Five Tips for Studying for the MCAT
The MCAT is one of the biggest obstacles on your way to getting into medical school. If you have decided to do something as fun and amazing as going to medical school then you need to give yourself the best options available and do your best on the MCAT. The amount of fear and anxiety that come with studying for the MCAT is only comparable to the number of rumors, myths and websites/blogs on the topic. Be careful of what you read and who you talk to. While people may be well-meaning, we are all individuals with our own quirks and strengths — and sometimes the best advice is no advice at all.
Nonetheless, below are five tips that are definitely valuable and appropriate for ANYONE taking the MCAT. So take a moment to read through each, think about how it applies to you, and be proactive about applying the tip to your best advantage. GOOD LUCK on the MCAT.
1. Take practices tests early and do many of them
Take your first full length practice exam MONTHS ahead of your actual test date – there are many reasons for this. Primarily, you may think you know what the test is like but you will not actually know the feeling of the test until you’ve been through one. Secondly, the MCAT is unlike any test you have ever taken before. You may actually fare better in some subjects than you anticipate and do worse in others – before you hit the books and try to boost your score make sure you know where you are STARTING. There will be a direct relationship between the number of questions, and better yet full exams, you do and your final test day score. Understand that this does not mean that doing questions solely will prepare you sufficiently for the exam. You should take one full exam at the beginning and then take one periodically (i.e. every couple of days/weeks depending on how long you’re studying for) until you’re closer to actual test day – then you should take tests more frequently. Note that these tests, like the real thing, are quite exhausting and they take time to review. A final note on practice tests – DO NOT GET BOGGED DOWN IN YOUR MCAT SCORES ON PRACTICE TESTS – all practice tests have flaws and biases. They will not be your true score and it’s hard to predict whether you will score higher or lower on actual test day. Instead of spending hours online trying to figure out how people fared on the real test given such and such score on a certain practice test – just focus on how the test went – how did you feel during? After? Overall did you improve or slide back a little? What were your strengths and weaknesses?
2. Have a concrete study schedule
Developing a schedule, whether it is part of a program you have enrolled in or is self-designed, is vital to success on the MCAT. The act of creating the schedule will help orient you to how much material there is to review and how much time you have to do it – do NOT underestimate the amount of material that can be covered and the fact that truly learning and reviewing material takes time – REAL TIME. Make sure your schedule is two things: 1) Realistic and 2) Flexible.
Unlike the old adage about shooting for the stars – there is indeed a downside to overly optimistic study schedules. If you say you’re going to learn 10 chapters in a day and then only get through three you will feel anxious and upset that you’ve “failed” and yet what you’ve accomplished is realistic for a student in your position. This should not be misinterpreted as setting low standards – instead really take a moment to figure out how many free hours you have in a day and how long studying will take so that you can make a plan that works. That way when you fall short you know something went seriously wrong and when you complete your tasks successfully you can hit the sack that night with a solid sense of accomplishment. Secondly, flexibility is crucial because despite all your precious planning and good intentions, *stuff* happens, and you may need to be able to give yourself more time to study a particularly difficult subject etc. Finally, after you’ve developed a schedule its usefulness will come in handy when small failures to meet deadlines will ostensibly become big holes in your agenda which you will be faced to address PRONTO.
3. Know yourself and adjust accordingly
The MCAT is an attempt to take individuals with different backgrounds, strengths, and dreams and assign a number to their probability of success in medical school. It’s fairly ridiculous. That being said, it is a necessary evil. Just because the system will treat you as one of many does not mean that you have to treat yourself in a similarly generic way. You have one big asset and it’s that you have been granted almost two decades of intimate knowledge of yourself – NOW USE IT! It’s time to sit down and really think about your high school and college years.
Ask yourself questions like:
- What do I need to study efficiently?
- Good rest?
- Coffee or tea?
- Quiet or busy café?
- Charged laptop?
- No internet?
- Do I work best for 3 hours straight without stop (unlikely) or do I work best with 5 minute stretch breaks every 45 min or do I work best with 15 min coffee breaks every 1.5 hrs?
- Do I work best in the morning or at night?
Spend some time figuring out what your mind and body need to work optimally and then make sure they get it!
4. Make adjustments as you progress towards test day
As you’ve probably heard many times over – studying for the MCAT is not a sprint, it is a marathon. This concept cannot be underestimated. Make sure you don’t start your marathon too slowly and have to sprint at the end, you’ll hate yourself and be hurting, and make sure you don’t start too fast and then have to watch people pass you while you pant away. Furthermore, if you’re anything like a long distance runner you might find that you can get become quite involved in the moment and sometimes forget where along the long path you actually are. So, take a moment every once in a while to check in. How far have you come? How much further do you have to go? What does that mean in terms of adjusting your speed or effort? Sometimes you may not see the forest for the trees – so take a moment now and again so that you can save yourself a lot of heartache down the road.
5. Learn from your mistakes AND from your successes
Sometimes the consistency and simplicity of studying from a review book can seem like an ultimate pleasure compared to the triumphs and tribulations of quizzes and tests but do not allow yourself to spend hours reviewing without actually testing what you’ve learned. In addition to being able to determine whether you’ve actually learned what you set out to learn, you can adjust your learning techniques appropriately. Reviewing your quizzes and tests isn’t straightforward. Just because you got a problem wrong doesn’t mean you need to spend an hour reviewing that topic in your review book and just because you answered a problem correctly doesn’t mean you’ve aced that topic and never have to look back. When you get a problem wrong – take a moment to figure out why: did you misread the question? Did you forget to look at the graph provided? Were you lacking fundamental understanding in a subject matter? If you find that you have gotten MULTIPLE problems wrong in a similar subject matter then spend time reviewing the topic in detail but make sure the effort you spend is proportional the likelihood that you’ll be presented with that question/topic again. On the other side of the coin, just because you got a problem right doesn’t mean you truly understand it – make sure you do by being able to explain why the other answers are wrong.
At the end of the day – make sure you take care of yourself. Eat well, sleep enough and make sure your life outside of school and studying continues to exist. Spend time with friends and family. Have faith that in the end things will be okay if you just put one foot in front of the other and keep going. Now take a deep breath and GET STARTED studying for the MCAT.
Monique Roberts is a student at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in her 4th year of medical school. She earned her A.B. from Princeton University in 2009, graduating with Honors in Political Science. She’s a Senior Tutor for MyGuru, a provider of in-person and online 1-1 tutoring and test prep. MyGuru provides customized, 1-1 MCAT tutoring through a small team of elite tutors, as well as tutoring for most other standardized tests. You can get in touch with Monique or MyGuru by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org