To be completely honest, there is no single trick to getting a high score on the MCAT, and anybody who tries to tell you that they’ve “found out the secret” is bluffing. In other words, no study plan, method, or approach will work for everybody, as everybody comes into the test with very different academic foundations, goals, and learning styles. Although this obvious truth may be frustrating, it underscores the importance of personalizing one’s approach to the MCAT based on a number of factors: previous academic experience (How recently did you take your general sciences? How confident did you feel in mastery of the material? How comprehensive and rigorous were these courses?), your study timeline (How far away is your anticipated test date? Can you study full time or part time?), and your personal goals (Are you aiming for a specific regional location or medical school? Are you applying D.O. or M.D.? Are you hoping for a top 10 or a top 20 medical school?), etc. A number of preparation courses held by big test prep companies unfortunately ignore this student-to-student variance. As a result, it is important to find a personalized prep company and create study plan that is tailored to your needs.
Despite this variation, there are still a number of key themes, strategies, and rules of thumb, that can help guide your approach to this behemoth test. The following tips really shaped my MCAT study experience and helped me achieve a score of a 526. As a tutor and content creator for CurveSetter, I have passed these tips along to other students and seen them improve the scores and confidence of many test takers.
- First things first, sit down and make a study plan that is tailored to your needs. This plan will likely (and should) change slightly over time as you recognize your strengths and weaknesses, realize what pace of studying is most effective for you, and as things come up in your personal life. Having a study plan will keep you on track and hold you accountable. It will also make the MCAT seem less daunting, as you will learn to break the studying up into chunks and take it day by day. As for me, it gave me immense peace of mind knowing that I had time to cover all of the content and practice materials that I planned to. Furthermore, the simple act of crafting your own study timeline is helpful. It requires you to learn about what will be tested on the MCAT, according to the AAMC, and assess where you stand in each of these content areas, which will enable you to most effectively allocate your time based on your needs. For example, if you have never taken a Biochemistry course before, then you will need to dedicate much more time to this content than to general biology. Many preparation companies (such as Kaplan, Berkeley Review, and Princeton Review), have MCAT prep courses that consist of ‘live online’ or ‘in-person’ classes, which means that they will be set to a specific schedule and timeline that is largely out of your control. This is problematic for most students because each student has a different amount of weeks/months set aside for studying, and a different number of hours per day/week that they can dedicate to the MCAT. Furthermore, some students come in with a stronger physical sciences background and need to spend more time on CARS/psychology, whereas other students are the exact opposite. This immense variety amongst students means that creating your own study plan, alongside a personalized tutor, is generally the most effective method for studying for the MCAT.
- Follow the AAMC content guide closely. When you want to know specific information about what the MCAT covers, how it is structured, and how you will be tested, what better source to trust than the test creators themselves? It surprises me how few students know that the AAMC has provided, free of charge, an extensive and detailed list of all material that will be covered on the MCAT. Cross off topics that you have completed and circle or highlight once which you feel shaky on. Try not to simply follow the big prep companies’ content lists, because they often stray from the AAMC content guide – including excess and unnecessary information (such as momentum in physics) or leaving out information that is crucial.
- Although there is a lot of content to learn for the MCAT do not get bogged down in the content so much that you neglect the crucial importance of taking practice tests and completing all of the AAMC-provided practice materials. I always say that this is less of a content test and more of a strategy test. In other words, get the content down, and, once you feel solid on it, move onto dedicated practice time. Acquire test-taking strategies by taking practice tests and understanding the way you will be tested on the material. Learn from your own mistakes on these tests and review them carefully. Furthermore, learn strategies from other individuals who have taken the test before, received a high score, and currently attend or plan to soon enter medical school–these students are not far removed from the process of studying for or taking the MCAT.
- Which practice tests should I take and how should I take them? If possible, try to take the majority (if not all) of your practice tests in a library or other quiet study place, and not in your home. Hopefully you can find a library that is mainly quiet and where you can get a desk to yourself. At UCLA I used the Biomedical (Louise M. Darling) Library, and found a quiet single table on the upstairs floors. There are many reasons for this. First, you want to take your tests in an environment that you are not so comfortable in and one that is relatively novel to you. WHY? Because you will be taking your MCAT at a site that is new and unfamiliar to you, and if that is your first time taking the test out of your home then you will not be well prepared for the change in environment (from your usual, comfortable desk and chair at home) – this could affect your mind set on test day. Additionally, in a library or other unfamiliar study space there will be other students working around you and potentially some ambient low-level noise. This is very important. On the actual test day you will be in a room with many other students working away, scribbling on their scratch paper, coughing, sneezing, and maybe even tapping their feet (argh). So, you need to be prepared for and well-adjusted to these distractions, which you certainly won’t be if taking all your practice tests in your own study space.
Finally, try to focus on practice questions, passages, and tests provided directly by the AAMC, which you can purchase directly from their website. These are the most representative of what you will see on the actual MCAT. If you need additional practice tests, try to access free trial tests from a few from different prep companies (not all from one company). This is because each company has a slightly different style of creating these practice tests, as well as different strengths and weaknesses in their practice tests, so getting a variety will be the most helpful.