1) Not Having a Solid Routine. Scoring in the top percentile on the MCAT requires a rigorous, but dependable routine. The studying involved is not something that occurs over night. You have to do your research well ahead of the test date and plan your studying across several months. This means avoiding the typical trap of boom-or-bust procrastination. Bad students put off studying until the last minute and attempt to make up time by cramming a week’s worth of studying into one afternoon. This is not an efficient, and certainly not effective method for doing well on the MCAT.
Plan to start studying four months in advance of your test date. Have a plan for your course of study before you start. You should have your materials assembled, the order in which you will review the material and as many full-length practice exams as your budget will allow. Once everything else is taken care off, it’s time to become relentless in your study efforts. Start small and build up stamina. In the first month your focus should be 2-3 hours each day. By the final month that number should be close to 6-8 hours.
The overriding principle is consistency. More studying in a single day is not always beneficial. Ideally, you should have a lot more going on in your life as you prepare for both the MCAT and applying to medical school. Make time for studying, but don’t allow it to interfere with the other work you should be doing.
2) Paying for a Review Course. You don’t need a review course. You may think you need one. You may find yourself justifying the reasons to pay the high price. But at the end of the day, the score you make on the MCAT with a review course is no different than the score you would make studying on your own with a modicum of self-discipline and a consistent work ethic. There are three reasons to avoid review courses:
- Price. In my mind, price becomes the primary justification for people taking an MCAT review course when it should be the main deterrent. Just because it’s expensive doesn’t mean it’s worth the value. The MCAT is designed to be a level playing field. Regardless of the institution you attended, the education you had in your upbringing, the MCAT is a stand-alone test designed to measure your aptitude and critical thinking compared to your fellow applicants. However, many pre meds convince themselves that they can gain an advantage through spending more money than their competition. There are resources worth buying–a review book set, and a handful of practice exams (all for well under $300)–but dropping $2,000 on a review course is a waste of money and reeks of desperation. The fact that you are spending so much money on a single resource that in no way guarantees you a high score, despite promises made by the companies, lulls you into a false sense of security. It’s easy to convince yourself, “I’m paying $2,500, this must be the best of the best. There’s no way I won’t do well if I follow the course.” In reality, you are much better off putting that money towards paying for more medical school applications, giving you a broader chance of acceptance.
- You are tied to the lowest common denominator. There is no prerequisite to the review courses other than the cost of attendance. Many of your classmates will be average students. Many will score in the middle or bottom percentiles. These are the people you are sharing your study time with. Your review sessions will be dominated not with the questions you need answered, or the individual help you need applied, but the concerns of your classmates–regardless of how basic or below your comprehension they may be. Do you want to continue wasting your time on information you don’t need, when those hours could be put to better use studying your weakest material?
- You need to learn to be self-sufficient. One of the most frustrating but rewarding aspects of the MCAT is the freedom in which you have to study. There is an overwhelming amount of content, all of which has to be mastered, but the method of mastery is largely up to your own design. You may have a strong background in chemistry whereas a fellow test-taker is proficient in physics and biology. The two of you would not approach your studying in the same way, despite the fact that you are required to learn the same material. Review courses employ a one-size-fits all approach that is neither efficient, nor the most effective use of your study time. As much as it may scare you, look at the MCAT as an opportunity to train yourself for the rest of your life. The average age of an MCAT test-taker is early twenties. While you may have completed a bachelor’s degree, the MCAT provides a lesson on self-sufficiency and being an auto-didactic that will help you both in medical school and as a licensed physician. The yearn for a review course is clinging to the comfort of academia that you have been steeped in for 15+ years. But you won’t always have a professor to go to for help and answers, a clearly defined syllabus that shows you exactly what you should be studying, or assignments with predetermined answers that you can get feedback on. Physicians have only themselves and their colleagues to consult in staying up to date on the latest medical research, in making tough decisions for their patients and handling the hurdles of managed care. The MCAT is a great opportunity to practice learning how to learn.
3) Focusing Solely on Content Review Rather than Practice Exams. There is one factor that consistently appears among top-percentile test takers of the MCAT: a commitment to taking as many full-length practice exams as possible. Let’s examine the situation for a moment. If I were to ask you how to get better at playing tennis, would your first thought be reading books about tennis? What about improving on the piano; would you start by reading lots of sheet music? The way you get better at any task–playing tennis, the piano, taking the MCAT–is by doing the actual activity. The MCAT is a performance, a specific skill, a test unlike any you have taken before. You have to be good at playing the MCAT. There is a lot of information you must master and a lot of work that goes into preparing for the MCAT, but if you are not consistently taking practice exams you’re setting yourself up for failure.
Over 85,000 students take the MCAT each year. The MCAT is a normalized test meaning everyone can’t get an “A”. Of that 85,000, half will score at the 50th percentile or lower. All but a couple hundred will score in the top percentile. Nearly all of that 80,000+ will study hard. They’ll put in the hours (on average 200), they’ll work through review books and study notes until they can recite them verbally. But what the majority of these test takers don’t do is commit to taking full-length exams. They may take a practice exam or two near the end of their study cycle, but they avoid full-lengths with the same trepidation they feel towards the actual exam. Top performers are completing >5 full-lengths. Instead of focusing on the review content, the work that everyone does, they are practicing taking the exam. They are getting a feel for reading the passages, developing their process for coming to the answer and learning to manage their time and energy over the course of a seven hour test. It’s not about being good at biology, or physics, or chemistry. You want to be good at taking the MCAT.
The majority of students avoid full-length exams because of the difficulty involved. They fear failure. They fear being exposed, if only to themselves, as someone unprepared for the MCAT, and what the consequences may be on test day. Let me tell you something: it’s better to get that “bad” score on a practice exam than the actual MCAT. The score you receive on the MCAT is with you for the duration of applying to medical school. Even if you end up retaking and doing much better, that poor performance will always be available in your application for medical schools to evaluate.
You need the practice of completing full-lengths and you need the feedback that comes in the aftermath. Place as much emphasis on reviewing your graded practice exam as you do taking the test. For every eight hours you spend completing a full-length, spend another eight reviewing each question, including the ones you got right. Scoring in the top-percentile of test-takers requires mastery of the MCAT. You have to know the material, but you also have to know what you are doing wrong in each section and how you need to retool your approach. A lot of students falsely convince themselves they are ready based off of a mastery of content. The MCAT should feel familiar. Much of the content being tested is pulled directly from pre-requisite courses that pre meds are expected to make “A’s” in. The result is overconfident test-takers who feel comfortable with the content, but fail to develop a similar competence in taking the test itself.
4) Ignoring Certain Subjects. Your total score on the MCAT is a composite of the four different subjects, with the average score of all test-takers being 500. The average score accepted by most medical schools is 508. You don’t want to be average. Your goal should be much higher than that. But most students don’t approach the test in a way that will maximize their total score. The average test taker focuses on their strengths and weakness, “I’m good at biology and psychology, but I will take a hit in the physics section.” You hear it all the time. People talk about their strong sections. They talk about the material they will excel on as if will make up for their weaknesses. This is the fastest way to achieve a mediocre score.
Let’s examine a sample scenario:
Student A excels in the hard sciences. They are a chemistry and biology double major and have taken advanced courses in physics. Their score breakdown is as follows:
Biological Foundations: 131
Physical Foundation: 129
Psychological Foundations: 125
Critical Analysis (CARS): 124
Total Score: 509
Student B emphasizes a general education. They have done well in their pre-req science courses but have also taken a variety of social sciences. They examined their relative weakness in the hard sciences and worked to mediate the difference.
Biological Foundations: 128
Physical Foundation: 128
Psychological Foundation: 128
Critical Analysis (CARS): 128
Total Score: 512
People don’t realize how exceptionally hard it is to score one point higher in the individual sections as you near the top. Just as the test is normalized, each individual section is normalized to your particular version of the test. That means the difference between a 132 and 131 could be answering 1-2 more questions correctly. While it’s impressive that Student A was able to score a 131 in their Biological Foundations section, their composite score is barely acceptable for most medical schools. The well-rounded student did not score exceptional in any one section but had a much better composite score (6 percentage points higher than Student A).
I know what you’re thinking: if Student A was able to score a 131 (nearly perfect) in Biological Foundations, they would never do so poorly in the CARS section. It happens all the time. So many students neglect sections that either represent their weakness or are not easy to study. CARS is a primary example, because there are few ways you can “study” without actually doing practice passages. The psychology and sociology section has also become neglected, as science oriented pre meds are either lacking a social science background or believe the subject is less difficult than physics and chemistry.
The bottom line is don’t neglect any section. I scored a 521 with three 130s and a 131. This is the easiest way to score in the top percentile. While it would be great to score a 131 or the elusive 132 in your subject of strength, the returns are immensely diminishing as you approach 132. Meaning that it is far easier to make 130s across the board than to make a 132 in a single section. Of course it’s still extremely difficult to score in the top-percentiles, but don’t make your job harder by allowing your weak sections to drag your score down.
5) Preparing for a Retake.
Burn your boat on the beach.
One of the greatest mental mistakes you can make going into the MCAT is allowing yourself an excuse in the event you do poorly. You have to be committed to taking the MCAT once or you will not give it your best effort. The MCAT is a massive hurdle to overcome in the course of applying to medical school. The test itself is over 7 hours long, it takes months of preparation and years of prerequisite coursework. You don’t want to have to go through the process all over again. Give it everything the first time you start preparing for the exam. Allowing for a retake is an unnecessary distraction. You will go into the day of the test thinking more about what you will do in the invent of a retake rather than that test ahead of you. Keep your focus on what is most important. No matter how much you put into studying, you will feel uneasy and unprepared in the week leading up to your test. It’s unavoidable. Don’t push your date back. Don’t schedule a retake. Just stick to your routine and your test date and leave no room for regret.
Unless you take the test and refuse to submit the score (which amounts to a complete waste of time and money), medical schools will have your test score anyway. It doesn’t matter if you make a 520 on the retake if you scored 503 the first time around. One Admissions Dean at a medical school told me they weigh everything on the first score, regardless of retakes. You don’t get do-overs in the real world. You can’t tell your patient you need a second chance at their surgery when you messed it up the first time. Poor initial scoring shows a lack of preparation and discipline., regardless of how much you improve on a retake.
I’m not trying to discourage people who have already taken the MCAT and scored poorly–a retake is the only chance you have for admittance. But if it’s your first time taking the test, don’t give yourself an out. Don’t make excuses. Pick your test date, circle it on your calendar, create a countdown on your phone, and pour everything you have into your preparation.