To be honest, I found the MCAT to be just as (if not more) intimidating and stressful as most students find it. However, by using the strategies below, I was able to work my way up to a 520 on test day.
1. When Should I Start Studying?
The amount of work you need to put in is largely dependent on how far away your current score is from your goal score. I knew that I had a long way to go to reach my target score, so I started early. When I did so, I did not think of how many months I need to study, but rather how many hours. Generally, around 50-70 hours of studying is required to raise the MCAT score by 1 point.
The first thing that I did was make a study plan. I planned on taking the MCAT on May 18th, so I started studying six months before that. Phase I of my studying was during my Winter Break, and I spent roughly 10 hours each day studying. During Phase II, I spent only 2 hours each day on MCAT work, since I was taking an 18 credit hour load in the spring semester. After the semester ended, I began Phase III, and I studied 10 hours each day during my last 2 weeks before the MCAT test date. In retrospect, I would advise my students to take a lighter semester load during the semester before the MCAT and give more time for Phase III of studying for a final review.
First, I focused on learning the content relevant for the MCAT. As the old saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out.” Regardless of how skilled of a test taker you might be, if you do not learn the content properly, you will be unable to answer the questions appropriately. By mid-March, I finished going through content for the first time. I spent the remaining time going through practice tests every week, so I would become accustomed to taking full-length exams. When I got questions wrong on full-length exams, I would focus my content review on the areas that I struggled on. If this is something you’re struggling to do, a tutor can help you find these weaknesses and know what to study next!
2. Which Resources Should I Use?
There are many resources available for learning content. These include test preparation companies, such as Kaplan, Princeton Review, and Examkrackers, which charge absurd amounts of money for their courses. However, I’m glad that I found and utilized the MCAT Self Prep eCourse, which is absolutely free. This course includes videos from Khan Academy, AK Lectures, and many other sources all organized into straightforward and understandable lessons.
I really enjoyed the MCAT Self Prep’s eCourse and worked through each of the free content modules. Each topic covered on the MCAT had videos from Khan Academy, which were made in collaboration with the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), the company that makes the MCAT exam. This gave me confidence that these were reliable and trustworthy sources of information.
As well-versed you might be with the content, the MCAT is a tricky exam, and applying that knowledge can still be a challenge. I believe that doing full-length practice exams is the best way to see increases in your scores. Full-length exams allowed me to see which topics I tended to struggle with and acclimate to taking an exam for nearly 7 hours with only a few, intermittent breaks. There are many testing companies that make practice tests, including Kaplan, Altius, and Princeton Review. The AAMC itself makes section banks and question packs for each section covered on the MCAT, alongside their full-length exams.
I personally bought the MCAT Official Prep Online-Only Bundle which consisted of all 6 question packs, the section bank, 4 scored practice tests, an unscored sample test, and more. Additionally, I went through all the free passages and practice questions on Khan Academy, which were made in collaboration with the AAMC. I simply cannot recommend these above resources enough. These are very cost-effective compared to other testing companies, and they have one major advantage over the others: these resources are made by the same company that makes the MCAT exams you will see on test day. These resources are a class apart from the others, and I attribute a lot of my success to working diligently through these resources.
As I went through each of the practice tests, I kept track of the percentage of questions I answered correctly and my score breakdown. Seeing my score progressively move towards my goal score was really motivating, and it kept me going through my study phases. I also made sure to keep track of and review every question I answered incorrectly or guessed on throughout my studying. This helped me see what category of questions I generally struggle with and the reasoning behind why I struggled with a particular question. If you have trouble identifying why you struggled with particular questions and where to go from there, a tutor can help with this process.
3. What if I Need Help?
If you are motivated and strategic regarding how you will study, self-studying could be an option for you. However, if you need a little more guidance to help you reach your goal score and attend your dream medical school, tutoring might be a better option for you.
Personally, I self-studied using MCAT Self Prep and the AAMC resources, because I knew that the application cycle for medical school would be very expensive.
If tutoring is better for your situation, make sure that your tutor has a high MCAT score and a track record of successfully helping their students do the same. Additionally, it is important to get the most bang for your buck. Make sure you come to each session with questions and ready to pick the tutor’s brain for test-taking strategies.
Again, there are many expensive options, such as Kaplan, Princeton Review, etc., which can cost over $370 per session to work with 90th percentile MCAT tutors. There are also more affordable options, like MCAT Self Prep, who only hires tutors only if their score is 97th percentile or above. Last, but not least, you can study with a group of friends.
The main benefit of choosing an MCAT tutor is that they understand your unique situation and can customize your plan to that. Friends will know their own MCAT studying experience and can speak from that background, but they may not know what advice is useful or appropriate for your particular struggles. An MCAT tutor, on the other hand, both did well on the MCAT and has already worked with many other students to apply that knowledge to their individual situations.
Tutors can more easily recognize the struggles you are having, know the steps needed to overcome those struggles, and personalize the advice so it is exactly what you need. All of my previous tutoring experience has taught me how to break down content and passages and help students learn them, and my previous work with study plan generation with many students will help me individualize your path towards a top MCAT score too.
4. What about CARS?
For many STEM-oriented premeds, CARS will be the most difficult section. As pre-meds, we focus most of our time on courses in math, biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, and sociology, but we rarely get exposed to the level of intuitive reasoning required for answering the confusing questions found in the CARS section. However, that does not mean that you are doomed if you are not a naturally-gifted reader.
I, myself, am not a naturally-gifted reader, and at the beginning of studying for the MCAT, the CARS section was a struggle for me. At the beginning, I got questions wrong, and when I tried to review my mistakes, I could not understand why. After taking the diagnostic exam and seeing how difficult the section was for me, I began to practice by doing a CARS passage every day.
Additionally, I worked through MCAT Self Prep’s Ultimate CARS Strategy Course and learned strategies to help me tackle the long, ambiguous CARS passages. I cannot overstate how helpful these strategies were for increasing my comfort level with the CARS section. These strategies helped me put names to why I was getting things wrong. As I applied the appropriate strategies, the CARS section ceased to be the frustrating section where I either knew the answer or did not; instead, I could reason through the question and know WHY an answer was right or wrong. I’m happy to say that with continued effort, I was able to improve my CARS score several points from where I started.
If you have any questions or you aren’t sure how to get started, be sure to reach out anytime. We are always here to help!
Manohar scored a 520 on the MCAT and is a medical student at Vanderbilt University. You can learn more and sign up to work with him one-on-one here.
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