It’s the end of July and those of you writing your MCAT this summer have either already written it, or are scheduled to write it very soon. For those who are scheduled to write it in August or September, you are almost there! I will cover some late game tips in how to maximize your remaining time to make improvements on the various sections and getting over plateaus.
Last Minute Improvements
So you are writing in less than a month, what should you do in these last weeks before it is all over? If you are a month or less away from your MCAT, the first thing you should be doing is ditching all or most 3rd party/non-AAMC practice material. You should try to only use AAMC practice full lengths, passages etc. The reason behind this is that each company has a certain question style, along with logic they follow. When you are writing your MCAT, the AAMC is writing it, and their question style and logic are what matter, not TPR’s, Kaplan’s or EK’s. You should be only exposed to AAMC type questions and passages so you can get the full effect, be immersed in their style, to be prepared for it.
Judge where you are at
Ensure that you do your first AAMC full length ideally about 3-5 weeks away from your test. If it is a scaled test, then look at that score and think if it is within your target score range, if it is, great! You are on track. Of course one practice test is not enough to tell you for sure where you are sitting, but the first one should give you a ballpark range. You need more tests to reduce the variance, but ultimately the only test score that matters is the real thing.
You should keep in mind that depending on what your target score is, the deviation of your practice test score from your real test score can vary. If you are aiming for a score higher than a 520 on the MCAT, then there can be greater deviation on your practice tests and your actual test. It is easier to deviate among the 520 range due to random chance of getting a few questions wrong. For instance, if you get a 523 on your practice test, you should be good for a high score, but there should be a good chance of getting either a 520 or a 525. At these higher score ranges, it only take a couple questions to set you off a few percentile marks.
If you are aiming for a 510 on the other hand, and you get around a 505 on your practice test, then you need to rev it up to high gear. As you move away from 528, the buffer room for percentile groupings increases, and the deviation you should expect on test day should be lower. Of course there will always be cases of people getting a 502 on their practice test and coming out of the real thing with a 525, but I am talking about averages, and what statistically, most people will experience.
To reiterate, these practice test scores cannot tell you how you will do on the actual test, only your performance on test day can. These tests do, however, have good predictive power, and you should use them as a gauge, but do not let them dictate how you will perform and do not lose hope.
Situation 1: I am on, slightly ahead of, or close to my target
If you have written at least 2 AAMC full lengths and your score on theses tests is close to what you want on the real deal, you are in a great spot! Your hard work is paying off, and you are at the home stretch. Do not get cocky, but have some confidence in yourself. You did it on the most predictive indicators there are, so statistically, you should be able to perform well on your actual test day. Remember however, nothing is guaranteed. You need to push yourself and motivate yourself in these last weeks to keep up the intensity you have had thus far, and I do not want you to lose your momentum. Think of the MCAT like a marathon, and you are headed to the home stretch with good time. Don’t start sprinting to the end or you will crash, but avoid slowing down since then you will not reach your mark. You want to increase the intensity to a level where you can maintain, or even slightly surpass your current pace, without overdoing it.
Enough analogies, at this point I want you to go and review every full length you have written with an emphasis on your AAMC full lengths. Go through every topic you have gotten wrong at one point, and ensure you understand it so that you will not get that type of question wrong. The reason I say this is because the questions you get on the MCAT could be completely different from anything you have practiced, but you might get a few questions that are very similar. If you do get anything similar, then you better be getting that question right. I also want you to try and find patterns in what you mess up on in passages or reading questions. For instance, if you frequently mess up easy calculation questions, then on the real deal I want you to mark every calculation question, and if you have extra time at the end, review them all and ensure that you do not make any dumb math mistakes (no 2+2 does not equal 5 stressed MCAT brain).
After you have reviewed your full lengths and you have made sure all the content in the past tests have been sufficiently covered, go through the list of topics that you can expect to see covered on the MCAT by the AAMC. Go bullet by bullet and do not skim through it. If you must, write a sentence or an equation that is related to each point in this list. This list is telling you all the topics that can be covered, and to make sure you do not get a question that you are blanking on because you never covered it, go through the list and know it all. I really only suggest this to students that have some time left, are at their target score, and are trying to bump it up ever so slightly in the CP, BB or PS sections. This obviously will not work in the CARS section because there is no content. Even as you read the list and make sure you understand topics, you can always skip over areas mentioned very briefly and are overly complicated and not worth your time. For instance, thin film interference can be somewhat confusing for those that have never taken a physics class, and it is notorious for rarely ever showing up on the MCAT. You will most likely be OK to ignore this topic if you do not understand it, since you could spend your time covering content which yields a higher bang for your buck (is more likely to show up on the test). At the same time remember that anything on that list goes, and if you are aiming for that 130+ in any content section, you should make sure you cover all your bases. This is what I did, and what I attribute my 130+ in all sections (other than CARS) to.
Situation 2: I am slightly below my target score
If you are below your target score by a few percentile marks, and these points are lower than any normal deviation, do not worry! One month is a lot of time for improvement, and even with only weeks left, with the correct mindset you can reach, or approach your target score.
If you are below your target score across the board for all sections, then what you need to do is increase your studying as a whole. If you can spend more time on all sections by increasing the total amount of time doing content review and practice passages, this is what you need to do without adjusting the proportion of time spent on each subject. You cannot focus too much on any one section since they all need improvements. The exception to this is if you are more concerned with section-specific scores, either to bump up your overall, or because the schools you are applying for care more about a particular section (*cough* CARS in Canada *cough*). I would discourage this, however, since balance looks better, but I totally understand if this is what you wish to pursue.
Try to identify if you are doing something systemically wrong. Maybe you are not spending enough time reading the question and spending too much time trying to decipher the passage. Maybe you are too concerned with time and not spending enough time on questions. Do you spend too much time on questions that are tripping you up leaving you with limited time on the ones you know?
It is difficult for me to tell you exactly what to do in your situation without knowing it, so instead I will give some general tips based on what are some common fault areas. Remember, however, that this varies drastically amongst individuals.
Chem & Physics Below Target
If your CP is below your target and you are worried about how you will do on your exam on this section, then you need to target exactly what is failing you. For CP I always suggest that you spend less time reading the passage, just get the general idea and highlight equations, constants or phrases of interest then go back to the passage once you are asked a question. If you find it hard to follow the passage then maybe it would be best for you to slow down your reading speed and try to ensure you can follow the flow. Be careful however, you do not want to spend too much time reading the passage – the bulk of your time should still be spent answering the questions to give you enough time to go back to the passage.
If you are looking to crack just above a 125 or somewhere along that range, I wouldn’t spend the time I mentioned earlier going through every bullet of content on the AAMC content list. That is not efficient. What you need to do is make sure all the high yield content is under your belt and you have a good understanding of it all. Figuring out what is high yield shouldn’t be too hard based on what is emphasized the most in your content review books, on the content list, and in practice tests you’ve done.
Make yourself an equation sheet, write down the situations in which you would use each equation along with the units involved in each equation. Understanding units can also do a lot of good for you and if you do not quite understand how to come about an equation from the units, that would be good practice. For instance, if you are doing a question about energy and notice that there is the unit J for joule, you should know that 1 J = 1N * 1m. From this relationship you should also know that energy is the product of force over a displacement, simply from the units. There might be some constant factor, but the overall relationship can be derived simply from understanding units.
CARS is Below Target
This is the most common issue many students, especially Canadian students, have close to their test day. If your CARS is below your target score to apply to different schools and be competitive, then you definitely want to boost this because of the important weight it holds in admission screening.
The best way to improve CARS is active practice. What do I mean by active practice? It is one thing to just do practice CARS passages, but unless you do an analysis after each practice, and figure out what is systematically going wrong, then you will not improve. You cannot change your score unless you change something you are doing. Active practice would be doing CARS passages and noticing issues then trying out novel strategies to attempt to mitigate them.
An issue I had in CARS for example, was that I would not grasp details in a passage, and not everything would be absorbed when I was reading passages I was not interested in. The way I initially tried to resolve this was by highlighting as I read. I noticed that while this slowed down my pace, I ended up distracted by the highlighting and I would spend more time reading, but less time absorbing information. My score did not improve and instead got worse. I reassessed and attempted to instead just read more slowly. While reading slowly I also tried to build a prototype of what I was reading in my head. I started spending more time reading and less time answering the questions, and this helped me improve my score significantly. I found I was more invested in the passage and I was comprehending more, thus through this active practice, reflection and reassessment, I was able to improve my CARS score.
Do not stop practicing CARS but try to only do AAMC practice. Do the CARS question packs, do AAMC full length CARS, do the official guide questions, or do some searching on the internet to find other types of AAMC practice.
BB is Below Target
If your BB is below target it can be tough to know how to improve it. The BB section encompasses a lot of different topics and being a master in them all is a difficult and time-consuming matter. What I would do is try to review the topics on the AAMC topic list and check if there is a specific area of weakness. Is it biology or biochemistry that is holding you back? If it’s biology you need to find something more specific. Are you weak at different organ systems in the body? What about cellular biology? Is your microbiology on point?
If it is biochemistry rather, it can be easier to pin-point a weakness compared to biology. Proteins, carbohydrates, lipids and nucleic acids. Make sure content wise you are on top of your game. Know the 20 amino acids, naming, structure and their properties. Glucose metabolism should be second nature from glycolysis down to the electron transport chain. In terms of lipids there is less to cover but make sure you know TAG structures, the fact that ester bonds hold fatty acids to the glycerol backbone, and some basics in terms of TAG metabolism. While I won’t go over every topic point in biochemistry, as I mentioned for CP, make sure you master the high yield stuff.
If the content in the biochemistry & biology section isn’t what is holding you down, it might be research methods. Make sure you understand the different types of biochemical research techniques. Passages will incorporate some form of biochemical research technique, and if you understand the techniques then you will have an easier time understanding the passage and extracting information. A passage might not tell you what a Western blot is looking at, or what it tells you, as you are expected to already know that a Western is looking for proteins with a certain amino acid sequence. Looking over research techniques, as well as what conclusions you can gather based on the results of different experiments can help elevate your biochem section score significantly, or at least allow you to read through the passages faster and more thoroughly, leaving you more time for other questions and passages.
PS is Below Target
Improving PS is probably the easiest to do, and it is the section that means the least. Some schools ignore it completely and no schools exclusively look at it. The name of the game when it comes to PS is keywords. What I did was go through the 100 page Khan Academy document from reddit, and after I made notes from that, I made myself Anki flashcards for every keyword I could find. I then reviewed these Anki flashcards every day up until a few days before my test day. I also added any key word I found from the section bank, or full lengths that I could not find in the 100 page document along with anything I found in the AAMC content list.
Knowing the different keywords inside and out is what I call the key to the PS section, however, for some the research techniques as well as drawing conclusions from the passage can cause confusion – something that memorizing key words does not help. If this is the case then you will have a harder time improving your score, especially in a short period of time. If PS is the only section that is below target and you feel confident in your abilities in all other sections, I would suggest you spend some time reading through select sections of a psychology textbook. This is a suggestion I hesitate to make as it can definitely increase your score, however, it is largely low yield. It will take a lot of time and it is something that might give you no, or very minute improvements, but it has the potential to help you break into the high percentiles and break off a plateau in a section. I actually did not do this for psychology since I took a full year of psychology in University, but I did for sociology since I was never formally educated on sociology, thus had to spend more time on the topics and needed greater detail which I got from a sociology textbook.
Situation 3: I am far below my target score
This is a very tough situation to be in. I do feel for you, and while I wish I could tell you that you will do fine, that won’t get you a better score. What you need to do is figure out how important your target score is and whether or not you can make it more attainable. If you were initially aiming for 515 but your target scores are sitting at 503, I am telling you it is very unlikely for you to get your target score. In a case like this I would first try to assess how important it is for you to get a 515. You do not need a 515 to get into medical school, and you should try to figure out what score you will be happy with that will still leave you with a good chance of getting into a school, or the school you want. Some people forget this, but I hope you remember that the MCAT is a test to help you get into medical school. Once you are in medical school, your score means nothing anymore. Sure you can feel good about yourself if you score high, but guess what? No one else really cares. The only people that will care for a high score once you are in are other premeds who want to score high on the MCAT, and companies that want to hire MCAT instructors for their prep course.
If you are very much below your target score, but getting your target score is important, you should consider pushing your test date back. It is better to pay to move it back and have to study a few more weeks than it is to pay for the whole test again next year and waste another summer or several months studying for it. If you are too close to your test day and you cannot push your date back then you should write your test. No matter what happens, write it. If you feel like you will do badly and do not want your test to be scored, then on test day after you finish your test, there will be a question on a screen asking you if you want your MCAT to be scored or not. Select that you want your test score VOIDED so that they do not score your test and there will be no record of how you performed. You will not get your score, but the benefit here is that since you already paid for it and could not get it rescheduled, you get to practice test day the best way possible. This way you will have first hand experience of what the real test is like, which can help you next time you want to do the test. Another benefit is that if you are writing the test, and you feel very confident on the questions, you always have the chance to get it scored, and who knows, maybe you will surprise yourself.
Keep your Motivation
It is early August and it has been a long summer. I know the feeling of wasting your whole summer studying for this test, and maybe you are losing motivation. Your test scores are coming in sub-par, you are no longer improving like you were when you first started studying, and you feel brain dead. You want this all to end, and part of you wants to just stop studying and just try to enjoy the time you have before your test.
Trust me, I understand how hard this test is on you mentally. How much time you spend on this test is ridiculous. It will all be worth it in the end and think of this as an investment of your time. If you put in 100% of your effort and finish strong, you will not regret missing out on a couple more weeks of your summer. You will look back at this and think to yourself how happy you are that you stuck with it until the end.
If you have a month left before your test, think of all the time you have already invested preparing. Remember that you do not want the time spent to go to waste by giving up. If you give it your all and keep yourself motivated, regardless of your score you should be proud. Do not worry about your score yet, nothing is set in stone until you write. Rather than worrying about your score, spend whatever time you have left working on improving your content review, and practicing. All the time you invest into studying will yield its dividends through a better MCAT score, or greater knowledge that will be useful to you later in life.
So for now, do not worry or focus on your score too much, and do not drown in sorrow for the time you realized you wasted in the past. Concentrate on what matters right now, which is making the most of the time remaining to yield the greatest returns. If your test is in a week, don’t go party tonight. Also, don’t spend all the time you have studying setting up your study space to share it with friends on Instagram or Snapchat. Don’t be the person that shares stories of their study space with a laptop, a notebook and a textbook along with a very nicely placed coffee on the side captioned “the MCAT grind” with a sighing emoji. I understand this is a process, and maybe sharing it with your friends is a way to keep you motivated, but spend the time you have actually studying, not just complaining about studying or telling the world you are studying.
If you give it your all you should have no regrets on the part of your effort, even if your score does not turn out as hoped. Do not give a half-baked effort, because then upon reflection you will always be wondering how well you could have done if you had just given it your all, and you will be questioning this as you study the second time around.