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Getting Into Medical School: How to Prep for the MCAT

In the last lesson, I stressed the importance of accurately assessing one’s MCAT performance to determine an application date and I gave timelines to use for this purpose. In this lesson, I will provide pointers and strategies for preparing to take the MCAT exam.

So, you’re getting closer to the big day and you’ve decided to take the MCAT in April of the following year in hopes of reaching your goal of applying to medical school next summer. As you approach the studying window opening in September or so, here are some things you should be thinking of.

First, from a course perspective, you should have all of your required medical school courses pretty much completed by this time. Some of the upper-division ones like biochemistry or, in some cases, physics may be hanging out there in September, but you should plan to have those completed by the end of the fall term. In addition to the basic courses in the physical and biological sciences, you should also have a good collection of classes in the liberal arts that include psychology, philosophy, ethics, and writing.

The advice I’ll be giving in this lecture is not about your classes, though I’ll point out that if you have poor grades in any of these classes that you should seriously be working to fix those deficiencies.

The first piece of advice I have for preparation is that about a year before you plan the MCAT, you should begin reading a well-written publication like the New York Times every day. And I’m talking serious reading here—cover to cover. The print version is much better than the online version in the sense that people tend not to finish the articles they start in the online version as much as they do the print version.

Why the NYT? Because it is known for its quality writing and the articles are on a variety of subjects, from current events to economics to the arts and literature, giving you practice in reading and understanding subjects that you may not be studying in your classes. It not only helps to improve your comprehension and verbal reasoning (an essential part of the MCAT), the news keeps you informed about the world you want to work in—that could become VERY important in interviews.

So, let’s say it’s September and you’re ready to start your MCAT studying. How much should you study? That will, of course, vary from one person to another, but I recommend a minimum of 15-25 hours per week. Having a regular schedule that you conscientiously follow is the best plan. Coinciding with that study schedule should be a relatively light class schedule. Waiting until senior year to take all of your worst classes is not a good plan for MCAT preparations.

You may be tempted to take a commercial MCAT Prep course, such as Kaplan or Princeton Review. I note that students who don’t take those courses worry that they are at a disadvantage, but I haven’t seen that as an issue. The courses may benefit some a bit, but what they provide are mostly the discipline of a regular schedule and a lot of assessments. The latter may be the most valuable part of such courses. It is important to remember that your college classes are the very best prep for MCAT, so the best way to prepare for MCAT is to do well in your courses. I do recommend books by these various companies as aids because they help you to better understand the exam. One book my students have consistently praised is called ExamKrackers (that’s crackers with a ‘k’).

So, where to start with your studies. I recommend working hardest on your weakest area first. During your studying, I recommend rotating through the subject areas on a regular basis, but first, you should spend the most time in your weakest section.

I recommend taking the first practice exam around Thanksgiving and another one-two weeks later, before the Christmas holidays set in. The scores should, ideally, be in close proximity and they will give you a measure of your strengths and weaknesses. Your goal over the Christmas holidays is to get the score of your weakest area up by 3-4 points.

Shortly after the beginning of the year, before things start getting busy, you should take a third practice exam. The scores of this one should help you to see how well your focused attention on your weakest area works. It also lays the groundwork for the months ahead.

With so much attention on your weaknesses to this point, your scores should be roughly equal by this point. If they are not, spend a week or two focusing on subjects you’ve been neglecting and then, come back to the weak section and hit it hard again.

I don’t recommend additional practice exams until you get closer to the scheduled exam (two weeks or so before the real test). Here you can take the exam a couple of times, ideally and if your scores are hitting your target, you have given yourself a good shot at doing well on the exam.

If within a week of your scheduled time to take the exam your scores aren’t meeting minimum values, you should make some decisions. Delaying the exam should be a top consideration. Based on how much your scores have changed for the studying you’ve done, you also should be able to determine how practical it would be to make up the ground you need in a month or two.

Here is where students often trip up, convincing themselves that they either know more than their scores indicate or that they can make progress faster than is reasonable. There is nothing wrong with delaying as late as June 15, but if that date isn’t practical, you should be willing to pull the plug and give it another year before trying.

Finally, let’s assume that everything has gone positively to this point and you decide to take the exam. Sometimes the exam throws curveballs even to prepared students. That may happen to you. If when you take the exam you feel that it was not at all good or representative of your knowledge, you have the option of voiding it at the finish. This will prevent the scores from being sent to medical schools. Though the option is not used a lot, it is a good safety valve for unexpectedly poor performance.

In this lesson, I’ve covered study strategies starting with reading the newspaper daily, evaluated study programs and books, and laid out a strategy for studying that aims to get you ready for the big day.

In the next lesson, I’ll discuss the personal statement.

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Written by

Kevin Ahern

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