MCAT – How to Study for it

Sorry for the delay in the post. I wanted to make a nice comprehensive MCAT post that covered a broad range of topics rather than bombard you with multiple short posts. If there are topics you would like covered that I did not touch on in this let me know via comments or through the contact form. Thank you for your patience and I hope this post helps you with your goals!

You’re aware that the MCAT is a big test, and there is a lot to it. What you might not be sure of is how to study for it efficiently or effectively. Studying for this test is not like studying for undergrad. The emphasis of this test is critical thinking, and applying what you know rather than simple regurgitation of concepts you memorized.

Prep Courses, Should I take one?

Due to the fear of not knowing what to study or how to study, many premeds sign up for MCAT “prep” courses and fork over thousands of dollars. These courses are advertised to guarantee a score increase. You also may have heard of your friend’s friend doing really well on the MCAT, and they were signed up for a prep course. I totally understand why many premeds do these courses. Throughout school there has been a structured lesson plan, there has been a “superior” teaching you the concepts, and you have been fed knowledge. This tends to be lessened in undergrad as you need to learn more information on your own; however, there still is a structured lesson plan and you know the necessary information required to be prepared for the test.

I do not know your specific situation, and maybe in your situation a preparation course would help you. I can, however, say that in general you do not need a prep course and it can actually hinder your score. So please, before you do a prep course and spend thousands of dollars, do some research for yourself. Do not just take my advice, just like how you should not just take the prep course’s advice; although I have absolutely nothing to gain from you not doing a prep course, while the objective of the prep course company is to get you to sign up for it, so be aware of the motivations.

There are a few reasons why I do not recommend prep courses, especially at their current price point. The big one is that all the information necessary to do well on the MCAT can be found online or in content review books which you could borrow from friends, or buy for about $100-200. The prep courses will not provide you with “insider information”, the main reason is because the AAMC releases a document that contains a list of all the material that the MCAT can cover. There will not be information or content on the MCAT that isn’t on this list. Another issue I have with prep courses is that even though you’re paying thousands, you still need to do all of the work yourself. The MCAT is about consolidation of information you learn as well as critically thinking and applying concepts. Even if the prep course teaches you the concepts, most of the work for understanding you’re going to be doing on your own. Everyone learns at a different pace, yet the prep course goes at a constant pace. They might go over a few concepts, but in a classroom setting, are you sure you fully understand it? You will probably have to go back to the drawing board after you do a practice test and realize you didn’t quite understand the concept and then teach yourself anyway.

A prep course can also hinder your score by taking up time that you would spend more efficiently on your own, to listen to someone else go through topics. They might emphasize certain topics too much, and not spend enough time on other topics, so your preparation may be lacking in some areas as a result. The time spent traveling to the location and back, and the time spent in the classroom, could all be spent solidifying information and knowledge at your own pace. Spending time to learn on your own also builds character, and it helps prepare you for what is to come when you are in medical school and a doctor. In those roles, most of the learning comes from your own teaching, and not from a structured lesson plan from someone else.

For some students a prep course can benefit them. If you have a hard time structuring yourself, or motivating yourself to study without a plan in place that forces you to “stay on top of things”, then a prep course can definitely help you. A prep course can also help those that do not have much of a science background, since learning a lot of science content can be daunting if you are doing it solo.

Use the free information found on the internet and teach yourself everything you need to know, because even if you do decide on taking a prep course, you’ll have to teach yourself most of the content regardless.

reddit

We live in a great era, an era of open information and the internet. Before I wrote my MCAT I spent a lot of time doing research on the internet, gathering as much information from different sources as possible. One of the absolute best communities I found was the MCAT subreddit on reddit, and I would 100% recommend you visit this site. If you do not know what reddit is, in short, it is an aggregate social media platform where users can post links from different sites of news articles, pictures, videos etc. as well as make text posts. These posts can then be voted, as well as commented on by users of the platform. The best place to start on this subreddit would be reading the wiki which can be found on the right-sidebar and on the top-bar, it gives a very good summary of information on the test to provide you with another source for information.

My intention is not to advertise for reddit, I am not affiliated with them and am not trying to advertise their platform. I do want to provide you with another quality place to find information on this test. This community was my prep course. Hours of searching this sub for information, and getting opinions from users that scored very well, allowed me to find many tips and tricks to bump my score up and study as efficiently as possible.

Study Friends

Social support is vital since this test is draining. You will feel pressured, you will feel stressed, you will feel like you will fail, and you will feel defeated. Everyone goes through similar feelings when it comes to this test. I can tell you all these feelings through a blog post, however, the best action you can take for yourself is to find a group of people who are also writing this test and start a small community to support each other. I had one really close friend that was in almost the exact same boat as myself. We were both writing it during the summer after 2nd year, while working full-time, and we even worked in the same building. I was able to talk to him about the test during lunch hours in person, and we were messaging each other about it on the regular. I cannot emphasize enough the benefit that came from having another really close friend writing the test in a similar condition as well.

Aside from the social support that comes from having a friend also writing it concurrently, you may also benefit financially as you can pool together resources. I will cover preparation material, but there is a lot you need for the MCAT from preparation books, practice tests, section banks, question packs, and the costs will add up. Aside from physical books that you can lend each other, it is against the terms and conditions of pretty much every company that provides electronic material to share it among friends. If, however, you choose to break these terms and conditions, that’s your decision to make, I cannot control you.

It can be difficult for some students to find social support. Some may have friends studying for the test in future years, or may not have friends interested in medicine whatsoever. Others may be mature students that wish to write the MCAT while others in their peer group have careers. In these situations, I would highly recommend you look online for study groups or communities. It is less than optimal to have your support group be individuals you do not know, especially if you are particularly shy, but I can attest to the benefit of having someone with whom you can have friendly competition with, and the opportunity to rant about CARS as well as this whole test with. I personally have done, and continue to provide MCAT tutoring to students, and through that I provide not only knowledge and experience of the test, but I provide a set of ears for the students to rant to me about the test. I also help students organize their life with the test, so maybe if you’re in that situation you could find a tutor. A tutor is still not necessary to do well, all you need is yourself. I would argue, however, having a tutor is more beneficial than taking a prep course. Tutoring is individualized, catered to you and your learning style, you pick who is teaching you, and you will spend less money in the process.

Materials to Use

There is a lot of material to study for the MCAT. Many different companies sell content review books which cover the material they believe will be on the MCAT, and the depth at which they believe you need to know it. One thing to know before reading more about the prep books is that all these companies are guessing what is on the test. Unless the resource is from the AAMC (the company that writes the MCAT), all other resources are the resulting interpretation of what the writer believes will be on the MCAT. As a result, my strategy involved using multiple resources from different companies when studying for the MCAT. My reasoning for this is that different companies are better at teaching different sections. One company might be better at strategies for CARS, while other companies might be better at strategies for CP. Using multiple resources allows you to complement the weak spots of different companies with the strengths of the others, and prevents you from missing out on very vital information.

Content Review Books

Content review books, are similar to textbooks, they cover most of the concepts generally found on the MCAT. You will most definitely require a set of content review books if you plan on studying for this test. Many different companies produce these books which provide different strengths and weaknesses relative to each other. I have experience with most of the content review book companies since I mixed and matched and used multiple books in parallel. I’ll give a brief review of the different book companies and what I consider was their relative strengths and weaknesses, but this is based on my background and my interests and which book fit my preferences. This will vary per person so I suggest you look for different reviews, and maybe even get access to multiple books to see which one you like best.

The Princeton Review

The Princeton Review (TPR) produces a popular content review book and also provides a popular prep course. These books were my “staple” content review books, as I mainly relied on these. One thing I liked about them was that they were detail-oriented. This means they will cover a lot of information, a lot of which you definitely do not need to know for the MCAT. This was especially true for the biology book which had extensive amounts of details that you would never be tested about. Since I genuinely enjoy learning about biology and human systems, I had no issues getting through it, but I definitely had to adjust my focus while reading it an pick what I spent more time on. It would be up to you to figure out what you think is less useful information, and what you think is actually useful. As my friend put it, TPR is like the Encyclopedia Britannica. Their biochemistry book was solid in that I found it didn’t have too much bloat but they covered metabolism in a good amount of detail, which was necessary for me given I had not taken a metabolism course yet, aside from high school metabolism knowledge. Their general chemistry book was also solid, and I found it to be sufficient in information and carried less bloat. Their CARS book was great in terms of the amount of practice present, but it was terrible when it came to advice. I will go over CARS advice later, but DO NOT follow the advice the Princeton Review provides for CARS, just use it as a practice book. Their worst books in my opinion had to be the math & physics and organic chemistry books, but for opposite reasons. Their math & physics book was huge and contained too much information, too many practice problems and too much practice on basic math like trigonometry that everyone writing the MCAT should already have a basic understanding of. The amount of time you would have to devote to get through that book would be immense, and it would be better spent elsewhere. If you struggle at math and physics, maybe this book would be helpful, but realistically I still think it is too chunky. Their organic chemistry book on the other hand contains insufficient information. So much is lacking that if you did not take a full year worth of organic chemistry classes you’ll be left thinking, what just happened. Overall I think they have a solid set of content books, but you will need to supplement and filter if you want to do well.

Exam Krackers

Exam Krackers (EK) is another set of popular content review books. EK books tend to be very concise, and only touch on topics of interest with limited detail. This can be very good if you are already familiar with concepts, and just need to be reminded of some information. For instance, I had just finished taking a full year worth of physics, so I was very familiar with the physics concepts at the time of writing my MCAT, so I found the EK physics book to go over concepts I needed to know the most helpful. I would highly recommend you supplement what you learn in EK with another third party resource, or another content review book company. For physics, I supplemented what I was reading in EK physics book with a physics textbook I had for specific concepts I needed more readings on, as well as with Khan Academy videos. The EK Verbal Reasoning/CARS book is the best book for CARS in my opinion. Their strategy is much better than any other company’s strategy as a starting point, which you should expand on through your own practice. I will cover specific CARS practice later, however I will briefly state that their CARS practice is quite terrible. To their credit, they have good strategies to follow, so I would highly recommend you give this book a read. Their worst book has got to be their psychology and sociology book though. Don’t waste your time with this, it’s awful.

Kaplan

Kaplan books are similar to TPR books in that they tend to be on the more detail-oriented side, however, I found them to be spotty when it came to detail, and I was not a huge fan of their book series. Some people swear by Kaplan, and I did use it as a supplement for some concepts, primarily for biochemistry, but I did find that whatever was important in Kaplan books were emphasized in TPR books. The TPR books also covered it in greater detail so there really is no reason to use primarily use Kaplan books. If you want detail to have the potential for a higher score, use TPR, and if you want concise information since you are confident in what you know and you can supplement intelligently, use EK.

Other Resources

Khan Academy

Khan Academy (KA) is an online resource that provides video and article explanations of many topics, and they have an entire section on MCAT preparation. They had a partnership with the AAMC for the update to the MCAT in 2015. This partnership meant KA produced many educational videos on topics covered in the new MCAT, such as their psychology and sociology sections.

KA is one of the best resources to supplement your learning with, primarily because it is free! They also have hands down the best psychology and sociology content review compared to any of the prep companies. For psychology and sociology I would suggest using the 100 page document that a kind fellow on reddit made (click the link or search KA 100 page document). It is notes from all the KA psychology and sociology videos, and it contains pretty much all the topics you need to cover and defines the key words of interest. Some parts might be confusing, but you can supplement it with some googling or with other prep company content review books, especially the TPR and Kaplan books. I definitely would not primarily study from the TPR psychology and sociology books, due to the immense bloat, but supplementing it for clarification from the 100 page document is a good idea. The best advice I can give for the PS section in the MCAT is to memorize the key words like the back of your hand. The way I achieved this was through studying the 100 page document, then creating my own Anki flashcards and I reviewed them daily. My score in PS when I started my MCAT practices was sitting around 126 and did not improve until I started this method, which result in a 130 on test day for me.

KA also contains free practice passages to test your skills, and while these passages can vary in how good they are, it’s free practice so I would take advantage of whatever is free!

NOVA

I used NOVA as a supplement for physics and I looked at their general chemistry books. I found them amazing in terms of their ability to explain difficult concepts in plain English effectively. They also have practice problems at the end of sections to test your understanding. I would definitely recommend you supplement your physics with NOVA especially if physics is not your forte.

AAMC

Almost everything AAMC is a must. They write the MCAT so their resources are the closest to the real deal, as opposed to a guess from a third party. The best resources from them, in descending order of usefulness, in my opinion would be their practice tests (the 3 scored tests and then 1 unscored sample test), their section banks, their CARS question packs, the questions from the official guide, their science question packs, and their flashcards. Their CARS question packs and science question packs are both from previous MCAT tests prior to the 2015 makeover. While CARS has not changed much from verbal reasoning on the old MCAT, the science passages have changed dramatically. As a result the science question packs tend to be much easier than the type of science questions you should expect on your MCAT; however, it can still be good practice, especially if you are not a science major. The flashcards are not that useful unless you want some warm up questions before you write a full length or before your test day.

Other 3rd Party Resources

Do not buy any EK practice books, unless you are desperate for more practice. Their question style is not that similar to AAMC, and their EK 101 passage books try too hard to mess you up in my opinion, especially for CARS. Their CARS is frustrating, you do one CARS passage and they tell you the answer could be obtained through inference, while you do another one and they tell you the answer should not be obtained through inference… makes sense (yes this happened to me and I’m still salty about it).

TPR CARS workbook is golden. It is very good for CARS practice, and I would highly recommend you get it and use it. Their logic for the most part makes sense, and in my opinion matches the AAMC’s CARS logic the closest. TPR science workbooks are not necessary and I would rank them below the science question packs for the AAMC, so only do it if you are desperate for more science practice, or you are not a science major and struggle with the sciences.

I have no experience with any Kaplan practice material, since I had no reason to purchase anything from them. Their CARS is no good, and their sciences are not representative of the MCAT. I would not recommend.

Practice vs Studying

There is a balance between studying for the MCAT through learning content, and practicing through doing practice tests and passages. You do not want to do too much of one and not enough of the other, you need to find the perfect balance of the two given your background and experience. The MCAT is similar to playing a sport, you need to practice writing the test in similar conditions to test day to do well. You wouldn’t expect to go into a soccer tournament never playing a soccer game before. At the same time, you shouldn’t only do practice. After you do some practice and you see that you are failing at a certain topic, you won’t suddenly get better at the topic unless you do some readings or watch videos on it and learn.

Full Lengths

The best kind of practice you can do is full length practice tests. These are practice MCAT tests which mimic the real deal in terms of setup and length. I generally recommend people aim for 8-12 full length tests before they write their actual MCAT. These will yield the greatest return on time investment if you do them properly and efficiently. Different third party companies provide full length tests such as TPR, Kaplan, EK and NextStep. The AAMC itself has 4 full length practice tests also available for purchase.

In general when it comes to full length tests: AAMC >>>>> EK >= NextStep >>> TPR > Kaplan

TPR and Kaplan tests are cheaper than the others (if you know where to look you can find them for free) but they are not very representative of the actual MCAT. The only reason I ranked TPR ahead of Kaplan is because TPR has decent CARS, the rest of both is trash. EK and NextStep are much better, although only for NextStep tests prior to and including test 5. Tests 6-10 of NextStep are not good and I would avoid them. EK and NextStep are more representative of the types of questions you will get on the MCAT.

The benefit of EK is that you will be getting questions that require a lot of critical thinking from the passage, in my opinion more so than the actual MCAT, so you get a lot of good practice of extracting data from the passage. The downside is that they don’t give you a scaled score, but rather only give you a raw % of how you did. Another downside is their interface is disgusting to look at.

The benefit of NextStep is that it also requires critical thinking from the passage, although less so than EK. NextStep also tends to have questions that are similar to the AAMC’s style of questions. Other benefits include its interface being very similar to the actual MCAT’s interface, and the fact that it provides you with a scaled score. Another cool feature is it tells you what % of people select each answer for questions when you are reviewing it so you can see where you stand. They also rate questions on difficulty but I wouldn’t pay much attention to that, I saw easy questions ranked very difficult and difficult questions ranked easy. It’s not a good measure, look at how people answer instead. I ranked it similar to EK, but I ranked EK slightly higher because it tends to be a bit more challenging, thus better for earlier practice. NextStep also has trash CARS so be weary of that.

You should do your full length tests in ascending order of validity. In other words you should start with Kaplan and TPR tests, then do NextStep and EK tests and end with AAMC. There are a couple of reasons for this, but essentially you want to use your TPR and Kaplan tests to get a feel for the time, and get some practice with the structure of the test under your belt. Kaplan and TPR tests are cheap, and there are much more of them to “burn through”. You then want to use your NextStep and EK tests to develop your critical thinking and test your understanding of content. There are less NextStep and EK tests that are valid and they are more expensive, so you do not want to waste them earlier. Your AAMC tests at the end should then tell you how you will do on the actual MCAT. The AAMC tests should accurately predict how you will do on the actual MCAT for the most part. My score on AAMC practice test 1 was the same as my actual MCAT with 1 point movement. On AAMC test 1 I got a 132 in CP and 130 in BB while on my actual test I got 131 in both, the rest was the same. After doing all three scored tests, as well as the sample test, you should have a gauge of how you will do on the actual MCAT, and you should trust in your FL scores. The FL scores are not definitive though and you can still deviate, but on average, most people tend to get similar to their AAMC FL scores.

When & How to do Full Lengths

Some people finish their content review before touching full length practice tests, while others do it before they do any content review. Which is correct is not really known as it depends on many factors – people have done well employing both strategies. What I personally did was about a month of just content review so that I could go over most concepts briefly to touch on them, and then I started doing full lengths before I finished my content review. This approach helped me because it gave me enough time to do 10 full length exams even though I did them weekly, but it also allowed me to have a solid background on the content before doing my first test so that I am not completely lost.

I did my full lengths every Saturday, so weekly, until the week before my MCAT, and near the end I ended up doing 3 within a week because I wanted to fit an extra test in. When you are doing your full lengths you should replicate testing conditions. What this means is you should wake up early and do whatever you would do the morning of your MCAT. During your test treat it as if you were writing the real deal. Do not go to the bathroom unless you are on break, or if you were writing the real test you would need to go and waste time in the process. Do not use your phone during your breaks since on the real deal you won’t be able to. Do not end sections or breaks early because you want to be over with it, you shouldn’t do that on the real deal, sit down for the full time.

The reason for doing so many tests and mimicking test conditions is to train your body and mind to get use to writing a 7 hour test. It can be mentally draining to sit down for that long a period of time and stay focused the whole way through. The best way to prepare for what will be an unpleasant experience, and help reduce test-day anxiety is through practice. Doing all these tests will get you accustomed to the whole process so when you are writing it for real, it will feel like second nature.

The other reason for the full lengths is that they should be guiding your content review. It is easy to read a book and think you mastered a topic, but you can only know for sure if you understand something, if it is put to the test. After doing your full length tests you should be doing a thorough analysis of it, going through every question you got wrong, guessed or was not fully sure about, noting down the concepts to look over and how to improve next time.

This test is about self-improvement, and as mentioned many time critical thinking. While all of this may seem like a pain, the skills you develop while studying for this test will carry through to the rest of your life and academic career. If you maintain these good habits it can help you do better in school, your job and other aspects of your life.

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