How I Studied for the MCAT - (and scored in 96th Percentile)
Tis the season for studying for the MCAT! I took my MCAT in March of 2018, and I vividly recall that the period leading up to my MCAT was one of the most stressful times of my life.
In this post, I want to share my painful but ultimately rewarding MCAT journey in the hopes that it may inform your own studies. I know as well as anyone how stressful and challenging studying for the MCAT can be, so I hope that this post can give you some clarity and demystify the process. I am not endorsing any of the products mentioned in my post, but simply want to share with you which resources I used.
It’s not about how much you study, but how you study.
I began studying for my MCAT in the summer of 2017, while I was shadowing a surgeon part-time over a period of eight weeks. Before I first started studying, I purchased the live online Kaplan course, which came with the entire set of Kaplan MCAT prep books, a diagnostic MCAT exam, and 15 full-length online practice exams. (Full disclosure: I worked as a Kaplan Student Brand Ambassador—but I am going to present an unbiased review of their products.) My plan for studying was to go through the live online course material and AAMC practice material (the full bundle), and take the exam a month after the course ended. The Kaplan live online MCAT course allows you to participate in live online classes taught by virtual instructors in real time from the comfort of your own home, and classes take place twice a week (three hours long each), spanning a period of two months. Each class has a corresponding section in the provided practice book that guides you during the class, and a reading to be done on your own time. The caveat is that if you miss a class, you have the option of watching a pre-recorded lesson outside of class time to make up for the missed class. At first, the classes, although dense, seemed to provide a good structure for me to go through all of the MCAT content. However, I began to fall behind schedule, when I would occasionally miss a class and attempt to make it up by watching the online classes on my own time. When I wasn’t taking classes or shadowing, I spent my time diligently and methodically reading through the Kaplan MCAT books, taking meticulous and detailed notes. Note-taking gave me the illusion that I was studying to the best of my ability. A month went by, and I took a full-length Kaplan practice test. To my dismay, my score had barely improved from my diagnostic exam. I finally got a reality check that my study method was off and I was utterly unprepared to take the MCAT.
Months prior I had also purchased the entire set of Examkrackers (EK) MCAT prep books. After quickly browsing the EK books, I realized that they were a lot more concise than the Kaplan books in how they presented the content. Overall, Examkrackers was much easier and faster to go through. It was then that I decided to switch to using Examkrackers books for content review, while continuing to use the Kaplan live online course videos. As the impending test date was creeping closer and closer, I felt overwhelming anxiety and stress because I didn’t feel nearly as prepared or confident as I needed to be for the real exam. At that point, I decided to stop going along the course videos entirely, and began drilling full-length practice exams instead. I felt as though I was beginning from scratch, and taking the practice exams only confirmed how unprepared I actually was for the MCAT (my scores were dismal). Meanwhile, I began dealing with issues with my housing situation (don’t want to go into this but…let’s just say I had a bad case of bedbugs and a dishonest landlord), which only aggravated my stress about the MCAT. When my stress reached its peak, I came face to face with the reality that my study plan wasn’t working and that at the rate I was going, I would not be ready to take the exam. I briefly entertained the option of taking the exam as scheduled and nulling my score at the end (as it was too late to get refunded), but I decided that the stress of going through an 8-hour exam wasn’t worth it. And so, my first attempt at studying for the MCAT was a massive flop and I flew home to California at the end of the summer with my hopes dashed and confidence at an all-time low.
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.
I returned to college for my senior year about a month later, and I had no intentions to register for another MCAT test date any time soon. To be honest, I felt like no matter how hard I tried, I wouldn’t do well on the MCAT, so why bother? I knew that eventually I would have to take it, but I didn’t want to even begin to think about setting another test date (after the fiasco the summer prior). A few weeks into the semester, I had several conversations with friends that inspired me to give it another go. I realized that, if I delayed my test until after senior year, I would most likely have to take more than one gap year (which I preferred not to do). Additionally, I wouldn’t have the luxury of a college campus to study on. And, if I were working during my gap year at the same time, I would barely have any time to study. Thus, I grit my teeth and registered for another test date in the spring semester of my senior year (March 24). This time, I decided to not make the same mistakes as I had the summer before. Instead of sticking with a pre-determined course schedule, I decided to take studying into my own hands and: 1. prioritize practice over content review/note-taking 2. use a minimalistic approach to studying by sticking to high-yield topics 3. using multiple resources rather than a single test prep company 4. being proactive in studying to leave buffer room before the exam.
Here are the resources I decided to use:
10 Nextstep full-length practice exams
Nextstep online question bank
Nextstep MCAT QBook (2,000 discrete science questions)
Nextstep Review Book Series
Examkrackers 10th Edition MCAT Complete Study Package
Examkrackers full-length practice exams (1-3)
AAMC MCAT prep complete bundle including: AAMC practice test 1, practice test 2, practice exam 3 sample test, official MCAT flashcards, and more
Kaplan MCAT Complete 7-Book Subject Review (2016-2017)
Khan Academy videos (on Youtube)
I didn’t begin studying until December, around winter break. I also planned so that I would only be taking one course in addition to a senior thesis independent project (on reduced status) in my final semester, so that I had a lot of dedicated studying time from January to March. For the first month of my studying, I used the EK books to review content from scratch. This time, I took less detailed notes than before to conserve time and energy—and focused on topics that I was less familiar with (e.g. translational motion). I started with the subjects I was least confident in (Chemistry, Physics) and moved to subjects I was more confident in. I didn’t really utilize the book for CARS because I don’t think any prep book can prepare you to take CARS. :( In hindsight, I feel like this month was mostly to re-familiarize myself with the content being tested and to give myself a foundation of knowledge to build on during the actual practice tests.
Around mid-January (after returning from break), I began to lay out my schedule for taking practice exams and practice problems from the Qbank. I decided on a day each week to take a full-length exam (Saturdays), and on Mondays I would review my exams (wrong answers, and answers I got right but was unsure about). (Sundays were my break days/Sabbath.) From Tuesday to Friday, I would drill practice questions from the Nextstep Qbank, and watch videos on weak content areas (from Khan Academy or other reliable Youtube channels). I compiled detailed and organized notes on all of the questions I got wrong, and the content that I learned that week. I had an organized filing folder for each section that I kept my notes in. If there was a specific content area that I was weaker in, I would make sure to do extra practice for that one area. For example, I remember spending an entire afternoon doing problems on Bernoulli’s equation and Venturi effect. I believe this was essential because I was able to build my confidence for high-yield topic areas by doing extra practice/deep dives. From the notes on the mistakes I made on my full-lengths and question banks, I created Quizlet decks to drill content that I missed. I would do Quizlets anywhere—on public transportation, at the gym, on my way to class, etc. (This is a great way to get extra studying in!) I tried experimenting with Anki decks but didn’t like them because I had to refresh the deck every time I wanted to review cards (this might just be a personal preference thing, though). Quizlet is overall just more user-friendly in my opinion (they also generate fun games).
I want to emphasize that taking the full-length exam each week was the most important element of my study plan. There is no better way to study for the MCAT than by taking as many full-length exams as possible However, it is extremely important that you take the full-length in similar test-taking conditions. This is a tip I discovered on an online forum. If you only take full-lengths in your pajamas in your bedroom, then you will be unprepared for the stressful conditions of your real exam. Therefore, I made it a point to get up early on Saturdays and march over to the library to take my full-lengths (timed) in the quiet study area. This schedule continued into March, and I noticed a huge difference in my confidence level from the summer prior. However, the one thing that kept my confidence low was my scores on my practice exams. Up until the last few weeks before my exam, I had only taken full-lengths from third-party companies (Nextstep and EK), and my scores on them stayed generally stagnant (fluctuating between 507-510). Don’t read too much into your scores from third-party companies because they are not representative of your real score! I was pretty disappointed at my lack of progress on these exams, but kept at it until I finally started taking the AAMC full-lengths (which are the most representative for your actual MCAT score).
When I took my first AAMC practice full-length (Practice Test 1) around a month before my MCAT date, I was absolutely floored—I scored a 512. This was higher than any score that I had gotten on the third-party exams. It was at this point that I truly started to feel prepared for the real exam. I began to relax more but kept up my normal study routine of reviewing mistakes and doing additional practice problems. The following week, I took the AAMC Practice Test 2 and lo and behold, I scored a 516 (my highest score thus far!). I remember jumping up and down and calling my mom in excitement. I finally felt prepared for the real deal. I also took the Sample Test in the week before my actual exam, but I didn’t read too much into this because I had taken it the summer before and remembered some of the questions.
The week before my exam, I made it a point to NOT STUDY. This sounds counterintuitive, but I wanted to make sure that I was physically and mentally in my best condition for the real exam. I also believe that studying that week would not have made any difference in my actual score. I mostly napped that week, and if I felt really inclined, would review some Quizlet decks (but that was it). I won’t go into too much detail in my test day experience as I plan to write a separate post entirely on that, but I ended up taking the test in one go (and it turned out well). I want to stress one last thing in this post: you will never feel 100% prepared or confident on the MCAT. Unless you’re a mind-reader, you simply can’t predict what the test makers are going to put on your exam—and so it is better to emphasize actual test taking strategies in your preparation than sheer memorization of as much content as possible.
This post is only an overview of my MCAT journey (I could go into so much more detail but I don’t want to bore you), and I will be posting more in the future on my reviews of MCAT resources, making a study schedule, my test day experience, etc—so stay tuned! Also, please feel free to reach out to me (click Contact Us at the bottom of this page) with specific questions and I’d be happy to answer them!