How I Achieved a Perfect Score (528) on the MCAT
The MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) is without a doubt one of the greatest struggles that premeds face. It’s most-likely harder, longer, and more important than the SAT, ACT, finals, or any test that you’ve faced. For a lot of us, this intimidation prevents us from performing to the best of our abilities because we never took the time at the start to truly understand the MCAT. My name is Theo Bennett and I am one of the Head Tutors for MCAT Self Prep. I scored a perfect 528 on my test day and since then I’ve made it my mission to pass on my test-taking strategies to other pre-meds. Here are a few things that I wish I knew before I started my journey to a perfect MCAT score.
1. How Do I Start studying? The Timeline
For most students, I recommend taking the MCAT during summer before or summer when you apply for medical school. Taking the test over the summer with minimal or no classes allows you to compress your study timeline. I wouldn’t recommend anything longer than 6 months because (let’s be real), you won’t remember what you studied 8 months before. I can barely remember what I did last weekend, let alone my study sessions from last semester. Whenever you take the MCAT, make sure you give yourself enough time to study to get the score you want. After taking a free diagnostic test, decide on a goal score and calculate the number of hours that you need to study with the Create-your-own Study Plan Course. A good rule of thumb is that studying 10 hours a week for a month will average about a 1.5 point increase. So if you study 20hrs/week for 3 months you should expect to jump up by 9 points. If you are studying during the semester plan it out in advance to deliberately make that semester as light as possible.
I personally took the MCAT on May 23rd and started studying during the previous winter break. I studied during the spring semester but only took 12 credits that were fairly easy and then studied full-time for 4 weeks before my MCAT.
The MCAT study timeline should be largely broken into two phases. The first phase’s goal is to get through all the content. The second phase’s goal is to improve your test-taking abilities. The content phase should last until you are one month away from the test date (if you’re studying for 6 months then this would be the first 5), and then the final month should be primarily devoted to taking full-lengths. Whatever you do, I would highly recommend devoting at least 2-3 weeks before the test to do nothing but MCAT study. The 8-hour test (or 6 hour test for Summer 2020) should feel like a 2-hour test by test day. It won’t feel like a breeze, but it shouldn’t leave you mentally drained. That’s your goal.
2. Prep Courses vs. Self-Studying Content
The first question that you may ask yourself is: Will I use a prep program to learn the content or will I self-study? You should instead ask yourself: Do I want to pay thousands of dollars to learn content when I could learn it for free by myself? The secret that the prep companies will never tell you is that the AAMC (the MCAT administration) actually paid Khan Academy to create thousands of hours of videos that teach you the content directly. For free. It’s actually as close as you can get to the source itself. All the other prep companies, on the other hand, essentially try to parrot those same videos but charge you thousands of dollars for you to get it from a more-distant source.
I personally only watched the Khan Academy videos on the MCAT Self Prep ecourse playlists and supplemented them with Princeton Review content book reading for concepts that I struggled with.
Most Expensive: Kaplan, PrincetonReview, NextStep etc. ($2000+)
Middle Option: Smaller prep companies with condensed videos ($400-999)
Least Expensive: MCAT Self Prep / Khan Academy (Free)
3. Tutoring vs. Learning Test-Taking Alone
The second and last question that you need to ask yourself is this: can I do this alone? To answer this, you need to dig deep. Are you self-motivated? Do you hold yourself accountable? Are you a naturally gifted test-taker? The question isn’t am I driven?, but how do I learn best? Most people will say… If you are self-motivated then you should self-study, but this, in my opinion, isn’t true. I, for one, am self-motivated but I needed structure too.
That’s why I personally chose MCAT Self Prep—a free program that gives you structure but lets you customize through self-study.
If you decide that you need accountability/test-taking advice, I would consider hiring a tutor. The last thing you want to do is take this test twice (the opportunity cost is huge), so it is totally worth spending the money to succeed the first time. If you decide to use tutoring, you NEED a tutor who scored within the range of your goal score (and if they did better than your goal score that is obviously a huge plus). This isn’t for everyone, but I would choose between 10 and 20 hours to maximize the value of those hours. If you’re cheap like me, just use those sessions to ask for their overall strategy tips. Have tutors teach you to fish, not give you fish metaphorically speaking. If you have specific problems that you are stuck on, just go on reddit or Facebook study groups and get answers for free. Bottom line: if you are going to get tutoring help, make sure the company/friend that you choose has tutors who scored higher than your goal score at the minimum.
Most Expensive: Kaplan, PrincetonReview, NextStep etc. ($5000+)
Least Expensive: Study Groups/Friends (Free)
4. Getting The Right MCAT Prep Materials
Success on the MCAT does not necessarily mean getting a high score. Personal success is instead defined by over-performing based on the natural abilities and weaknesses that we individually bring to the table. Success is doing the best that you can do. The key to success for the MCAT or any difficult task is in the preparation. Prepping for the MCAT starts with getting the right materials. Let’s review what you should buy—from books, to practice tests, to the official AAMC material.
Buying review books can be tricky. Reading them can be even more exhausting. Honestly, reading MCAT prep books were the least helpful thing for me. But I don’t want my experience to color yours as a lot of students find them to be incredibly helpful. The basic breakdown is that the Kaplan books are the standard and they cover all of the main material for the MCAT. Most people buy those. The added depth makes the Princeton Review books more dense and difficult to read but includes lots of low-yield topics for those trying to score super high. I personally chose the Princeton Review Books because they offered low-yield facts that you needed to know to score in the 100th percentile. However, they had terrible suggestions for CARS. Again this is just my experience. I also stopped reading the content books altogether after about 2 months of study. However, some people swear by it (especially books that are more fun and engaging like Exam Krackers)
I personally bought the Princeton Review books because they are more detailed (with less engaging pictures).
Princeton Review – $100-200
Kaplan – $100-200
Exam Krakers – $100-200
Other students, like me, choose to watch MCAT prep videos on YouTube. There are lots of options to choose from between Khan Academy, AK lectures, and more. Khan Academy is the gold standard because the AAMC paid Khan Academy to make the only official prep videos. Khan Academy, therefore, had insider access to all the AAMC material. Some students don’t like Khan Academy because they speak incredibly slow. I got a chrome extension called Video Speed Controller so you can watch videos at over 2x speed (I would watch them up to 3.5x speed on subjects I understood really well) to save me dozens of hours.
Khan Academy Videos vs. Prep Books
Both options provide advantages and disadvantages. Khan Academy uses the official AAMC material to make their videos, but it will take you much longer to work through all of them than getting through the books. I may take 2-6 months to get through the videos and in that same time it would take you 2-6 weeks to get through the prep books. Ask yourself: do I zone out more during boring lectures or reading boring textbooks? There’s no other way to put it, getting through dozens of science subjects will inevitably become boring no matter how nerdy you are.
Aside from buying the AAMC practice tests, some students purchase third party full-length exams (FLEs) if they have time in their schedule. Only buy these if you have extra study time available, otherwise, just start with the AAMC material. Practice tests are incredibly helpful because they teach you test-taking endurance and build your familiarity with the MCAT format. They are also a great way to learn content! The common practice test makers are Kaplan, Blueprint, Altius, and Princeton Review. All of them are generally harder than the AAMC tests themselves. Kaplan’s are the most similar to the AAMC (add 2-3 pts to your FLE score) and Princeton Review’s are the hardest (I bombed a PR test and then scored 16 points higher on an official AAMC test THE NEXT DAY). Blueprint (add 3-4 pts to your score) and Altius (add 5-6 pts to your score) are in the middle. I would recommend buying the Altius tests if you want to practice with greater resistance (think of training with heavier weights to make competition seem easier) or Kaplan/Blueprint if you want to practice with a similar level of difficulty. Most of the top scorers will say that doing FLEs is the best way to prepare for the MCAT. I agree.
I personally bought 10 Altius practice tests for $150 when they went on sale.
I cannot recommend strongly enough that you buy all of the AAMC material. It’s almost a requirement. You’ll need it. All of it. It’s truly worth every penny. Save at least 4 AAMC FLEs until your last month of studying. Take your first three official FLEs 3, 2, and 1 week away. The order doesn’t matter. Then take your last AAMC FLE (one of the scored ones) three days before test day. Make sure you spend at least 3 hours reviewing these tests the day after you take them. AAMC has also given us the opportunity to take thousands of prepared, official questions. Make sure you do them all.
Some students choose to buy the massive UWorld section bank instead of practice tests. UWorld has done an incredible job creating excellent questions and explanations for each answer. They put out some of the highest quality prep material that I’ve seen.
I personally did not buy UWorld because I opted for only using practice tests.
5. Mastering Content for the MCAT
Educational researchers have spent decades trying to understand how we all learn best and this form of self-testing wins out every time. Self-testing can involve many layers, from practice problems to mental outlines, but the basic principle is creating scenarios for yourself where you are forced to recall information about the material you studied. The beauty of self-testing is that it doesn’t even matter how accurately you can recall information; the physical act of recall is what strengthens the connections in your brain on a cellular level (this process is called long term potentiation for all the nerds out there). When active recall is paired with spaced-repetition, this strengthens these mental connections more and more.
For most of us, flashcards are the simplest method of self-testing. You may remember making physical flashcards to learn a language or study for an exam in high school. However, with technology at our disposal, making flashcards has never been easier or more organized. You can even find new, creative ways to make flashcards on your own. However, if you are looking for tried and true methods that have enabled hundreds of the top scorers in the past, look no further than Quizlet and Anki.
Quizlet is probably the flashcard software that you are most familiar with. The user interface is intuitive and user-friendly. There are hundreds of pre-made decks for the MCAT that you can search through if you don’t have the time or patience to make your own cards. However, Quizlet recently removed their spaced-repetition software and so there is no great way to only review the cards that you need to revisit. Our best advice is to star the cards that you miss and come back to the decks that you’ve done after 2 days, a week, and once a month so that all of that information stays in your long-term memory. Another downside is that some of the advanced features like self-testing with images cost extra.
I personally purchased the pre-made Quizlet decks as a part of the Advanced Pro Package in addition to using Anki.
If you haven’t heard of Anki by now, you probably haven’t talked to anyone in medical school. Anki, with spaced-repetition self-testing, has truly revolutionized medical education as we know it. Anki allows medical students, and MCAT test-takers, to store massive amounts of information in long-term memory. Think of Anki as a bare-bones version of Quizlet, except with an algorithm that dictates when you see new cards. After you reveal the answer to a given flashcard, you tell the algorithm whether that card was easy, medium, or hard for you. If it was hard, you may see that card the next day. If it was easy, you may see it in 5 days. Gradually, the intervals lengthen and so if you choose medium repeatedly for a card you would see it after 2, 4, 8, 12, and then 20 days for example.
Anki also allows you to create cards using screenshots on your computer. You can choose which area of the image you want to cover and then the “back of the flashcard answer” will reveal that area. Again, you can choose whether it was easy, medium, or hard to recall that visual answer.
The only downside to Anki is that there is a significant start-up cost associated with learning how to use the application. It’s free which is nice, but if you want to download Anki to an iPhone that will also cost you $25. To learn to use Anki, I would recommend watching some Youtube tutorials because Anki is hard to figure out at first. These two video tutorial channels helped me a lot. Definitely figure out how to use image occlusion and close deletions for your card types and get a few more add-ons. Here is the list the add-ons that I ended up using.
Whether you end up using Quizlet or Anki, there are options to use pre-made decks. If you are short on time, FREE pre-made Anki decks can help save time. But if you plan on dedicating a few months to MCAT studying, please… MAKE YOUR OWN CARDS. This will force you to actively engage in the learning process and your increased score will reflect that.
6. Moving from Mastering Content to Mastering Practice Tests
You’ve worked your way through all the content required for the MCAT. You’ve started learning how the AAMC wants you to think on test day! But despite all of these accomplishments, you still can’t get a handle on the timing for some or all of the sections on the MCAT. While we can’t fix timing issues overnight, here are 4 tricks to help with time management for the MCAT.
For CARS, you will be given 90 minutes to complete 53 questions and 95 minutes to complete 59 questions for the other three science sections. On test-day, a timer will be counting down in the upper right-hand corner to show you how much time you have remaining. This can be both a blessing and a curse. For some of us, it aids in adjusting our test-taking speed in real-time. But for most of us, the timer just adds unnecessary stress. Stress can even slow us down by paralyzing some students in fear! Therefore, it becomes critical to use the timer as a valuable resource, without it becoming a distraction.
A good sweet spot is to look at the timer at three critical points during the test and forget it for the rest. For the science sections, optimal pacing can be broken down to completing 20 questions every 30 minutes. This can be translated to test day by glancing at the clock after you have completed 20, 40, and 59 questions. After 20 questions, you should see that you have 1 hour and 5 minutes left. After 40 you should see 35 minutes left. For CARS, there are 9 passages and so you should complete 3 passages every 30 minutes. If you have more or less time at these waypoints, this will dictate your pacing for the rest of the section.
Too little time?
If you find yourself falling behind the ideal testing pace, there are a few things that you can do. The bottom line is that you ultimately need to find a strategy that works best for you. Will you read the passages faster? Answer questions relying more on your gut instincts? Skip an entire passage to focus on the others instead (not recommended if trying to score 510+)? Try all of these methods out in practice sessions and choose the one that feels the most natural for you. No matter how far behind you are… still take the time to read the question stems quickly. The questions themselves are the most important piece of each passage and understanding them properly will yield the most points possible in a time crunch.
Too much time?
Less than 5 minutes of extra time? Spend these extra seconds focusing on 1 or 2 problems that you needed extra time on. Don’t try to skim through all of your flagged questions.
5 minutes of extra time? Try to skim through all of your flagged questions and focus on the few hardest questions for you. In general, it makes much more sense to spend an extra 30 seconds in the initial read of the question while your brain has been synthesizing the information at hand. Don’t just flag every hard question to come back to later. Splitting up the time will force you to restart your thought processes and it limits your effectiveness (although occasionally your brain will gain new insights subconsciously in the while working through other problems).
10-15 minutes of extra time? Use this time to double-check every. single. question. Don’t take the time to redo every problem, just check to make sure each choice answered the right question. Your primary job is to catch dumb mistakes like missing negative modifiers in the question stems (NOT/LEAST/WEAKENS etc.)
20-25 minutes of extra time? Run through every question again while also pausing to re-solve difficult and flagged questions. Perhaps you would benefit from reading passages and questions more carefully when working through them for the first time.
30+ minutes of extra time? This usually only applies to quick test-takers on the Behavioral Sciences section. If you usually finish with TONS of time to spare, you need to slooooooow yourself down. We know that you’re tired. We know that you’ve been sitting for 7 hours and just want to see your MCAT score. But practice test-taking conditions. Take the extra time to double-check every answer the first time. Read slowly and read every word of the passage. Try to finish with only 20 minutes to spare. This will bump your score up by at least a point or two.
To practice timing, consider doing blocks of 20 science questions in 30 minutes. Do 40 questions in an hour. Practice your pacing. Practice the controlled rushing. Practice endurance as well by doing 12 CARS passages in 2 hours. Do 80 science questions in 2 hours. From there, a normal MCAT section should feel like a breeze.
If you are still struggling with timing, don’t be hesitant to reach out for private tutoring options. All of our tutors went through the same struggles that you are experiencing. We would be happy to share our expertise!
7. Test Day is Game Day
Most students who have taken the MCAT will consistently cite taking practice tests as the most important part of their preparation. However, practice tests can improve your MCAT score even more if you use them to simulate test-day conditions. As part of our online MCAT course, we walk our students through every aspect of the test-day experience. Here are a few pro-tips and aspects of test-day that will help you maximize the benefit from your practice tests.
Using the Tutorial Time to Boost your Score
Before your practice tests, you will encounter a 10-minute tutorial that walks you through every feature of the MCAT software. For your first practice test, we recommend that you use this time to learn about all of the features at your disposal. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with these features, for subsequent tests you can breeze through this introduction to get right to the test. Most MCAT prep courses will recommend that you skip this section on test day as well. But on test day, every minute that you’re given is precious.
One pro-tip that can boost your score is using this 10-minute introduction to create a reference sheet for your test day. On test-day, you are given a booklet of dry-erase sheets. During the introduction, you can write down every memorization-heavy concept that you find difficult to remember. Some examples are all of the amino acid R groups, stages of development according to various psychologists, even a list of physics equations! Spend an hour during the day or two before your test to create this list ahead of time. Then practice copying this list down from memory over and over again until you can do so effortlessly. Bring this list with you to the testing center so you can glance at it one last time before you head in to take your test. Again, we want to simulate test-taking conditions as much as possible when taking practice tests. So an option is to take your practice tests with this reference sheet in front of you! Hooray! No more memorizing pesky physics equations! (That said, we do recommend that you don’t take practice tests with the amino acid R groups in front of you as you should know them like the back of your hand even without the reference sheet.)
Noise Cancelation and Screen Dimensions
The next thing you may notice when you sit down to take your test is the noise cancelation options and the dimensions of your screen. Pearson testing centers offer two methods of noise cancelation for every student: over-the-ear headphones and ear-plugs. In my experience, the headphones offered were terrible. They hurt my ears. I decided to use ear-plugs instead, but again it’s a personal preference. For either method, we recommend taking practice tests with the method of noise cancelation that you decide on (but if it’s headphones don’t use your $300 fancy ones because you will be disappointed on test-day).
The MCAT will be administered on Windows desktops. If possible, take your practice tests on desktops with a mouse instead of a laptop. The dimensions of the test will also be squared with black bars on either side. This makes the CARS passages seem longer because you need to scroll more to get through them. So when taking practice tests, square your browser screen to simulate this effect.
Because the MCAT lasts almost an entire day, you will be allowed to take 3 breaks during your test-day experience. Your breaks will last 10, 30, and 10 minutes after your Chemistry and Physics, CARS, and Biology and Biochemistry sections respectively. To make the most of these breaks, successful test-takers will fuel up with both foods and liquids. We think of taking the MCAT as running a marathon. It’s long. It’s hard. This endurance requires a constant and consistent output of energy. Marathon runners refuel by eating protein bars and other healthy foods. As you may know from your studies, sugary foods burn fast and bright but lead to physical and cognitive crashes after they are used up. We recommend eating and drinking as you would for a marathon (including frequent bathroom breaks). However, finding your own balance is the most important aspect of MCAT nutrition. Experiment with your breaks for your first few practice tests until you find out what works.
A word on caffeine: Just as you want to maintain consistent levels of blood sugar to prevent crashes, make sure to keep a consistent caffeine intake if you choose to use it. It’s much better to sip on a caffeinated beverage at each of your breaks rather than chugging 2 coffees right before the test starts. If you feel yourself crashing before the final section, feel free to pound caffeine to get you over the final hump because you can always crash later. As a natural alternative or supplement, I also did push-ups and jumping jacks during my breaks to wake my body up. Keeping the blood flowing can restart your focus after sitting in front of a computer for hours on end.
My Test Day Experience
Either the actual test day is the most stressful moment of your life or you are a legit sociopath. I was FREAKING OUT, PEOPLE! I drove to check out the testing center the day before. I typically have a hard time sleeping, but before the MCAT was another experience entirely. I took melatonin to try to get some rest, but I couldn’t sleep at all for the TWO NIGHTS before my test day. I could honestly account for every hour of the night. Not falling asleep just led to me stressing more so it was even harder to fall asleep. Horrible. But it’s ok! Even if you’re tired, it won’t make your mind forget all the content that you learned. For game day, your goal is just to get excited. It’s finally going to be over. Be confident. You put in hundreds of hours. TRUST YOUR STUDIES. If you come to a question and you are unsure, go with your gut. You may remember the appropriate content subconsciously.
When you get to the center, they start checking you in right away. Even if you’re early. Be early. But you don’t have to take a number right away. Wait until you’re ready. For security reasons, proctors will scan your palms. They lead you to your chair. They offer you earplugs, dry erase sheets and a marker. When you sit down after a break, they start you immediately—even if you still had 2 minutes remaining for your break. If you run a bit over your break, don’t worry. They give you ~2 minutes to just read the info start screen of each section so your time will only be deducted from that. If you have that time, use it to calm yourself before starting. Don’t rush yourself. Breathe.
Since I got no sleep, I took a ton of caffeine over the course of the test. About 20-50 mg before and during every break. I crashed like a zombie after it was all done, but I never felt sleepy or crashed during the test. To naturally keep your alertness levels up, a friend suggested that I do push-ups during the break to keep the blood flowing. That really helped. Your breaks are shorter than you remember, but you should eat something during every break or else you will crash. When taking FLEs, find out what food sustains you best. Don’t eat sugary trash. Eat protein bars and real food. Eat like you would eat if running a marathon, small but consistent, so you don’t hit a food coma either. Poop and pee before you enter the exam. Multiple times. Everything should be totally flushed out down there.
After each section, you want to get in the mental space of feeling relief. Done with CARS? You will never have to read another CARS passage again. Did the last section not go that well? Don’t let it bleed into the next section. Let it go. You should be getting more excited and more relaxed as the day progresses. Stressed? Tell yourself to let it go. Let it all go from your head. Your mental appraisal is very important to doing well.
In the end, if your computer didn’t explode and if you didn’t throw up on yourself, don’t void your test. Natural variation in test day scores happens. You may score better or worse than your practice tests, but how you felt about your test is not correlated to your actual score. Even if you don’t feel confident, score it. Don’t spend more than 15 seconds on voiding your test page. Let it all go. You did it.
You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on an over-priced MCAT course when you have the best FREE MCAT Course at your fingertips, like I did. If you have any questions at all, please be sure to reach out. I’d love to chat with you in a FREE 10 minute consultation about optimizing your MCAT game plan. If you’re interested in tutoring, you can check out what previous students have said about working with me.
Theo Bennett scored a perfect score (528) on the MCAT and has been accepted at Harvard, UPenn, Columbia, UCLA, and other top 10 medical schools across the country. You can learn more and sign up to work with him one-on-one here.
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