5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Studying for the MCAT

Written and edited by the MCAT Self Prep Tutoring Team

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For me, starting my MCAT studying was tremendously stressful. My first step in learning about the exam was to take a practice test. While taking the free Princeton review full-length exam, I was floored to learn the level of memorization needed to take this exam and finished completely overwhelmed. Apparently, I needed to know amino acid structures and abbreviations, endless equations, and basically all of the information from what felt like every class I had ever taken all off the top of my head. Not to mention, I was supposed to be able to do relatively complicated math without a calculator? I clearly had no idea what the scope of this test was, and I was desperately far from my goal score after taking that first practice test. Slowly but surely, I was able to learn about the MCAT and exceeded my expectations. Here are a few tips that I learned along the way that will hopefully save you from feeling as lost as I did!

1. There Are Too Many Topics to Attack Without a Plan.

When I started studying, I had no idea how to approach this beast of an exam. I knew from my diagnostic exam that I had a long way to go to my goal, but I didn’t know how to make progress towards that goal. I had this huge stack of shiny new Kaplan books, and instinctively I just started reading them, picking a chapter or two per day from a random book and taking notes on what I was reading. I felt lost in a sea of different topics but had no idea how to make my approach any less arbitrary. I wasn’t tracking my progress and didn’t know what to do with my notes once I had made them. Eventually I described my lack of direction to a friend who showed me the free MCAT Self Prep eCourse, which turned my study plan around entirely. It was everything I was looking for: a way of tracking progress, tips for incorporating practice questions, and methods of using different study materials. It broke up the monotony of taking notes and reading and gave me some much-needed direction. Below I have highlighted the five reasons that these structured lessons were able to give my study process a much needed 180.

2. It is Actually Possible to Memorize All of This Information.

I wasn’t doing well switching between subjects (e.g. do a chapter of biochem, then physics, then organic chemistry, etc.), but I was nervous I would forget everything from the first few subjects I reviewed by the time I got to the exam. I learned that it was possible to attack one subject in depth at a time without completely forgetting it prior to the exam. By tracking my progress, making flashcards, and reviewing flashcards with purpose, I could keep the material in my head. I loved the way MCAT Self Prep provided an easy-to-follow system of flashcard review. It ensured that I learned every topic thoroughly by reviewing flashcards the day I made them, the next day, at the end of the lesson, and once again during Bootcamp.

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While these content-based flashcards ensured that I was ready for nearly anything, there were a few concepts that to me needed some extra time and attention to fully solidify. These were: amino acid structures/abbreviations, equations, and biochem pathways. I thought of these as freebies on the exam; if I could just straight memorize these facts, I was guaranteed some extra points. Here’s how I tackled them:

Amino Acids: While I had made flashcards for each amino acid structure, I found that re-making them, rather than reviewing them, was more helpful to me. The MCAT Self Prep Deluxe Pro plan also included a helpful module for memorizing the amino acids. I forced myself to draw each structure from memory nearly every morning in the few weeks leading to my exam. I also loved making weird mnemonics that made sure I wouldn’t forget this info (ex. Arginine’s abbreviation is Arg, like how pirates say Arrrggghh” which just sounds like “rrr” so the one letter designation is R. Also, a pirate would be a very basic Halloween costume).

Equations: I found MCAT Self Prep’s equation mastery course to be very helpful, but 100 equations were a little overwhelming for me. I ended up making my own list of equations that I thought would be the most useful. This cut out the equations I knew well already (e.g. F=m*a) and ones I could derive easily (e.g. for power in circuits memorize that P=IV and V=IR so that you can easily derive that P=V^2/R or P=I^2*R). I would then rewrite these equations every day until I had them memorized. I also wrote them during the 10 min tutorial before the exam. While I knew I had these equations memorized because I was the one who wrote them down, it was a confidence boost to just have this list next to me. 

(Note that with the COVID test times this tutorial is no longer an option. I still think the exercise of making an equation sheet is helpful though!)

Biochem Pathways: If you haven’t noticed, I’m a huge fan of writing things out over and over until I know them like the back of my hand. This was how I memorized all of the biochem pathways as well. I simply wrote out each step and the enzyme that carries it out. I loved having the visuals to reference after as well. I would “decorate” the pictures with colors and references to the different regulating molecules. Other options are to use flashcards or the MCAT Self Prep metabolic pathway course (part of the Deluxe Pro Plan). Use whatever works best for you, but just know it is doable to keep this all in your head!

3. Hold Yourself Accountable

This is huge. If you are not tracking progress or setting goals it is so easy to get behind in your studying. Life gets in the way and it is easy to make excuses. Most of my study time was while being a full-time student and playing a sport that required me to travel, but it is possible to budget time and stick to a plan. The key for me was to make both short term and daily plans. Each week I would have a goal such as “complete the first physics module lessons 1-8” (this was my short-term goal), and every day I would have a more detailed plan such as “Study for at least 3.5 hours. Go over 3 CARS passages and complete one lesson including videos, book chapters, flashcards, and practice questions.” You’ll notice I always set a goal amount of study time rather than just a completion goal. While I can’t always anticipate how long a lesson will take me, I can always assess my level of other commitments that day and plan for X amount of study time. By sticking to that time rather than lesson progress, I was less overwhelmed on a daily basis. I fit in enough studying to feel accomplished and not too much where I was shirking other responsibilities. The weekly plan would keep me on track for my overall goal and if I got behind on this I knew that the following week I would have to budget more study time.

For some people setting these goals and holding yourself accountable can be one of the hardest parts of the job. As a tutor, I find that this is one of my key roles in improving student’s scores. I am there to help set realistic plans and my students know I will be checking in on them to make sure they reach these goals. I will check their goal hours per day and actual hours. If this is something that you struggle with, a tutor can definitely be a helpful asset. You can also simply just hold yourself to these goals and pretend I’m there to check-in!

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4. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions

I was overwhelmed and felt alone in this process. I took the exam as a junior in college which is slightly earlier than a lot of my other pre-med friends. Because of this, I didn’t know that many people were taking the exam. When I was in peak stress of trying to figure out where to start, I decided to reach out to anyone I knew who might be able to help. If I didn’t ask a friend from class about his experience, I would have never found MCAT Self Prep, and it should be clear by now that this helped me tremendously. If I didn’t reach out to my older neighbor who was in med school I wouldn’t have learned the equation sheet trick. Each person who has taken this exam has something to share and something they’ve learned. It’s worth reaching out and asking. 

Do know that some tips can be ignored! One person I asked for advice told me I had to buy a $2500 course if I wanted to do well. While I’m sure this works for people there are always other options!

If you don’t know a lot of people taking the exam, you can find study buddies through MCAT Self Prep or even seek out a tutor. Whatever you do, I do think personal advice can carry more weight than just reading up about other’s experiences on the internet.

5. You WILL Be Stressed – And that’s Ok!

This was something I wish I accepted a little earlier. In my opinion, it is nearly impossible to go through this whole process without a bit of stress. But you can manage stress with some of our helpful pieces of advice! I think accepting that your life is getting a little more strained during this time can actually be helpful. I really tried to do it all when I was studying and honestly, sometimes it wasn’t possible. I was trying to study for the MCAT, maintain good grades in my classes, travel with my volleyball team, and somehow maintain a social life. I was tired. I wanted to give up nearly constantly. There were basically two reasons I got through this: I learned to lean on my friends and I learned to cut myself some slack. Some days studying for the MCAT was impossible. That’s okay!! Some days I didn’t come near my goal of studying 4 hours and it simply wasn’t the end of the world as I once treated it. As long as I kept my head up and studied the next day that was more important than forcing myself to push my limits. I also began building in a weekly break where I wouldn’t think of anything MCAT. On these days I would prioritize my friends and family and wouldn’t so much as glance at a flashcard. I used these days to reset and relax. Although it is easier said than done, a mental break from thinking about or stressing about the exam can do wonders.

My main piece of advice is to plan as much as possible for both study time and personal time. Take care of yourself, you will get through this just fine!

Warm Regards,

Marie McGourty

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Marie scored in the 99th percentile in both the Chemistry/Physics and the Biology/Biochemistry Sections. She has been tutoring since high school and always instills confidence in her students. Learn more.