A Few Tips for Preparing for the MCAT

Lets start by mentioning the following tips and tricks is not the strategy I personally used, but rather a selection of tips and tricks I gathered from talking to my friends and class-mates in the same situation, and about to take the MCATs. I will be posting my personal “MCATs Survival” Story at a later date

You know you’d be a great doctor. You were confidently slapping bandages on your kid brother’s boo-boos at age 10, all you could think about is how the body works, or why this illness works one way or another, or even loved the idea of cutting people open and healing from the inside. As an high school student, or even in undergrad, you aced all the science courses. And (you think) you look smashing in scrubs and a stethoscope. But there’s at least one more tiny detail in your path to a career in medicine: you have to get into medical school. You can greatly improve your chances to get that amazing letter that we all dream about, that precious letter of acceptance, by obtaining a strong score on the Medical College Admissions Test, or as we “normal people” call it — the MCATs.

This exam that we all love to hate has been around in various shapes and forms since the 1920s, and has evolved into what we know of today, a standardized examination with multiple choice questions and a writing section that measure your scientific knowledge, problem-solving abilities and writing skills.

The test’s sections focus on science, physical and biological as well as verbal reasoning. These sections are scored from 1 to 15, and a writing section is scored on a letter scale of J to T. The average score is 24 O, but you’ll probably need at least a 30 and a P or Q to get into your school of choice.

You should probably know what score are required for the schools you wish to apply to. I personally made a chart with the comparisons, to help me focus on the score I wished to achieve, if you would like — I’ve attached mine here

Whether we like or not, the MCATs are here to stay — and there is no way around them to get into medical school. The test is not impossible, and can be done (If I did it, I believe anyone can).

If you continue reading you will find 10 tips that can help you go into your test day with increased confidence and odds of success.

10) Create a Plan of Attack

The MCAT is not the kind of exam you can ace with an all-night cram session. You’ll need at least three months of preparation, and that time should be used wisely. Sit down as soon as you can and draw up a step-by-step study plan. Make a promise to yourself that you’ll follow it meticulously. Figure out what you’ll need to review, what materials you’ll require, who will be in your study group, what kinds of practice tests you’ll need to take and whether you’ll need any remedial assistance, such as a speed-reading clinic offered by your college guidance program.

Also, get a daily calendar (or use the calendar function in your phone) and block out exactly when you’re going to do your prep sessions. Set aside time for healthy meals and an exercise regimen, too.

“School is a full-time job,” notes William J. Rapaport of the University of Buffalo. “And managing your time is important…. Your education should come first”. Look at the MCAT in similar fashion: It’s a test, it’s a course, it’s a full-time job.

9) Dig Out Old Textbooks and Class Notes

Some MCAT candidates invest $1,000 to $2,000 on cram courses offered by private tutoring schools, but research suggests that those courses don’t really have any significant effect on scores. The reason may be that the courses mostly concentrate on the methodology of test taking rather than on the subject material. And that critical subject material is all information you should have learned in a solid undergraduate pre-med program.

Instead of trying to cram your head full of unfamiliar knowledge at the last minute, systematically review the content of your undergraduate science and biology courses. Dr. Thomas L. Pearce, a University of Virginia medical school faculty member, advises medical school hopefuls to review “all their class notes (and) every page of their introductory texts in biology, inorganic and organic chemistry, and physics”.

Dig out your old math, physics, biology, general chemistry and organic chemistry textbooks and test yourself on some of the material. You’ll quickly identify some of your strengths and weaknesses in the process. Plus, this initial review will help you focus your study efforts, making the most of your time.

8) Practice, Practice, Practice

All the information you learned in class and spent countless hours committing to memory during your college career is coming back to you now. The big challenge is something you don’t have as much recent experience with: the exhausting, unnerving task of taking a seven-hour, high-stakes exam.

You’re not a total test-taking newbie. The fact that you’re even thinking about medical school means that you probably did well in undergrad, or on other standerdised testing such as the SAT’s. But Michael Phelps doesn’t go the four years between Olympics without participating in a few swim meets, I would hope.

For $35 a pop, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) offers an assortment of online practice exams made up of actual questions from past MCATs, plus a free practice test that you can take an unlimited amount of times.

Robert Harrax Miller and Daniel M. Bissell, authors of “Med School Confidential: A Complete Guide to the Medical School Experience,” suggest that you plan to take several practice tests. At first, take one as a diagnostic tool. This initial test will help you determine which areas to focus on the most in your preparation. If you’re a little rusty taking marathon tests, don’t focus so much on the score this first time around. Instead, use it as a reminder that you need to put in some work to score well. Try to simulate the actual testing-day conditions as much as possible. For example, you’re not allowed to use a calculator on the actual test, so don’t use one in your practice exams.

7) Post-Mortem Your Tests

Since you’ll be studying a few post-mortem subjects in medical school anyway, you might as well get started by looking over your expired tests. Remember, tests don’t stop with the grade. There’s a lot to gain from examining your finished work. Go through every practice test, identifying the questions that you got wrong and analyzing why you didn’t know the right answer. If you drew a blank, for example, on the more arcane details of the citric acid cycle in cells, that’s a tipoff that you might have dozed off during that lecture in freshman biology and need to brush up on that subject.

On the other hand, if you misinterpreted the question or were tripped up by its wording, that may be a sign that a certain question format is your Achilles’ heel.

The MCAT uses various question types. If you can identify the type that gives you trouble, then you can come up with tactics for handling those questions.

6) Get in Shape Physically

If you’re really committed to doing well on the MCAT, you may cut out things like exercise, proper meals and full nights of sleep so that you can spend as much time as possible studying. But test-taking authorities warn that if you follow that approach, you’re setting yourself up for failure on the big day.

For example, a 2007 study by researchers at St. Lawrence University found that college students who pulled at least one all-nighter each semester actually had lower GPAs than their classmates who spent those nights in bed. Furthermore, University of Pennsylvania researchers found that adults who spent five days straight getting by on just four hours of sleep each night had faster heart rates and less heart rate variability than normal sleepers on the following day, which indicates interference with the interactions between the heart and brain.

5) Get in Shape Mentally and Emotionally

You’re not just taking a test; you’re also testing yourself. After making sure all those facts find footholds in your brain, you’ll need to ensure you’re clear-headed to perform your best. Many students suffer from test anxiety, with symptoms ranging from headaches and sleeplessness to irritability and memory loss. Mental and emotional strain can present a very real threat to your MCAT success

While researchers estimate that 20 to 30 percent of American students are affected by test anxiety, some students continue having these test-taking problems from elementary school through college. Luckily, there are a number of things you can do to address these feelings. Just as baseball players visualize hitting home runs, you can visualize performing your best on the exam. Be positive and reaffirm your lengthy test preparation to yourself.

Just closing your eyes and taking deep breaths can help, too.

Of course, everybody’s different. Find out what helps you relax best and develop a strategy to apply those tricks and techniques while you’re studying and during the exam.

4) Find a Study Buddy — or Several

Studying by yourself has its perks, but a study group can often produce better results than a solo effort. You can review more topics, share answers and compare notes. Plus, it can be fun. A group of like-minded, supportive students will explain concepts to each other and spend time figuring out why they reach different answers to the same question, all of which add depth to your study experience. It’s possible that you might even spend more time studying than you otherwise would have because of a good group dynamic.

But remember that when it comes to study groups, the smaller the better. A Harvard study reported that smaller groups led to more engagement and individual participation. When the grades of students studying by themselves were compared with those in studying in groups of four to six, researchers determined that students who studied in such small groups did better than students studying alone.

Don’t forget why you’re all assembled, though. Making sure your study group stays productive is easy: Establish a time limit to keep everybody on task.

3) Check Out Other Exams

Yes, you’re taking the MCAT. Still, it won’t hurt to look at some other exams for practice. You might be surprised at the similarities between the MCAT, the LSAT and the GRE. These graduate-level exams are all produced by the same company, so the verbal comprehension sections of any of these tests can be great review tools for the MCAT.

Sift through the shelves of your school’s library for older versions of these exams. Familiarizing yourself with the language and style of the MCAT is what’s important, so even dusty GRE and LSAT tests could be a big help.

On the morning of the exam, don’t over do it. I personally just read over 10 or so flash cards that I had created, and then re-read my “quick-notes” pager.

You want to make sure that you are not stressing yourself out, but going over a little bit of the material will give your brain a mental warm-up, ensuring you’re fully alert as you start the MCAT.

2) Think Ahead For a Good Test Day

After logging long hours at study sessions and finishing countless practice tests, it’s important to culminate your study efforts with a well-planned test day. Scrounging for your coat at the last minute or grabbing a candy bar for breakfast isn’t going to help your chances on the test. After all your hard work, you deserve a better finish than what that kind of morning will provide.

When does the test start? Where is the test located? How do you get there? What materials should you bring? Make sure to consider these questions well before the test day. Whether it’s driving to the test location or picking out your clothes, simplify every step of the process that could potentially cause a stressful distraction.

Also, your mother was right: Eating a good breakfast is a big deal. Be sure to eat a healthy, balanced breakfast with proteins and complex carbohydrates for long-lasting energy. And bring a water bottle and a healthy snack as alternatives to candy or coffee in case you get hungry during the day. A classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich, bag of trail mix or couple pieces of fruit will do the trick.

As far as attire goes, be comfortable. Old sweatpants, sweatshirts, flip-flops and slippers may not be appropriate for most outings, but if that’s what’s most comfortable to you, wear it on your test day. Remember that the testing center may be warmer or colder than you anticipate — wear layers to keep yourself at a comfortable temperature.

1) Consult Your Colleagues

Think about all the people you know who may know something about the MCAT. You’ve been studying practice tests with other students. Your professors sometimes teach to the test material. It’s possible that your friend’s uncle’s cousin has taken the MCAT. Basically, you’re surrounded by living, breathing sources of information as you prepare for the exam.

Whether they’ve taken the MCAT or a comparable standardized test, you can reach out for advice on what to expect. There’s much to be gained from studying the materials, taking practice tests and reading through informative guides like this list. Still, the face-to-face exchange of ideas with an experienced professor, doctor, upperclassman or friend presents an excellent learning opportunity.

Many times, this mentoring can put your mind at ease. In a 2007 nursing program study, students reported that the bonds they created while confiding in their colleagues helped them relieve anxiety and address frustration. Other students may also be struggling with an exhausting schedule, and sharing those gripes can bring about a strong, supportive bond of camaraderie. It can be helpful to know that other people may have taken different paths to success and experienced similar struggles. Preparing for the MCAT — and taking it — are solitary experiences, but you’re not alone. Joining forces to prepare for the exam may be one of the most effective and healthy steps you can take to ensure success on the big test day.