Famous Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz once remarked, “When my teams took second place, the fans called me an idiot. A guy who finished last in medical school is still called a ‘doctor’. Hardly seems fair.”
Lou’s pithy comment may be true for students already in medical school. However, if you are a premed student, finishing last, or even in the middle of the pack, dooms your chances of going to a quality medical school. Every year, students face fierce competition. Scoring “above average” isn’t enough. To be highly competitive as an out-of-state applicant at schools across the country, you need a strong MCAT score—usually in the 90th percentile or above.
The question is, “How can I ensure that I will earn one of those coveted 90th-percentile MCAT scores?” Here are 5 student-tested, test-day-proven methods that reliably produce 90th-percentile MCAT scores:
- Remember the 90/10 Rule
90% of MCAT questions are concept-driven. They require critical-thinking, NOT memorized content knowledge.
The MCAT is not what most students preparing for it think it is. The typical premed student spends months reviewing science content and memorizing facts, figures, and formulas. That is preparing for an exam that doesn’t exist; the MCAT won’t reward you for that kind of content knowledge.
On the MCAT, you will earn points for demonstrating two primary skills:
- The ability to think critically about real-life biological scenarios.
- The ability to analyze and interpret actual scientific research.
Most MCAT passages will present you with an excerpt from a peer-reviewed research paper published in a scientific journal. Four to six questions will be paired with each passage. You should expect to encounter both dense scientific language and multiple figures or graphs. To score well, you’ll need to read the passage, interpret the accompanying graphs, and clearly understand what is happening. Memorized facts, figures, and formulas provide you with little to no help.
Succeeding on this type of research-based passage has almost nothing to do with the content-driven study methods employed by most students and most prep courses. To do well, you need at least two things. First, you need lots of experience reading and analyzing research-based MCAT passages. Second, you must understand basic science content conceptually. You must understand why, how and where things happen, and be able to visualize the actual process at a molecular or atomic level.
10% of MCAT questions are answerable based on recalling memorized content, or performing a plug-n-chug calculation.
Although the MCAT is almost entirely concept-driven, some questions on every test require simple recall of a concept or scientific term. Others require you to perform a mathematical calculation. To earn a 90th-percentile score, you cannot perform poorly on these questions either, so you need to go into your exam with a solid mastery of basic science terminology and a comfort level with performing calculations without a calculator.
However, the take-home message with respect to the “10% Question Type” is this: avoid the pitfall of overemphasizing its importance. Focusing too much on content or calculations will prevent you from earning a 90th-percentile MCAT score.
- Use Accurate MCAT Practice Materials
Preparing with inaccurate MCAT practice materials leads to severe test day surprises, anxiety, and frustration. To score in the 90th percentile, your practice must replicate reality. This has become a major problem in recent years because many resources provide students with practice questions that do not mirror what they see on exam day. Consider these comments from students who took a recent MCAT administration.
“The real test was a complete turn from what every study resource emphasized…”
“That was insanely difficult. Tons of experimental data…tons. To the point where you literally say ‘Aww, crap…’ and go straight to the questions.”
“I pretty much memorized all of [my prep course company’s] bio and biochemistry books…and today’s section still threw me off.”
“Freaking crap! That was the hardest Biology-Biochemistry section I have ever seen. The passages were long and convoluted, and the questions on the passages required an insanely difficult type of data analysis.”
“All my practice materials were way easier and the exams were more confusing and convoluted.”
“Much harder than any practice material I did. I’m devastated.”
These students’ comments are clear indicators they were not preparing with accurate MCAT practice materials. The real exam may be more stressful than your practice, but it shouldn’t be surprising, strange, or unexpected. To score in the 90th percentile, you must carefully vet every resource you use. Obtain real AAMC practice content early in your preparation and compare all resources against that standard. For example, real MCAT science passages always use professional scientific language. They usually include multiple acronyms and scientific terms. Such experimental language can be much more difficult than word problems put forth by many MCAT prep resources.
It is easy to see why so many students are frustrated or surprised on their real exam! Obviously, practicing for the MCAT without reading the sort of language you will experience on the test does not prepare you adequately for the experimental journal excerpts you will see on the real exam.
- Study the Exam Itself
The AAMC authors who write actual MCAT questions follow highly predictable question blueprints. As demonstrated by the student feedback you just read, most of the MCAT prep materials do not follow these same blueprints. To achieve a 90th-percentile MCAT score, you must learn to understand the exam itself, not just the science. In other words, you need to be comfortable with the kind of passages you will face and the specific types of questions you will be required to answer.
Here are two of the most common MCAT question blueprints you will encounter on the real MCAT:
Make a Prediction
Questions following this AAMC blueprint require you to use basic science concepts to predict an outcome. For example, you might be asked to predict how blood pressure will change in response to a sudden deficiency in a regulatory protein. In their most basic form, these questions introduce a change to a system, and ask you to predict the most likely result. Here’s an example:
Example Question 1: “Make A Prediction”
Suppose the native environment of a newly discovered bacterium is increasing in temperature. Which evolutionary change in the bacterium is most likely over time?
a. Increased number of disulfide bonds
b. Higher prevalence of beta sheets
c. Increased number of hydrophobic patches
d. Higher prevalence of premature stop codons
As you can see, even if you had memorized hundreds of facts about bacteria, temperature, protein structure, and evolution, you could still feel ill-prepared to answer this question type. The “Make a Prediction” question blueprint requires students to understand how physical or biological systems actually work, so that they can predict how those systems will be impacted by change.
Conceptual Knowledge Applied to a Real-Life Scenario
Questions that follow this AAMC blueprint require the examinee to take basic science concepts and apply them to real-life physical or biological scenarios. This is frustrating for students who have not had sufficient practice with this question type. For example, most students enter the exam thinking they understand acid-base chemistry, but when a student is asked about the charge on a specific titrant molecule, at a specific time point in an actual experiment—most students will struggle to apply what they know.
Example Question 2: “Conceptual Knowledge Applied to a Real-Life Scenario”
Ftt is an obligate intracellular bacterium. During the immune response to Ftt, antibodies:
a. enhanced the rate of phagocytosis of Ftt.
b. bound to Ftt plasma B cells, stimulating antibody production.
c. bound Ftt and prevented it from entering the cell.
d. crossed the Ftt membrane and prevented translation of Ftt proteins.
Mastering the “Real-life Scenario” blueprint requires extensive practice because most students learn science in an abstract way. You may have memorized many facts about antibodies or immunity, but will you be able to apply that knowledge to a real-life experiment involving a bacterium with which you have no prior experience?
Understanding the exam itself can be a huge comfort. It may be intimidating to approach the thousands of topics on the MCAT topics list, or to consider the millions of different questions you could be asked on exam day. When you understand the AAMC’s question blueprints, however, you learn that there are only about 40 different questions on the MCAT! The topics vary slightly, but the question blueprints are consistent and predictable.
- Follow the Medical School Study Model
Lone wolves don’t often make it in medical school. There’s just too much to learn. Successful medical school students learn to divide and conquer. Each student takes one portion of the assigned curriculum, studies it thoroughly, and then teaches it back to the group. This makes it possible for students to master far more material than they could ever hope to on their own. Results have shown that those preparing to take the MCAT greatly benefit from this interactive, Socratic, teach-what-you-learn approach. A 2016 study by one independent accounting firm demonstrated that when a group of students used this method extensively to prepare for a standardized examination, over one-half of its members scored at or above the 90th percentile.
Why does an effective group study model work? First, years of research in the field of memory science have shown that among all possible study methods, students understand and remember concepts best when they are required to teach back what they have learned. In other words, not just any group study model works. Effective group study models must be highly structured, they must assign each member a portion of the content to master, and each member must be required to teach back to the group what they have learned.
Applying a teach-what-you-learn group study model will dramatically increase your ability to earn a 90th-percentile MCAT score.
- Only Use Proven MCAT Preparation Methods
More than 50% of the students who attempt the MCAT exam pay thousands of dollars for a commercial prep course. The remaining students who choose to self-study still invest hundreds of dollars in books, practice tests, and other materials. With hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on MCAT preparation, almost no one seems to ask the question that MUST be asked: “Does this program actually work?”
Unfortunately, most programs do not work. They sell little more than the “dream” of a good MCAT score, have no track record of actually producing higher MCAT scores, and then hide behind loop-hole-ridden guarantee policies that leave frustrated students with no options.
To earn a 90th-percenitle MCAT score, you must be a wise consumer of the MCAT programs or resources you trust to assist you. Don’t give your money to an MCAT program on blind faith. Ask to see evidence of how students who used their program have scored in the past. Demand a guarantee on their product or services. Any quality MCAT preparation program that can truly improve your MCAT performance should have a track record of proven success. If they have a track record of success, they should have no problem guaranteeing a minimum level of achievement for students who complete their program.
Following these five steps significantly increases your ability to achieve the MCAT score of your dreams. Above all else, you must begin with a belief in yourself and your ability to achieve such a lofty goal. As someone who has helped thousands of students score in the 90th, 95th, and even 100th percentiles, I assure you that a remarkable score of this type is well within the reach of any student willing to put in the work required.