4 Things I Wish I’d Known About the MCAT

Walking out of the test center after I had completed the MCAT was a surreal experience. Somehow, the far-off test date for which I had been preparing for months had not only arrived, but had already passed. I was suddenly and thankfully in possession of all of the components of a complete medical school application, as an MCAT score was the last blank space to fill on my impending AMCAS application.
As I walked to my car, I was awash in a mix of emotions: exhaustion, having gotten up at five to get to the test center on time; elation, at having elected to submit my scores for evaluation on the last screen of the test; and some anxiety, in hoping that my score would be high enough to support a successful admissions cycle. While I was prepared to take such a rigorous assessment, after sitting for the exam, I now know that the idea of being “perfectly prepared” for whatever test day might present is impossible. Here are four points about the MCAT that I wish I’d known before completing it:
1. Opening the MCAT’s first section on your test date can be overwhelming—and terrifying 
I was a veteran of multiple practice tests by the time the actual MCAT arrived, and I thought I had conquered all the possible elements of nervousness that could impede my concentration on test day. But when it came time to click through to the first section of the MCAT, a wave of anxiety hit. I remember finding the first passage incomprehensibly complicated, with all my relevant preparation having seemingly fled in mere seconds. While I was able to recover quickly enough and worked through the section without further issues, I wish I had better readied myself for the shock of taking “the real thing.” I imagine that taking slow breaths or reminding myself that I had studied well might have made those moments of panic less intense.
2. Finishing a section early may be unexpected, but it doesn’t mean that you did poorly 
My undergraduate work focused heavily on psychology, and as a result, I flew through the MCAT’s Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior section, finishing more than thirty minutes early. When I answered the last question, I thought that I must have done something wrong. How could I have possibly finished the hardest exam of my life early? I erroneously thought that total time spent was correlated with score, and assumed that I had surely missed something by moving so quickly through the test. It’s important to remember that finishing early on a section (or, conversely, finishing right as the timer stops) may not have any bearing on your final result. While you might feel uneasy if you finish early or are crunched for time, it’s best to move on to the next section when you have completed the previous one, leaving behind any negative feelings you have about that previous portion.
3. Test centers cater to more than just MCAT test-takers
While there may be many people sitting for the MCAT at your testing center, test centers do not exclusively administer the MCAT. It can be distracting to take your MCAT next to someone who is taking a very different test. In addition, some individuals—whether MCAT test-takers or otherwise—do not always adhere to exam center policies around noise reduction. Between people moving in and out of the room at different times and unexpected noise, it is all too easy to become distracted or to feel as though you aren’t moving through your own test at an adequate pace. To prepare for this reality ahead of time, take your practice exams in quiet—but public—spaces to better simulate the test center.
4. “Bad” days during MCAT prep are normal
Too often, students preparing for the MCAT build rigid review schedules that do not leave room for “bad” days. It may seem incomprehensible to “waste” a study day by taking time off, but unless you provide room for relaxation during your MCAT preparation, you might soon find that “study days” and “bad days” become synonymous. During my own review, I realized relatively quickly that studying for eight hours a day, seven days a week was unrealistic and led to less retention of material and poorer practice test outcomes. I also realized that, sometimes, it was impossible to predict whether I’d be too tired on a given day to put in long study hours. In retrospect, perhaps one of the best MCAT study plans you can make is to allow for dedicated “off” days, with the flexibility to also have the occasional unexpected one if the need arises. I found that rest became just as important as study during my preparation.
Cassie Kosarek is a professional tutor with Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement. She earned her Bachelor of Arts from Bryn Mawr College and is a member of the Class of 2020 at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College.