Studying for the MCAT

I studied for my MCAT across a couple of months, while working full-time. Conquering the MCAT is quite a feat, but the journey towards it can be both trying and rewarding, simultaneously.

It’s amazing to see yourself demonstrate an incredible amount of knowledge, harnessed through your pre-med classes and fine-tuned as you study.

Taking the time to study can be difficult, especially if you need to work to pay off bills or can’t afford to take a summer to study. Moreover, prep courses and books are expensive! It’s worth the time investment to review, but in my and several of my friends’ experiences, you don’t need a class to do well on the MCAT.

Here are some of my tips as you study:

  • Set a schedule: Linked here is a schedule for how I would study for the MCAT in 3-months. I based off several different programs I found online, as well as advice from friends. I took my MCAT in junior year, but I wrote this one as if I had planned to take it the summer after graduating (just subtly introducing the idea of a gap year here
    🤗 ). I added a row to list what my day-to-day commitments would look like so I could ensure my schedule was reasonable. The schedule, however, is only as good as your word; register for the test day and hold yourself to it.
  • Pretend that all the material is new: I tried to read page-to-page all the Kaplan’s study books (protip: ask a friend for their used set before they burn it) and made sure I attempted the questions and reviewed my answers a few hours later. I found this mindset helpful as it helped me study intentionally and critically.
  • Hindsight is 20/20: I did not use Anki Flashcards (a staple in medical school) or check out the MCAT Reddit Pages, but my friends highly recommend these. Check them out!
  • When you can read no more, listen: I also watched all the MCAT videos on Khan Academy. At one point, I recorded myself reading notes allowed and listened to “the podcasts” when I went for walks (and tried not to cringe at my voice).
  • Focus on the practice tests: Take as many practices tests as you can (e.g., Kaplan, Princeton Review, AAMC, etc.), and be sure to 1) simulate test conditions, and 2) review and explain your answers in the evening. Mimicking test conditions helped me to develop stamina and pacing so that I could reasonably expect myself to answer as many questions as possible and not tire myself out on test day. In reviewing my test results in the evening, I took notes on everything I got wrong and everything I was surprised to get right. You’re looking for improvement; take one early in your study plan and set that as your baseline. If I remember correctly, I scored around more than 10 points higher on test day than on my first practice test.
  • Prioritize self-care: It’s okay to take breaks or a day-off. You know your limits the best. While studying can seem all-consuming, I have noticed that I do better on exams when I feel rested, eat well, and sleep. Time management isn’t necessarily about fitting more in your day. I think it’s about working more effectively so that you can reach your goals, and stay healthy.
You should find this comic funny and not take this to heart, but I understand the temptation and nearly bought caffeine pills once.

Your study style is likely to be different from mine. I jazzed my studying up with notecards, drawings, and podcasts. Feel free to get creative. You have to find what works for you, and you will. Believe in yourself; you’ve already got this far!

Taking the MCAT: Having gone through 3-5 practice tests, you should have a good grasp on what test day will feel like to you. I would try to go about the actual test day as your last practice test. Take the day before to do something fun and de-stress. Pack your favorite high energy & healthy snacks and drinks. Wear comfy clothes, listen to your favorite pep talk, practice some mindful breathing and go!

Take advantage of your breaks to de-stress and compartmentalize; each section is graded independently. I left test day feeling exhausted, and a bit skeptical, but I knew I put in the hard work and trusted that something at least decent would come out of it (i.e., you’re looking for a 508 or higher for most M.D. schools). While you can look at MSAR for average accepted and matricualted MCAT scores, I think it’s important to think about the long-term; higher MCAT scores may get you into higher-ranked, research-focused medical schools but they don’t necessarily indicate you will do better in medical school. As the AMA reports:

The average MCAT score for students who matriculated to medical school in 2018–2019, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, was 511.2. Based on recent data, if you scored in the average range, your chances of advancing from your first year of medical school to your second year were extremely high—98 percent of students scoring between 510–513 did so. The numbers only dipped slightly, however, for those who scored 10 points lower, with students who entered medical school with MCAT scores between 498–501 progressing to year two at a 94 percent rate.

MCAT scores and medical school success: Do they correlate?

After the test, reunite with your friends and remind them that you’re still here.

While you’re waiting for your score, keep your mind busy with other responsibilities or fun activities. When you get your score, pat yourself on the back!! You worked hard! If your score is within the confidence interval of what is acceptable to you, hooray! If it’s not, don’t worry and read a bit below. Regardless, you’re one step closer to getting into medical school.

Re-taking the MCAT: If your score is lower than you expected, it’ll be fine. Your practice and studying did not go to waste. You can build off from it. You can retake the MCAT. You can assess what you should do differently, and you can put your plan into action.

However, you should retake it only if it’s a score that won’t get you in to someplace you’d be happy to go, and if you know you have the time to study to score significantly higher (e.g., I’ve heard at least 4 points higher). You will likely be asked about it, and it’s hard to explain a score that’s lower than the first. However, you might be asked about it even if your second score is higher. For example, if you scored a 514 but wanted a 521, what would you say to an interviewer who said something like, “Wow, you improved an excellent score to an excellent score. Had you not retaken the MCAT, how would you used all that time you spent studying for a second attempt?”

At the end of the day, you need to do whatever is necessary for you to feel confident in applying for medical school. The strongest type of confidence is well-justified.

Best of luck and work hard! You can do it!

Hope this helps!

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