The MCAT: the daunting test that hangs over every pre-medical student’s head. Diligently studying for the MCAT is a signifier of one’s commitment to medicine, but students often find it difficult to prepare in a regimented, focused, coherent manner when they’re juggling a plethora of other demanding responsibilities, such as academics, extra-curricular activities, and of course, the medical school applications.
However, if students are proactive and strategic, they can prepare for the MCAT quite effectively. Readying oneself for the MCAT is as much about timing, repetition, and stamina as it is about knowledge and analysis. Following a few guidelines in the months leading up to the test can make all the difference in wholly preparing a student for success.
1. Sign up for professional test prep
Private test prep can be costly, but worth the investment. It is invaluable in that it provides students with myriad resources, including detailed review books that cover all necessary content for every portion of the test. Perhaps even more importantly, these forms of prep force students to be regimented by holding them accountable for thoroughly reading through the review books and completing assignments in order to get the adequate amount of practice needed. Following the structured lesson plan that professional MCAT tutoring provides can effectively jump-start students into studying with the appropriate practice materials by their sides.
This one may sound obvious, but the MCAT requires such a large quantity of scientific knowledge that it is imperative that students begin preparing several months before they take the actual exam. Furthermore, given that the science sections cover all of the introductory science courses that students take in college or post-baccalaureate programs, much of the material will not be fresh when students begin studying. Therefore, it may take much longer than one would think to review and master all of the requisite science content. Starting to prepare at least three to four months before the exam date is essential, as students need plenty of time to review, absorb, and apply the knowledge.
Every MCAT test-taker will have reviewed the science material and practiced verbal passages ad nauseum. However, not every examinee will have built up the stamina necessary to get through the four-hour test without losing focus, and hence, making careless errors. Students must hone their endurance by taking at least 10 full-length practice tests prior to their test day. Doing this will reduce fatigue by making the actual experience of taking the exam less of grueling task and more of an intellectual exercise.
This tip is two-pronged. First, students should schedule their studying strategically. The professional test prep should be spent mastering the science material and practicing verbal passages. Only then should students begin taking full-length practice tests with regularity; this ensures that when students sit down and begin applying their knowledge, they can do so with confidence and be assured that the scores from their practice tests are indicative of their potential scores on the real test. If students did not compartmentalize their studying and instead took full-length practice tests while learning the material, their practice would be nowhere near as productive or beneficial. Secondly, students should only take the test when they have enough down time to focus solely on the MCAT and nothing else (e.g. during the summer, winter break, spring break, etc.)
Often, students are prepared for the content and analysis that the test requires, but not for the time-pressure. One pitfall that students fall into is practicing passages and full-length tests without practicing pacing as well – eight to nine minutes per passage. Students get used to comprehending passages and answering questions at a comfortable pace, yet the test, along with the time it allots, is anything but comfortable. To maximize success and prepare oneself for test day, students must mimic the reality of the test as closely, and as frequently, as possible. This means starting to time oneself early on, perhaps after the first full-length practice test or two, and thereby getting used to the speed that the test requires.
The majority of a student’s MCAT performance relies on diligence, knowledge base, and analytical skills. However, these five steps are certainly key to students putting themselves in the best position possible for test day.
Author Garrett Greenan is a private MCAT tutor and contributing writer for Varsity Tutors. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biology from the University of Pennsylvania and will be attending the University of Maryland School of Medicine in the fall of 2013.
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