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How To Study For The MCAT: Everything You Need to Know

By December 19, 2019November 20th, 2020Announcements, Pre Med Advice

How to study for the mcat

The MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) is an exam offered by the AAMC that is required for admission to most American medical schools. As a pre-med student, it is imperative that you study and do well on your MCAT as your score significantly impacts what medical schools you are competitive for. This guide details how to study for the MCAT and high-yield tips that our team recommends students follow in order to succeed on this high-stakes exam.

When should i take the mcat?

Your test date will depend on when you want to apply to medical school. It is best to take the MCAT close to when you want to apply because certain schools do not accept MCAT scores more than two years old. At the same time, you should only take the MCAT when you are ready and have enough time to study for it. Some guidelines: 

  • August/September test dates are ideal for students still in school for quarter/semester systems, as this gives you the summer to focus on MCAT studying.
  • January test dates are also ideal for students as you can take advantage of winter break to focus on studying.
  • If you would like to select medical schools to apply to knowing your MCAT score, the last MCAT 2020 test date you should test on is April 25, 2020 as the May 27 score release date precedes AMCAS opening for the 2020-2021 application cycle on June 1.
  • If you are okay applying to medical schools without knowing your MCAT score, the latest you should plan to test on is May 29, 2020 as the June 30 release date would allow you to complete your application at most schools by early July for the 2020-2021 application cycle.

MCAT Test dates 2020

MCAT Test Dates 2020

Photo credit: AAMC. For a full list of test and release dates, see the AAMC 2020 MCAT Calendar.

What is on the MCAT?

The MCAT is divided into 4 sections— Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (C/P), Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS), Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (B/B) and Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior (P/S). For each section, you will be given 95 minutes to answer 59 multiple-choice questions (except CARS, in which you have 90 minutes for 53 questions). Questions are passage-based and free-standing. To see a full list of topics that may be tested in each section, see the AAMC Content Guide.

When considering how to study for the MCAT, many students will already be familiar with much of the content tested in each section from their pre-requisite courses. But the MCAT in particular tests students’ ability to apply knowledge by critically thinking, analyzing data, and reasoning to make predictions—the MCAT is not an exam based purely on memorization! Therefore, it is important to plan your studying around the nature of the exam.

How long does it take to study for the mcat?

While the amount of time will vary depending on your background and personal schedule (e.g. will you balance studying with employment?), you should generally allocate 2-3 months to study before your test date. Most study schedules are divided into a “content review” phase to brush up on and refine previous content knowledge and a “practice” phase to take full-length practice exams and learn how the MCAT specifically tests your knowledge. How much daily time to allocate for studying and the frequency of rest days will depend on your individual study style.

 

Cracking Med School Admissions Tips for Studying for the MCAT: We’ve heard this over and over again from our pre-med advisees.  We ask them, “if you could give advice to other pre-med students about taking the MCAT, what advice would you give?” and “if you could study for the MCAT again, what would you do differently?” The answer is usually this: I would spend less time on reviewing content and more time taking practice tests and using the tests as a way to gauge which topics I need to review more.

How to start studying for the MCAT?

#1. Create a study schedule and register for an exam date

When students ask us how to study for the MCAT, the first thing we recommend they do is to create a study schedule and register for an exam date. You should find quiet, productive environments to study in and the testing location should be nearby so that you do not have to travel too far to take your MCAT. Many example study schedules can be found on the internet. We recommend that the specific study schedule you follow suits your learning style, matches your personal timeline, and places an equal emphasis on content review and practice (1-1.5 months each). 

A sample study schedule used by a Cracking Med School Admissions student is linked below:

Sample MCAT Study Schedule

#2. Review content and build your knowledge base

The first 1-1.5 months of studying should be focused on content review. Content review is crucial because the MCAT expects you to have a strong foundation of scientific knowledge. The best way to do this is by purchasing a set of MCAT review books and working through each chapter and set of problems. Popular prep companies include: The Princeton Review, Kaplan, and The Berkeley Review. The specific company you choose is less important than whether you are able to diligently work through the books and fill in any knowledge gaps you encounter.

 

Cracking Med School Admissions Tips for Studying for the MCAT: From our conversations with pre-meds and medical school students, people often used multiple sources to study for the MCAT.  Some test prep materials are better at explaining certain concepts than other test prep materials. So, if you feel like you’re weak in one area of physics and your current test prep books are not cutting it for you, then look at some of the other materials we listed in this blog!

#3. Supplement your review with other resources

In addition to review books, our students recommend UWorld for its high-quality MCAT-style question bank with clear explanations, Khan Academy Video Notes for its comprehensive notes covering the MCAT P/S section, and Anki, a flashcard application which uses spaced-repetition to store information in your long term memory. In particular, we recommend creating Anki flashcards for any content gaps you notice while reviewing and reviewing them daily. While the MCAT does not test based on rote-memorization, you do need to memorize lots of information first in order to apply it on the exam.

#4. Practice taking multiple full-length exams and correct your errors thoroughly 

The latter 1-1.5 months of studying should be focused on exam practice and test strategies. Taking full-length practice tests and understanding how the MCAT tests is critical when considering how to study for the MCAT. Our team recommends taking at least 5 full-length tests, and up to 10 if you really want to maximize your score. The AAMC only offers 4 practice full-length tests, so you should start with third-party tests—our students have used: Next Step, Altius, Examkrackers, Kaplan, and The Princeton Review. As with review books, the specific company you choose is less important than the quality of practice—make sure you treat each practice test like the real thing to simulate test-day conditions!

 

After each full-length, you should review your test for errors in content or test strategy. We recommend logging your errors in spreadsheet format and making Anki flashcards for content-related errors. For third-party tests: you should review all of the questions you miss and write out the reasoning for each answer choice. On AAMC, we recommend you do this for all questions, regardless of whether or not you missed it. You should spend an equal or greater amount of time reviewing tests versus taking them. 

A sample test correction spreadsheet is shown here:

How to review MCAT Questions
#5. Focus on AAMC material as your test date approaches

AAMC material will give you the best indicator of what you can expect on the real thing, so it should be saved for last. AAMC has released the following MCAT practice material:

 

  1. Question Packs (CARS 1&2, Biology 1&2, Chemistry, Physics)- pre-2015 MCAT questions. Great representation of MCAT content, but the 2015 test style is now different (except for CARS).
  2. Section Banks (C/P, B/B, P/S)- challenging questions representative of both the content and style of MCAT questions. Similar to more challenging questions you will see on test day.
  3. AAMC Original Guide- an abbreviated AAMC test with 30 questions from each section for 120 questions total; no scaled score given at the end.
  4. AAMC Sample Test- a full length sample test; no scaled score given at the end.
  5. AAMC Full Length Tests (1-4)- full length sample tests; scaled scores given at the end. Your average across AAMC Full Length Tests 1-4 is a good indicator of what score to expect on the real thing.

Aim to complete all of these materials and thoroughly review them (especially the full lengths) before your test date!

What is a “good” MCAT score? How are re-takes evaluated?

According to AAMC data, the mean MCAT score for 2019-2020 medical school applicants is 506.1 and for matriculants 511.5. Evaluation of re-takes differ depending on the institution, but a good rule of thumb is to average your previous score with your re-take score.  Our advice regarding re-takes is on an individualized basis, so if you have any questions, fill out our contact form below or email us at info@crackingmedadmissions.com

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