Nearly a year ago to the day, I wrote my highly popular blog post “How I Prepared for the MCAT in Only a Month.” I wrote it with the intent to show others that the MCAT does not have to be as scary as it seems, and I’m glad it has received such a positive response! Since then, a great number of my readers have reached out to me for advice about to how to study for the MCAT. Therefore, while the test has changed since I took it, I have decided to write this follow up post to offer some more tips that will be applicable to those taking the new MCAT as well as anyone facing a big exam. Within this post, I will cover my general strategy for studying – plan, practice, and personalize – as well as address some general concerns about the exam.
Plan, Practice, and Personalize
The MCAT covers an overwhelming amount of information. This makes it difficult to even determine where to begin. Whether you have 4 weeks or 4 months to prepare for the exam, it is best to start by sitting down, looking at your schedule, and planning realistic checkpoints for your progress. When I planned, I set aside the first half to cover all of the information necessary (with equal time devoted to each section) and the second half to polish up my knowledge and testing skills. This last part is the most important – knowing the information is important but being able to apply it in a testing situation is just as important.
This is that important part that I just mentioned. You need to do practice problems and then keep doing practice problems. As I’ve written about in my Almost Docs article 5 Precise Techniques to Become the Most Effective Learner Ever, it is important to study in the format of the exam – i.e. if you were taking an exam with free response questions, then you should prepare by doing free response questions. Since the MCAT is a multiple-choice exam, you should prepare by doing multiple-choice questions. There is a great deal of practice exams available for the MCAT. Make sure to check them out.
On top of that, do these problems over and over. Another point made in my article is that you need to learn, forget, and relearn the material to better retain the information. Therefore, doing practice exams with enough time between to forget the questions will help you get even more out of them (especially when you have to pay for the practice exams!)
One concern I’ve noticed is whether to do a complete practice test or do one section at a time. Mostly I’ve heard people talking about doing the former, not as much the latter, but both can have their benefits. In fact, I’m a proponent of the latter.
The MCAT is a pretty long exam (and it’s only getting longer). One its challenges is keeping focused and on top of your game throughout the entire test. If you read my previous post, you’ll have found that about halfway through all I could think about was what food I wanted to eat (oops). Doing complete practice tests can help you improve your endurance for testing to handle the mental strain for such a long period of time.
On the other hand, doing just one section at a time keeps you focused on the information covered in that section. If you’re studying biology this keeps you focused on biology, for example. This will especially come in handy for the last part of the strategy – personalize.
Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and it is important to identify these to make your studying most effective. I did this by thoroughly going through each practice question with an emphasis on those I got wrong or those that I got right but was unsure of my reasoning. Most practice tests have explanations for the answers given – work to understand these! I kept one word document specific for taking note of these explanations that served as a personalized high yield set of notes that I looked back at as the exam approached. By doing just one section at a time, I was able to better remember my reasoning for my answer so that I could determine if it matched that given. This also helped me figure out what areas I needed to go back and study more so that I didn’t waste time looking at subjects that I was more comfortable with.
While this is a general description of how to study for the MCAT, it can be applied to any section whether its verbal reasoning or physical sciences. The main point is identifying your weaknesses and putting your focus on those so that you don’t waste effort on studying your stronger subjects. This will make your preparation for the MCAT as efficient and effective as possible.
With that, grad school and med school calls! If you look back at my posts on the blog, you’ll notice that there hasn’t been one in quite a while and those two things are to blame! If you have any questions about the MCAT that would be helpful for me to address to help others, feel free to put them in the comments or send me an e-mail. Happy studies!