How to Begin your MCAT Studies
The MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) is without a doubt one of the greatest struggles that premeds face. It’s unlike any test you’ve ever taken before. It’s most-likely harder, longer, and more important than the SAT, ACT, midterms, or any finals 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. Where do you start? When do you take the MCAT?
1. When to Take the MCAT
For most students, I recommend taking the MCAT between April and the end of May for the cycle that you want to apply for medical school OR between July and August the year before you apply. Taking the test over the summer with minimal or no classes allows you to compress your study timeline, however you may be taking the test without some prerequisites for the MCAT. I personally would recommend taking the MCAT after you have completed the core classes necessary for the MCAT (biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, physics etc). I personally 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 courses 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 difference. 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 a semester (as I did), plan that semester out a year in advance to deliberately make that semester as light as possible. I personally only took 12 easy credits the semester leading up to 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 nothing but MCAT studying. The 8-hour test should feel like a 2-hour test by test day. Not 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: should I use a prep program to learn the content or will I self-study? The better question you should ask yourself is: 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. If you don’t have hundreds of hours to comb through Khan Academy, buying prep books also delivers the content in a more succinct way (but again these books were not written by the AAMC so some information gets muddied).
Most Expensive: Kaplan, PrincetonReview, NextStep etc. ($2000+)
Middle Option: Buying review books ($~200)
Cheapest Option: Khan Academy / MCAT Self Prep (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. Does working with a TA or going to office hours help you? 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. So I chose a hybrid method of studying – MCAT Self prep gave me structure but let me 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, so it is totally worth spending the money to succeed the first time. I won’t vouch for a specific program, obviously I trust MCAT Self Prep because I tutor for them, but 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). If a big company that you are looking at forces you to choose from 1, 2, 5, 20 sessions at the start stick with lower options. 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 them teach you to fish, not give you fish metaphorically speaking. If you have specific problems that you are stuck on, just go on reddit 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+)
Middle Option: MCAT Self Prep (rates start at $150/hr)
Cheapest Option: Study Groups/Friends/Reddit (Free)
If you have any questions at all, please be sure to reach out. I’d love to chat with you about optimizing your MCAT game plan.
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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