The MCAT exam is an infamous rite of passage required for applying to medical school. At its worst, a low score (<500) can result in your rejection from programs. At its best, a high score (>515) can outshine average grades and extracurriculars. However, the bulk of competitive students are somewhere in the middle, scoring 505–515, uncertain if their score will be enough to tip the scales in their favor. This post will contextualize the importance of MCAT preparation in the overall application to medical school, the most high-yield resources students should use in preparation, and the value of using a dedicated study plan.
When I studied for the MCAT in 2016, the revamped, 7-hour exam had recently been released. Given how new the exam was at the time, it was unclear what were the best prep resources, so I took a kitchen sink approach. I had a stack of textbooks from Berkley Review and Exam Crackers; the former offered dense, long-form content review, and the latter had colorful pictures and goofy mnemonics to make studying less serious and more memorable. I also had access to practice exams across AAMC, Kaplan, and Princeton Review and attended review sessions to make sure I had a strong knowledge base. I studied hard for about 3.5 months, and I got a 510. This score was good enough for me to not retake, even for MD/PhD programs. I believed that my well-rounded application would support me. I still believe that successful applications truly breakthrough in the essays and interviews.
Common mistakes to avoid during MCAT prep
In retrospect, I spent too many hours reading textbooks, re-writing concepts in notebooks, and trying to understand each concept in depth. This was a mistake. I lost precious time and wasted cognitive capital on achieving a level of understanding that was not advantageous for performing well on the exam. What I needed was a solid foundation across all subjects and dedicated practice with MCAT-specific testing skills. While conceptual foundations vary widely from student to student, I think that completing the pre-requisite college coursework and reviewing weak areas with the Kaplan MCAT review series is sufficient. If I could go back in time, I would have spent more time answering questions banks, simulating exam conditions, taking full-length practice exams, and reviewing incorrects with greater attention.
This realization comes from both my personal experience as well as the experience of students I have worked with in the medical school admissions process. I learned the value of using question banks to study actively as a core method during medical school. Given the massive amount of information you are expected to learn in medical school, it is easier to identify your weaknesses through answering representative questions on the topic than by reading passages about it. You need to see how the concepts are tested, and often get them wrong, to have them to stick.
For example, if you want to master the MCAT physics of Ohm’s law, Bernoulli’s equation, and Snell’s law, it’s better to answer 10 questions testing each principle in different ways than to memorize equations and draw complicated diagrams. You should practice problem solving skills with pattern recognition. There are only so many ways the MCAT can test these principles, and by being familiar with the various approaches, you will be able to answer any question thrown your way. This reduces the need for memorization and allows you to move more nimbly through the exam.
Maximize your learning with MCAT practice questions
Fortunately for you, it’s been many years since I took the MCAT. Improved question banks have been developed that provide a nearly comprehensive study resource for the MCAT. Although I appreciate that cost can be prohibitive, it’s worth it to invest in the best question banks to increase your chances of a great score. If you do score poorly, have to retake and possibly miss the application cycle, or worse yet, go through the cycle with an inadequate score and be rejected, you stand to lose time and money unnecessarily. The potential consequences of a poor score make the initial investment worthwhile. The two best question banks you can use to prepare for the MCAT are from UWORLD and AAMC. UWORLD is excellent for learning how concepts might be tested with valuable explanations, and AAMC is designed by the test makers to give insight into exam design. The question banks can be coupled with Kaplan MCAT review textbooks to clarify trouble areas. Together, these resources cover your bases. With a dedicated, well-designed study plan, they are all you need to reach your goal score.
There are additional supplemental resources that can be part of an effective study plan. For example, the CARS section is one that gives many students problems. Jack Westin has CARS passages you can use as part of a daily CARS study routine. MCAT questions of the day can be found at Kaplan or Shemmassian. Khan Academy has great resources for psychology and sociology. Find a few supplemental resources, integrate them daily, and then stop looking. There will always be another resource.
Perhaps the most critical resource for effective MCAT studying is attention. You must focus. You have limited time and cannot get lost juggling a bunch of minor resources. Don’t go down the rabbit holes of Student Doctor Network and Reddit where anxiety run rampant. There are helpful resources on these sites, but you don’t have time to sift through signal vs noise when studying. Find a trusted mentor or coach to provide advice for your specific situation and develop a personalized study plan. Persistence with a couple excellent resources beats fumbling through several disjointed resources with a highlighter.
At first, answering questions will be difficult because you will likely be getting a majority incorrect. You might feel compelled to go back to content review until you’re more prepared, but you should fight this feeling. Continue answering questions and learning from each one. It stings to miss questions; the sting is important for learning. Be patient with yourself in the process. You will be surprised at how much you will gain with a dedicated plan over time.
Balancing MCAT prep with the rest of your life
A study plan that I’ve found to be most effective follows a 16 week schedule divided into 3 phases. Like an athlete or musician preparing for an event, the MCAT should be approached as a training regimen. Peak too early, and you’re more liable to flop on test day with burnout. If you study for too long, you could lose focus and the quality of your preparation could suffer. If you study for less than 16 weeks, it will be difficult to get through all the high-yield question banks, leaving you with the feeling of unpreparedness and uncertainty. The MCAT mantra is: one and done. Study for the MCAT like you only have one chance and allow time for a retake if necessary.
The key to successful MCAT preparation is finding balance. It’s easy to become obsessed with studying, which may lead you to put additional pressure on yourself. Avoid performance anxiety through balance and consistency. Study hard and clear time each day to follow through with your study schedule, but recognize that if you’re miserable and stressed out, you’re not going to perform optimally. Exercise, limit caffeine/nicotine, meditate, go for walks, and eat well. Get a subscription to Hello Fresh. Join a 30 day Yoga journey on Youtube. Reduce decision paralysis wherever possible and make it as easy as possible to sit down undisturbed for 3 hour intervals to do focused work when your mind is fresh.
How to create a study schedule that works for you
Everyone has a study plan, what makes the plan that I recommend different? It’s striped of excess and provides you with the best prep resources. It’s a serious study plan that works with an MCAT tutor to hold you accountable and optimize your study approach. You must show up each day and put in the work. Lean into the discomfort of not knowing what you’re doing and persevere through uncertainty. You will develop systems and rules for working through these unclear scenarios. The MCAT is unlikely to go as planned, and your ability to continue unfazed after a couple rough sections will make a major difference on your overall performance.
The following 3 phases are a general framework for the 16 week schedule devised by Madrasa’s chief MCAT tutor, Josh Bradin. However, the study plan should be personalized according to the students’ specific backgrounds and needs for best results.
Phase 1: Build a foundation with content review and UWORLD (6 weeks)
a.) Using the official guide to the MCAT, identify what concepts you have covered in your classes or have seen before, and what concepts are brand new. For the concepts that you have seen before, identify concepts you feel comfortable with, concepts you haven’t seen in a while and need to brush up on, and concepts you’ve seen but understand poorly. These will be the weak areas you should focus on in your content review.
b.) Using Kaplan review books, skim the content you know and take good notes for the content you don’t know well or need to brush up on. Don’t get bogged down in the small details, familiarize yourself with topics and overarching big concepts.
c.) Do UWORLD questions on topics you covered. Don’t worry about getting it right, take note of the application of the concept and how it can be tested.
Phase 2 : Practice, Practice, Practice (4 weeks)
a.) After building a solid conceptual foundation, the best way to learn is by doing. A key thing to note is that you have only built a foundation, not a house.
— UWORLD will throw a wide range of questions at you that require a wide range of content knowledge, test taking strategies and problem-solving skills to build your house of MCAT knowledge. If you take 1 note for every UWORLD question you do — whether it’s the main concept of the question or a distractor answer choice — you will build the house brick-by-brick. By the time you are done practicing, you will be well prepared for whatever concepts the MCAT has in store.
b.) UWORLD is also a practice arena where you will fine-tune your test taking strategies and add new problem-solving strategies to your arsenal of tools. You will get good at critically reading a passage and pulling out the important information. You will see so many different passages, graphs, and figures that you will be adept at identifying important and unimportant information.
c.) The goal of UWORLD is to develop your ability to diagnose a complicated graph or figure and interpret it quickly. It doesn’t matter if you get the question right, what matters is that you practice this skill on a wide range of topics, graph types, and diagrams. By fine tuning this skill in the UWORLD practice arena, you will be equipped and prepared to answer any question AAMC will throw at you
Phase 3: Test Day Prep — Study the opponent and build endurance (6 weeks)
a.) By preparing in the UWORLD practice arena for the last 2 months, you’ve developed a toolkit to approach difficult questions even when you don’t fully grasp the scenario. You’ve been exposed to complicated and challenging figures, passages, graphs, and data, and you’ve learned how to quickly diagnose the problem. You are prepared as much as you can be for any scenario the actual MCAT exam may throw at you. Now we need to study our opponent (the AAMC) and learn its logic. Therefore, 4–6 weeks out from test day, switch to AAMC content. Our goal is to understand how the test makers think and how they like to test concepts. This will be achieved by doing the AAMC Q packs, section bank and questions from the official guide.
b.) The last thing you need to do before you are ready for test day is to build your focus and endurance. The AAMC full-length exams provide formidable sparring matches to simulate exam conditions and increase your stamina for the 7-hour test.
The benefits of working with an MCAT tutor
I’m biased because my advising business offers services for MCAT tutoring. If you want to compete with strong test takers, working with a tutor might be a good option. It’s no surprise that some people are better test takers than others for myriad reasons, and MCAT tutors can cut through the noise to maximize the value of a student’s study plan. I wasted my time in MCAT review sessions hosted by my University, and I wouldn’t recommend these unless you’re super early in test prep and want broad review with a group to hold you accountable. I study my best when alone or in small groups with people I know well. Overall, accountability and personalized strategy makes an MCAT tutor worthwhile, especially if it increases your likelihood of acceptance.
How do you know which service or tutor to choose? There are many options, and you must determine for yourself the pros and cons of different options. Let’s compare two excellent services: MedSchoolCoach and Madrasa Advising.
MedSchoolCoach has been in the game for years helping students navigate MCAT preparation. They have an arsenal of resources and a team of tutors who have scored well on the MCAT. MedSchoolCoach has proprietary resources that have benefitted many students. A downside is that there is uncertainty in the MCAT advisor that will be assigned to you, and a poor personality match or coaching style can be a sticking point.
Madrasa Advising is my academic advising business. We are a small enterprise committed to doing the most for our students interested in medical school and MD/PhD programs. Our chief MCAT tutor, Josh Bradin, scored in the 99th percentile and is committed full-time to helping students reach their goal score. Because we are a smaller company, we focus on the details to make sure each student has a well-designed, personalized plan. If you work with us and pursue our 16 week study plan, we purchase all the UWORLD and AAMC question bundles for you, and you gain access to our advising services for admissions at a discount.
If you are able to purchase MCAT tutoring services, I recommend you do so with a person or company that you connect with in terms of personality and coaching style. I would be happy to meet with you to discuss options and provide you with a free session to determine if Madrasa Advising is a good match for your needs. Students who apply our study method have increased their MCAT score 11 points on average. The only thing worse than studying for the MCAT is studying for it a second time. Invest in your success with a team you can trust and aim for one and done.