How to Prepare for the MCAT
The MCAT exam contains 230 multiple choice questions in five discipline areas:
- Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
- Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
- Critical Analysis
- Reasoning Skills
The MCAT test is timed and takes 7.5 hours to complete. With a test this important, long, and intense preparation is key!
Here’s some ways to prepare for the MCAT test.
MCAT Study Schedule
You have to decide when the best time is for you to begin preparing for the MCAT. First and foremost, you only sit for the exam when you are good and ready.
MCAT Option 1: Study for the MCAT over your Junior Year
Most often, the MCAT is taken the year prior to attending medical school. This allows for time to retake the MCAT test if necessary. If you are in college, you typically prepare to take the MCAT during your Junior year. While you are taking classes and completing the required coursework, set aside time each day specifically devoted to MCAT preparation. If that work load sounds too strenuous, check out Option 2.
MCAT Option 2: Study over the Summer
Devote all your energy during your Junior year of college into the current task at hand, your classes and required coursework. As soon as your summer break begins, take a few days to relax then get cracking on your new full-time 6-8 week summer job as an MCAT preparation student. Either way, your MCAT should be scheduled and taken during the summer going into your senior year, just in time for your MCAT scores to get back to you (allow 4-6 weeks) and applications for medical schools to be sent out.
How to Study for the MCAT
Once you have decided which route you are going to take (option 1, the slow and steady Junior year route or option 2, the intensely focused summer tract), evaluate how you learn best.
- What type of student are you?
- How do you learn?
- Are you highly self-motivated?
- What is your personality type?
- What can easily distract you from the task at hand and reaching your goal?
- What environment do you thrive in?
Answering questions like these will help you design a MCAT study plan that is tailored to your needs so that you will be efficient and successful in your MCAT preparation.
MCAT Preparation: Environment
Think about the best study environment for you. Do you need a quiet space with zero distractions? Are you more focused when working at the local Starbucks with your earbuds in? Whatever the location, pick your optimal space and make it part of your routine – just as you would a job or your class schedule. This is business. This is your job.
Whether it be during your Junior year or cramming over the summer, set aside the time necessary to prepare at the location that is best. If you are having a hard time thinking of the best place for you, do a practice run while studying for an upcoming class exam.
Choose a location that you think might work, and see if it helped you study. Maybe you thought it would be great and you had to get up and leave because you kept running into people you knew. Maybe you loved the silence, but found it almost deafening after a few short hours. Libraries, cafes, bookstores, restaurants, classrooms, bedrooms, offices, etc., make for some spaces to consider. Maybe you love being outdoors and the local park can give some reprieve from the long hours of studying indoors to keep you motivated to keep studying for a little bit longer.
Group Study MCAT Sessions
If you do better studying with others around you or in groups, do so. Find other students preparing for the MCAT and get together. You might not want to ONLY study unless there are people around, but having some set sessions where there are others preparing for the test as well can be motivating and beneficial. You may find the person next to you is very strong in a weak area of yours (and vice versa) and can explain some challenging concepts in a way that is relatable for you.
Sometimes misery likes company. When the going gets hard, and you have been actively studying your summer (or Junior year free time) away, it is nice to have support from those who are doing the same thing.
Relax during MCAT Prep
Take small breathers. Stay on task, but give yourself some time during the process to still be human and breath the fresh air. Call mom or dad, go out for a beer, hang a few hours with your best friend, or watch the newly released movie you have been waiting for. Make these small breaks rather than weekend long excursions. This will give your mind some time to regroup as well from the heavy workout you have been giving it.
MCAT Prep Course
You will undoubtedly receive tons of advice from other medical students. Your professors will steer you in the direction that was right for them as well. There are comprehensive MCAT preparation courses that can be purchased and contain every medium you need to succeed, but at a cost. Other than the downside of the initial purchase, you will have access to visual, audio, and written subject matter, providing a more holistic approach to studying. You will also be provided with MCAT practice exams and MCAT sample questions to take and review. This option, although a bit costly, has its strengths if you are not the most structured student on your own and need a bit of a push in the right direction.
However, if you are highly self-motived or strapped on cash, you can use a pay-as-I-need-it approach. You can purchase just the practice exams or other supplementary material as needed. Using this method will not give you the structure as the comprehensive package, but is a great cost savings for those students who are diligent in their work habits and stay on track.
MCAT Practice Tests
Mastery of multiple choice test taking skills will serve you will during this test. With 230 multiple choice questions, practicing proficiency in this area is a must. Try to develop your reading skills so you can efficiently pick out the principle that the question is asking of you.
With a little over a minute to answer each question, time runs out quickly when you must carefully read the question at hand and review the various potential answers in the bank to choose from. Some of the answers presented might be viable solutions to the problem. The MCAT is looking for the best solution to the principle it is testing you on.
Remember that practice makes perfect. If you buy a comprehensive MCAT preparation program you will have access to practice MCATs to take. If you did not purchase a MCAT prep program, buy practice MCATs. These tests will become your new best friend and will provide a good gauge as to where your knowledge and abilities lie.
As one resident neurosurgeon suggested, begin your initial studying reviewing the concepts in the text books, but do not spend too much time there. It is more productive to commit your time to a brief overview and then really start taking as many practice exams as possible. This is where Plato’s repetitive advice comes into play, "know thyself."
A MCAT practice exam will reveal your strengths and weaknesses. Do not let your initial results scare you if they are less than perfect (or expected). Use them as a benchmark to set goals and review forgotten material. Instead of just looking at your results, look up the questions you missed and why.
MCAT Test Score
Some people may foolishly focus on their strengths and not their weak areas thinking the strong areas will carry them to a good rank in the end. Wrong. Everything will be tested and you must be proficient. This test is scored as a ranking among your other peers taking the test.
You are not trying to beat the test to get into the school of your choice, you are competing against all the other students nationally who are taking the exam as well. Your efforts should concentrate on building your weak areas yet solidifying your strengths. What are great triceps if your abs are all flabby? You want to work the whole mind, not part of it.
Using the MCAT practice exams will also help reduce the pre-test jitters when you take the MCAT for real. You will already have been taking exams that mirror the material in the time allotted for the MCAT. Once you attain pretty good scores on those practice runs, you will go into the MCAT with more confidence knowing what to expect.
Successfully Pass the MCAT
Use post-it notes, lipstick on the mirror, or leave yourself a voice message at the end of the day to listen to bright and early the next morning. Remind yourself why you are doing what you are doing. Remind yourself that this is temporary and you will taste the fruits of your labor soon.
Remember the dream you have and the difference you will make in people’s lives. Think of all the studying and years of hard work in undergrad that was meant to prepare you for this test and your dream profession. Visualize yourself completing the exam, being accepted into medical school, graduating, and beginning your profession in the medical field. These thoughts will help drive you to put in the time to study for the MCAT exam and be successful.