In the next section of our Medical School Reapplicant Advice: 6 Tips for Success series, we’ll move from increasing your GPA to improving your MCAT score.
Fortunately, it’s easier to tackle a poor MCAT score than a poor GPA. While you should not retake the exam too many times (don’t bother retaking if you’ve scored above a 30), a better-prepared second or possibly third attempt can be a sound strategy.
Many people find that studying independently or with a group of friends works well. Reviewing your old class notes and introductory tests provides the most solid basis for your test preparation. Scrutinizing old tests remains one of the best ways to identify the areas where you’re weak. And, as Baylor College of Medicine recommends, practice the test questions “until they come out of your ears.”
There are numerous resources available for self-study. The AAMC should be both your first and last stop. Focusing on their practice tests, both at the start of your study and again in the weeks leading up to the exam, can put you in the right frame of mind. Alongside the AAMC guides, the Princeton Review comes highly recommended for studying the physical section, while Examkrackers tops the list for both the verbal reasoning and biological sections. (Note that a new optional trial section has replaced the writing component as of January 2013.)
For some people, professional test prep services can give their MCAT preparation a jump start. Taking an MCAT prep class doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a good score – you get out of them what you put in – but they can help by providing structure and keeping test-takers focused and on track. They can also really force you to tackle head-on those areas you’d rather avoid.
Whichever method you prefer, your goals in preparing for the MCAT should be to:
1. Understand why you got each wrong answer. If you understand the material, you may be having issues with the format of the question, and this is something you need to straighten out before test day.
2. Be able to choose right answers even when you don’t know the material. It’s unlikely that you can answer every question, but a keen test taker can read clues in the question that help narrow down the possible answers.
3. Finish every question in your timed practice tests with at least five minutes to spare.
And it’s a good idea not only to focus on what you’re studying but how you’re studying. Your university most likely has a wealth of information on study habits, like these helpful handouts from Princeton University, while sites like Lifehacker collect information about topics such as managing stress and establishing routines. Better time management and more effective study habits will help you not just on this exam but in your later studies.
If you identified test anxiety as one of your obstacles, then you have to address this before tackling the MCAT a second (or third) time. Exercise, breathing techniques and yoga can help alleviate stress for some people; other test-takers might benefit from addressing learning disorders and engaging in psychotherapy, as the Mayo Clinic suggests. College counseling centers, like the University of Washington’s, even offer biofeedback training as an option to combat test anxiety. And putting the books away and relaxing the day before seems to be a pretty standard ingredient for success. But only you can know what works best for you.
So how will you know when you’re ready to retake the MCAT? Again, this is a question that only you can answer, based on your performance in practice tests and your confidence levels. But try to sign up for an early exam so you can get your application to AMCAS in June. By counting backwards from your test date, you’ll be able to determine how much time you have to study, and what arrangements you’ll need to make to be as prepared as you possibly can be. (Some people consider studying for the MCAT a full-time job. This is great if it helps you get in the mindset of intense study, but try to maintain a good work-life balance or you’ll be miserable. If you manage your time well, you’ll also be able to eat healthy meals, exercise, pursue some semblance of a social life, and even sleep!)
In the end, there is no magic formula that guarantees MCAT success. Nonetheless, knowing yourself, including your study habits and needs, will go a long way toward building your confidence.
Next we’ll look at ways your experiences section can be strengthened. If you’d like to know more about formulating a study schedule and sticking to it, our Accepted.com editors would be happy to help.
By Cydney Foote, Accepted consultant and author of Write Your Way to Medical School, who has helped future physicians craft winning applications since 2001.