If you ask any friend who scored exceptionally high on the MCAT for studying advice, they are likely to tell you two things: take lots of practice tests and master the content through self-testing. We’ve already covered how to take practice tests in other blog posts, so for now let’s focus on self-testing.
Self-testing can involve many layers, from practice problems to mental outlines, but the basic principle is creating scenarios for yourself where you are forced to recall information about the material you studied. The beauty of self-testing is that it doesn’t even matter how accurately you can recall information; the physical act of recall is what strengthens the connections in your brain on a cellular level (this process is called long term potentiation for all the nerds out there). When active recall is paired with spaced-repetition, this strengthens these mental connections more and more. Educational researchers have spent decades trying to understand how we all learn best and this form of self-testing wins out every time.
For most of us, flashcards are the simplest method of self-testing. You may remember making physical flashcards to learn a language or study for an exam in high school. However, with technology at our disposal, making flashcards has never been easier or more organized. You can even find new, creative ways to make flashcards on your own. However, if you are looking for tried and true methods that have enabled hundreds of the top scorers in the past, look no further than Quizlet and Anki.
Quizlet is probably the flashcard software that you are most familiar with. The user interface is intuitive and user-friendly. There are hundreds of pre-made decks for the MCAT that you can search through if you don’t have the time or patience to make your own cards. However, Quizlet recently removed their spaced-repetition software and so there is no great way to only review the cards that you need to revisit. Our best advice is to star the cards that you miss and come back to the decks that you’ve done after 2 days, a week, and once a month so that all of that information stays in your long-term memory. Another downside is that some of the advanced features like self-testing with images cost extra.
If you haven’t heard of Anki by now, you probably haven’t talked to anyone in medical school. Anki, with spaced-repetition self-testing, has truly revolutionized medical education as we know it. Anki allows medical students, and MCAT test-takers, to store massive amounts of information in long-term memory. Think of Anki as a bare-bones version of Quizlet, except with an algorithm that dictates when you see new cards. After you reveal the answer to a given flashcard, you tell the algorithm whether that card was easy, medium, or hard for you. If it was hard, you may see that card the next day. If it was easy, you may see it in 5 days. Gradually, the intervals lengthen and so if you choose medium repeatedly for a card you would see it after 2, 4, 8, 12, and then 20 days for example.
Anki also allows you to create cards using screenshots on your computer. You can choose which area of the image you want to cover and then the “back of the flashcard answer” will reveal that area. Again, you can choose whether it was easy, medium, or hard to recall that visual answer.
The only downside to Anki is that there is a significant start-up cost associated with learning how to use the application. It’s free which is nice, but if you want to download Anki to an iPhone that will also cost you $25. To learn to use Anki, I would recommend watching some great Youtube tutorials because Anki is hard to figure out at first. These two video tutorial channels helped me a lot. Definitely figure out how to use image occlusion and close deletions for your card types and get a few more addons. Here is the list the addons that I ended up using.
Whether you end up using Quizlet or Anki, there are options to use pre-made decks. If you are short on time, pre-made Anki decks can help save time. But if you plan on dedicating a few months to MCAT studying, please… MAKE YOUR OWN CARDS. This will force you to actively engage in the learning process and your increased score will reflect that.
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