How I Studied for the MCAT

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If your first time seeing the MCAT is on test day your face will melt.

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Hello,

As of you already know I’ve been working on a few entries to help premeds with their Personal Statements (PS). I think what I’ve left so far is a solid start – enough for those eager beavers who’re already working on their PS and way ahead of the AMCAS game. On Twitter I received a few messages requesting some pointers about the MCAT, so  as a consequence here we are Super Bowl Sunday (please don’t sue me NFL) MCAT discussion.

Let’s first assess the situation.

Before setting off to claim your perfect 45 let’s remind ourselves about some realities, like becoming familiar with the rules of gravity before launching ourselves into orbit. The MCAT scores follow a Poisson distribution, i.e. a bell curve, as did the 89,452 test takers for the 2012 MCAT. At the far extremes of the bell curve, on the right side 0.1% of test takers earned themselves a 42 & 41, and on the left side of the bell curve a 0.1% earned the lowest scores 5-7 points (total). However, when all is said and done the AAMC reported that in 2012 the average score was ~25.3 with a standard deviation (SD) of 6.4 points. In other words, if you scored over 25 then you would’ve bested over 50% of your fellow cohort.

Not everyone who studied for the MCAT actually applied to medical school, accordingly 45,266 people applied to medical school 2012. The average applicant had a total score of 28.3 (SD 5.5), as you’d imagine not everyone who applies to medical finds their program on with only 19,517 matriculating with an average MCAT of 31.2 (SD 4.0), earning a 31 would put you ahead of approximately 83% of other MCAT takers. In case you’re curious the fabled good score of 30 would put you ahead of ~79% of your cohort in 2012. Of note, the new MCAT of 2015 will use a different point scale. There will be four sections, each worth 132 points, with the AAMC this time dictating a respectable score as 500. Supposedly, the AAMC statistically has concluded that getting a 500 means you’ll graduate medical school in 4-5 years like everyone else who’s admitted.

Well, all of that jibber-jabber that I just said can be found without cumbersome editorial flare in the table below:

Avg. Score, n = 89,452 Avg. Score Applicants, n= 45,266 Avg. Score of Accepted, n= 19,517
Physical Sciences

8.4

9.0

9.8

Verbal Reasoning

8.1

9.5

10.5

Biological Sciences

8.8

9.9

10.9

Cumulative

25.3

28.3*

31.2*

*Standard deviation and math created an illusion of partial points, all scores are actually to the whole number, and these medians though real values are not real numbers in a sense. This creates an imperfect though close summation seen in the cumulative columns. *After the 2015 MCAT results and matriculations are up I’ll update this table.

Now that we’ve assessed the situation we can think about an optimal/realistic score.

Now, don’t get me wrong I really want you to shoot for the stars, but at the same time it’s important to be pragmatic about what is an attainable score for yourself. In fact, I would encourage you to have a “reach” score. At the beginning this “reach” score will just simply be figments of your imagination, but for now let’s just say 31 is a good goal for a real MCAT test at a testing center. Though, just be forewarned there are seldom miracles on MCAT test day, in fact expect the opposite, typically people score a little worse than they expected for every disparate reason you can probably imagine. Therefore if you want a coveted 30+, then you ought to aim at the mid-30s on official AAMC practice exams.

Content Review: this is kind of like studying for the MCAT

I studied for the MCAT myself, so I can only discuss how I personally approached the MCAT. With that said, you might vehemently disagree with my approach from here on, however this isn’t an article on persuasion as much as it is one of information. I spent around 2 months on content review; this was pretty straight forward all you have to do is navigate to the AAMC website and get their “syllabus” of testable material. For example, here is the 2015 for the MCAT: https://www.aamc.org/students/download/266006/data/2015previewguide.pdf

During this period I found my study material; that ended up being Exam Krackers (EK) complete study package. Some people have found success with other programs like Kaplan, Princeton Review, and Berkeley Review; I can’t speak for other programs as I primarily stuck to EK. During my content review I dabbled with Kaplan, but I didn’t like where it was taking me despite the rigor of the material.

My method of content review was passively reading and listening to EK audio excerpts while trying the sectional quizzes/questions (PS and BS sections) that came along to measure my comprehension. It’s easy to get too wrapped up in content review; after all here is what you’ll be reviewing:

Physical Sciences

General Chemistry

BONDING
PHASES AND PHASE EQUILIBRIA
THERMODYNAMICS AND THERMOCHEMISTRY
RATE PROCESSES IN CHEMICAL REACTIONS: KINETICS AND EQUILIBRIUM
SOLUTION CHEMISTRY
ACIDS AND BASES
ELECTROCHEMISTRY
TRANSLATIONAL MOTION

Physics

FORCE AND MOTION, GRAVITATION
EQUILIBRIUM AND MOMENTUM
WORK AND ENERGY
WAVES AND PERIODIC MOTION
SOUND
FLUIDS AND SOLIDS
ELECTROSTATICS AND ELECTROMAGNETISM
ELECTRONIC CIRCUIT ELEMENTS
LIGHT AND GEOMETRICAL OPTICS
ATOMIC AND NUCLEAR STRUCTURE

*Pre 2015 MCAT

Biological Sciences

Biology MOLECULAR BIOLOGY: ENZYMES AND METABOLISM
MOLECULAR BIOLOGY: DNA AND PROTEIN SYNTHESIS
MOLECULAR BIOLOGY: EUKARYOTES
MICROBIOLOGY
GENERALIZED EUKARYOTIC CELL
SPECIALIZED EUKARYOTIC CELLS AND TISSUES
NERVOUS AND ENDOCRINE SYSTEMS
CIRCULATORY, LYMPHATIC, AND IMMUNE SYSTEMS
DIGESTIVE AND EXCRETORY SYSTEMS
Organic Chemistry THE COVALENT BOND
MOLECULAR STRUCTURE AND SPECTRA
SEPARATIONS AND PURIFICATIONS
HYDROCARBONS
OXYGEN-CONTAINING COMPOUNDS
ABOUT A YEAR OF REACTIONS
BIOLOGICAL MOLECULES

Pre-2015 MCAT

Unfortunately, there are too many subtopics for me to list on my blog, in fact within the BS and PS sections there are about 1000 (no sarcasm, I counted) subtopics you’ll need to know – again, ‘unfortunately’ we have to demonstrate a fair mastery across the spectrum. Your content review time may differ from mine, but I’ll explain my schedule so it’ll put my time into context. During my content review I was still in college full time and I was tutoring Organic Chemistry, General Chemistry and Physiology at the same time. As a consequence, I didn’t review Organic Chemistry at all, and I didn’t spend any time reviewing the Physiology stuff because besides tutoring it was my minor so a bulk of it was fresh. I don’t think there’s necessarily a continual linear growth of score with respect to time, so don’t waste excessive amounts of time on content review for the MCAT, just plow through the review until most topics feel familiar again.

Take Practice Test: now you’re actually studying for the MCAT

Eventually everyone has to sit down and take a practice MCAT exam prior to sitting for the real exam. If your first time seeing the MCAT is on test day then be forewarned your face will melt. In retrospect, I consider all the content review prior to sitting down for a real AAMC practice test (timed) to have been very inadequate. It’s not that I didn’t learn during that time, it’s just that half of the trouble with the MCAT is figuring out how to take the MCAT. You’ll know what I mean after you take your first full length timed practice exam. It’s important to take your first full length under perfect conditions (quiet, timed, undisturbed with bathroom breaks etc). This is because there are a limited amount of legit AAMC tests you take without retaking them twice, so you want the score to be representative of your best effort whenever possible. After I took my first exam I didn’t even have the will power to grade it for a few days, it was that emotionally damaging (haha). Eventually, I gathered the courage to self-grade my first score and it was a respectable start at 25. After you feel the crushing stress of the MCAT you’ll know what it means to start studying, it’ll be unlike any other sense urgency you’ve felt before.

Next Step: progress tracking and diagnosis

After scrapping my self-esteem off the floor I sat down and made a concrete plan on how to improve my scores. I went with a biweekly plan; I would do a concentrated review on my weak points then take an AAMC practice test. After that practice test I’d re-evaluate myself again, and again try to fix my weak points. Essentially my entire study plan:

  1. Take practice test
  2. Chart Progress or lack there of
  3. Concentrated studying on topics of weakness
  4. Rinse and repeat every two weeks

When the test drew closer, and the MCAT was about a month away, I switched over to doing weekly full length tests at the same time and day as my real exam to get used to the time table. Diagnosing your problems is the toughest part of the whole process while charting your progress, but seeing as how we’re getting into the business of diagnosis and charting it’s probably good to develop a knack for it eventually.

My practice scores towards the last month ranged from 30-36 (36 was a one time high), I scored fell within the range of my last month, albeit not my best but enough to acceptances. In the end I studied for a total of about 4.5 months including content review. Arguably, the hardest part of studying for the MCAT is realizing that the strategy chances as your scores change. The work needed to move up from a 6-8 per section isn’t equivalent to the work needed to move up from an 8-10 per section, the same can be said about a 10-12 per section. In general, getting to an 8 can be done with basic review, solidifying a 10+ requires a refinement in critical thinking and picking up the MCAT language/test taking skills. Anything after 10 is doable with a little elbow grease and good time management.

In closing, let me encourage you to  spend more time studying upper level of material, and avoid focusing too much on low yield material — the MCAT is a critical thinking test, not a memory test.

429fig1
The scope of coverage and relative importance rating of biological topics/subtopics as determined by the AAMC for the 2003 and 2014 MCAT. Nested topics (1°, 2°, and 3°) are arranged along an axis according to MIR of all primary topics within each of AAMC’s four divisions of biology from “most important” ( = 5.0) to “least important” ( = 1.0). The scissors icon at MIR = 2.25 indicates the cutoff for inclusion in the MCAT content specifications for each individual primary topic. Histograms show frequency distribution of nested topics within each division. (Rissing SW. CBE Life Sci Educ. 2013 Fall;12(3):429-40. doi: 10.1187/cbe.13-02-0017)

Verbal Reasoning (update 2/3/14)

Well, we can’t really talk about the MCAT without talking about the “other” section. The “other” section has a gambit of names, Lucifer’s cousin, the dark one, but the AAMC prefers to call it the Verbal Reasoning section. Now, to understand the Verbal Reasoning section we need to discuss what it is and what it is not:

1. The answer to a VR question will almost never hinge on the definition of an expensive word, so you don’t need to be a word-smith to cope with the MCAT. However, it is helpful to keep track of ‘keywords’, or phrases, or grammatical structures that structure the argument presented in the passage.

2. The VR section is not a measurement of your reading speed, even if you’re non native (but graduate from a US university) you’ll likely have no problems reading through all of the passages and answer choices. The caveat is that this is only true if you don’t spend excess amounts of time re-reading.

3. Although you’ll have to read various articles of disparate disciplines at a near expert level (law, art history and analysis, economics, literature, political science, history, psychology, sociology, philosophy) you’ll never be tested on any “outside” knowledge that was not presented in the MCAT passage — in fact, if you pull an answer from outside the passage it’s probably wrong. The AAMC doesn’t expect you to memorize when the Blue Period during the art movement, however, being familiar with different forms of discourse would definitely help. Peruse the internet, get out of your premed shell and learn about the world a little more, I know it’ll be hard. Try reading supreme court dissenting opinions, literature analysis, advanced economic banter, don’t focus on the lexicon rather pay attention to how the arguments are put forward. Eventually, you’ll get used to learning how to pick up relevant details and ideas from different genres.

4. Practice learning how not to re-read a passage — no, adopt a lifestyle philosophy to stop the horrible habit of re-reading. It’s very likely that you picked up enough to understand the passage anyways without re-reading, we just fall into bad habits of constantly re-reading. In fact, the only reason you’ll probably not finish the VR section (besides frustration) is because of excessive re-reading. So, the train yourself get used to reading everything through once, if a piece is written well the information is usually redundant — the better the piece the more nuanced the redundancies. Sometimes the narrative we purposely leave things out, but this is typically a narrative tool and not a trick. Just remember, the author seeks to be understood, although you may feel quite the contrary the author didn’t write it hoping one day it’d selected as a thorn in premed’s side. Get used to reading through rhetoric.

5. Some tricks will work for you, some won’t. The hardest part of the VR section is that you’ll often have to go with your gut feeling because the line that you’d likely need to be absolutely certain is likely not captured within the excerpt of the passage. So, you’ll have to practice your inference skills without the power to actually verify your hunches.

6. The only sure fire way to ensure you’re improving in VR is to take a lot of VR sectional tests, I used the Exam Krackers Verbal Reasoning lesson for all of my VR work.

Last Few Tips

Don’t expect ideal conditions – despite testing centers best efforts many I know including me still experienced a moderate degree of distractions at the testing centers, some more extreme than others.

Learn how to work through distractions – I studied at Starbucks at first with earplugs or a noise making application to numb everything out, eventually I was able to take full lengths and zone everyone out without any ear plugs. This helped a lot. After all, when you’re a doctor will you’ll likely make many crucial decisions under duress anyways.

Keep motivated – despite what others might say don’t let them disparage you by denigrating the importance of the MCAT, in fact there’s a higher correlation between MCAT scores to USLME than GPA to USLME by comparison. That alone should motivate you.

The test does not define your intelligence – don’t take it personally, there’s a host of reasons why the MCAT might not go your way, just stick to it, it’s tough for everyone when we start, everyone.

Remember, at its core the main goal is to learn how to learn by yourself – you’ll be doing it a lot in the future as a medical student and resident well into being an attending.

Balanced scores are better than sporadic scores – that is, a 9/9/9 (28) is much better than an 11/6/11 (28). If you find one score section is 2 points below the others consider spending more time with it, the same thing can be said if you have some sections below 8 while others over 8.

Don’t fall into a trap of studying only what your like – like many traumatic hostage experiences, the hostages will often develop Stockholm syndrome, and you might even eventually enjoy having the opportunity to study for the MCAT. With that being said, it’s easy to get wrapped up in positive reinforcement and stick only to stuff you know, i.e. over-study stuff you already know while neglecting stuff you hate. Make sure you cover all of the material adequately.

You are not tested on everything – it’s impossible to test you on everything, but the material is pretty dense, so you’ll get more out of understanding how to pull information out of a passive + a basic knowledge base than trying to splurge on random science facts. But, you’ll have no idea what you’ll be tested on so see the tip above this one =).

My score?  Well, as there’s a high chance someone in my class will figure out who I am, so to not be *ranked*: 3X (no sections under 10).

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10 thoughts on “How I Studied for the MCAT

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      doctororbust responded:
      October 13, 2014 at 11:04 am

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        Sandy said:
        January 24, 2015 at 12:42 pm

        Hello,

        Great job on this blog!!! It was probably one of the most informative one I have read.

        Question:
        Did you buy the “Complete study package, 9th edition” from exam crackers? I’m in the process of looking for study materials and this is a strong possibility. Please let me know.

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        doctororbust responded:
        January 24, 2015 at 5:22 pm

        Hello,

        Thanks for reading.

        I used the complete Examkrackers package, including their audio osmosis, it was great for when I was on the move and still wanted to study (passively). I was a big fan, as long as you also self test yourself it should work out.

        I hope that helped and good luck!

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    tanika05 said:
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    […] How I Studied for the MCAT – feel free to use or ignore anything you’d like […]

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