How to Prepare for the MCAT

We welcome the following guest blog post from Michael Mullen of Varsity Tutors. Michael outlines some great tips for preparing for the MCAT.

So, you’ve worked hard in college – you’ve earned good grades, volunteered in a clinic, shadowed a doctor or two, and read about healthcare policy until your eyes bled. But alas, the path to medical school has one final, excruciating hurdle: the MCAT. This 4-hour behemoth of an entrance exam covers virtually everything you’ve learned (and probably some things you didn’t learn) in your first two years of chemistry, physics, and biology classes. It’s no wonder that it strikes fear into the hearts of medical school hopefuls everywhere; that’s the bad news. The good news is that the test can be practiced, learned, and conquered – with a lot of work, of course. That being said, here are 5 key steps to MCAT prep to keep in mind:

1. Decide if it’s worth it
It may sound silly, but this is an important step. Taking the MCAT does not just mean showing up to a testing facility one weekend and regurgitating some of the notes you skimmed the day before. Properly preparing for the MCAT means several months of subject review and hours of practice problems every day. As you will be told by anybody who’s taken it, the MCAT is not like other tests. That’s because the MCAT, contrary to what most people think, is not really about how much you know – medical schools have your grades from which to see that. Rather, medical schools use the MCAT to see how you reason under pressure. The test is designed to push the limits of your problem-solving abilities in a stressful, time-restricted setting. Preparing for such an exam is mentally exhausting and your resolve will inevitably be tested, so deciding beforehand whether or not medicine truly is the path for you is an essential part of psychologically preparing for the road ahead.

2. Take a practice test
Before reading the books, before working with a tutor, before you do anything – take a practice test. It won’t be fun diving into the exam, without preparing, but it is vital that you get a baseline score so you can know exactly where you are starting and how far you have to go to reach your goal. You will be tempted to put off your first practice test until you are more prepared to score well, but don’t. The first test introduces you to the format and timing of the test, and as discouraging as the first score may be, just remember that no one does as well as they’d like on their first try.

3. Make a study plan
Regardless of whether or not you’re engaging in professional test prep, much of your time spent studying for the MCAT will be done on your own. This means you are greatly in charge of determining how and when you will study the material. I recommend finding a local coffee shop and buying yourself a $100 gift card there so you feel required to use it up by going there and studying – but whatever you do, make sure you have a strict study schedule composed and stick to it.

4. Review the material
While the MCAT may not be a true knowledge test, you certainly won’t do well if you’re not familiar with the information behind the questions. A private tutor can be incredibly beneficial for this purpose, but a more affordable alternative is just to buy the professional prep books and go through them on your own. Go at a steady pace, reviewing 1-2 subjects per day, and don’t get too far ahead or behind in any one area. If you just go through the subjects sequentially, you will have forgotten the subjects you learned first by the time you’re done reviewing.

5. Take more practice tests!
This is the single most important part of preparing for the MCAT. Practice problems are terrific and you should complete as many as you can get your hands on. But tackling the MCAT isn’t just about knowing how to solve the problems; doing well on the MCAT is about understanding the timing and the rhythm of reading passages and solving the problems at the right speed. To achieve this intimate familiarity with the test, go through all eight of the available AAMC practice tests in the months leading up to your official test date. Try to replicate the actual test scenario as much as possible. This means taking each test in a quiet setting where you can give your full attention for the full duration, take the appropriate breaks (you’ll want them), and respect the time limit! Just be sure to save 3-4 tests for the last month of prep so you know where you stand. Always go through the tests afterward to see which questions you got incorrect and why.

Finally, don’t get discouraged. This test is meant to be hard, and it is – for everybody. Keep your head up, stay on track, and you will succeed!

Michael Mullen is a professional MCAT tutor and contributing writer for Varsity Tutors. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Molecular Biology from the University of Washington.

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