How Riley Got a 99th Percentile MCAT Score

When I was starting my MCAT preparation, I sought out high-scorers in the grades above me like a bloodhound. I wanted to know what worked. Now, having scored in the 99th percentile myself, other students frequently seek out me for the same reason, and I find myself giving two types of advice: studying tips and performance-enhancement tips

In regards to studying tips, I think MCAT Self Prep is the gold standard for effective preparation. Consistent content review, with spaced repetition by using both their 5,300 flashcards (only $99) and self-made flashcards (SO underrated!), is by far the best way to build a solid foundation of knowledge for the MCAT. After that, following our MCAT Bootcamp’s balanced practice problem and review schedule helps add some structure to a hectic last month. Since these study planning tips are already well-established, I figured this blog would be more helpful talking about the second category: performance enhancers. 

To be clear, I’m not talking about EPO injections in professional cycling or anything like that. Instead, these are little ways you can maximize your potential and control small variables that might shake you on test day. While it might seem extreme to focus on accessory variables when there’s so much content to cover, I can attest as an EMT, an athlete, and a former MCAT student that little things can accumulate and alter performance in high-stress situations. Paying attention to those little things will thus maximize your efficiency and get you the awesome score you want. 

With that said, let’s dive in!

Prioritize Self Care

I worked really hard when I was studying–my phone was on airplane mode, I had earplugs in, I put in 8 or 9 hours every day–but I carved out space to rest. Every night, I came home and leisurely made dinner. I’d make some tea and read a nice book afterwards, or play games with my housemates. To finish the night, I’d always spend an hour or so hanging out with my partner. Weekends were also mine. I went on more backpacking trips that summer than I had all my other years of college combined. Taking time to relax was vital for my success. It helped me start each day fresh and eager rather than burned out and grumpy, and made me more effective during the time I was studying

However, a big key to this was actually recognizing when certain self-care would do me good. There were some weekends where I got invited on trips, but I knew I had a big practice test coming up on Monday and did not want to be groggy for it. I knew that going on the trip would mean I’d spend half my time perseverating over the future rather than actually relaxing.  Whereas a younger me might have pushed through and gone on the trip anyway by telling myself “this trip is self-care and you need that,” I started recognizing that I had to be in the right headspace for certain self-care. Know which activities will help you unwind or unplug, and be selective in which larger activities you choose. 

For additional information, check out 7 Steps to Avoid and Manage Burnout!

Simulate Test Day Every Time

As I started taking practice tests, I realized changing small details about my routine could greatly impact my concentration. Thus, I started simulating test day meticulously to eliminate stress. I made the exact same lunches and snacks for each practice test so I knew roughly what sort of energy boost I’d get and how my stomach would feel. I drove the route to the testing facility a few times so I knew where it was and what traffic would be like so I wouldn’t be late or flustered on the day of my exam. 

If there’s one “little thing” I wish I had practiced more, it was using the testing center headphones. They were super tight and hot so I kept fiddling with them throughout the test, which was distracting. So if you’re interested in simulating the little things, I’d recommend taking practice tests with (somewhat uncomfortable) noise-cancelling headphones. This way, you won’t be bothered by some new stimulus–everything will be totally normal, and you can devote all your concentration to tackling the questions in front of you.

Sharpening Myself Outside the Test

While the MCAT does test knowledge, success also requires skills you don’t necessarily get from reading books and doing practice questions. Those are things like staying calm under pressure or getting into deep focus. I’ve seen a few students score 520+ on multiple full length tests, just to score below a 510 on test day, because they struggled with this aspect.

I worked on this every time I took a practice test, but I realized there was more I could do if I took my preparation into my personal life. So, I started practicing meditation and breathwork to better handle anxiety and stress. Lying down on my bed, I’d pick a phrase that was important to me. Frequently, that phrase was “I know how to take the MCAT.” Then I did a series of 4-counts, meaning 4 seconds of inhalation, 4 seconds of holding my breath, 4 seconds of exhalation, and so on and so forth. I used the same breathing techniques and phrase repetition before my practice tests and started entering my tests calmer.

Likewise, I noticed that the video games I played with my housemates after studying made me jumpy and frenetic. It felt like all the deep focus I worked on during the day was undone by flashy stimuli, so I stopped playing video games and saw my ability to concentrate improve. Removing negative stimuli can be just as important as adding positive ones! 

As a final example, I started reading way more in my free time, which can independently help improve your MCAT score! Reading nonfiction made me better and better at slicing through fancy vocabulary and flowery syntax, and I subsequently felt much more confident tackling CARS passages. Similarly, I started looking up biology articles on Google Scholar for practice with science passages. I became more comfortable toggling between text and graphs, and thus became a better reader while saving my valuable practice passages for practice question sessions. Although this is somewhat of a “study tip” rather than a “performance enhancer,” I also recommend reading real research articles because you familiarize yourself with research techniques. This can lead to easy points on discrete questions and faster comprehension on passages. 

Overall, I found working on transferable skills (cross-training my brain, so to speak) the most rewarding of all my performance enhancers. Most of these were things I wanted to do anyway. The MCAT simply gave me a strategic excuse to put them into action. Thus, I emerged from my MCAT feeling like I was a better student and pre-med, but also a better version of myself. Yes, you are still trying to get into medical school, but the “bigger purpose” approach gives you fuel when you’re in the doldrums of studying and medical school seems a million years away. 

Carving Out Time

You may have heard a professor, mentor, or family member say at some point that multitasking degrades your focus. I believe this applies to all types of studying, including the MCAT. When I started studying, I wanted to give my MCAT my all. I wanted to eat, sleep, and breathe the test, so Monday to Friday I woke up at 7a so I could be in the library and starting to study by 7:30a. I worked out for an hour at 11:30a, and was back in the library by 1:00p. I was a little looser with the end of my day–I aimed for 5:00p, but if I was in the zone I’d stay an extra hour or so. The MCAT essentially was my job. 

I had to do some planning, like taking an extra job on-campus the year prior so that I could save money for my MCAT summer, but it was worth it; I felt completely immersed in the MCAT during the day, and could disconnect fully once I ended my studying. My attention didn’t feel scattered, and I was better able to get into deep focus in my preparation. This also gave me ample time to devote to studying–as our CEO, Andrew George, emphasizes in his Create-your-own Study Plan, MCAT prep is a matter of hours studied, not weeks or months. 

Good Luck!

Those are the “performance enhancers” that gave me an edge and got me my 99th percentile score! Please remember though, these compliment rigorous studying. Breathwork or simulating test day precisely won’t help much if you haven’t studied amino acids, brain structures, and more. 

Thus, I highly recommend checking out our other resources on MCAT Self Prep because they are a more thorough dive into my “studying tips” than this blog could ever be. If you have any questions about our resources or want to begin working with a tutor, please feel free to reach out to our team and we’d be delighted to help. Finally, I hope you exceed your expectations on your exam and savor the learning process!

Best of luck!


MCAT TutorMCAT Tutor

For more MCAT Tips:

Sign up for our free weekly MCAT newsletter

Sign up for our affordable elite MCAT tutoring.

Sign up for our FREE MCAT Prep Course.

Follow us on:



MCAT Prep Course - MCAT Tutor
MCAT Prep Course - MCAT Questions
MCAT Prep Course - MCAT CARS
MCAT Prep Course - MCAT Behavioral Science

How we Matched up the Khan Academy Passages with the eCourse Lessons

Each lesson of the eCourse contains links to 1 to 5 Khan Academy science passages for the purpose of providing you with non-AAMC material to practice your science passage reading skills on. By completing all the linked passages within every lesson, you will have finished all the freely available Khan Academy science passages.

To match up the Khan Academy Science Passages with the eCourse lessons, we carefully examined the passage and question content of each one. Then we decided which lesson of the eCourse best correlated with that content. You may notice that some passages don’t match up perfectly with the current lesson. If they don’t match up with the current lesson, they should match up with one of the previous lessons in the module. We did this carefully so that you could practice your science passage reading skills on passages that contain the content you’ve already learned.

Why we don’t recommend non-AAMC CARS practice questions

We recommend practicing CARS by reading non-AAMC CARS passages but not doing the associated practice problems. The reason we don’t recommend doing the practice problems is because the MCAT is written by the AAMC. They have a very unique style in which they write CARS practice questions that third-party companies (try as they might) are unable to replicate. When students spend time on non-AAMC CARS practice problems, they get familiar with the wrong style of questioning, leading them to overthink and incorrectly respond to the questions written by the AAMC. Thus, it is in your best interest to solely practice on AAMC CARS practice questions.

That said, we highly recommend practicing your reading skills on non-AAMC CARS passages. In our Ultimate CARS Strategy Course, we provide you with 1,000 free CARS passages and 100+ homework assignments, giving you ample material to practice on. Reading countless passages while practicing the proper reading habits and strategies will prepare you well to conquer the CARS section as it was written by the AAMC.

Which books do the lessons match up with?

The books we use in each lesson are linked below. We plan to stick with these older editions of the books since very little has changed and the older editions are much more affordable:

First Edition of the Kaplan 7-book Series
First Edition of the Princeton 7-book Series

Do the chapters match up perfectly?

The Kaplan Books, Princeton Books, and Khan Academy Videos were all produced by different authors. For this reason, there are some chapters in the Kaplan Book or Princeton Book that are not even found in the Khan Academy Videos and vice versa. For instance, the Kaplan and Princeton Books have chapters that cover certain experimental procedures that the Khan Academy Videos do not cover.

Our goal in matching up the books with the videos was to correlate the content as best as possible while also covering ALL the content from every resource. For this reason, when nothing in the Kaplan Books matched up with one of the video playlists, instead of leaving the reading assignment for Kaplan blank, we inserted material that did not fit in anywhere else (i.e. one of those chapters on an experimental procedure that was not covered by Khan Academy). So, when the assignment doesn’t appear to match up right, please know that this was intentional.

*If you follow the reading assignments outlined, you will finish the entire Kaplan 7-book series and/or Princeton 7-book series by the time you finish all 10 content modules.

Do the sections match up perfectly?

If the sections assigned in our eCourse do not match up with the sections contained in your content review book, you may have a different edition. The sections should still match up the large majority of the time, but in the rare instance that they don’t, I’d recommend simply reading sections that do match up and saving the ones that do not for a future lesson.

MCAT Launchpad Required!

Before jumping into our free eCourse, you’ll need to complete orientation by watching MCAT Launchpad. During this free 35-minute intro session with Head Tutor Andrew, you’ll learn 6 Keys to Earning a Top MCAT Score, the 5 Essential Elements of an Effective Study Plan, 12 Tips for Taking the Best MCAT Study Notes, and more! Andrew will also provide you with a detailed overview of the Free MCAT Prep Course, teaching you how to get started.

Are you sure you want to skip today's special offer?

You will forfeit your 30% off coupon by continuing with Free Forever.