As an MCAT student concerned about crafting your perfect exam strategy, you might be feeling overwhelmed. You may have heard about numerous MCAT strategies – highlighting the passage, taking notes, reading the questions first, skipping around, etc. Which should you choose? And even once you settle on a larger strategy, you’ll find various ways to carry it out: do you take notes on each paragraph? Do you only write down the main idea, or are there certain terms you should always make note of?
Or perhaps you are entirely new to the MCAT and have never heard of any of these strategies. Either way, stop right here. Before becoming lost in a spiral of strategy-related panic, take a deep breath. You do not have to choose your ideal strategy before beginning your prep, and it is perfectly fine if that strategy evolves over time. What you do need, however, is a solid idea of where to begin.
If you have not done so already, the very first step you should take is to complete a diagnostic test. This diagnostic should be taken before beginning any content review and before committing to one MCAT strategy. Many students feel nervous at this prospect – won’t taking an exam before covering any content result in a very low score? While it might, the purpose of a diagnostic is not to obtain a predictive MCAT score. In fact, your diagnostic score tells you very little about the score you will attain on your official MCAT. Instead, the diagnostic gives you the information needed to shape your early prep, while also exposing you to the look, feel, and time constraints of the real exam. Many test prep companies offer free diagnostics, and these are usually shorter than the official exam, so you do not need to worry about jumping right in to a seven-hour test. You can sign up to access our free half-length diagnostic exam here.
Once you finish your diagnostic test, it’s time to analyze your results. Here, unlike your review of practice exams later in the process, your main goal is not to break down every single question and draw lessons from your mistakes. Of course, this is important to do, but you’ll likely find that many of your missed questions are content points where you did not have the slightest clue. You will see this content later, so instead of attempting to master it now, focus on the big picture and what it means for your future strategy. Did you run out of time on one or more sections? If so, your strategy may need to prioritize speed and efficiency. Did you finish with plenty of time remaining, but find that you missed questions that were clearly answered in the passage? You may need a strategy that emphasizes slowing down and absorbing information. Do you notice any patterns in the types of questions you missed, or in their location in the section (for example, missing most of your questions in the last few passages)? This information is as good as gold when it comes to shaping your strategy later.
You’ll notice that we have not yet mentioned analysis of the content on the diagnostic. For example, say that your score in the Biological & Biochemical Foundations section was your lowest by two points. This may well mean that you should pay special attention to biology and biochemistry throughout your prep, but it does not mean that you should focus on these subjects above all others. Too many students use their diagnostic results alone to judge their content mastery (“I missed most of the organic chemistry questions, so organic chem must be my weakest topic!”) while neglecting to consider that the diagnostic is only one exam. Take the information it gives you and use it to shape your prep, but keep this prep well-rounded until you have completed more practice and can be certain of your strengths and weaknesses.
In our next post, we will discuss the specifics of some of the MCAT strategies we referenced here. For now, we wish you the best of luck as you begin your MCAT journey!
Clara Gillan is one of Next Step Test Prep MCAT Experts. Clara, who scored a 526 on her own MCAT, has a lead role in Next Step’s MCAT Content Development and is one of their online course instructors and Premium MCAT tutors.