Brain Train: My MCAT study strategy

What is the most effective way to study for the MCAT?  Pre-meds across the nation are asking this question everyday.  I don’t know what the most effective way is to study for the MCAT, but I will share the strategy that increased my score seven points.

 Everyone will not need this strategy.  But if you are not a great standardized test taker (like me!), you might want to keep reading.


Study conditions – Simulation is key!

One of the best things a premed can do to prepare for the MCAT is to study in conditions that are not too comfortable and too familiar.  The MCAT will not be given in the warmth of your home or bed.  You won’t have the luxury of going to your fridge or your mom walking by saying, “Good job studying, baby!”

Simulate your testing environment.  You will be tested on a computer in an unfamiliar air conditioned room with a bunch of people that you do not know.  As best as you can, find places on campus like the library, a classroom, or computer lab that come close to making you feel like you are in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people.


Individual vs. Group Study

Studying with friends should be limited.  A study group of more than 3 people is a party; you will get no work done.  If you study with friends, break off individually to study for about 2 hours and reconvene only for 30 minute breaks. Learning occurs at different paces for different people, so don’t expect that studying all the material as a group will be beneficial.  You need to know it for yourself first!


Make a study schedule

The timeline below assumes that you will be taking the maximum amount of time to study for the exam.  I recommend 9 months, no less than 6 months.  Whatever timeline you are on, I recommend cutting it into thirds.  So, a 9 month timeline is broken up into 3 month phases, while a 6 month timeline is broken up into 2 month phases, etc…

How long you study each day is also important.  I recommend 3-5 days a week for 4-5 hours a day.  If you are taking classes and/or working, your schedule might differ.  The takeaway message is to lay out your study schedule up until test day.

Do not burn yourself out! Make time for fun, family, and friends to keep you grounded.


First phase – Review books only

Pick a set of review books from a reputable exam prep company.  I used Princeton Review, but Kaplan, Examkrackers and other companies also have great materials.  Divide your time evenly amongst the different sections.  For example, study biology in the morning and physics in the afternoon; the next day study chemistry in the morning and organic in the afternoon. I recommend NOT using textbooks because textbooks are much too detailed.  Review books parse the information into what you actually need to know for the test.  If you needed more info than what appears in the review books, that info would likely be included.  Remember that you are studying for the MCAT, not to be a biologist, chemist, or physicist!


Second phase – Review books and test questions

After 2-3 months of studying from the review books, you should be ready to introduce some test questions into your strategy.  You might start each day by completing one verbal section.  Then move onto completing one or two science sections.  Once you complete the sections check your answers and refer back to the review books for those areas in which you have challenges.

The point of doing this is to transition you from relying only on your books and to start training your brain to answer questions.  The more questions you do, the more you will train your brain to think along the lines of the MCAT.


Third phase – Train your brain to the test

This is probably the most important part of your study strategy.  Many premeds make the mistake of not training their brains to the MCAT.  They get stuck in the first phase thinking that the more they read, the better they will do on the test.  The problem is that the MCAT is a timed test during which the examinee has to pick the best short answer for 144 questions. This requires a quick thinking process that is not fostered by reading paragraphs in a review book. Pay close attention to the following 7 steps because they might make or break your MCAT score.

1. Train your brain to work faster!

Always time yourself during sections or full-length tests. Simulating your test environment must include the amount of time that you will have to take the test.  You must train your brain to be able to think and answer in a short time period.  Try timing yourself for 10 minutes less than the actual section.  If you can finish it in less time, you’ll definitely be able to finish it within the actual time.

2. Train your brain for test endurance!

Do not stop the timer during practice tests! If you start a section or full-length exam, finish it all the way through.  If you do break, break like you would during the actual test for a scheduled break.

3. Train your brain to accept reality!

Become comfortable with the fact that you will not know every answer.  Do not look up answers during mock exams. You will not be able to look up the answers to the test during the actual exam.

4. Train your brain to focus!

When approaching your answer choices, try looking at the first 3 answers and eliminating 2 of those. Then compare the remaining choice with the one you did not eliminate.  This might give you a 50/50 chance of answering correctly.

5. Train your brain to spend time wisely!

Studies show that the questions you stay on the longest are the ones you are most likely to get wrong.  Chances are that you are staring at that question for so long because you don’t know the answer.  Also, the longer you stay on the ones you don’t know, the less time you will have for the ones you do know.  Do not pontificate… time is ticking!

6. Train your brain to pick an answer and move on!

Decide before you start your test if you will use “b” or ”c” for those questions which you do not know the answer.  Choose only one (not both) throughout the test to increase your chances of gaining more points.  Then, move on… time is ticking!

7. Train your brain to answer every question!

Answer every single question. Do not leave any question unanswered. You don’t lose points for choosing the wrong answer.

I hope this strategy or a modified version of this strategy is helpful to those of you who are either studying for the first time or have had previous challenges with the MCAT. Happy brain training!

Original article  – Tour for Diversity in Medicine – June 30, 2013

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JSNMA is the flagship publication of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA). As the voice of the SNMA, it serves as an educational and outreach tool to upcoming doctors and researchers. Journal topics include medical education, research, health advocacy, career opportunities, cultural competency and community outreach.

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About the Author: JSNMA is the flagship publication of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA). As the voice of the SNMA, it serves as an educational and outreach tool to upcoming doctors and researchers. Journal topics include medical education, research, health advocacy, career opportunities, cultural competency and community outreach.

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