How I Went from the 50th to the 90th Percentile on the MCAT
Just like any other premed, I dreaded the MCAT. Dreaded is not strong enough of a word to describe my angst though. Dread is something you face when doing an unpleasant task, such as shopping for myself. Simply thinking about the MCAT elevated my blood pressure. Although not as effortlessly as I had hoped, I did survive the MCAT and eventually matriculated at the Medical College of Wisconsin. What follows are my tips for doing so yourself.
Gem #1: Assess your strengths and weaknesses
The new, 2015 MCAT is broken down into 4 sections. Everyone taking the test has a unique background. Someone with a PhD in biochemistry likely has the luxury of not studying for that section, while an English major has an advantage in the critical analysis and reasoning section. Critically evaluate your strengths and weakness with regard to the respective MCAT sections. Fortunately, most MCAT prep programs begin with a diagnostic test. You can also find these online reasonably priced. Then, incorporate this into your study schedule, spending more time on your weaknesses and less on your strengths, more on this to follow though.
Gem #2: Pick your content overview resources appropriately
The MCAT tests you on an overwhelming amount of material. Therefore, you are going to need a solid content overview. MCAT test prep courses differ greatly, from a comprehensive in person class to online delivery where you go through at your own pace. These are pricey, I paid more than I would like to admit for one during my first attempt, and in my opinion, not necessary unless you lack the discipline to push yourself, in which case I worry about you in medical school haha. Like I said, I paid a lot for the online course my first attempt and regretted it. The content overview I got from that was no different than what I got from simply buying the books, for only a few hundred dollars, for my second attempt. Moreover, I was then able to obey Gem # 1, Access your Strengths and Weaknesses, glossing over the sections I viewed as strengths. This is harder to do if the delivery of the material is outside of your control, as it is in classroom courses.
Gem #3: Reduce, reduce, reduce
While going through the content, it is imperative you reduce it (in terms of volume), in your own fashion. There is simply too much information to know. Therefore, you need to condense it, which will require educated guesses, and commit that bit to memory. There are several ways to accomplish this. Some people like to handwrite outlines, others like to type them. Some people are fans of notecards. Personally, I am in love with the online flashcard system Anki; stay tuned for a future post on this. This skillset will pay dividends in medical school, where once again, the amount of material is overwhelming and you must reduce, reduce, reduce.
Gem #4: Practice questions are your best friend
While diligently going through my online MCAT prep course the first go around, I got bogged down in content. This distracted me from doing the invaluable practice questions. Unlike any test you have been exposed to, you need to know more than content to succeed on the MCAT. You need to be comfortable with the style in which it tests you and recognize the myriad of traps it sets. Failing to do this, I scored in the 50thpercentile initially. In my second attempt, I made sure not to overlook practice questions. These can come in a variety of forms. Since taking entire tests is draining, I bought books that had sample sections, such as the chemical and physical foundations of biological systems section. In addition to this, I would do whole tests. Going back to gem #1, Assessing Your Strengths and Weaknesses, these were an opportunity to do just that. I analyzed which topics I got wrong and directed my studying appropriately. Ultimately, these tactics allowed me to score in the 90th percentile my second go round.
Let’s break this down a little further into a tangible study schedule for you though. There are four MCAT sections, the chemical and physical foundations of biological systems, critical analysis and reasoning skills, biological and biochemical foundations of living systems, and psychological, social, and biological foundations of behavior. You should, rather you need, to do a block corresponding to one of these sections each and every day you study. These should be passage questions, not the discrete type. Yes, you should do this even in the very beginning of your studies. I know you may be hesitant to follow this regimen since you may not have covered that content yet, but I can promise you it will pay dividends. Again, practice questions are beyond a shadow of a doubt the best way to improve your MCAT score. This is because they teach you how to actually apply the content you are learning. Moreover, it is an excellent way to simultaneously learn the content. I can assure you that things you get wrong will stick with you much better than what you passively read in a book.
Depending on how long you are studying, more on this in a minute, but the short version is that the sweet spot is between 4 and 6 weeks, your rest days will differ. At the very least, you want to build in a half day off, say Sunday afternoon and evening, to keep some sanity. Better yet, take all of Sunday off! The other days should begin with a block of passage questions. How you divvy them up goes back to gem #1, Assessing Your Strengths and Weaknesses. Perhaps you want an equal distribution of the four sections or perhaps you want it heavy on one or two. Reviewing your blocks is equally, if not more important, than actually taking them. This is because it points out your gaps in content knowledge, but more so any errors you made in comprehending the passage, as well as poor leaps in logic, which there are an abundance of traps for on the MCAT. Ultimately, the ratio should be 1:1. Since you want to replicate test taking conditions as much as possible, you absolutely need to take these blocks under timed conditions. On test day, you are given 95 minutes for each (well technically only 90 minutes for the critical analysis and reasoning skills section), so you should be spending about an hour and a half reviewing. Less than this is certainly going through too quickly. There is always more to learn! For instance, it is not just about why the right answer is right, but also about why wrong answers are wrong. Additionally, many products categorize each question, such as a thermodynamics question. What better way to tabulate the categories you struggle with? This is an ongoing iteration of gem #1, Assessing Your Strengths and Weaknesses, and can certainly guide your content review. Going slightly over this is fine, but you should be on target if you remain diligent and focused.
Alright, so we have learned how to implement passages into our schedule, now what about the content review? Well the afternoon is now free for this. Going back to gem #1, Assessing Your Strengths and Weaknesses, some of you may have eliminated sections from your content review, however this is unlikely for most, so in all likelihood you will be giving everything at least a once over. From there, you can circle back around based on the categories of questions you have been getting wrong, as well as your own intuition.
The last element is full length practice tests. These are important for the same reason as your morning ritual of blocks of passages, but since they incorporate all four MCAT sections, they really test your mental endurance and adaptability to adversity. Given that the MCAT takes about seven and a half hours, including break time, you are definitely going to want to give this its own dedicated day. Moreover, since it is such a draining and exhausting endeavor, this is all you want to do on this particular day. After busting out a full practice exam, go enjoy some much deserved rest and recuperation. Given my emphasis on review above, you probably know what I am going to say next. Yes, another 1:1 ratio is needed here. So, that means you will be reviewing your practice exam for at least 7 and a half hours. Guess what? This herculean effort also gets its own dedicated day.
So now we have covered every component of MCAT study, with the exception of discrete questions, but don’t worry, that will be addressed shortly. This still doesn’t feel as tangible as I would like though, so I am going to provide you with the daily and weekly schedule I religiously stuck to. Feel free to modify it as you like, but it will definitely be a solid foundation to start from. Monday through Thursdays were the study days that did not revolve around a practice test. Therefore, each day, I woke up at 7 AM. I strongly believe not being rushed or groggy in the morning is crucial to an energized and productive day of studying, and it truly is a full day of studying haha. Given that I began each block of passage questions at precisely 8 AM, an hour was more than enough time to make and enjoy my breakfast and coffee. I even had a few minutes to scan my favorite news outlets. At precisely 8 AM, the starting gun sounded and I was ploughing through my morning block of passage questions. Since I didn’t really feel particularly weak, or particularly strong for that matter, in any section, I did each section once each week. About an hour and a half later, the timer zeroed out and I took a 5 to 10 minute break. We could call this DVT prophylaxis or insanity prophylaxis.
Then, I jumped into my review of the block. This took about an hour and a half as well. By this point, it was about 11:30 AM. My stomach was usually growling for some fuel, so I would make lunch. Similar to the time set aside for breakfast, it was nice to actually be able to enjoy the meal and not voraciously scarf it down like an animal. This was also the period of time I would generally work out. It took about 15 minutes to make a meal and another 15 to eat it. Since my stomach really only needs a half hour to digest, I could fit in a 30 minute workout. This brought me to 1 PM, the beginning of my content studying. I leaned heavily on the Pomodoro technique here. If you are not familiar with this, prepare to have your world rocked by something so radically simple. You set a timer for the amount of time you are going to diligently tackle something, then when the timer sounds, you take a five or ten minute break. Then, it is just a matter of repeat, repeat, repeat. So 1 PM to 5 PM consisted of 4 Pomodoro rounds: 55 minutes of intense studying, followed by a 5 minute break. The content studying obviously consisted of reading the books I had chosen, but more importantly making brief outlines. You do not want something as dense as the textbook you are reading in the first place. This is useless to you. You want something that you follow, but is brief and concise. Why? Because you are going to be referring back to these as you brush up on topics that slip out of your memory bank. Remember, your ongoing tally of categories you struggle with, built on the backbone of practice questions, will guide your content studying to some degree. Sorry to keep hammering in gem #1, Assessing Your Strengths and Weaknesses,but it just simply has to be done.
Then, I allowed myself another hour block for dinner. After dinner is what I coined the flex time. Depending on how I was feeling that particular day, if I was behind on my schedule for content studying, or what gaps doing practice questions had unearthed, I would studying for another three hours. This is also where I incorporated discrete practice questions, or the non-passage questions. So, this meant three more hours of the Pomodoro technique from 6 PM to 9 PM. I would like to place strong emphasis on the word flex though. Sometimes, I didn’t studying at all after 5 PM (not as frequently as I would have liked though haha). Sometimes, I didn’t study the full 3 hours, perhaps doing 1-2 hours, fitting my workout in here instead or adding on more chill time. The night wound down with much needed and deserved relaxing. To get a full eight hours, I was in bed by 11 PM. Even if I had pounded out the full three hours of flex time, I still had 2 hours to do whatever my heart desired at the end of the day. This is very important to mental sanity and preventing burnout!
The last tid bit to throw in is the practice exams. I took a total of four, which is the minimum I would recommend. This breaks down to at least one each week. I took it under the same conditions as test day, including at the same time as my scheduled test, on Friday. I had an early exam, so I was up early yet again. This did give me the rest of the day to chillax though, so that was the silver lining. Going back to mimicking test day conditions, this included the meals and snacks I planned to have on D-Day. Honestly, by the time the actual exam rolled around, I felt like I had already done it a million times between the block passages and the full length practice exams. Saturday consisted of about seven and a half hours of review, followed by another heavy dose of chillaxing. Then, I had Sunday morning as flex time. This mirrored my evening flex time, being dictated by mood, energy level, whether or not I was on schedule, which I generally wasn’t haha, and what areas were subjectively and objectively weak. More discrete questions were incorporated here too. As you probably guessed, I took the rest of Sunday off.
Whew, so that rounds out each week of intense, but honestly manageable studying given my discipline with respect to this routine. If I can crack down for a month and follow this plan, there is no reason you can’t either.
Gem #5: Studying too long is a recipe for burnout
Your length of study depends on the starting point I alluded to in gem #1, Assessing Your Strengths and Weaknesses. Some of you will have this mapped out for you, thanks to your MCAT test prep courses or purchased practice exams. Regardless, I would caution you not to study longer than 8 weeks. By that point, you have more than likely reached saturation and will only negatively impact your score.
Gem #6: To study with others or not to study with others
This is a difficult one. Studying with others can do one of two things, either stress you out or provide some solidarity. Answering this question could be done by assessing how you do studying with others for college courses. Ultimately though, you are going to have to be the one to learn the material, so you will need to spend a lot of time with it personally.
Gem #7: Believe in yourself
No one is going to be able to do this one for you. The MCAT is intimidating, along with all the other elements of getting into medical school, but you have to believe that you are capable. This will give you the willpower to get up every morning and push through the material. More importantly, this will allow you to keep fighting when practice exams beat you down. My sisters made fun of me, but I taped a piece of paper that said believe above my bed while studying. This was the first thing I looked at every morning and the last thing I thought about each night. It helped me fake it when there was not an organic sense of belief. Whatever your own spin on this may be, do it!
Thanks for tuning into this lengthy, but hopefully valuable video about my personal experience with the MCAT, ultimately jumping to the 90thpercentile. In case you don’t believe me, below is a screen shot of my two attempts. As always, subscribe to my channel, follow me on twitter (@Bryans_BlackBag), or peruse my website for the latest and greatest content revolving around the premed journey! I have attached a MCAT study schedule template in excel format on my resources page. Also, never hesitate to reach out to me personally (firstname.lastname@example.org). Don’t be a stranger!