Conquering the MCAT: 3 Students’ Perspectives

The MCAT is a major hurdle for many medical school applicants. The exam can be one of the most trying experiences for pre-med students and can make or break an application. For many students, their dreams of a medical career end with an unexpectedly low score on the MCAT. Jordan, a former pre-med student at California State University (Long Beach), abandoned his medical school ambitions after scoring a 24Q on his exam; a score that many students believe is a “virtual cut-off.” Despite committing more than the average amount of time to studying, Jordan could not crack the exam.

I came out of the testing center with confidence, but when I got the score, I was completely discouraged; I never expected it to be THAT low!

Unfortunately, Jordan’s experience is not uncommon. Many students anticipate higher scores than they actually receive. This doesn’t mean that students like Jordan aren’t intelligent or don’t prepare enough for medical school; in fact, Jordan graduated with a perfect 4.0 GPA in both the sciences and non-sciences coursework. What sets high scorers and low scorers apart may not be content knowledge, but differences in test taking ability, test taking mentality, and confidence in their knowledge and ability.

There are numerous self-directed programs available free for students online. In fact, a few popular ones are available right here on SDN, including the original three-month study schedule. and the free MCAT Studyschedule service. But, many students find themselves unable to follow a self-directed schedule. If you are one of those students who find available programs restrictive or not sufficient for your preparation, don’t fret! Many students who have scored well on the MCAT did not follow any pre-determined path. Instead, they made their own study schedule by using a blend of the techniques and programs available while adding in their own preferences.

In this article, we share how three high-scoring students (517 and up) prepared for their big day. We hope to demonstrate how important it is to take all the tools at your disposal and personalize them for yourself. We feel that this aspect of test preparation is particularly important following the MCAT 2015 update. With this change, some prior study techniques became obsolete. It is critical for you to make sure you’re following advice for the current version and not the pre-2015 version.

Student Interviews:

Name: Peter
Major: General Biology
Strengths: Sciences
Weaknesses: CARS
Prep Course: No

Authors: How did you prepare for the MCAT?
Peter: I started looking at the CARS section first, since it was my weak point. I read newspaper articles and articles from well-written sources such as The Economist. I’m a slow reader, so I worked to pick up the pace and learned to skim better, leaving behind unnecessary information. Being a science major, I developed a tendency to read everything thoroughly for understanding, but there is just no time for this on the MCAT. I supplemented everything by doing CARS passages regularly from practice books to apply my skills under timed conditions. I’m a terrible test taker and often blank out on test day. The practice I did also helped with using techniques such as process of elimination, which needs to be ingrained or you’ll forget to use it.

For Biological Sciences and Physical Sciences, I bought review books, but the most important piece of advice would be to do practice passages and questions, lots of them. If you’re a science major, chances are you’re already acquainted with the material. I felt that I just needed to be quicker and more efficient since 70 minutes is not a lot of time. In my opinion, practice is the only way to become faster at the science sections. At the end, I became so fast that I practically did each section twice.

Authors: Did you consult any of the available free programs online?
Peter: I found several free practice exams from test preparation companies and some practice problems, but other than those, I relied mainly on the practice books and exams I bought. The older versions of the actual MCAT that are available for purchase online were especially helpful. I become familiar with the actual testing system and it help got me in the test-taking mentality.

Authors: In all, how many hours and how many months did you invest in this exam?
Peter: I spent 2 hours a day on the weekdays and 6 hours a day on the weekends for 6 months. I wanted to do it in 3 months, but I had work and classroom exams to study for. Also, I didn’t want to take the MCAT in the fall since that’s when everything gets hectic. I spent January through June preparing for a July exam. Studying for a major test during undergraduate is difficult, but if you give yourself that large of a time frame, you’ll feel less overwhelmed. To me, this particularly was important. If I feel overwhelmed, my grades start to suffer along with everything else.

Authors: Is there any other advice you want to leave with us?
Peter: Sure. The MCAT is a serious exam, so don’t procrastinate and don’t waste time. Several of my friends set aside 3 months to study, but they weren’t serious about it until one month before their test date. During the first two months, they studied with the TV on or while chatting with people online. Needless to say, all of those guys had to re-take the MCAT.

Name: Lauren
Major: Psychology
Strength: CARS
Weaknesses: Chemical and Physical Sciences
Prep Course: No

Authors: How did you approach preparing for the MCAT?
Lauren: I am very comfortable with reading passages, so I knew I would be okay with the time limit for practically every section. I knew that if I’d get a low score for the MCAT it would be in the chemical and physical section. When I started reviewing, I found out I didn’t remember anything! I was tempted to re-read chapters from my textbook, but a friend told me this was a terrible idea. I ended up buying review books which summarized the subject much more succinctly. A note to this: I recommend buying single-subject review books since my experience has told me that they cover material more comprehensively.

My main focus was to understand where the MCAT could trick me. For example, I would go over a standard biochemical problem. After doing it myself, I would look at the solution. While looking at each step, I’d try to anticipate how a trick could be placed in. Regularly, I’d do practice passages and problem sets to see if I can solve these problems in a timely manner and if I was able to catch these tricks if any. The scores on practice material are very telling of how well you’d do on the real thing. For my CARS strategy, I look at the questions first. I don’t try to memorize the question, but I do look for keywords that I should search for in the passage.

Authors: Did you take advantage of any free material online?
Lauren: Oh yeah, of course! I’m college student after all. Like most people, I took advantage of the free practice exams offered by prep companies on campus and online. Additionally, I used the three-month study schedule on SDN. I had graduated already when I started preparing for the MCAT, so I had a lot more free time. Even though I followed the schedule pretty well, I did place more emphasis on physics and general chemistry than I did on other topics. It’s my way of tweaking things around a bit.

Authors: In all, how much time did you spend preparing for this exam?
Lauren: Well, I followed the 3-month schedule, so I’d say around 600 hours for the 3 months, which I must say is pretty darn standard and I was very happy with my score.  I must also add that I did the entire thing over the summer (some post-graduate friends did the same thing over a different 3-month section). One summer with very little fun was a small price to pay.

Authors: Do you have any additional advice for future test-takers?
Lauren: Yes, don’t let people tell you how to prepare for a certain section. It’s good to have people’s opinions, but in the end, you are the best person to evaluate your own weaknesses and strengths.

Name: Andrew Nguyen
Major: Physiology
Strengths: CARS
Weaknesses: N/A
Prep Course: No

Authors: How did I prepare for the MCAT?
Andrew: My preparation was slightly lengthier since I did not have a real particular strength or weakness in the major sections. My first practice exam score was dead even for all sections. For me, this meant that I had to focus on all the sections equally. My approach was to review my science materials. When you start out, it’s a good idea to review materials that you enjoy first. I find that this builds momentum that you can use throughout the rest of your preparation, especially through sections you don’t like. The bio and biochemical science section required that I review the contents of each topic and know the intricate relationships of the many biological systems (biology).

For chemical and physical sciences, I had to review basic principles and perform calculations. If you’re like me, you’ll make small errors that lead you to the wrong answer. The MCAT can anticipate common errors and will put that wrong answer as a choice on the exam! Be wary of this and practice your calculations. For CARS, I spent a lot of time reading passages from books, novels and articles from The Economist. Try to pick selections which are similar in length and practice your highlighting skills on these passages too. It’s generally a good idea to take an exam interactively; it helps you stay focus. Use process of elimination when you can. Look for extreme wording and eliminate answer choices with words like “never” or “always.” A more advanced technique involves using tone; if the tone of the passage does not match the tone of an answer choice, you should suspect that the answer may be wrong. However, this technique is often taught to humanities majors; if you’re a science major, this one may not be in your repertoire. In which case, leave it out unless you have time to develop it.

Authors: Did I take advantage of free material?
Andrew: Of course! I used many free practice exams. Your health professions adviser may also have copies of test prep books in their offices as reference material. If you cannot afford one, look for ones there. I have found that local libraries often carry outdated books. However, you could still borrow those for a source of extra practice problems. Just be on the look-out of any glaring differences; for instance, old books will say that cell respiration produces 36-38 ATPs per glucose. However, newly updated books will report a value of 30-32 ATPs per glucose.

Authors: How much time did I spend?
Andrew: I spent around 1,000 hours over a span of one year. I have a very unforgiving schedule, with on-campus activities, extracurricular activities, research and work. If you’re in my situation, make good use of your summers and winters. You’ll find the most free time during these breaks. Plus, my preparation had a rocky beginning and didn’t smooth out until after the first month or so.

Authors: Final piece of advice?
Andrew: Don’t get frustrated if you have to change your strategy, your approach or your overall schedule. Most likely, you won’t get it right the first time. I had to change my schedule around 5 times before I finally found what works. In this regard, give yourself plenty of time to prepare. Many students end up delaying their test date back at least a month so that they can have more time. There’s no shame in this at all; it’s much better to delay instead of explaining why you didn’t do well the first time. Finally, do what works for you. I have had plenty of people ask me to write down step-by-step what they should do to score well. It doesn’t quite work that way. There is no cook-book recipe for a high score, at least for a fair amount of people. For instance, some people like reading the questions of a verbal passage before they read the passage. While others, like me, don’t prefer this because we end forgetting what we just read in the questions anyway. Even if you take a course to prepare for the exam, you’ll find yourself tweaking “proven” techniques around. Find what’s good for you and work with it. “Proven” doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t get a good score.

In Closing
What should you take from all this? Well, we hope that we’ve cleared up some issues for you and gave you more options. Taking the MCAT and applying to medical school are two big (and scary, but exciting) moments in your life. It is very tempting to try and emulate a successful person in hopes of obtaining his or her results. While you will benefit from some of his or her advice, there’s still too much that relies on you specifically.

Furthermore, we encourage you to pay special attention to your strengths and weaknesses. Certain test-taking skills are almost always valuable, such as process of elimination and interactive test-taking. You’ll need to identify what your preferences are and develop skills which help you exploit your strengths and bolster your weaknesses. We hope future MCAT takers (and other test takers) find this information useful. Good luck and happy trails.

Get more advice from high scoring students in the SDN MCAT Forum. Check out: 509+ MCAT Study Habits and MCAT Study Question Q & A