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Expert tips for MCAT success [Show Summary]
Todd Bennett, co-founder of The Berkeley Review and expert MCAT instructor, shares his best tips for preparing for and taking the test.
Todd Bennett, co-founder of The Berkeley Review and expert MCAT instructor [Show Notes]
Welcome to the 480th episode of Admissions Straight Talk, thanks for joining me. Before I introduce our guest today, I’d like to invite you to take Accepted’s Med School Admissions Quiz. Ask yourself, “Am I ready to apply to my dream medical schools? Am I competitive at my target programs?” Accepted’s Med School Admissions Quiz can give you a quick reality check, just go to accepted.com/medquiz, complete the quiz, and you’ll not only get an assessment but also actionable tips on how to improve your chances of acceptance. Plus, it’s all free.
Our guest today is Todd Bennett, whom I met many years ago. He was, at the time, the CEO of the Berkeley Review, and for the entire time, since I met him those many moons ago, he’s been an expert MCAT instructor, both for the Berkeley Review and on his own.
Is there anything new in terms of the MCAT and the MCAT prep world since we last spoke about a year ago? [1:55]
Well, the biggest thing is that COVID restrictions have basically simmered away and it’s no longer the same concern it was. The content hasn’t seemed to change much, but the delivery and all the stress and weird times looks like it’s just going to go back to the regular shot. So that’s the biggest thing. There are still some basic protocols, but it’s so much less stressful than it was during the pandemic.
How do you recommend students prepare for the MCAT? [2:42]
The biggest thing at the very start is to look at what you’re studying. The only company that puts out realistic questions that have been on the MCAT, or are very similar, is the AAMC. It’s the company that is responsible for the test. Start with their materials. They have an MCAT guide that’s the best thing on the market. All these people with “super secrets” are pretty much just people who’ve read that book from start to finish.
They’re pretty straightforward in what percentages of the questions they give, how they ask their questions, and what they’re looking for. If you start there and really analyze and break that down, you will realize that you don’t have to know the material at the same level you studied for college. It’s not that it’s harder or easier. It’s different in that you have to apply it.
I’ll take physics, for instance. It’s one of the topics I taught for many years. In college, people memorize equations, learn to do problems, show their work, box their answer, and pray for partial credit. That’s physics in a nutshell. On the MCAT, they’re going to talk about some experiment they do in biochemistry with some machine that uses an electric field, and they’ll want to know, “What’s true of this electric field if we turn up the voltage”, or, “What’s true if we move the plates further apart or closer together?” Suddenly you have to take that physics, and apply it to a bio experiment.
Getting used to that is the hardest thing I find people have to do. They spend so much time memorizing facts that they never take time to get used to what the questions and passages are like, and they get shocked when they start doing AAMC materials. It’s the number one reason why people postpone or have to repeat. My best advice is to start with the real deal, analyze it, learn what you can from it, and then start your study.
How much time should an applicant budget for MCAT prep? [4:42]
It starts with an honest look in the mirror and assessing what you know and what you don’t know. How did you take your class? Did you take one of those notoriously easy online classes? Or did you take a more challenging class? Figure out what you know and how much you’ve covered.
In general, I tell students that for chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and the psych/soc section, they should dedicate one week of review if they know it well and two weeks of review if they don’t know it so well. For biology, take anywhere from two to four weeks, because biology is so much more cumbersome. If you know your stuff really well, you can get your content organized in six weeks. If you don’t know it that well, maybe you need up to twelve weeks.
It starts with a self-assessment. That just gets you in the door. The biggest part after that review, is applying it to AAMC materials. They have released enough that you probably will take about three weeks to go through them.
Something very few people do is taking a week to get themselves together in the right emotional state, getting right amount of sleep, and just being ready to walk up to the test and say, “It’s going to be whatever it is. A few unexpected things might happen but I’m going to catch my breath, relax, take a deep breath, and get back on track.”
When you give us those estimates for how many weeks to dedicate to studying, how many hours does that include? [6:44]
Excellent point. Usually I’m looking at 50 to 60 hours a week of study time.
You’re absolutely right, the time really varies if you’re in school or out of school, if you’re a postbac, if you’re working full time, or if you have the summer all to yourself.
In terms of hours, it should be anywhere from 50 to 100 hours for chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and the psych/sosh and then anywhere from 100 to 200 hours for bio. This includes not only reviewing it, but doing questions and going over those questions.
It’s a lot of time, the average student puts in about 500 to 600 hours. They often don’t realize how much they put in until they look back at it. There’s a lot of time invested.
What advice or tips do you have for people taking the MCAT for the second or third time? [7:34]
This is always the hardest thing to do because there are two possibilities for why a score wasn’t what they expected. Number one is they weren’t as prepared as they thought they were. They were caught off guard and the test they took didn’t match what they thought they were going to take. Number two is there was a luck factor. I hate to say it but I think everybody knows that when you’re going to take the test, let’s say you’re estimating to get a 127 on each section, that’s just where you are, you could get all 128, you could get all 126’s or some concoction between 126 and 128 in every section. There’s a certain amount of dumb luck. You can’t count on dumb luck too much, but you have to be honest if maybe you just got beat up on that one test and have to take more practice tests.
For most people, my generic suggestion is to start over from something totally different. If you walk the same pathway, you end up the same place. Come in from a different angle. If you focused on flashcards and UWorld, that’s a really common combination, don’t do that next time. Instead, do nothing but practice questions in the beginning. Do Quizlet and maybe Berkeley Review materials. Do whatever you can to focus on questions as opposed to memorization. Change it up, because whatever you did the first time didn’t work the way you wanted it to. Make sure you know what to expect come test day. That’s the biggest thing.
Read: Improve Your MCAT Score for Medical School Acceptance >>
What about people who feel really good on the practice exams, but on the day of the exam they freeze? [9:13]
I think for the people who I’ve encountered over the years that fit in that category, from day one of studying, they know that’s a potential for them. I don’t know if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m sure that’s part of it in some cases, other times it’s just getting caught off guard. The best preparation, ask anybody in a medical field, especially if you’re in emergency response team, your training comes back to you. You train, train, train.
The first thing is your practice tests have to be the most realistic situations. It may sound silly to worry about the temperature, but you have to since computer rooms are cold. The second thing that I’ve heard from students that I think is pretty genius is to put yourself in a comfort zone so you can relax. I’m a big proponent of learning how to recover. You’re going to stress out, everybody stresses out at some point, some more than others. It isn’t avoiding stress because we need stress. Stress equals energy, if we use it the right way. You need to learn to recover, what gets you back on track, and look at the big picture. Sometimes it’s something as simple as a deep breath, massaging your hands, your shoulders, your jaw, or whatever helps. Find that thing and just practice.
See the big picture. If you make five mistakes, that’s five questions out of the pool, so you’re down to 54. No worries. If you can get 50 out of those 54, by staying calm, cool, and collected, you’re walking out with a 129 or 130 and that’s going to get you in anywhere you want to go.
The problem is the one question that just eats at your soul and you spend too much time on it and you let it haunt you while you’re doing the rest of the test. That’s where people usually run into that mental trouble.
Do you have any recommendations on how to shoehorn in a few more hours for MCAT prep into an already busy schedule? [12:56]
It’s kind of a weird starting point, but usually the first thing we did in class is made everybody calculate how many hours in a week. There are 168. If you sleep 8 hours a day and spend 2 eating, that’s 10 hours a day. So subtract 70 hours a week and you have 98 hours left. How do you spend your 98 hours? Maybe you’re commuting, but does commuting mean you can’t study? No. You just have to study differently. You’re at work for 40 hours, so be it, that’s still 50 something hours. You have to learn how to use those efficiently.
The problem is, people picture studying to look like sitting down for hours at a time with a book and answering questions. You have to chunk your time. The best advice I can ever give is to study for no more than 90 to 95 minutes at a time which is the length of a section. Every now and then fill in that 10 or 15 minutes of downtime you have. Let’s say, you finish work at 3:45 and you have another 15 minutes, use that time wisely.
Somebody came up with a genius idea years ago when we first started doing this. They took all the questions, put them on flashcards, put a loop in it and called it their pocket test. They turned it over and over again. It was genius. On one side was the question and the backside was an explanation. They had their pocket test that they always kept handy.
Find time, there’s always enough time to stop and tell somebody you have no time, so figure it out. It is really hard. I look at these students and I’m just amazed at what they sacrifice to do this. But they find a way to do it and med school is going to be the same thing. I
Is there any section of the MCAT that tends to trip up students more than any other? [15:21]
CARS is one of those sections you have or you don’t. That’s the natural one that comes to mind, but honestly, over the last few years, chemistry/physics has been the nemesis for far more people than I thought coming in. I think part of it is because it’s so different than what you did in school. In school, you memorize straight chemistry and physics but now, all of a sudden it’s physics and chemistry of bio systems or biological experiments, and it catches people off guard.
I think the hardest thing is, they see this very intimidating looking machine or passage and they do not trust it. They have the basic knowledge to be able to work their way through it, and there’s a confidence gap and an application gap that once they overcome, they realize the test is easier than they thought.
When you do the AAMC practice materials and you may get beat up and not feel good, but you read the answer and say, “Oh my gosh, that’s so simple.” Those little things start to add up and you realize it’s not hard, it’s just different.
What are the most common mistakes in MCAT prep that you see applicants making? [17:00]
Year in and year out, it’s the people who just focus so much on content review. They buy a book that covers all seven subjects and they figure reading the book is what they need and then when they start practicing and realize it’s not about content.
The best description is the MCAT is like an open book test on a book you haven’t read. If you’re memorizing a bunch of things you think are going to help you on a test, you’re making a mistake. Instead, you have to learn how to read things and figure them out as you go. It only comes from practice. You can only get this by doing passages and questions. You can’t develop it by memorizing and doing flashcards. I can’t tell you how many people, we’re talking like 80% of the people studying for the MCAT, study the wrong way. They waste so much time.
Do not be afraid to get stuff wrong and learn from it. It’s better to do a test and get three questions wrong and thoroughly go over it and learn it, then to read about everything and take practice and get everything but two of them right and think you know it. Learn from your mistakes.
What are your tips for the day before and the day of the MCAT exam? [18:32]
Everybody’s different. My personality type is I need to study to the last minute. I’m anxious, I’ve got the competitive streak and I have to be doing something. For other people, the best thing to do is go hike a mountain and not think about the test. Do whatever you do. Definitely get good sleep the whole week before the MCAT. You may not get the best sleep the night before so as long as you have a lot in the sleep tank, you’re going to be okay. Eat right and hydrate so you can go into that test energized. Plan your day. It’s the little things like traffic that can stress you out. Nobody needs to walk into the MCAT thinking they’re going to get there 15 minutes early and end up getting there five minutes late, stressed out of their mind. It can ruin the day.
Do a test run, go to your center, see what it’s like, know the nuances of traffic, know everything. Look at what the weather’s going to be. Have your backup plan. I’ll say, the students we’ve had who had either their parents, significant others, or a relative take them to the test always seem to do a little bit better. That support network is so important the day of the test.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [21:52]
You mentioned The Berkeley Review and I might just bring something up because for almost 30 years we ran the course. I loved it and it was the best part of my life. It was the greatest teaching in the world but we’re done.
I want to get a message out to anybody who has taken our course and is now applying and sees this or works with you – thank you for taking our class, it was a wonderful ride. Due to circumstances, it was just time. We ran our last class last summer and in the fall, we experimented with somebody else running it and it just didn’t work. It was time to end it. Thank you for being so supportive over the years. I’m in that transition phase and I still do some personal private tutoring for some of my former students, pro bono, because it’s who they are.
Will you take on any listeners from this podcast going forward? [22:48]
Yeah. I’ll still be doing some tutoring. The company was so ultra organized, now it’s a matter of figuring out what students need but for chemistry and physics, if you need help, I’ve got a lot of tricks still up my sleeve and a lot of materials to share. I want to figure out how to get those out there because the whole process is so expensive and it’d be nice to save a little money here and there. I’d love to put something out that’s free.
You can reach me via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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