When I started studying for the MCAT I did not know where to start, so naturally I found myself in the deep and dark hole of many Student Doctor Network (SDN) threads. Of course preparing for a test with the depth and breadth of the MCAT would leave anyone wondering “where do I start,” “when do I start?” or “how do I do it?” In my case, I needed the answer to all of the above. Now that the test is behind me, I hope to share my experience and help fellow MCAT takers find all those answers in one place.
Let’s start by answering “when do I start?” and as you probably guessed, the answer is “it depends.” I would recommend at least 2 months of practicing before the test, however if you feel that you require a thorough review of the material add 2-4 months before that. Many people study for much longer than 6 months, however I personally would not remember much of what I studied more than 6 months ago. Therefore, it is important to create a timeline based on your study habits, daily schedule, and other commitments.
If you are starting earlier with content review, I would recommend the Kaplan books. The Kaplan series essentially summarize the textbooks for each subject. I used Kaplan for the sociology portion of the Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior because I had never taken a sociology course. I have always learned best by reading books, however if you are a visual or auditory learner I would recommend Khan Academy videos to help you brush up on topics you need to review.
If you have taken all the courses necessary in the recent years, I would skip Kaplan and jump into test-taking strategy books and practice questions. For these the Berkeley Review books worked for me best. I used these books for the science sections and I absolutely swear by them. These books do a phenomenal job of connecting different topics through real world application, which is the MCAT’s favorite way of asking questions. Additionally, Berkeley Review not only teaches you the tricks for memorizing and calculating formulas, they also have practice questions at the end of each chapter that truly resemble real MCAT questions.
When practicing questions, I found it most useful to review every single answer regardless of whether I had gotten the question right or not. By reading every answer’s justification, I was able to put myself in the test makers’ shoes and think like them when taking the test again. This strategy helped even more when I was taking full-length exams because I did not have the time to mark questions that I was unsure about. Consequently, I reviewed those unsure questions even if I had guessed the answers correctly. After every exam, I made a list of the topics that I had answered most incorrectly (i.e. optics in physics or amino acids in biochem). This helped me prioritize which chapters to read in the following week and which topics I could trust my brain to retrieve on its own.
Speaking of full-length exams, these are key to learning time-management when it comes to the real test. I suggest that at least for the last 2-3 months of studying you take one per week. Learning all the material will not help if you can’t answer questions in a timely manner! AAMC offers two full-length practice exams and section question banks. These are the closest you can come to practicing the real MCAT. Note that some test prep companies include the two exams in their package so if you are going to sign up for one, make sure you don’t pay twice!
While studying, I took practice exams from various test prep companies, and I would say the exams from Next Step resemble the MCAT the most. The thing about the MCAT is that it’s not so much content recall as it is a test of your logic and ability to recognize patterns. This is why most people advise that practicing questions is the best way to prepare. Through practice, you read so many passages and questions that you can start to pay attention to what the test-makers may find most important while you’re still reading the passage. This is also a great strategy to utilize for the CARS section. One of the best strategies (I originally learned from Kaplan) was to pay attention to keywords that reveal a lot about the writer’s attitude and argument.
CARS is one of those sections that many either find daunting or a piece of cake, there is hardly an in between. While my inherent love of books and obsession with the news helped me with the CARS section, English is still my second language and I was able to practice to do very well on this section–and you can too! Firstly, I would suggest you start as early as you can. You can buy the Exam Kracker’s 101 (CARS) Passages book and do one passage a week even a year before you think about your MCATs. If reading MCAT books that early on is not too appealing start reading books, biographies, articles (i.e. The New Yorker, TIME, etc.). While reading ask yourself: what is the author arguing, what evidence is he/she using for this argument, what could make this argument weaker or stronger? These are the types of questions that the MCAT asks you in different ways on almost every passage. Often, the point is not to understand the passage in great detail, but what is the overall theme and argument. Even in the case of great practice, you will face a terribly boring or complicated passage that you just don’t understand. Your strength lies in being able to recognize that and skipping to the next passage instead of wasting precious time re-reading Aristotle’s greatest philosophical thoughts.
There are many test prep resources that I did not review simply because I did not use them myself. It is important to assess your personal needs and study habits and find resources that match these appropriately. Evidently, there is no best way to study for the MCAT but all good strategies share one thing: practice. Any standardized testing is just that, standard. To beat the standard you have to become familiar with the patterns of passages, questions, and answers in order to think like the MCAT. I hope this has helped answer some questions. Good luck!
Delaram scored in the 100th Percentile on her MCAT exam in 2016 as her first attempt and is now a second-year medical student at Duke University School of Medicine. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, photography, volunteering for various organizations in Durham, NC, and is a true leader as the co-president of Duke’s chapter of American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA).