9 MCAT Study Tips – How I went from the 50th to the 90th percentile

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.

Tip #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). Then, incorporate this into your study schedule, spending more time on your weaknesses and less on your strengths.

Tip #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 comprehension 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 Tip #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.

Tip #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.

Tip #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 50th percentile 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 tip #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 time.

Tip #5: Studying too long is a recipe for burnout 

Your length of study depends on the starting point I alluded to in tip #1 (Assessing Your Strengths and Weaknesses). Some of you will have this mapped out for you, thanks to your MCAT test prep courses. 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. A sample study schedule may look something like this: up to a month of content related studying where you follow tip #3 (Reduce, Reduce, Reduce), followed by up to a month of following tip #4 (Practice Questions Are Your Friend). The second month may look something like this: devoting one day each week to a particular topic (remember there are four). This is amenable to personalization based on tip #1 (Assess Your Strengths and Weaknesses). On these days, you do sample practice sections. For instance, Monday may consist of 3-4 sample chemical and physical foundations of biological systems sections. While reviewing each section, tally the topics you struggled with. You then have your blueprint for what topics to study the rest of that day. Somewhere during the week you need to fit in a full length practice test in, as well as a separate day to review it (the length of the new test makes it hard to do both tasks in the same day). Again, utilize this as a roadmap for your studies. Note, this sample schedule is for someone with two months set aside for studying. If you plan on studying amidst other activities, the content overview can be spread out over more weeks. Lastly, take one day off each week! It will allow for some rejuvenation and prevent burnout!

Tip #6: Break your day up

Unfortunately, the very nature of MCAT studying can be isolating and depressing. It is important you continue to do the things you love to lessen this. For me, that was working out and spending time with friends and family. Although I was studying 10 plus hours a day, I made sure to work these things in to keep me sane. I can guarantee that if you cut everything, but studying out, you will be miserable. This will translate to quickly burning out and ultimately performing worse.

Tip #7: 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 best be answered 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.

Tip #8: 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!

Tip #9: Retaking the MCAT

This is a gray area that could have its own blog post entirely. What I want to touch on is the fact that retaking the MCAT should be looked at as an opportunity. I definitely did not feel this way when I got my first test result back, but in retrospect it forced me to critically evaluate my first attempt and also tested just how bad I wanted to get into medical school. It motivated me to what I felt was my true potential. As I said, I went from the 50th percentile to the 90th percentile. Retaking the MCAT was a blessing in disguise for me and there is no reason you can’t make it one too!

By Bryan Miles – Medical College of Wisconsin

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