The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a notoriously difficult obstacle in the process of becoming a medical professional. Typically taken during junior or senior year of college, the MCAT is possibly the most influential component of one’s application to medical school. This is not a test you can cram for, as most students spend two to four months in preparation. Here are five tips you should consider before starting out on your journey of conquering the MCAT:
1. Know the test
You need to figure out exactly what you’re up against so you can best formulate a plan of attack. As of 2013 (though the test will soon be changing again), the MCAT is comprised of three sections: Physical Sciences (PS), Verbal Reasoning (VR), and Biological Sciences (BS). Each section is scored from 1-15 with a cumulative score topping out at 45. While you are allotted 70 minutes to answer 52 questions in each of the science portions, the verbal section contains only 40 questions spread over 60 minutes. Perhaps the biggest difference from your college exams is that the MCAT is entirely computer-based. There are no scantrons to bubble in or essays to hand-write, requiring a drastic adjustment in order to efficiently navigate the testing environment.
The MCAT directly tests content knowledge with a heavy emphasis on analytical skills. This means you need to be well-acquainted with a variety of college-level subjects. Specifically, the Physical Sciences section incorporates physics and general chemistry topics while the Biological Sciences section involves general biology and organic chemistry, all staple pre-medical classes you should take before considering sitting for the MCAT.
2. Make a study schedule
Studying for the MCAT is a marathon, not a sprint. Dedicate a few hours everyday to MCAT prep over the span of a few months; don’t plan to confine your studying just to coffee breaks and weekends. Despite already being exposed to the content matter in college, any good study schedule begins with an in-depth review of those topics. Slowly and methodically step through each topic, soaking in the nuances that you may have forgotten over the years. Make sure to integrate as many practice passages as possible into your studies, as they will help you adjust to the MCAT-style questions while also providing valuable diagnostic tools as to which topics you need to spend more time on. Compile your study resources, whether they be helpful websites, review books, or a tutor, and figure out how to effectively combine them all into one cohesive schedule.
3. Use official AAMC resources
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the organization responsible for administering the MCAT, publishes a bevy of resources that can help you ace the test. This includes several past MCAT exams (available at www.e-mcat.com) where you can gauge your progress and predict where you are likely to score on the test itself. In addition to these full-length practice exams, the AAMC offers a Self-Assessment package: five subject-specific tests that exhaustively cover nearly every topic. While these study resources are only available for purchase, other study resources are free. Of these, the official content outlines found here are hidden gems. This lists everything you should know going into test day. If it’s on the list, it can show up on your exam!
Take as many practice exams as you can fit into your schedule, but be sure to simulate actual testing conditions. You cannot text, run to the restroom, or have a quick bite to eat during the MCAT, so apply the same rules during your practice exam. For instance, if your test is in the early morning, develop a morning routine that you can follow on test day.
4. Evaluate your weaknesses
The MCAT tests a wide variety of topics, so even the best student will begin preparations with numerous knowledge gaps. The ability to identify weaknesses and focus on eliminating them during your studying is integral to scoring high on the exam. Some of these weaknesses may be apparent before starting out. If you struggled in Organic Chemistry I, be honest with yourself and make sure to concentrate on learning and understanding those topics. Practice exams and passages may reveal weak topics that you were not aware of previously. Closely examine questions you answered incorrectly, or guessed on, and look for patterns. Is kinematics giving you a problem? Go back and review some physics! Be responsible and attentively recognize these weaknesses so you are not discouraged when your least favorite topic springs up on the real MCAT, as they often tend to do!
5. Don’t underestimate the Verbal Reasoning section
Unlike the science sections, Verbal Reasoning offers less tangible ways of improvement. There are no classes you can take, no review books to read, and no content to master. It’s no surprise that this section is typically a premedical student’s worst nightmare and, unfortunately, tends to drag down many MCAT scores. While you should focus on developing a mastery of the subject material in the sciences, Verbal Reasoning requires a very different preparation technique. Success on this portion of the MCAT is all about gaining an intuition as to which parts of a passage are important to concentrate on and what the test-makers are inclined to ask of you. You should incorporate practice passages into your daily routine and heavily review those in addition to practice exams. Don’t be discouraged by an apparent lack of improvement, as Verbal Reasoning scores tend to take longer to increase. Just make sure you keep practicing and don’t ignore it!
Jeff Epstein is a professional MCAT tutor and contributing writer for Varsity Tutors. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Molecular Biology from Princeton University.