Last year I went through the long and arduous process of studying for the MCAT amidst a pandemic. Along the way, I learned not only about the MCAT and its vast amount of content, but more importantly, about myself and what study habits work best for me. Ever since scoring a 525 on the MCAT, I have passed on MCAT strategies and advice to other pre-med students so that they too can succeed on the MCAT. Let’s get started!
1. Getting Started
The first step in taking the MCAT is not finding content review books, a prep company, or even finding some nice premade flashcards to study with. The first step is deciding when to take this beast of an exam. Most students opt to take the MCAT the same year they apply to medical school. Quite a few of my friends decided to take the exam in the spring before applying to medical school. For me personally, this approach didn’t work, since I knew my fall and spring semesters would be full of more difficult classes and increased responsibility in the clubs I am a part of. That’s why I opted to study for the MCAT over the summer and take it just before the beginning of my junior year. I had also taken all of the prerequisite classes for the MCAT by then, which made this possible.
Before you start thinking about materials and a study plan, there is one more thing I would like to emphasize. To ace any standardized test (including the MCAT), you need 3 things and 3 things only: 1) Good reading ability, 2) content knowledge, 3) ability to apply the content knowledge. Any good study plan should address all 3 factors, making sure you make the necessary improvements from your diagnostic exam.
2. Making a Study Plan
After taking a diagnostic exam, you can think about a study plan. I wanted to spend as little money as necessary for the MCAT and make the money I spent count. In my view, if I was going to spend money from a prep company for their study plan, that plan must be customizable to my unique needs.
As I was browsing through all of the popular forums/social media and their countless MCAT study plans, I stumbled upon MCAT Self Prep. I started by watching Andrew’s MCAT Launchpad. The launchpad walked me through every MCAT strategy from what to study, how to study, what materials to buy, and explained the reasoning behind all of it. And it was all for free! The most important thing that the Launchpad and the Create-Your-Own Study Plan did for me was put into perspective the number of hours of studying needed to get my goal score. Looking at over 700 study hours was frightening for me at the beginning, but by breaking it down into study phases and laying out what to study each and every week, this plan took a lot of the anxiety away. The biggest advantages of the study plan you make is that it is personalized for you based on your diagnostic score, which classes you’ve taken, and if you struggled in them, so you know what to study and how to study it. This way, you don’t waste any precious time worrying about if the study plan will work for you.
Choosing the order in which to study the content modules is entirely up to you. That being said, here are a few ground rules:
- Study both modules of a subject right after each other! Don’t do Chemistry Module 1 and then switch to Physics Module 2. Oftentimes, the material builds on itself between the 2 modules, and the legwork you would have done while learning the content in the first module will set you up for success in the second module.
- Start with the subjects you are least comfortable with. You will most likely have extra motivation at the beginning of your journey which will help you learn unfamiliar content. That way, when you are a month into the content phase, you will be excited to review material you already know really well. Also, if you do have any study delays or need more time to learn material, that’s most likely to happen in your least comfortable subjects!
- After content review, spend 1 month doing practice exams, reviewing them, adding to your flashcards, and doing flashcard review. I personally followed MCAT Self Prep’s Bootcamp Schedule found in the e-course, and I felt ready to go on test day.
3. Deciding what Prep Materials to use
There are loads of prep materials out there. However, the single most important prep material is the AAMC prep bundle. If you purchase nothing else, I implore you to purchase this bundle. This material is made by the same people who write the actual MCAT. These questions will be the closest in style and substance to the actual MCAT, and it comes with 5 full length practice MCAT tests and hundreds of additional questions for each section.
The next most important resources to consider are content resources. If you are someone who can watch hours of videos (or lectures) on end and still be engaged, then by all means watch all of the videos in the playlists. I personally found Khan Academy videos and content review books to be the most helpful for me (even for organic chemistry and physics in college), so I ended up getting a set of the Kaplan books from a friend who had already taken the MCAT. I read all of them except for the CARS and Psychology/Sociology books. Also, these books weren’t the newest version, and that’s okay; as long as the content review books were made since the MCAT added the Behavioral Sciences section in 2015, they should be good.
Finally, we come to 3rd party questions and full length exams. These are at the bottom of the list in terms of importance, because try as they might, 3rd party companies (people who are not AAMC) cannot replicate the substance and style of official MCAT questions. I personally used 2 third-party full length exams for extra practice, but I did not pay attention to the scores I got on CARS (more on this later), nor did I review the CARS passages from 3rd party resources.
There is no secret to CARS! There is no “1 easy trick,” no “3 easy techniques,” and no “10 step procedure” that will help you ace the CARS section. This section tests how good of a reader and critical thinker you are. If you want to do better on CARS, you have to become a better reader – it’s that simple.
You should be working on CARS throughout your content phase. I personally struggled with CARS when I started, so I would take Jack Westin passages and read them out loud to myself taking anywhere from 20-30 minutes to make sure I really understood the passage in its entirety. Then I slowly decreased the time, started reading in my head, and by the end of the content phase, I was able to read and understand passages in 4-5 minutes.
There are a couple of MCAT strategies I’ll mention that might or might not work for you. We have many more reading strategies and techniques in our Ultimate CARS Strategy Course, which also has 500 unique passages for further practice. Test these techniques out for yourself and see if they help you:
- Writing a 4 word summary of each paragraph as you go along
- Summarizing the paragraph you just read in your head before moving on to the next one
- Highlighting important information as you go along
- Highlighting with the cursor as you read through the passage
I tried each and every one of the strategies listed above and found that #2 and #4 were the most beneficial for me. I can’t stress this fact enough – each student is different, and there is no “best way of reading.” There is only a best way for you to read. Experiment with different strategies and practice them until you see the improvement you desire.
5. Mental Health and Study Habits
One of the most overlooked aspects of MCAT preparation is your mental health. Up until this point, you probably didn’t have to study for an exam for more than a week or two before taking it. However, the MCAT is a totally different beast. You have probably heard people say this over and over again, but I’m going to say it again- the MCAT is a marathon, not a sprint. If you do not take care of yourself along the way, you will get burnt out – I’m speaking from experience. The 3 days before the exam I couldn’t bring myself to look at even one more card or review another topic. You need to take time to unwind and destress in whatever way you prefer. For me, this was meditating for 10 minutes in the morning before starting my studying, taking walks in the evening, and trying to bake something for fun.
Study habits are the cornerstone of your success. I tried many different techniques until I found the one that worked best for me. Some of the common study timing techniques I tried were:
- Pomodoro method (25 minutes of studying followed by a 5 minute break)
- 50/10 (50 minutes of studying followed by a 10 minute break)
- Studying for no more than 3 hours at a time
I found that pomodoros kept interrupting my flow, and I often spent too much time on the breaks. A combination of #2 and #4 helped me stay on track for the MCAT. Again, no one of these strategies is inherently better; what matters is your own personal learning style and how you can get the most effective study hours possible.
6. The Day Before the Test
At this point, there is likely nothing more you can do to improve your score. Worrying will not help. Panicking will not help. Speed-reading all of the Kaplan textbooks will not help. You just have to trust the process and the hard work that you put in over the course of your MCAT study plan. I would recommend spending no more than 2 hours just reviewing information that you feel least comfortable with. I personally did a quick read through of a few topics that I felt like I needed a refresher on, but that’s it. Then, I spent the day unwinding by playing table tennis, baking some cookies, and going to sleep at a reasonable hour.
My name is Shyam Polaconda, and I am the newest Elite Tutor for MCAT Self Prep. If you ever have any questions, or if you just need some help starting your MCAT journey, please feel free to reach out to me for a free 10-minute consultation!
Shyam scored a 525 on the MCAT using the MCAT Self Prep Quizlet flashcards, and create-your-own study plan, and is ready to help you build the best individualized study plan possible. As a biomedical engineering student, he’s great for all science and CARS help too!
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