When life got busy, you were forced to put off your goals for a few years. But enough is enough — now is the time for you to finally follow your dream of becoming a doctor. And to make that happen, you need to take the first step — tackling the MCAT, or the Medical College Admission Test.
The MCAT is administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges. It’s a standardized, multiple choice exam that aspiring doctors take prior to applying to medical schools. MCAT scores are analyzed by medical school admissions professionals, in addition to other application materials, such as personal statements, your GPA, and letters of recommendation.
In the 2018–19 school year, the average MCAT score out of all test takers was 506. However, the average MCAT score of those accepted into medical school was 511. As you can see, medical school admissions are competitive. You’re going to want to score higher than average to improve your odds of getting into medical school.
To do that, you can help set yourself up for success by preparing all you can for the MCAT. To assist you, we connected with a student who has been in your shoes and recently earned an MCAT score that topped her goal. Join us as we speak with Annalise Panthofer, an aspiring medical student, to learn her advice on how to study for the MCAT.
6 Tried and true tips for studying for the MCAT
1. Avoid procrastination by creating a timeline
Test prep resources online suggest aspiring medical students spend anywhere from 200 to 500 hours studying for the MCAT. As you can see, preparing for this test is a significant time commitment. Don’t expect to get your studying done in a rush over spring break or in the weeks leading up to the exam. This isn’t something you want to procrastinate on.
For example, in his book, Med School Uncensored, Dr. Richard Beddingfield recommends students begin prepping for the MCAT early in their junior year of their undergraduate studies. He recommends taking the exam in the spring of junior year.
Aspiring physician Annalise Panthofer began studying mid-June for her September MCAT exam. Over the course of the summer, she studied for three months and took practice exams roughly every weekend leading up to the big day. While this method worked for her, many students may need additional time to study — be sure to take the time you need to fully absorb the material.
Of course, the duration and intensity of your test preparation depends on your needs and your schedule. Just don’t leave it to the last minute and expect to skate through with flying colors.
2. Study in ways you’ve found successful in the past
If you’re academically talented enough to pursue medical school, you’ve most likely already mastered the art of studying. You know what study tactics work best for you, so why change that now? MCAT preparation is not the time to try out new preparation habits. Stick with your go-to learning style — whatever works best for you.
"My largest bit of advice is to study the way that has made you most successful in the past."
“My largest bit of advice is to study the way that has made you most successful in the past,” Panthofer says. If that means studying independently with books, then use books. If you prefer a little more structure and guidance, then find in-person classes to attend. “It really just depends on what you know works best for you, which you should have down by the time you're signed up for the MCAT,” she adds.
Panthofer based her studies off of Kaplan test prep books and Khan Academy videos online, leaving her test preparation largely independent. A quick search online yields a plethora of test prep resources, materials and courses — many of which are outrageously expensive, she points out.
She was able to find success by creating a detailed schedule and sticking to it. “Instead of studying one subject and moving on, I studied a chapter or two per day for one subject and moved onto a new one the next day,” she explains. “This method really helped break the monotony of MCAT prep and allowed me to move on quickly from subjects that I found more challenging than others.”
"I studied a chapter or two per day for one subject and moved onto a new one the next day."
3. Take practice tests often to get a grasp on the timing
One of the best ways to prepare yourself for the MCAT is to get comfortable with the format. Just reviewing course material itself won’t cut it. You’ll need to incorporate practice tests into your regimen. This will also allow you to master the timing of the exam and understand the test structure.
“I thought practice exams were the most beneficial part of my MCAT prep, as they allowed me to see my progress, weaknesses, strengths, and what my next steps should be for studying,” Panthofer says. “They also gave me a better idea of the time constraints, which are a major limiting factor for me in standardized tests.”
4. Identify your weak spots and strengthen them
Taking practice exams won’t just help you develop a cadence for the exam — it will also highlight the areas in which you need work. Devote time in your studies to work on improving your less-than-best areas.
You’ll also need to consider how well you’ve covered all of the MCAT subject material in school. If your undergraduate studies haven’t covered every topic in the exam, it’s up to you to learn these areas. For example, Panthofer had not taken psychology since high school. She felt she needed to brush up significantly in this subject. She also honed in on biology, as she had not taken upper-level classes in immunology and physiology.
5. Set goals for yourself
Aimlessly reviewing notes or study materials before the MCAT won’t result in your best score. You’ll want to work towards a goal — your ideal, yet realistic MCAT score. You’ll also want to set smaller goals for yourself throughout the studying process leading up to the exam. This could include how much study material you’ll cover in the span of a week, how many hours you want to spend studying, or what score you’d like to achieve on your practice exams. Bite-sized goals like these will help keep you accountable along the way and help you make progress toward your ultimate goal.
"This allowed me to set reasonable goals and learn from my mistakes."
Panthofer took practice exams nearly every week, which allowed her to take a step back from the tedious prep work to monitor her overall progress. “This allowed me to set reasonable goals and learn from my mistakes, which was the best way to for me to improve my score,” Panthofer says.
6. Aim for the best the first time
It’s true you can retake the MCAT if you should be unhappy with your score. But do you really want to? It’s an expensive, a time-consuming, and a stressful exam, and most medical schools look at both scores or take an average. So it’s in your best interest to do as well as possible the first time, Panthofer explains.
“I just buckled down the first time and made sure I wouldn't have to go through it again. I was very happy with my score,” Panthofer says. “Standardized tests are not my cup of tea, so I knew that I had to set a realistic yet competitive goal and I was able to achieve it.”
Make the most of the MCAT
As you can see, there are plenty of tactics to try and resources to utilize to prepare you for taking the MCAT. It will take determination, dedication, and all the brain power you can muster, but consider it the first step towards achieving the dream you never gave up on: becoming a doctor.
Now that you have some ideas of how to study for the MCAT, learn more about another element in applying to medical school: your GPA. How much do grades matter to medical school admissions? Learn more in our article, “Medical School GPA: Why Good Grades Are Only Part of the Equation.”
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