What’s the best way to study for the MCAT? Should I use flashcards?

What’s the best way to study for the MCAT?

Something that frustrated me while I was studying for the MCAT was the gamut of opinions that existed on what was the best way to study and prepare for this test. One day I heard that previous reading experience (from academic experiences, having a specific major, or from reading as a hobby) wouldn’t be give you an edge on the CARS section. How silly is that? That’s like saying that having previous general chemistry experience won’t improve your grade in an organic chemistry class. Of course it will! And of course reading experience will boost your reading comprehension skills (that’s not to say that you can’t master CARS as a novice reader – it’s never too late to start acquiring this experience!). Furthermore, one day I would hear that flashcards were useless, and another day I’d hear the opposite. As a result, I was completely confused and overwhelmed.

From my experiences studying for the MCAT, taking the MCAT, and tutoring for this test, I have realized one universal truth – what is “best” for one student may not be best for another student. Although there are a number of strategies, tips, and general approaches that I would recommend, your study approach should depend on your learning style. If flashcards have worked for you in the past, then they will work again on the MCAT to cement new concepts. That’s not to say that they will improve your strategy or analytic skills, because that is a different battle, but they will improve your memory of those concepts.

The truth is, when you sit down to take the MCAT you are working rapidly and under high pressure. What remains in your mind is those general strategies that you have practiced, and the concepts that you have committed to memory. Although the majority of the test will rely upon your ability to problem solve and analyze dense passages, your memory of these concepts will also be a crucial aspect. Therefore, use whatever means necessary to improve your memory. I used flashcards that I created for some of the formulas, chemistry reactions, and terms (especially for psychology & sociology) that proved initially difficult for me to commit to memory. I also posted sticky notes, diagrams, and charts around my house of terms and concepts that I needed help memorizing (for example, parts of the brain and their function, theories of development in psychology, diagram of the heart and blood circulation through it, etc.). These methods worked for me and have worked for many of my students; but, if they haven’t worked for you, then use a method that has worked in the past.

If you do plan on using flashcards, I have two general tips:

1. If possible, make your own flashcards. The simple act of writing notes down yourself is an important process in learning that information. Also, this will enable you to select terms and topics that are most difficult for you to learn and memorize. You definitely don’t want 500 flashcards sitting around (trust me, you can buy 500 MCAT flashcard packs online). Instead, you want to have a manageable number of them that are specific to your weaknesses. Once you have fully memorized a term/concept, put that flashcard aside. Continue doing this until you have mastered all of those flashcards and, in the process, made those content areas that were once weaknesses, now strengths.

2. The AAMC sells a package of flashcards which cover all four content areas (for only $10.00). These are in the form of multiple choice questions and, like all AAMC-provided materials, most accurately mirror what you will see on the test. I suggest purchasing these if you are comfortable paying for them. You could even go in halfsies with a friend, like I did, and share these flashcards together as you study for the MCAT!


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