Preparing for and Taking the MCAT from Experience – Abby Goron

I’m sure you’ve all heard tips and tricks before about getting ready for the MCAT, but I wanted to make a blog post to help out those of you who will be taking it soon and who are freaking out about the test and how to prepare. I know for me, no matter how many times I read websites and articles about taking the MCAT, it always helped to get advice from one of my peers and from someone I actually knew and trusted, so hopefully this will help!

So a little background on me, I took the MCAT in January 2015, one of the last examinations of the old MCAT, and did just well enough that I will not be taking it again. Be mindful that the new MCAT is different, so I don’t necessarily have insight on how to prepare as much for the new one, but hopefully it will help. So here are some tips that I found to be helpful, and just some information that you might be interested in.

Preparing

  1. Start early

I cannot stress this enough. I started studying in June for a January MCAT and I still felt like I could have used a lot more time. Try to pick a date where you have sufficient time to prep ahead of time and dedicate your efforts to nothing else. This is the really important part. I only had a month after finals ended to dedicate my time solely to studying, and felt like I could have increased my score if I had more time to dedicate only to studying, and not working and school as well. An end of summer exam is a good option for those who want some more time. You can dedicate the entire summer to prepping! Or if you’re interested in taking a gap year, this might also be a less stressful time to prep and study, seeing as you may not be taking classes.

  1. Don’t feel like you have to take a prep course

Personally, I did not take a prep course. For me, it wasn’t in the budget, and I was confident I could prepare on my own. However, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking or not taking a course. It’s really personal preference. If you feel like you need more exposure to the material and a little extra help, go for the course. If you think you’re ready to go and are super confident in your abilities, a course may not be the best way to spend your time and money. I know people who have loved the course and people who thought the course didn’t do much for them, so it’s really whatever you choose to do. And do keep in mind, there are other options. There are tutors, there are online courses that are different than in-person courses, and there are of course, practice books. Get the practice books and use them. They will be your best friend.

  1. Take practice exams!

I know that, unfortunately, with the new exam, there is less AAMC practice material available. However, whatever there is, use it well! I felt like taking practice exams, timing them and treating them like the real MCAT were most useful to me. Go somewhere quiet and uninterrupted, simulate the actual testing environment, and go ham. Also be SURE to review each question after the practice exams are over. Just knowing you got something wrong isn’t going to help you. If you’re the type that learns from mistakes and practicing, question and practice test review is crucial to boosting your score.

  1. My advice for verbal reasoning and critical thinking: pretend like you’re reading for fun

I had the most trouble with verbal at first, because some of the articles were so boring it would just give me a headache. As soon as I started reading like I was reading for fun, my score went up two points right away. If you’re reading like you’re looking for answers, you might get more confused. If you read like you’re reading for fun to get whatever you can out of the passage, you’ll end up with an overall good understanding of the passage, and will be better equipped to answer the questions that follow. Again, this strategy may not work for everyone, but it really helped me. Another tip for verbal is to go with your gut and don’t second guess yourself. More times than not, your gut is right.

  1. Study with friends

I started taking one practice exam a week about 2 months before my exam, and I could never have done it without a friend taking one alongside me. Find a group to study with, find friends to take exams with, and just feed off of each other in terms of energy and motivation. You’re not in this alone, and there are lots of people who want to support you through this process!

  1. Take all of the prerequisites before taking the exam

Although there may be exceptions to this rule, I definitely recommend taking the MCAT after you’ve already taken the courses necessary for it. Some subjects may be easier to self-teach than others, for example, psychology. I self-taught physics 2 for the exam, which may not have been the best decision, but it ended up working well for me, personally. I did feel confident going into the exam, which was good, but lucky for me, there was barely any physics 2 on the test. The physics that was on the test, I felt pretty good about. So, there may be some people who are able to do this and self-teach a subject. However, it’s really best to take all the prerequisites. My final advice on that is do what is it may not be the best idea to self teach, but do what works for you.

Taking the Exam

  1. Nerves are okay

I don’t want to scare anyone, but you will be nervous. The entire day before and morning of, I was so nervous. Waiting to take the test in the waiting room was nerve-wracking. But everyone else is in the same boat, so just try to relax, and trust that if you’ve put in so much hard work, you’re going to go in there and kick that thing’s butt.

  1. Bring earplugs or use the supplied headphones

The MCAT is a little different in the sense that everyone starts the test at different times. You get checked in one by one, and once you are in the room at your computer, you can start. So, everyone is getting up for breaks at slightly different times. If you get distracted easily, bring earplugs or use the supplied headphones (IF they don’t hurt your head) to help make things quieter and not get distracted as easily

  1. Bring a snack and take the breaks!

You do not want to get hungry during a 4 hour exam. The new one is even longer: about 6-7 hours, so bring double the snacks, bring plenty of water, and please take the breaks provided! It’s a long, exhausting exam and you want to be sure to eat and use the bathroom when you need to. One warning through, the breaks are shorter than they seem. You do need to scan your fingerprint and get patted down each time in and out of the room, so that shaves two or three minutes off of your ten minute break. I believe, however, with the new exam, there will be one thirty minute break for lunch.

  1. Pace yourself

I cannot stress this enough. I felt as though I didn’t have enough time, especially on my Physical Sciences section, and felt like if I had an extra 10 minutes, I could have improved my score. The old exam gave 70 minutes for 52 questions and 6 or so passages. The new exam gives 95 minutes for 59 questions. So, overall, you do have slightly more time per question, which is good. But please be sure to FINISH every question! There is no penalty for guessing. I’ve heard if you absolutely have to guess, guess B or C. Not sure if that actually works or not. Try, though, to make educated guesses. If you’re not sure about a question, narrow it down to 2 answers and come back to it later. If you’re spending 2 minutes or more on a question, move on, because there are most likely some more questions farther along in the section that you can answer quickly, so you want to be sure and actually get to those. Also, skimming passages, or even not reading them helps to cut down your time in the science sections. I don’t want to say don’t read the passages at all, because some are crucial. However, maybe take a peek at the questions first and see if there are some you can answer without the passage. I remember one PS passage I didn’t even read, because every question based on the passage didn’t actually require any passage information. So that saved me probably 3 or 4 minutes that I spent elsewhere. But the main point being, answer every question, and keep an eye on the clock. I know it’s scary to see it counting down, but you need to pay attention to it.

  1. Don’t get tripped up

One thing that can really make you nervous in the exam and lead to a bad score is getting freaked out when you don’t know the answer. Although this is a stressful test, it is not the end of the world if you miss questions. Don’t feel like you need to get a 45. That’s almost impossible. Once you hit a 33, you’re already scoring in the 90th percentile of test takers, so that’s quite an accomplishment. Of course you want to do well, but it’s absolutely okay if there’s something you don’t know, or many things you don’t know. Chances are, a lot of other people don’t know it either, and the scaling will make up for a question that only a small amount of people answer correctly. I freaked out during my Physical Sciences section about a killer passage, and when I started asking around, other people felt really bad about that section as well, so I was relieved I wasn’t alone. Just don’t freak out and lose focus during the test! Stay determined, try and keep your cool and think clearly through the problem. There were many practice tests where I looked back and said, why didn’t I get this question right? Probably because it wasn’t clear at first, I freaked out, and didn’t think it through the right way. So really practice doing that in your practice exams! It could help a lot.

  1. Celebrate afterwards!

You will feel badly after you come out of that exam. Unfortunately, you won’t know how you did for a month, so don’t waste a month worrying over something you don’t even know yet. That is so much easier said than done. You will think about it, and that’s normal. You might have dreams about it, that’s normal too. It’s a crazy month waiting and it’s a rollercoaster of emotions. But in the meantime, go do something fun! You’ve just spent half a year or however much time studying for ONE exam and it’s over! But, don’t burn those prep books just yet. In the event you do need to retake the exam, keep them until you get your score back.

  1. If you don’t get the score you want…

It’s okay. Really, it is. There are a lot of options. After I got out of the exam, I was so scared I bombed it. I just kept telling myself, if you have to retake it, it’s not the end of the world. And it’s really not. You are still alive. You are still working your way towards being a doctor and have many other wonderful aspects of your application, I’m sure. And if you want to be a physician that badly, you will do it, one way or another. Retaking the MCAT is nothing to be ashamed of, and if you feel like you need to do it, then do it. You’ve already taken it once, so you’re ahead of the game, you’re well-prepared, and you’re going to knock it out of the park the second time around, if you already didn’t the first. If you got a somewhat borderline score, or a score you’re not sure about, go talk to the Health Professions Advising Office! When I got my score back, I was satisfied, but not ecstatic. I knew I could do better, and I wasn’t sure if it warranted a retake or not. It was a decently good score, I scored in the 30-32 range, but I was unsure of what I should do to maximize my chance of acceptance. I went to the advising office to talk about my options, and they were so helpful and really helped me decide what was right for me. Thankfully, I will not be retaking, hopefully for good, as long as this upcoming application cycle goes well for me!

Overall, I hope this helped a lot of you feel better about taking the test and preparing for it! Good luck on the MCAT and I hope you all go very far on your journey to becoming physicians!

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