For most of us, studying for standardized tests is stressful – perhaps very stressful. But the MCAT is particularly nerve racking; one of MyGuru’s senior tutors describes the MCAT as “a beast of an exam.” Unlike the ACT, SAT, GRE, or GMAT, the MCAT goes beyond testing core academic skills like reading comprehension, verbal reasoning, critical thinking, mathematics, and writing. In addition, it tests factual and conceptual knowledge of biology, chemistry, and physics. So, you don’t have to just build your core skills, have knowledge of the test, and employ solid test-taking strategy with a high degree of confidence – you also have to literally know and recall a lot of information under time pressure.
More MCAT prep is always better than no MCAT prep, but it’s not always better than less MCAT prep. How can this be?
We all have limited time and resources, and your MCAT score is only one element of your medical school application. Overinvesting in MCAT prep, or in preparing for one part of the MCA, can and will lead to underinvesting in other areas that either brings down your overall MCA score or overall med school resume.
By preparing for the MCAT strategically, which essentially means stepping back and applying some perspective and structure to the MCAT prep process, you’ll maximize not just your MCAT score, but the quality of your medical school application
4 Steps to Preparing for the MCAT strategically
#1 Start by setting a goal: identify target school(s) and associated MCAT scores
It’s tempting to say “I just want to get the best MCAT score possible, and then I’ll figure out where to apply.” It seems reasonable. But it’s a little dangerous. If a well-rounded application, good interview, and MCAT score of 30 will get you into “very good med school X,” but you spend a bunch of time studying to bring your MCAT score from 30 to 34 in an attempt to get to “awesome meds school Y,” you may not have time to do the community service or research that would help create a “well rounded application.” You could end up “stuck in the middle,” not getting into either school.
Setting a goal helps you define success on the MCAT. Everyone, with more study, can always do a little better on the MCAT with more prep time. It’s not really appropriate to have a goal of doing “the best that I can.” You must be more specific.
#2 Build a fact-base on your current situation, as it relates to both the MCAT and broader application process
Next, you need to move towards developing a customized study plan to help you meet your goal. You need to ensure you understand:
• What specific content is tested on the MCAT?
• What classes should you have taken, and how does that compare to what you have taken?
• What is your score on a diagnostic practice MCAT, and how do you perform in each section:
o Physical sciences
o Biological sciences
o Verbal reasoning
• Do standardized tests make you particularly nervous? Did you do well on the ACT or SAT?
• How do you tend to prefer to learn:
o In-person vs. online?
o Self-study vs. getting help
o In a class vs. one-on-one
• How much time do you have to study, school work, and other critical elements of the med school application process that you must address?
#3 With your fact-base in mind, including the results of your practice MCAT, develop and evaluate some alternative approaches to preparing for the MCAT.
Many students start their MCAT prep process by enrolling in a class or purchasing a prep book package, and opening to page 1. However, the strategic med school applicant considers his or her options carefully. If you already know you are very weak in the physical sciences, perhaps enrolling in an online class makes more sense that struggling through an MCAT prep class, and is more economical than working with a private MCAT tutor. If you don’t have any clear content weaknesses, but you are very busy, slightly overwhelmed by the process of studying for the MCAT, and lack confidence, a private tutor could be nice guide/mentor/content expert to help you develop a customized study plan.
This isn’t rocket science and shouldn’t be overly complex, but just stepping back and thinking through alternatives can lead to major shifts in your approach. You may find working through a prep book, taking an online course, and periodically meeting with a private tutor is a much better fit than enrolling in a large MCAT prep course (or vice versa).
#4 Given your chosen approach and unique strengths and weaknesses, create a customized MCAT study plan.
In this step, you put pen to paper, and lay out your study plan. What and when will you study, when will you take practice tests, etc. The plan should be highly customized. If Chemistry is your major, don’t spend as much time there. If you almost never are stumped conceptually, but struggle to complete sections on time, your study plan should include relatively more timed practice sections and full length tests to build your test taking and time management skills.
Two keys in this step are:
• Actually create and stick to a detailed study plan (i.e., write down on paper and put in your calendar)
• Make the plan as customized to your situation as possible
#5 As you execute your study plan, make sure you’re studying deliberately.
A specific type of practice called “deliberate practice” has been shown to do a better job than measures like “IQ” in explaining the talent and performance of experts and geniuses in academia, music, and athletics. Put extremely concisely, deliberate practice involves highly focused, high mental effort practice, focused on understanding why and how mistakes happen and correcting them immediately. The recipe is to always start with the most basic, fundamental skills, and push yourself forward steadily towards more difficult material, embracing mistakes and quickly learning from them.
Typically, the practice is completed with an expert coach or mentor or tutor (to provide the feedback and explain what went wrong), but it doesn’t need to be. The point is to get feedback immediately, focus on the learning process, and move on. Because of the focus and mental effort required, it’s difficult to practice deliberately for more than a few hours at a time.
When studying for the MCAT, you can implement deliberate practice techniques by doing three simple things:
1) When you’re doing a practice problem set, don’t do more than three problems without checking your answer, and if you get it wrong, work hard to immediately understand how and why
2) Instead of getting frustrated by mistakes, embrace them fully – they are the key to learning and improving your MCAT score
3) Study in short bursts – a 4-5 hour MCAT study session can get counterproductive after two hours
Deliberate practice is one MyGuru’s seven rules to improved academic performance, which we discuss in our new, free eBook The 7 Rules of Academic Performance.
Performing well on the MCAT is within reach. You simply need to set goals, understand your starting point and develop a customized plan, and invest the time to study in a highly focused, deliberate manner.