Using Practice Tests to Simulate Test Day

All of your MCAT practice tests should lead to you to test day. Your prep material should mirror the material that AAMC expects you to know. MCAT practice tests should lead you to test day as well. Most students who have taken the MCAT will consistently cite taking practice tests as the most important part of their preparation. However, MCAT practice tests can improve your MCAT score even more if you use them to simulate test-day conditions. As part of our FREE online MCAT course, we walk our students through every aspect of the material on test-day. But how can you simulate the test day experience if you’ve never taken the real thing? Here are a few pro-tips and aspects of test-day that will help you maximize the benefit from your MCAT practice tests. You can trust me, I scored a perfect 528 using only MCAT Self Prep and self-studying. I maximized my score because I spent hundreds of hours trying to understand the AAMC and how they think. Before test day, you can understand their logic too. 

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Using the Tutorial Time to Your Advantage

Before your MCAT practice tests, you will encounter a 10-minute tutorial that walks you through every feature of the MCAT software. For your first MCAT practice test, we recommend that you use this time to learn about all of the features at your disposal. You can highlight text using ALT+H (Option+H for Mac users) and strike-through using ALT+S (Option+S for Mac users) and many other keyboard shortcuts. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with these features, you can skip through this introduction to get right to the test in future practice scenarios. Most MCAT prep courses will recommend that you skip this section on test day as well. But on test day, every minute that you’re given is precious. 

One pro-tip that can boost your score is using this 10-minute introduction to create a cheat sheet for your test day. On test-day, you are given a booklet of dry-erase sheets (I bought these sheets online and found it to be very helpful to practice with). During the introduction, you can write down every memorization-heavy concept that you find difficult to remember. Some examples are:

  1. all of the amino acid R groups, 
  2. stages of development according to various psychologists (Piaget, Erickson, Freud) 
  3. a list of 10-20 physics equations 
  4. a prototypical voltaic cell
  5. brain regions and their functions

Spend an hour during the day or two before your test to create this list ahead of time. Then practice copying this list down from memory over and over again until you can do so effortlessly. This allows you to memorize this information in your short-term memory, to augment your long term memory of these memorization-heavy concepts. Bring this list with you to the testing center so you can glance at it one last time before you head in to take your test. Copy it down again right before you sign in. This way you’ve written your cheat sheet down only 3-5 minutes before you start your test! Once you are seated in the exam chair, advance to the introduction section, and you will be given 10 minutes to copy this cheat sheet down before starting. Let the time slowly run down while you copy everything that you’ve practiced. Now you’ll have a cheat list that will save you plenty of time once your exam starts! 

Again, we want to simulate test-taking conditions as much as possible when taking MCAT practice tests. If you start with the end in mind, you will know that on test day, you will have your cheat list in front of you. So an option is to take your MCAT practice tests with this reference sheet in front of you! Hooray! Spend time crafting your reference sheet now to help with memorizing pesky physics equations! (However, we do recommend that you don’t take MCAT practice tests with the amino acid R groups in front of you as you should know them like the back of your hand even without the reference sheet)

COVID-19 testing addendum: If you are taking the MCAT with the COVID length sections, you will only be given 3 minutes + 90 seconds for the introduction and opening section page. We recommend only copying one memorization-heavy concept down in this time (all the amino acid R groups, 10-20 physics equations etc.)

Noise Cancelation and Screen Dimensions

The next two things you may notice when you sit down to take your test is the noise cancelation options and the dimensions of your screen. PearsonVUE testing centers offer two methods of noise cancelation for every student: over-the-ear headphones and ear-plugs. I tried both. In my experience, the headphones they offered were fine. They feel like ear protection for construction workers, not high-quality over-the-ear headphones. However, most people don’t like using ear plugs and opt for the headphones. I, however, decided to use ear-plugs. It’s a personal preference, but you should decide what method you’ll use right away and use that form of noise-cancellation for your MCAT practice tests. (But if you like studying with noise-canceling headphones, they buy a good pair and practice with them before test-day. I bought the pair that I linked and they’ve completely changed my studying game.) 

The next thing that may throw you off is the screen dimensions. The MCAT will be administered on Windows desktops (remember ALT+H for highlighting if you use a Mac!). If possible, take your MCAT practice tests on desktops with a mouse instead of a laptop. This will actually help you save time as you can navigate faster with a mouse. The dimensions of the test will also be squared (like an Instagram picture) with black bars on either side. While this may seem like an unimportant detail, the squared dimensions makes the CARS passages seem longer because you need to scroll more to get through them. Pro Tip: all CARS passage word counts are within a 50-word range, so they are actually the same length. So when taking MCAT practice tests, square your browser screen to simulate this effect.

COVID-19 testing addendum: If you are taking the MCAT with the COVID length sections, you will be required to test with a mask on. Using a mask and over-the-ear headphones simultaneously can hurt your ears and so we advise against this unless you practice beforehand. With social distancing, there will be half the students in your testing room and so you may not even need any form of noise-cancellation. We also recommend using a high-quality and BREATHABLE mask to help with breathing instead of face-fitted N95s.

Taking Breaks

Because the MCAT lasts almost an entire day, you will be allowed to take 3 breaks during your test-day experience. Your breaks will last 10, 30, and 10 minutes after your Chemistry and Physics, CARS, and Biology and Biochemistry sections respectively. To make the most of these breaks, successful test-takers will fuel up with both foods and liquids. We think of taking the MCAT as running a marathon. It’s long. It’s hard. This endurance requires a constant and consistent output of energy. Marathon runners refuel by eating protein bars and other healthy foods. As you may know from your studies, sugary foods burn fast and bright but lead to physical and cognitive crashes after they are used up. We recommend eating and drinking as you would for a marathon (including frequent bathroom breaks). However, finding your own balance is the most important aspect of MCAT nutrition. Experiment with nutrition during your breaks for your first few MCAT practice tests until you find out what works for you. For test-day, bring more food, water, and caffeine than you think you’ll need. Don’t forget to bring a water bottle too! 

A word on caffeine: Just as you want to maintain consistent levels of blood sugar to prevent crashes, make sure to keep a consistent caffeine intake if you choose to use it. It’s much better to sip on a caffeinated beverage at each of your breaks rather than chugging 2 coffees right before the test starts. I personally practiced with caffeinated Cliff Shot blocks so I didn’t have to pee as often from drinking too much liquid (caffeine is also a diuretic). If you feel yourself crashing before the final section, feel free to pound caffeine to get you over the final hump because you can always crash later. As a natural alternative or supplement, I also did push-ups and jumping jacks during my breaks to wake my body up. Keeping the blood flowing can restart your focus after sitting in front of a computer for hours on end. 

COVID-19 testing addendum: If you are taking the MCAT with the COVID length sections, you will have three 10 minute breaks after each section (replacing the middle 30-minute break with a 10-minute break).

At MCAT Self Prep, we are committed to helping you succeed on test day. That’s why we’ve created dozens of resources that we give out for free. If you have any specific questions, feel free to reach out to me using the form at the bottom of my tutoring page.

Warm regards,

Theo Bennett


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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