Welcome to PDr’s Weekly Weigh-in! Each week, we ask students and physicians to weigh in on some of our most frequently asked pre-med questions.
This week’s question: Briefly describe your approach to studying for the MCAT. Based on the known changes in content and structure, how you would adjust your study regimen if you were taking the MCAT2015 Exam?
Evan Shih, DGSOM MS3
I took a Princeton Review prep course, which I found helpful for a number of reasons. It provided me with a schedule of what to study each day with assigned readings and practice problems, so I divided my time between reading through the content in the Princeton Review texts and doing half of the practice problems assigned each day. The instructors were also, for the most part, knowledgable in their subjects. I believe they actually switched out the Organic Chemistry instructor halfway through the course because she wasn’t competent, so it was nice that they listened to students’ opinions. On the other hand, I feel like every verbal class was a complete waste of time – she merely read us the answer off the instructor manual and could not clarify on questions.
|| Read: MCAT Prep Advice from Kaplan Experts ||
Brandon Brown, UCSF MS2
I studied for the MCAT during the summer and took a Princeton Review course. I don’t think the review course gave me anything I couldn’t have done on my own, other than the structure and discipline of planned lessons and class schedules (which was actually important for me). In the beginning of my study time, I spent the majority of my time reviewing content as opposed to practice problems, however, I made a gradual transition to doing mostly practice problems as the summer progressed. By the week or so leading up to my exam, I was pretty much exclusively doing practice tests and other practice problems. Given the reputation that the verbal reasoning section was the most difficult, or at least the most opaque in terms of how to prepare for it, I (slightly) disproportionate amount of time going through passages. Given my strong biology background, BS was more rewarding to study for since I tended to do better there, but I should have spent more time on the physical science section.
It’s hard to say how I would study for the new MCAT since there isn’t a lot of word-of-mouth advice for it. Nevertheless, I would probably follow the same formula of starting out content heavy and then gradually shift to doing mostly practice problems. The MCAT has a big critical thinking component to it, so I think doing practice problems is really important in getting your mind trained to think abstractly and critically about the problems rather than being used to regurgitate memorized information.
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Emily Chiu, UCLA Undergraduate Year 3
I took the MCAT in September 2014 and started my study regimen two and a half months before the exam. I highly recommend setting aside a summer to prepare if possible, but if you decide to take the exam during the school year I would start studying at least four months in advance. Even in the summer, I would minimize any other commitments such as research or volunteering. I took a classroom course with Kaplan and allotted a month after the end of the course for practice exams and spot content review. I did daily verbal reasoning passages from day one, experimenting with different techniques and slowly reducing the time I gave myself per passage from eight minutes to six minutes. For physical and biological sciences, I spent one month on content overview, then for the last one and a half months focused on discrete and passage questions with spot review of any concepts I had difficulty with. I personally believe you should focus the majority of your study time on practice problems, especially if you are taking the MCAT soon after finishing your prerequisites. Even if you know your content well you may get questions wrong on the exam if you are not familiar with the MCAT’s tricks or strategies.
If I was taking the MCAT2015 exam this summer, I would allot at least three months to study due to the change in length of the exam and extended content. I would highly recommend taking a prep course due to the lack of past materials and strategies. Similar to my technique with verbal reasoning, I would start my Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) prep as early as possible. You can use old MCAT passages on humanities and social sciences if you run out of MCAT2015 material. Time how quickly you naturally go through the passages and start to reduce that time as much as possible. The new MCAT gives you ten minutes per passage for the CARS section, but shoot for lower.
For the first one and a half months, I would focus on personalized content review of concepts you know you are weaker in. Are there any prerequisites you have not taken yet? Do you tend to struggle with biochemistry? Spend a bit more time on these areas but try to move through the rest of the material relatively quickly. Due to the sheer amount of information covered on the new MCAT, there will likely not be enough time to memorize every detail of every concept. Bring up your weak areas then move on to practice problems and exams, and you can always go back and be more thorough if you have time.
I would do your first full-length practice exam (minus a diagnostic) when you are about one month into your content review. The new MCAT is going to test your endurance, so I would take as many full-length tests as you can get your hands on. Simulate test day conditions and do not get caught up in the numbers themselves- you should be focusing on how you feel while taking the test and how the timing is working for you. Between full-lengths, practice the sections that you are weaker in and go back to review concepts as needed. Start out with full-length exams five days apart and decrease that time until you are taking them every other day. Take a couple days off before your MCAT to let your mind rest; do very light review if necessary.
This is a basic outline of how I would personally study for the MCAT, but this will not fit everyone’s study style. You know the way you study best, so take that and apply it to a more concentrated schedule. Pace your studying and plan ahead to avoid burning out early or rushing to cram before the exam. Studying for the MCAT takes patience, so do not be discouraged if you don’t see immediate improvement. The MCAT is only one component of a comprehensive application. Rather than thinking of the MCAT as an obstacle between you and medical school, approach the exam as an opportunity to show your persistence and ability to tackle a challenge.