I have feared the MCAT my whole academic career. I always tried to push it from my mind (just like the Ugg’s trend in the early 2000s — ew). But when I saw the months getting closer, I realized it was time to face my fear. For those who may not know, the MCAT stands for the Medical College Admission Test and is what every pre-med student must take to apply to medical school. It is a 7.5-hour (5.45-hour with COVID timing) marathon that tests you on biology, physics, general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, psychology and sociology. Neither of my parents are in the healthcare field, so I didn’t really know what the MCAT was about except for what I heard from r/premed.
Now that I have taken it and received my score back, I want to help other students by sharing my experiences with the test and provide advice about standardized graduate admissions tests in general. There is a lot of book sets, Facebook groups, courses and “expert advice” out there, so it can be very overwhelming to navigate, especially if you can’t drop $2,000 on an MCAT course (like me). I previously wrote an article talking about How to Apply to Medical School on a Budget, which gives a general overview to free or low-cost MCAT materials.
To give you some background: this was my first time taking the MCAT. I prepared over summer starting in May with a test date at the end of August. While studying, I had a part-time job and was involved in volunteering, so I had plenty of time to dedicate to the MCAT. I chose to take the summer to study because I am too busy during a full semester to take a day off with Netflix, much less study for a monster exam. I was very fortunate that I could dedicate a whole summer to the MCAT, but if you are not, then many people take it with a full course load or working a full-time job.
However, I will say that it will be harder to juggle all your commitments when studying for the MCAT. When I first started, I underestimated exactly what this “beast” is. It is not just a recall test of all your pre-med prerequisites. Simply knowing the information is not good enough. You must know the material forwards and backward and be able to apply it within the context of any science domain.
On the MCAT, physics, physiology and general chemistry are not separate subjects, they can all be used on a single passage. Having the time to dedicate to multiple 7.5-hour practice tests is vital to scoring well because it teaches you how to make these connections under timed pressure.
I did not want to spend thousands of dollars on a preparation course because I knew I could be disciplined to keep up with my schedule. If you like the format of being in a class or the structure with given deadlines, then a class may be for you. Check out these courses from Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step Test Prep) and Kaplan to see which ones might be for you.
Personally, I needed a book set to brush up on the science content, a practice question bank and practice tests. I used Facebook Marketplace to find a set of old Kaplan books for $15 and bought the subscription to UWorld to use as a question bank. UWorld provides over 1,900 questions to practice MCAT style passage and discrete questions. It took me about a month to go through all 1,900, and I still didn’t end up finishing the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section questions.
I bought four outside practice tests from Blueprint MCAT because after doing my research I determined their question style was most similar to the AAMC style and offered greater difficulty to prepare me more. I got five practice tests from AAMC directly using the Fee Assistance Program. With the AAMC Fee Assistance Program, you get access to all AAMC MCAT practice material, the MSAR and more. Check the link above to see if you qualify and to apply.
Making a study plan (but not sticking with It, whoops)
I really tried my best with making a detailed study plan with daily tasks, but it never stuck. Sometimes, I would pull consistently focused 10-hour days. Other times, I would struggle to study for six hours. Detailed study plans may work for some people, but I preferred to have just a general timeline. For example, I planned for my first half-month to be just reviewing old content, and then start practice questions once I remembered enough information. From there, I planned to finish content after the first month was done and start practice tests each week for the last two months of my prep. Weekly/monthly goals worked a lot better for me because it provided more flexibility with my job and overall stress levels. Also, I didn’t feel so down on myself if I didn’t finish my to-do list for the day because then I had the whole week to do it when I felt more “in the zone.”
While studying for the MCAT, or any standardized graduate entry exam, it is easy to push your mental and physical health aside. However, that will certainly lead to terrible consequences. I struggled with sticking to my goal, but I really tried to make sure I was taking care of myself. On those days where I wanted to gouge my eyes out if I saw another question about glycolysis, I let myself take an hour or two to myself. I also would try to “spice up” my studying if I felt bored of doing the same routine. Sometimes I would take my biology book to the pool and read a couple of chapters while tanning.
Alternatively, I would listen to the MCAT Podcast by Dr. Ryan Gray on my runs after a day of studying. You’re not a studying machine, you are human. You need time to take care of your body and mind. After all, finding a good life balance is always going to be a struggle in and beyond medical school. You might as well learn how to do it now.
Bring out the confidence!
For any big career-determining test like the MCAT, you never feel prepared to take it. Even if you have put in 300+ hours of studying, you still feel like you don’t know enough or that pushing your test date back a week will be beneficial. Sometimes it will be, but at some point, you must buckle up and trust in your hard work. This was the hardest I have ever studied for a test in my life. I never properly learned how to study before I had to conquer this beast, but now I know how I learn best. For example, I don’t need to take pages of notes that I will never read again. Instead, I listen to the lecture and then try to summarize all the information as a concept map that is easier to study afterward.
But even after I felt so tired of studying and ready to get it over with, I was still terrified. I could probably fill a swimming pool with how many times I cried over the summer from all the stress. If I could go back, I would’ve told myself to trust in my abilities and dedication instead of worrying about all the “what ifs.” This was amplified during the two weeks I waited to receive my score back and regretted not voiding the score on my test. To help with this, I found a pump-up playlist that I would play each time I started to spiral. I even made my boyfriend play his favorite pump-up song right before I entered the testing center to get rid of my self-doubt.
Find what works for you, but please don’t start doubting your abilities, intelligence or ability to be successful in your career because of a *stupid* standardized test. The MCAT doesn’t determine what kind of doctor you will be, just like the GRE can’t predict how successful you will be in your career. If anything, there has been a movement away from standardized testing because it doesn’t capture what it should, especially during the pandemic. If this is your first (or second, third, fourth, whatever) time taking the test, just remember that you got this. On test day, take a deep breath and slay!