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Science 101: So You’re Taking The MCAT

This week’s edition of Science 101 goes out to the pre-med fam, and tackles the notorious MCAT. Advice comes from Bwog Science Editor Alex Tang, who got his MCAT score back last Tuesday and is ecstatic to be done with that phase of his life.

Dear pre-meds, congratulations on finishing up another challenging year of intro bio/gen chem/orgo/physics! While you should definitely take some time after finals to catch up on Game of Thrones, it might be prudent to eventually consider another upcoming hurdle: the MCAT.

If you’re anything like I was, you’ll scour the internet for MCAT study schedules, practice material, and answers for just how much orgo is actually on the exam. The thing is, there was surprisingly little information online about Columbia student experiences with the MCAT. I’m writing this post to share how I tackled the MCAT and got a score I was more than happy with, to hopefully give you some context about what’s coming up. Keep in mind that everyone learns and studies differently, so your study plan should fit your own needs. Thus, the tips I’ve compiled below may not be universal, but have rung true to my experiences, as well as the experiences of many of my fellow MCAT-takers that I’ve talked to.

  • Make a tentative long-term study plan. Start with this question: when do you want to apply to medical school?
    • If you want to go straight into medical school after graduation, you’ll be applying to medical school the summer after your junior year. This means that you’ll need to have your MCAT score ideally by June/July. If that’s the case, you should take the MCAT your spring semester junior year, after you’ve at least taken Orgo I. I studied during my junior year winter break, most of spring semester, and took the exam in the beginning of April.
    • If you’re taking a gap year, things are much more flexible for you. You might consider devoting the summer (at least partially) to study for the MCAT, and to take it at the end of summer/beginning of fall. Keep in mind that the last MCAT of the year is offered in mid-September.
  • Do content review efficiently (don’t get bogged down in the details). I once heard someone say that the MCAT was a mile wide but an inch deep. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, since the MCAT covers general chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, biochemistry, physics, psychology, sociology, as well as critical reading; however, you’ll realize that the MCAT expects the most basic, foundational knowledge, which you’ll then use to apply to real-life problems on the exam. Yes, there will be a certain amount of memorization needed, specifically the different amino acids, most important physics equations, rate-limiting enzymes in cellular respiration, and important terms in psychology/sociology. However, the exam’s focus is on applying this material, and not on rote memorization. You’d be surprised how many questions you can solve on the MCAT, just with the information they give you in their exam passages.
    • For content review, I got the Kaplan set of MCAT books, and I did get through all of them. For the subjects I was more comfortable with, such as general chemistry and intro bio, I merely skimmed through the material, focusing solely on concepts that I hadn’t been exposed to in my classes. I read the books carefully for subjects I had more trouble with, such as physics, organic chemistry, and psychology. For the psychology/sociology section of the MCAT, I highly recommend looking at the Khan Academy videos, and to look up the comprehensive 300-page Khan Academy P/S study guide (all of which are free). Psychology/sociology is the newest section on the MCAT, and Khan Academy specifically partnered with the AAMC to develop these study materials. I found them invaluable in my study process.
  • Get the AAMC material. You have a plethora of study material options, including book sets by Kaplan, Princeton Review, Berkeley Review, etc, as well as in-person classes. However, the official online material by AAMC is still the gold standard. AAMC writes the MCAT exam, and no test prep company has quite figured out how to get their practice questions exactly right. At the very least, you really should get all 3 of the AAMC practice exams, as well as their Section Bank questions (not to be confused with the question packs). The Section Banks mirror the MCAT well, as they reflect the type of critical thinking and concept applications you’ll use on the real exam. The question packs are more content-based, and I’ve found them to require less critical thinking. Thus, the Section Bank is more valuable than the question packs.

  • Incorporate MCAT practice in your content review. Lots of people often spend way too much time on content review, and not enough time on practicing actual MCAT questions. I would recommend skimming through a certain amount of content, especially in your weaker areas, and then to immediately take the free AAMC sample test early on. Doing so, you’ll be able to more accurately identify your strengths/weaknesses, and to get used to the MCAT format. As you spend more time reviewing content, I would gradually incorporate practice through the Section Banks. Keep in mind that the Section Bank questions tend to be the toughest questions that the MCAT will throw at you, so don’t be discouraged if they seem especially difficult!
  • Get used to the format of the exam. Around two months before your actual exam, I would start taking full-length practice exams, under standard exam conditions. Wake up early, start taking the exam at 8am (like the real deal), use the standard breaks, and don’t use any outside help (ie Google). I truly think that the hardest part of the MCAT is the length. The only way to build up your stamina is to take full-length practice exams. Definitely start with practice exams from third-party sources (ie Kaplan, The Princeton Review, etc). Save your official AAMC practice exams for the last month of prep. Don’t be discouraged by low scores on your initial practice exams. Third-party exams tend to have deflated scores, and you haven’t yet finished your content review, anyways!
  • Don’t be afraid to push your exam date back. I had to reschedule my MCAT, since I realized that I simply wasn’t ready for the test date I had initially signed up for. It’s much, much better to push your exam date back, than to take it when you haven’t reached your full potential. Remember that you can reschedule up to two weeks before your intended test date. Also, don’t get scared if you don’t see any MCAT seats open in the foreseeable future. Lots of students tend to cancel/reschedule their exams, thereby opening up more seats closer to the registration deadline.
  • The wait after the MCAT is going to be agonizing. Congratulations, at this point, you’ve taken the MCAT! For some reason, it takes the AAMC one whole month to grade this standardized, multiple-choice exam. You’re going to think you flunked the exam. You’re going to think that the real deal was harder than all of the practice exams. Everyone I’ve talked to has felt this way. My biggest advice for you here is to trust your AAMC practice scores. They were true for me, as well as for almost everyone I’ve talked to. Go do the things you love with the people you love, and try to forget about the MCAT for a bit.

Whatever you do, work hard and work smart. Keep your medical dreams close to your heart, and never forget the reason why you’re taking the MCAT in the first place. I have faith in you – you’re going to ace this exam!

image via flickr

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