How Max Got a 523 on the MCAT
My name is Max Wilberding and I am an Elite Tutor for MCAT Self Prep. Since achieving a 99th Percentile score last year, I have spent my time tutoring students in both the MCAT’s reading and content essentials, but also in the importance of diligence and mental health. I hope the successes and failures of my journey help you take this exam even stronger than I did.
Before I get started, I just want to congratulate you on taking on the MCAT! This beast of an exam is perhaps the most testing and difficult journey to take as a student. Although advice from others may be useful, the most important thing I can tell you is to know yourself. I loved my calendar, spreadsheets, and phone reminders to hit the books, but it was learning about myself and my own study habits that got my sub-500 score up to a 523 on test day.
Establishing a timeframe for something as big as the MCAT is not done overnight. Most students hoping to enroll in medical school directly after college graduation or after a gap year elect to take the MCAT the spring semester or summer before applying. Although summer options provide fewer class distractions, I chose to take my MCAT in the spring semester so that I could complete my AMCAS application in May, score in hand. If you consider this route best as well, the fall semester (especially August-October) is a great time to get organized.
What does this mean? For one, explore your options. The financial cost of prep materials should be accounted for (paying for myself, I chose an inexpensive route that I’ll describe soon). It was through this exploration that I came across MCAT Self Prep and Andrew’s MCAT Launchpad. Without sugarcoating it, I was sold. I knew this was exactly the organized, scheduled, and inexpensive route I was looking for. The Create-Your-Own Study Plan provided me with not only an honest calculation of the overall time required to improve my score as much as I wanted, but it also gave me the space to separate it off into bite-sized chunks. Sure, looking at the Total Hours part in the “What to Study” tab can be frightening in the beginning (mine was well over 1,000 hours). However, breaking that monstrous number down into 3+ parts in “Study Phases” and even more in your “Weekly Study Timeline” turns into some magical math. Beginning in October and ending with a March test date (about 6 months), I was able to get past that 1,000-hour mark without surpassing a 20-hour workweek until January.
Getting organized also means taking a diagnostic exam to see where you are starting from. The AAMC prep bundle (which I’ll discuss further soon) contains five full-length exams, one of which is not graded on a scaled score. I took this exam in full to get a good idea of my percentages across the 4 topics of the MCAT. I highly recommend planning to address topics you struggle the most with/ones you’re most removed from class-wise first. This way, you’ll get to see score improvements quicker and dedicate more time to it. Otherwise, you’ll be tackling your least favorite subjects having already endured a few months of content, which is no fun.
With the test date approaching, the last 1-1.5 months are essential to turning all the content knowledge you have worked so hard into the score gains that you hope to see. Knowing my test date, I was able to schedule my spring semester classes with only 13, GE-favored credit hours in the first half of the semester before adding a few second-term classes on (to take after my MCAT date). This way, my school workload was minimized during the home stretch. If you have any wiggle room in your class scheduling to follow this pattern, I highly recommend it.
Saving Money with the Best Materials
Whether you have to work extremely hard to earn good grades or some topics flow naturally into your brain, the MCAT is not a test to take without significant preparation. Being the diligent (and semi-broke) researcher I am, I dedicated a solid week to investigate the best bang-for-buck prep materials available. It was here that I came across a few YouTube videos from Khan Academy that seemed to be sponsored by the AAMC (the MCAT administration). After months of hearing about a money-hungry AAMC organization, I was rather confused to be watching their sponsored videos for free. It wasn’t just informational promos—their content videos cover all of the content that you need for the MCAT exam! A little more research told me that the AAMC actually paid Khan Academy to create thousands of hours of videos covering MCAT content. This YouTube plunge eventually brought me to Andrew and his MCAT Self Prep program, which provides crucial organization so you don’t miss a single video. All for free! After talking to those who had used Kaplan and PrincetonReview—companies that make you pay hundreds of dollars for their own video playlists—I learned that their content isn’t sponsored by AAMC at all! This left me with two choices: (1) pay several hundred to a thousand dollars for a parody, or (2) get the real deal for free.
It wasn’t that hard of a choice for me…
MCAT Self Prep
Following the Introductory Course, it was extremely easy to upgrade to the Advanced Pro Plan (only $99) to get not only the Create-Your-Own Study Plan Course (the best study organization tool out there) but also the Quizlet Flashcard set, made by Andrew and his team of highly successful MCAT tutors, that follow each free video lesson and provide extra boost on content training. Through the thousands of premade Quizlet cards, you can test yourself on whether you learned the material in the videos or not. Many students take the extra step and upgrade to the Deluxe Pro Plan, which is an amazing resource for getting more thorough guidance through every aspect of the MCAT.
There is, of course, the matter of buying AAMC’s own prep materials. Though this may seem like an add-on being thrown in at the last minute, it’s not at all. Whatever route you choose to go—even if it’s PrincetonReview or another major prep company—you need these materials. When the very company that makes a test provides materials for you to study, you buy them. All materials in the full online bundle provide you with authentic MCAT questions as well as five full-length exams that are critical to evaluating your progress during Bootcamp. So, get them!
Lastly, I’ll address CARS studying. I’ll keep this brief, but daily practice is extremely important here. I preferred using Jack Westin’s daily passages. For one, they’re free to use. I worked through at least one passage a day, getting up to 5/day on more mild content weeks. Westin’s passages aren’t a perfect representation of the AAMC, but they do the job rather well. You’ll have plenty of authentic AAMC CARS passages from the full online bundle I talked about earlier. Though CARS is very difficult to see much improvement quickly (especially without the individualized attention of tutoring), I believe the daily practice was essential to connecting my skills as a reader to the types of questions asked on the exam. I spent some time working through the many CARS tips out there (writing paragraph summaries, reading questions first, etc.), but in the end, I chose to work through CARS the old-fashioned way, with only a little highlighting here and there. This way, I had plenty of time to review flagged questions/passages, which was great for looking at a question in a new light. If I had one bit of CARS advice to give everyone, it would be to trust your first answer unless proven otherwise. It’s very easy to doubt your answer choices in CARS. Make your gut-instinct choice. If you’re still iffy, look for information to prove yourself wrong. If you find it, great. If you don’t, move on with confidence.
Wading Through the Thick of Content
I made it a personal goal to not sugarcoat anything in this post, and here is where I am really going to stick to that. During the months that you’ll spend studying for the CMAT, it’s time to work. It’s hard, exhaustive, and oftentimes stressful to meet daily weekly, and overall content goals. As much as we like to plan everything, to organize our lives into neatly-shaped calendars tied in a bow, it doesn’t always work. Life has curveballs. Classes have exams, roommates have loud music, the list goes on. You have to be adaptable. You have to hold yourself accountable. You have to miss out on a few parties or football Sundays. You have to push through the topics that don’t exactly pique your brain’s interest (I’m talking to you, organic chemistry). Sounds next-to-impossible… right? No. Not at all. You are here today. You’ve gotten through the bulk of science classes. You are a diligent student, absorbing all the information you can about how to best conquer this exam. When push comes to shove, you can do this. I promise you. So let’s do this.
Personally, I took advantage of the MCAT Self Prep eCourse videos as the bulk of my content studying. Though not necessarily exciting, I used both my diagnostic exam results As you move through early lessons and find your comfort zone, some videos may be played at 1.5x or even 2x speed. Again, this is a learning process above all. You may find it better to only work through 45 minutes of video at a time with frequent breaks like me. Or, you may be better at sitting in a library and really grinding the video sets for a couple of hours on end to enjoy a longer break later. There’s no perfect solution! However, I loved a morning routine where I reviewed the previous lesson’s Quizlet cards and maybe watched a few videos before heading to class. It was a great way to warm up because I could admire my previous day’s progress while setting the tone for a new day of content.
That brings us to Quizlet and flashcards. When it comes to the Quizlet sets provided by the Deluxe Pro Plan, I loved working through each set for around 30 minutes following a lesson’s videos, starring ones I wanted to redo throughout my MCAT process. Many are written in an AAMC style, which is a plus of course. As great as the videos are for getting the most of content review, they don’t mean much unless you test yourself.
The most personal and beneficial touch I added along the way was making my own flashcards. If you haven’t yet heard of Anki, I highly recommend giving it a try—you’ll be sure to enjoy it in medical school after taking down the MCAT! Anki is a free computer application that allows you to create your own flashcards. The great (albeit tricky) thing about Anki is that it tests you on your made flashcards daily using an algorithm to spread out your studying. Flashcards you have more trouble with are tested more frequently—those more easily dissipate.
I chose to use Anki for the most essential topics I had trouble with, and I highly recommend doing the same. Though I had a set of flashcards for each lesson from the eCourse, topics I was more familiar with, like Biology, had much fewer cards than the personally-troubling Physics section. Adding too many flashcards to any section can create an overwhelming workload, so just be careful. Rather than repeating the Quizlet sets already made for me, I did my best to rephrase questions to most target the topics that I struggled with. In all likelihood, you won’t see the same exact question you studied on your official MCAT. It’s best to build a deep understanding of a topic rather than repeating the same question over and over again. This became especially helpful during Bootcamp, where I would make Anki cards from the Q-bank and Practice Exam questions I had missed. Though I didn’t have as much time to work on these cards compared to content, a review or two really helped calm my nerves and improve my self-confidence moving closer to test day.
Question Banks and Practice Tests
Finishing content will feel like a huge weight off of your chest. In a lot of ways, it is. If you closely follow the eCourse by taking Mini-Exams with AAMC material as you go, you hopefully saw some progress in your score. Well, I didn’t. Sure, my scores fluctuated, but I wasn’t seeing the improvements I’d hoped for. I went through a rough week where I honestly believed I had wasted all my hours over the past months, that my content knowledge didn’t matter. I honestly considered pushing back my test date, even quitting altogether. Don’t be like me. Never doubt yourself. Content is dedicated the most time for a reason; you need every bit of it. The next challenge, however, is learning to take the test. This takes some time, too. It happens subconsciously. By that, I mean I didn’t feel any better taking my last full-length practice exam than my first. However, I was learning how to understand AAMC question styles and then take full advantage of my content studying. Whether you realize it or not, you’re improving with every AAMC question you read. So why not read them all?
Having heard much about people using Q-banks from prep companies like UWorld and Kaplan, I planned a 6-week Bootcamp before my test rather than the traditional 4 weeks. I was confident this decision had saved so much money by choosing MCAT Self Prep. Now, I don’t really have a recommendation between UWorld and Kaplan’s Q-banks. I’ve heard fine things regarding both, so it’s a matter of how much time/money you have (UWorld has a free trial before buying the whole set, whereas Kaplan is a monthly subscription). Neither Q-bank is perfect, however. Approach each question knowing that it isn’t written by the AAMC and therefore is not 100% representative of test day. I can’t stress that last point enough—I beat myself up over mini exam-style tests that rarely topped 80% and averaged out somewhere in the 60s. Don’t be afraid of that. Practice as well as you can, learn from your mistakes, and do your best to progress. The numbers don’t matter as much as your attitude at this crucial time.
The AAMC online bundle comes with 4 Full-Length Practice Exams that mimic the test day timing and browser experience. Use them! Because I dedicated 6 weeks for Bootcamp, it was possible to add in a 5th test, and I chose the free full length from Next Step (other options are available). Again, questions from non-AAMC test prep companies are not 100% representative, but the more practice, the better. Tying together my practice exams, content review, and Q-bank, I developed into a pattern that I highly recommend.
The first day of your pattern is Test Day! Try your best to take it between 7:30 to 8:00 AM (or whenever your test day time is). Though finishing in the early afternoon may leave you a bit anxious about the questions you missed by the afternoon, don’t worry about it and take the evening off. I loved planning a dinner out with family or friends, maybe some Netflix following a test. This is extremely important to avoid burnout…
Day 2 is Review Day. I had the most trouble with Day 2. As excited as you may be to both review your test and jump into a load of content to maximize your next score immediately, it’s a hard day. Even if it’s subconscious, it is perfectly natural to feel a little less motivated on Day 2. It’s just biology, a natural kickback after a stressful Day 1. Though test review may only take a few hours (even with flashcard making), I had to spread it out over the course of the entire day to get it done. Don’t sweat it. You kicked butt on Day 1, just make sure you learn from your mistakes on Day 2.
Days 3 and 4 are content and Q-bank days. Mix them together. Spread them out. No Days 3 and 4 looked the same for me, and you have to be totally okay with that. For me, this meant some mornings going through my Anki and Quizlet cards, other afternoons polishing off whatever Q-bank questions I had left. Most important, though, is to not slack off Days 3 and 4. You had a lighter Day 2, so get back to that full-time schedule for the ultimate confidence-building.
Your Support System
The MCAT is stressful. Again, no sugarcoating here. This was the single hardest academic endeavor I have ever taken on. Some days really hurt my self-confidence. Others I felt like I could take on the world. It’s completely natural. The best thing to do is to take care of yourself. I stress this to my students every session; I have no problem staying extra time to just listen to my students to allow needed reflection during this process. Each time I do, I ask three essential questions:
“What is one thing you’re proud of today?”
“What’s one fun fact you’ve learned while studying?”
“What’s a better version of you tomorrow?”
Memorize these. I’m more self-reflective, so I answered them in a Word document journal every single night at 10:00 PM (phone reminders are fantastic). Every now and then, I’d give these three questions to a family member or friend to ask me, too. Choose either option you prefer, but use them. Seriously. Every day. You’ll be impressed with what comes out onto the paper when you force yourself to write. Great things from your day make you smile, and the problems stressing you out start to seem solvable. I don’t care if you fill 3 pages with a rant about how difficult it is to memorize so many Physics equations or trail off into a funny conversation you had with a friend. Reflect.
Build a Team
Find a support team. Whether that be your roommates, friends, family, or cat, have someone to talk to (okay, cats are tough to keep up a conversation with, but you get the point). By the time I got into Bootcamp, I had a schedule of a few people I could call each day. Even if it’s only five minutes, these conversations were so important to my mental health. Your team doesn’t need to offer advice, they just need to understand. It’s best if you have at least one close contact who has already undergone or is currently going through this same journey (another reason I recommend tutoring).
Looking into test day, I wasn’t totally successful: I didn’t follow my schedule to a T, my Q-bank improvements weren’t outstanding, and my fourth full length was worse than my third. I didn’t let that get me down, and you shouldn’t either. Be proud of all that you have accomplished up to this point, and leave it all out on Test Day.
Test Day tips abound. Don’t change your caffeine intake, eat lots of berries and snacks, don’t study the day before, etc. I won’t go into too much detail here, as we have other articles posted on that process. However, one tip I rarely see is to have a plan for after your test. Walking out of the testing center, my head ached thinking over all the questions I had flagged or made a 50/50 guess on. I drove home and wrote them all down, hoping to research the answers.
Don’t do that. Instead, have your support team ready to field your stresses. Make plans to see friends you haven’t for a while because Bootcamp is exhaustive. Go get your favorite ice cream. Head out on a run. Anything to keep your body active and mind occupied is great: you did it, so celebrate! If you have any questions at all, please be sure to reach out for FREE. I’d love to chat with you about establishing a plan for your success.
Max is a senior at The Ohio State University with several years of tutoring experience. He is studying biomedical science with a minor in creative writing. He is looking to pursue a career that combines his passions of surgery, pediatrics, and academic medicine. You can learn more and sign up to work with him one-on-one here.
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