the MCAT at the end of summer only makes sense if you are applying in a future medical school application cycle. For example, if you are going to take a year off between college and medical school, then you’ll need to apply to medical school at the end of your senior year, right as you graduate. In this instance, you may want to take the MCAT the prior September. This will give you enough time to also ensure all of your prerequisite courses are complete too, which is helpful for the MCAT.

If you are not taking a year off between college and medical school, it’s a bit trickier to navigate. You’ll need to apply to medical school at the end of your junior year, during the summer before your senior year. You should still take the MCAT the prior September, meaning you would be studying during the summer after your sophomore year. But this raises a potential issue; most students will not have taken all of their medical school prerequisite courses after just two years of college. I took the MCAT at this time, without having taken my biochemistry course, and instead studied biochemistry from my MCAT prep materials. I ended up scoring strongly, and missing that course didn’t hold me back.

However, this isn’t best for everyone, and will ultimately be a personal decision based on two primary factors: (1) the subject in question and (2) your strengths and weaknesses.

Certain sections like psychology and sociology are more memorization-heavy on the MCAT, and many students are able to self-study without taking the corresponding college course. Other subjects, like physics, may be more limiting on the MCAT without having taken the prerequisite classes.

Second, you need to be honest with yourself as to how you self-study. If you are a stronger student, or you feel you can learn and grasp concepts learning from a textbook without an instructor, you may not need to take the prerequisite course. But if you are struggling with certain subjects or find it difficult to self-study, it may be best to first take the corresponding class.

 

Don’t Deviate from the Plan

Successfully studying for and tackling the MCAT is one of those instances where it pays dividends to develop an intelligent plan of attack and stick to it. Worrying about what others are doing and deviating from your plan will more often than not hold you back. You may be curious how your fellow classmate or friend is studying. Which resources are they using? How many months are they studying for? How many hours per day? How many practice tests?

These are important decisions to make prior to beginning your MCAT prep. The issue in changing them midway is your plan will be compromised, as you’re making adjustments guided by emotion and FOMO, not from a calm place of logic and centeredness.

This plays out in a several different ways. One is the student who fears they aren’t using the latest and greatest resource, and tacks on more resources than they can handle. Getting halfway through half a dozen resources is not going to provide you with a better score compared to focusing on just a couple that are high quality. Remember, you don’t have to know every single insignificant fact to get a top score on the MCAT. Part of your score is based on your knowledge, and part of your score is based on your ability to apply knowledge and reason your way to the best answer choice.

This leads us to another common mistake, which is focusing too heavily on content review and not enough on practice questions and practice tests. I’ve made a separate video on how to best approach practice questions and practice tests. Remember that they aren’t just a good tool to practice test-taking strategies and application techniques, but with proper review, they are also powerful learning tools – that’s right, you can learn and consolidate important information through practice questions, not just through content review resources.

 

Accountability is Key

A big part of sticking to the plan comes down to accountability. It’s natural to deviate slightly from your MCAT plan, but you want to minimize that deviation. Accountability is a powerful tool to keep you on track.

If you are studying with your friends, you can be each others’ accountability buddies. I even encourage some friendly competition, so long as you can make sure it’s friendly and serves everyone. For some, competition may lead to toxicity.

Accountability can also come in the form of a tutor, who can not only craft a custom-tailored MCAT study plan, but also hold you accountable to that plan and help you overcome any issues or challenges with concepts, test-taking strategies, and even test-taking anxiety.

 

Time & Opportunity Cost

Last, understand the value of your time and opportunity cost to spending it in suboptimal ways. I was so obsessed with optimizing my time during my MCAT prep that for the last 4 weeks leading up to my test, I went back home to my mom’s place and studied there. After all, I would save time not having to prepare my own food or do my own laundry or buy my own groceries. I could truly dedicate myself fully to the MCAT, day in and day out.

I see students wasting precious MCAT study time in a variety of ways, most notably using poor study strategies that rely on passive techniques over far more effective active ones. Reading and highlighting in your content review book or watching videos passively are not good uses of your time. It’s far better to practice active learning strategies, such as spaced repetition with active recall, practice questions, or even synthesis questions that I cover in my evidence based study strategy article.

When it comes to spaced repetition with active recall, the best way to implement this is through flashcards. But even with flashcards, there’s the good, bad, and the ugly. Making your own flashcards is an active learning strategy, and you will learn by doing so, but there are three problems with this.

First, spending 60 minutes making flashcards won’t teach you as much as going through and studying high-quality flashcards instead.

Second, the overwhelming majority of students don’t make good flashcards. Despite using flashcards for medical school and residency, it was only after continuing to refine and practice my own flashcard creation strategy in the last couple of years that I realized where the deficiencies were and how subtle and nuanced the best flashcards are.

And third, to create the best flashcards on a given subject, you need to have mastery of the subject at hand. You must understand related concepts that contrast with the topic, whether that concept is high-, medium-, or low-yield, and how the concept is tested on the MCAT. As a premed studying for the MCAT, by definition you don’t have mastery of the subjects, otherwise, you wouldn’t be studying for the test.

Memm is the answer to these problems. Through Memm, we’ve developed a better way to use flashcards and review sheets to accelerate MCAT learning. The average Memm user scores a 514.3 on test day, which is a 90th percentile score. And we’ve had countless students write to us who have tried alternatives, like Anki, but found it clunky and they thought flashcards just weren’t for them. But once they tried Memm, things just fell into place and their scores started improving. I’ve linked some interviews with our users down in the description so you can hear their stories firsthand.

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