5 Tried and True Techniques to Prepare for the MCAT
Are you stressing about the MCAT? It’s a beast of a test that covers a veritable mountain of material. You know you need to get started studying…but what is the path to your best score possible? What are the best ways to prepare for the MCAT?
If you’re done reading around in circles just to forget everything you study, then saddle up buttercup, I’m going to walk you through the methods I consider to be the gold standard when it comes to preparing for tests.
And at this point in my training, the thing I am most qualified to do is to beat standardized tests. I’ve been on the business end of over 16,000 multiple-choice questions and emerged victorious. If I had to go back and do it over again, these are the techniques I would use to prepare for the MCAT.
Techniques to Prepare for the MCAT
Not an exhaustive list. These are the techniques I consider the most effective and the ones that are worth your time and attention. Because they work.
My method for studying incorporates bits and pieces of all of these. In addition to describing the methodology, I’ll break down some real-life examples of how you might use these.
This is the practice of translating newly learned information into your own words. There are two ways to accomplish this. Either explain how the new information connects to the information you learned previously or teach the topic to someone else. The latter is the core element found in the “Feynman Technique”, named after the physicist Richard Feynman who showed that teaching a topic was the quickest route to mastery.
First, choose a topic. For example, the alimentary tract from mouth to anus. As you study your textbook you might notice how you settle into a very comfortable place. Everything makes sense. You might even think, “I’ve got this”. But if I put you on the spot to list the anatomical structures a food bolus encounters throughout its course, and explain the hormones that are released, the cells responsible for them, and the physiologic cascades that lead to their release all in your own words, you might discover a few gaps in your understanding.
The “secret sauce” of elaboration is that teaching a topic requires a deeper level of mastery than passive forms of studying alone, like reading and highlighting information.
Deficiencies become obvious.
When you resume studying, you seek specific answers. You perform targeted review. This completes your understanding.
The most natural way to incorporate elaboration into your study regime is through group study. You can find my detailed instructions on maximizing returns in study groups here. While you will benefit from teaching your dog about MCAT topics, the greatest benefit lies in working with others who are similarly familiar with the topic—so they can call BS when you get things wrong. Meet up with another student and take turns instructing one another. Fill the gaps, master the material, and move on to the next topic.
Interleaving While You Prepare for the MCAT
Whenever I feel my interest or attention span start to wane, I like to implement interleaving. This study technique capitalizes on the fact that when we learn two similar topics in parallel, we tend to improve our ability to recall the information later. This has been documented in the world of sports, technical skills, and in a study involving medical students learning to interpret ECG’s. Variety is the spice of life. The brain enjoys it too.
So what exactly does this look like? Well, “interleaving” is the opposite of “blocking”, which is dividing up material into discrete blocks or chunks and learning them sequentially. You start with “block A” and only move on to “block B” when A is finished. Interleaving would be studying “block A” but weaving in some elements of “block B” along the way. This helps you create connections between A and B and thereby improves understanding and recall. Many medical school curriculums are shifting to include more “threads” of different topics that appear longitudinally within each block to give their students this benefit. Topics like anatomy and pharmacology lend themselves very well to this type of approach.
It also keeps the learning fresh. You don’t have to get bogged down in a single topic because you can switch things up during the study session. This also helps train your brain to be able to switch between modes of thinking quickly, as will be expected of you on test day. Because you aren’t allowed a calculator on the test—I would often break up my MCAT study sessions by incorporating mental math exercises every couple of hours. I also divided the days into segments so that I covered topics from multiple disciplines every day. I did the same while preparing for Step 1, Step 2 and Step 3.
Are you picking up the common theme with all of these study techniques we’ve covered so far? Each one provides a different method of encouraging formation of connections between topics and learned information. These connections strengthen your neural pathways and prime you for easier recall of the information when needed. Dual coding helps you remember information by providing different versions of the same information for your brain to store, and allows connections to be made between them, giving a robust learning experience.
Your brain is a powerful tool. It can store information in a variety of formats. You remember faces, pictures from social media feeds, fleeting words on street signs. Snapshots of places you visit remain in your memory for years. You can read a book with only text and remember definitions and explanations of complicated concepts. Dual coding takes advantage of the brains ability to record both verbal (written and spoken language or words) and visual information (diagrams, pictures, charts) independently.
People often say, “I’m a visual learner”. Well, we all are. We are all verbal learners as well. And you’re living below your potential if you don’t take advantage of both.
Mind palaces and tools like Picmonic or Sketchy Medical use dual coding. They connect the verbal to the visual and assist you with recall. Often sprinkling on an emotional component with their wild pictures to further hack the learning process.
More mainstream methods of employing dual coding would be to peruse topics in a textbook and then follow that up with a video with animations and diagrams that cover the same information. Or creating a concept map to visualize how concepts are relating to each other after reading. I have used all of these tricks to learn over the past few years and I’d be lying if I said I don’t immediately picture Alice in wonderland anytime an anticholinergic medication side effect is mentioned—thank you Sketchy.
Spaced Repetition for MCAT Prep
You all saw this coming a mile away. You probably even called it when you spotted the title of this post. That’s because this—and the topic that follows—are upheld as the gold standard of learning. Hermann Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve beautifully depicts the struggle we all face when trying to learn new information. Retention is dismal early on in the process. Only with repeated exposure to material do you actually build up your fund of knowledge and stave off the forgetting curve.
The technology we have at our disposal simplifies this process even further. While I don’t have an Anki tattoo (yet) I definitely fall under the category of “fanboy”. It makes the process so automatic that it feels like cheating. And with the abundance of premade decks to choose from, I see no reason to deprive yourself of its majesty.
Anki presents material to you and depending on how easy or difficult it was for you to produce the correct answer, will schedule the review of the material to always be just ahead of the forgetting curve. The real benefit from Anki comes from using it over an extended time horizon. I would recommend starting with Anki as early as a year out from the time you plan to take your test.
Just start unsuspending cards as you cover topics in your classes and work on them alongside coursework. You’ll find that you have to spend less time reviewing for finals doing this as well.
You can also make your own flashcards if you prefer, but I recommend just supplementing one of the proven premade decks that can be found on Reddit.
This is a broad category that technically includes aspects of all the other categories I’ve discussed so far. Active recall is the exercise of retrieving information from your brain without the use of notes. Which sounds like a test. And it turns out, when we test ourselves on topics repeatedly, we improve our retention of the material. We strengthen the neural pathways where the information is stored and we score better than people who have studied with passive methods such as reading or highlighting alone. We get feedback about which topics remain challenging to us and are able to focus on those areas. This is an essential technique to be used while you prepare for the MCAT.
This is the reason that as I’ve progressed through my training, and my time for studying has become increasingly restricted, I’ve stripped away all other study methods except for one: question banks.
I still utilize question banks to test my understanding and reinforce concepts because it is simply the best method for forcing active recall. It also happens to be the most time efficient.
For the MCAT, you need to be incorporating question banks and practice test into your study routine. Don’t make the common blunder of “saving questions for the end”. Why? Because you want to get a bunch of questions wrong before the test. Getting things wrong is how you learn. Trial and error is perhaps the oldest study method around. The sting of a missed question helps you remember it better next time. You will see your progress more clearly as scores steadily increase as you learn the material better.
Just make sure you’re spending time reviewing your missed questions.
As you get closer to the real test, you will want your practice tests to approximate the real testing experience. Take full-length tests. Take tests in the morning when you will be taking your real test. Understand how caffeine and snacks affect your focus. Train your bladder, etc.
Go Forth and Prepare for the MCAT
In summary, if you’re looking to conquer the beast that is the MCAT, use the techniques that maximize your returns on study time. Part of the hidden curriculum of medical school is to teach you to learn things quickly. I accomplished this by teaching the material to someone else, finding deficiencies in my understanding, and utilizing these active recall strategies. With these techniques in your back pocket, I know you’ll be able to ace the MCAT.
For some extra assistance and help while you prepare for the MCAT consider enlisting the help of a 1-on-1 MCAT tutor! Schedule your complimentary consultation to hear more about how Elite Medical Prep can help you succeed!