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Avoid Mistakes and a Few More Ways to Improve Your MCAT Score
Put in More Time
The average student spends over 200 hours studying for the MCAT. That’s the average student. You know what’s also average? Scoring a 500 on the MCAT. You don’t want to be average. If you have studied significantly less than two hundred hours in preparation for the MCAT, you have not devoted enough time to covering the material.
Let’s make something clear. There is nothing magic about two hundred hours. You could spend four hundred, low quality hours studying for the MCAT and be worse off for it. MCAT prep is as much about efficiency as it is effectiveness. While you should aim for 300 – 400 total hours of studying for the test, you need to also make sure you are using your time effectively.
Let’s go over the common culprits that lead to poor quality study time and warped expectations.
One. Studying with distractions. Turn off the TV. Get out of the dorm room. Don’t make study sessions. Don’t get study buddies to help you out. Most the studying you do for the MCAT needs to be solo. Just you, your review books, your practice tests, and a mountain of hard work. I’m not adverse to the white noise of a coffee shop or an undergraduate library. But you need to make the right decisions that will keep you from being distracted. If you have a roommate that’s prone to interrupting your study time with a social opportunity, you have got to get away. The same goes with your phone. Or Facebook. Anything that has the potential to cut into your study time or reduce the quality of your study needs to be removed. The real problem with most students studying is not the amount of time they spend studying, but the quality of study. Go to any college campus library and look around. Over half of the students are either talking to friends or goofing off on their laptop/phone/etc. Don’t give yourself the psychological easy-outs. It’s so easy to find excuses for studying. Most of the time you won’t even notice. You’ll be deep into a two hour review session, your roommate will turn on the TV, and that’s it, you’re done for the day. Don’t let this happen. You have got to be relentless about your studying. If you plan for three hours of studying, go the full three hours. Don’t sacrifice the quality of your study time out of laziness. You are only hurting yourself come test day.
Two. Not holding yourself accountable. This culprit ties closely to the scenario above. By the time you start studying for the MCAT, you should have a guideline for the amount of studying you need to accomplish each day. Whether that number is three hours or eight, you need to be hitting the full amount. Any less, and you are throwing off the long-term plan for your studying. That means if you need to get in three hours of studying on Monday, you do the full three hours. It doesn’t have to be consecutive. Most pre-meds, and college students in general, are busy enough that it’s hard to find 3+ consecutive hours in the day for studying. But you need to keep track of that time. Use a stopwatch and counting app on your phone to keep yourself accountable. If you get in two hours in the morning, you know you need to finish the final hour later in the day. There is no more rewarding feeling than knowing you accomplished exactly what you intended to get done in a day. It makes your free time more enjoyable, and you can have fun without the cloud of procrastination hanging over your head. It sounds so basic, but two of your most powerful tools in preparing for the MCAT are a stopwatch and some sort of counting tracker. It’s harder to cheat yourself if you have physical evidence of the amount of work you have completed.
Stick to a 4-6 Month Schedule
I have written before that the first step in preparing for the MCAT is deciding upon a length-of-study schedule. That amount needs to be between four and six months. Less than that amount does not provide enough time to thoroughly review the material and take a sufficient number of practice exams. Any more and you run the risk of forgetting most of the content you painstakingly reviewed. Aim for four to six months. That means from the moment you sign up for the exam, you have between four and six months to prepare. I’ve met many students who attempt to study for only two months before the test. Whether through unexpected circumstance or procrastination, they find themselves with eight weeks or less before their test date. Here’s the thing: it can be done. But it requires an incredible amount of work within that short timespan (frequently studying for 6+ hours a day), and a very solid background in the material. I have seen students make decent scores (510+) with a truncated amount of studying time. Personally, I think it becomes a combination of luck and survivorship bias. You won’t often read about the student who tried to study last minute and bombed the MCAT—despite being a very common occurrence. Don’t bet on yourself being a lucky one. You need four months of dedicated studying, minimum, to be fully prepared for making an elite score on the MCAT.
The six month schedule is also acceptable, but under specific conditions. Non-traditional students, part-time students and students with extraneous and overwhelming circumstances (family, full-time job, non-negotiable commitments) should err on the side of six months. Why? Because you never know what will come up. Your study schedule is not designed to handle unexpected deviations. Sure, you may have things come up that take you away from studying for a day or two. But you can’t afford repeated distractions that cost you days or weeks of study time. Four to six months only sounds like a long time at the outset. Once you get serious about your studying, you will be amazed how quickly time passes.
Don’t Put off Your Test Date
This step is essential to the 4-6 month schedule. Generally, students put off their test for two reasons. The first is that they fail to establish a concrete test date prior to their study schedule (i.e. actually signing up and paying for a testing slot), and continually put off the process even as they draw near the end of their 4-6 month window. The second, and most common reason for putting off the test, is that students feel underprepared, overwhelmed, and stressed out in the weeks leading up to the test. Here’s the thing: you are never going to feel 100% ready for the MCAT. There is too much material covered on the test to be an expert in everything. There is so much uncertainty and variability in your individual test that you can’t possibly be prepared for the exact set of questions you will be asked. Finally, the weight of what the test means to your future and your potential choice of career is anxiety inducing for even the most confident test-taker.
So how to get around this? Just keep in mind: you can only do your best. That’s not an excuse for scoring poorly. If you are making below your target score, it’s a combination of inadequate prep time and ineffective studying. But if you stick to your schedule, if you put in the hundreds of hours of studying, at the very least you are going to be prepared. You can’t combine perfectionism with MCAT studying, or the result will be paralysis and inevitably putting off your test date even longer. Of the Big 5 Personality Traits (something you may be tested on in the Behavioral Foundation), most premeds would overwhelmingly lean towards Neuroticism. Don’t be neurotic about your test date. Instead, be neurotic about your study schedule and habits. Be relentless in your preparation. But don’t expect perfectionism. Not on your actual test day or in the weeks leading up to the test. You are still going to make mistakes. You are going to forget things. But feel secure in your process. Build a study schedule that pushes you to the limit of your ability and then stick with it. By the time you sit down for your actual test, all you can do is trust that you’ve done enough to achieve a top score.
Another thing to keep in mind: if you didn’t feel prepared after studying diligently for four, or even six months straight, a few more weeks is not going to make a difference. Whatever detrimental habits or distractions led to being unprepared for your original test date will continue to plague you during the period you put off taking the test. Pick one date, set it in stone, and don’t change it.
The MCAT is Not Trying to Trick You
One of my favorite things to do with a student is to review the questions and answers of a practice test they have recently completed. To begin with, not enough students take part in this crucial step of reviewing their completed full-length, or to the extent that they would get the most benefit. It’s during this process that I can discern how a student approaches a question and the answer choices they are given. Never forget, the MCAT is multiple choice. You will always have the right answer sitting in front of you. What I have noticed is how many students seem to think the test-makers are trying to trick them. They will be looking at a question and say, “I thought it was this answer, but it seemed too obvious,” or “I was going to pick the right answer, but that was the answer they wanted me to make, so it had to be something else.”
The makers of the MCAT are not trying to trick you. Ever. Don’t for one moment think that you are being asked a “tricky” question, or they are attempting to manipulate you. The end result is that you spend far too much time over-thinking each question, missing the clues that would lead you to the right answer, and second guessing yourself. Time is precious on the MCAT, and correct answers are even more valuable.
If anything, I have found that the test-takers are attempting to manipulate you in the positive direction. Think about it. So many of the questions can be answered by using the information given to you in the passage. Sometimes they even have the formula you need to solve the question. How many other tests in your undergraduate career had passages with the correct answers just waiting to be mined? Most of what you do in college is learning how to apply a concept, i.e. equations in physics or general chemistry, or to show that you have memorized/understood material, i.e. a social science or essay-based test. The MCAT is evaluating your competency in the core subjects, but also testing your ability to think critically and analyze given information. The test is already hard enough, and the scope of material so broad that the test-makers don’t have to trick you to make it difficult.
In the majority of cases, students label a question “tricky,” when they don’t fully comprehend what is being asked. The remedy for this situation is more practice tests, and spending adequate time reviewing each of the questions of the completed test—even the ones you got correct. You want as much experience as possible with the style of questions being asked on the MCAT. The more questions you see, the more you begin to pick up on patterns. You get a sense for what the test-maker is trying to evaluate you on with that particular question, whether you are being given indicators to look back to the passage, and if there are any clues to help narrow down your answer choices.
For example, if you are being given a question asking how an experimental drug impacted a particular cellular growth factor (let’s call it FGF1), you know that’s far outside the scope of what you would be expected to know going into the MCAT. Rather than frantically searching your mind for where you read about FGF1 in your review notes, you immediately know that you should look to the passage for help. You also know that the passage will probably explicitly hold the correct answer. Because you have no previous knowledge of the experimental drug or FGF1, the test-makers are going to have to give you the right answer in the passage. They may ask you to draw upon other knowledge you are expected to know about cellular process, and combine it with the FGF1 passage information, but this is a good example of a situation where you are being evaluated upon your ability to interpret the given passage information, rather than regurgitate something you memorized. These cues in how questions are asked are vital to saving you time and getting you on track to select the correct answer.
The bottom line: don’t’ go into the test expecting to be manipulated.
Overcome Your Mental Block
This point could be alternatively called Get Over Bad Test-Taking.
We all know people who seem to understand the material at an elite level, but cannot translate that into good grades on tests and exams. However, that’s not an excuse for the MCAT. You can’t just sweep your poor MCAT score under the rug of your application by telling the admissions committee that you are a bad test-taker. Or you get nervous. Or you throw-up during tests. The admissions committee will have no sympathy for that excuse. As a medical student, you will be asked to complete two more comprehensive exams that will shape the direction of your career and choice of medicine, the USMLE Step 1 & 2. As a physician, you will be asked repeatedly to perform in unfamiliar, high stress situations with much riskier outcomes than an MCAT score (the well-being of your patient).
It’s not going to end with the MCAT. You have to get over your anxiety towards test-taking if you ever plan on making a top score and achieving your dream of becoming a physician. Here are some steps you can make right now to become a better test taker.
One. Stop Telling Yourself you Can’t. If you characterize yourself as a “bad test-taker,” you have already lost. Think about your attitude towards the MCAT. If it involves the phrases, I’m so stressed out for this test, or I know I’m going to be freaking out on test day, you need to re-evaluate your mindset. Yes, you are going to be nervous. Yes, you will be stressed during your test. But don’t create a self-fulfilling prophecy. The way you think and the things you say leading up to the test will be your reality when you sit down to take the MCAT. Just tell yourself this, “It will be difficult, but I can do it.” That’s it. Don’t worry about anything else.
Two. Take More Practice Tests. Most of the anxiety you will experience related to the MCAT comes from the lack of certainty. The only way you can increase your feeling of certainty towards the test is to study harder and take more practice tests. The more familiar you are with the content of the test, the format of the questions being asked, and all the other little things like time limit and passage layout, the less anxiety you will feel on test day. Create familiarity through simulating the actual test as much as possible. Good full-length exams are relatively limited in number. Don’t waste a single opportunity. You should be timing yourself on every practice test. You should be doing all four sections in one sitting, with breaks at the allotted times. The more familiar you are with the actual test, the more comfortable you will feel on test day.
Three. Take a Throwaway Exam. This is a special scenario reserved for students with severe test-taking anxiety and are willing to part with $300 on a throwaway exam. Sign up for an MCAT test date with no intention of submitting your score. At the end of the test, choose the option to have your test voided. You are essentially spending $300 on a practice test, with the added benefit that you can go through the process of checking into your testing center and experiencing every step of the real exam. Two things to keep in mind: 1. Your stress level will not compare to the real test. This process is for gaining familiarity with the MCAT and taking an extra practice test. The amount of stress you will feel on your real test, when you know the outcome will count towards your future career, is undoubtedly going to be higher. 2. You can only be registered for one test at a time. Don’t allow your throwaway exam to interfere with your real test date coming at the end of your study schedule. If you choose to take a throwaway test, you are going to have to aim for a six month study schedule so that you have plenty of time to register the date for your real exam. Take the throwaway test 1 to 1.5 months ahead of your real test—enough time to benefit from the extra practice, but not long enough to forget the familiarity. Again, this is a messy scenario only for those with extreme anxiety. You can closely simulate the real test day on your own if you are diligent with your practice full-lengths.
More Helpful Resources
Register for the MCAT — Make sure to sign up for your exam at the beginning of your study schedule. Once you have your date, do not change it.
Google Stopwatch — Use a stopwatch and counter to keep track of your study time. Preferably an app on your phone so you have it wherever you go.
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