I refused to study for the MCAT during the school year. The thought of having to study for the MCAT after studying for my regular classes made me cringe; I knew both my grades and MCAT score would unnecessarily suffer. During the middle of my junior year, I, with a couple of friends, decided to enroll in a summer Princeton Review (TPR) MCAT class so that we would be better prepared for the exam at the end of the summer. Soon after, we all signed up to take the actual exam on September 2nd. We all had to sign up early because we knew spots would fill up very quickly . I signed up for an afternoon exam, 2pm to be exact, because 8am was too early. Looking back, that might not have been the best idea because my mind is actually the sharpest in the morning.
When summer actually came, I felt ready. I intended to treat the MCAT like a full time job. I would try my best to dedicate 8 focused hours to it no matter what. This was my schedule: go to my MCAT class from 10am to 12pm (M-F), eat lunch, study until dinner (usually 7pm) and then study for couple of hours afterwards if I wasn’t too tired. That meant I had my early mornings and late nights free. I’m very thankful to have studied with the same close friends that I signed up for the class with–they were actually subletting at my apartment for the summer. We had the same class, kept relatively the same schedule, and held one another accountable.
I actually enjoyed studying for the MCAT. That does not mean I did not hate it at times because studying is always challenging and takes a lot of work. I did, however, like learning the material and enjoyed the challenge of the test. After putting in so much work, it was incredibly satisfying to see my score slowly rise. I also enjoyed the study time because I was studying with my friends. They kept me sane. We complained, lamented, and rejoiced together. Strictly following my schedule allowed me to rest guilt-free. After working hard for 8 long hours, I let myself unwind after. I tried not to let myself think about the exam during my free time. And since I lived in my apartment near my school, when I did have free time, I was able to hang out with my other friends who were in summer school.
Since I had already taken all my pre-requisite classes, almost everything I learned in the MCAT classes was review. Nevertheless, the instructors taught the material in a more efficient and effective way. They brought the content together and made it easier to understand. They also taught us how to take the MCAT. The timing, tricks, and traps of the test were all important. When I took my diagnostic test, an AAMC practice test, before instruction started, I got a 504. As the class progressed, we took a practice test every week to monitor our progress. My score was relatively steady, hovering in the low 500’s. I would always score lower on the TPR tests, which would be extremely frustrating and discouraging. It wasn’t until later that I realized that TPR tests were designed to be more difficult. After that realization, I stopped taking the TPR practice exam scores seriously. I just used their tests to prepare me to deal with challenging passages and material.
The MCAT class started near the end of June. By the beginning of August, I had a breakthrough. My score jumped from the low 500’s and low 510’s to the mid 510’s. The first time I scored 514 on a practice test was exhilarating. I was in shock. Then I wondered if I could do it again. After taking a couple more practice AAMC tests, I realized that I had crossed the threshold. Until the day of my actual exam, I was consistently scoring 514 and even scored 518 once. My goal was to score 517 but I was very content with 514. How did I make that jump? I think it was a combination of many things.
First, at that point, I had mastered most of the material. The MCAT course was coming to an end. Fact-wise, I knew almost everything I needed to know. It was simply a matter of retaining all that knowledge. Second, I understood the timing of the exam. I learned how to pace myself through the entire test. Finally, and most importantly, I figured out how to take the exam. I prevented myself from making the same errors again. I avoided traps and used tricks to get the right answer and save time. Every time I took a practice test, I kept a log of my mistakes. I took a note of which questions I got wrong and why I got them wrong. Sometimes I missed a question because I did not know the material but most of the time I simply did not read the question carefully enough, dismissed an answer too quickly, made a simple calculation error, or mixed up a concept. I soon realized that minimizing small mental errors boosted my grade 2-4 points.
I did not study the day before my exam. I relaxed and spent some time with my girlfriend and some friends. In retrospect, I wish I studied for at least a couple of hours to keep my mind active because it took some time for my brain to warm up when I actually took the exam.
During the day of the exam, I was extremely nervous. I don’t get nervous easily but when I am nervous, my body becomes very strangely. I had a hard time eating anything and my hands shook. The proctor actually let me start the exam before 2. Even though other people were taking the MCAT at the same time, I realized that everyone gets to go at their own pace. Therefore some people finished earlier and others later. Whenever there was a break in between sessions, I used the full ten minutes. I went to the bathroom almost every break. I would meditate and softly recite verses to myself in order to relax. It was a stressful time but I was confident in my preparation nonetheless.
The moment when I finished was glorious. I felt an incredible weight lifted off my shoulders. My strength was depleted and I thought I was going to collapse. But it was still an incredible feeling.
A month later, I got my score. I made my friends surround me and check my score before I did. If I didn’t score well, I knew my friends could cheer me up. But if I did score well, they would rejoice with me. I ended up getting a 514. Overall 514 was a little lower than I expected, but it was enough to get me into a good school. I was thankful.
Concluding thoughts for potential MCAT takers:
1. Enjoy studying for the MCAT. It is challenging but the material is interesting and you should like learning.
2. The difficulty of the MCAT is a small preview of medical school. If you can’t handle the rigors of the MCAT, you probably can’t handle medical school
3. Try to study with friends. It will make your life a lot easier and happier.
4. Take a MCAT course if money is not an issue, especially if you need accountability and discipline.
5. Take the test during the summer if you can.
6. Make a daily schedule and stick with it. Give yourself breaks and periods of free time.
7. If you are scoring well on your practice tests, avoid the temptation of voiding your actual exam (unless you absolutely know that you did terribly)
8. Do not have the mentality that you can delay your test. Pick a date, study hard and get it over with. Do not procrastinate.
9. Do not take too many practice tests near the date of your exam. This is a mistake I made. Near the time of my exam, I was taking one practice test a day. I think I burned out.
10. The path to medical school is rigorous and the MCAT is just one step. Do not have the mentality that your MCAT will make up for a poor GPA or lack of extracurricular activities.
Go to part 6.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ProspectiveDoctor. Follow ProspectiveDoctor on Twitter @ProspectiveDr