8 Overlooked Aspects of MCAT Prep
Most key aspects of MCAT prep receive due attention, but there are several important factors that are often overlooked. These include study and preparation tips as well as strategies for maximizing test day performance. It is often difficult to make sense of all the available information from so many different sources and determine what you should and shouldn’t be doing to prepare. We have other articles that specify which pieces of advice are incorrect or misleading; here we will lay out in detail the most important pieces of advice that you may not have heard before or have not been emphasized enough. Rest assured that we will help you understand 8 overlooked aspects of MCAT prep and why they are so important.
1. Develop Your Test-Taking Stamina
The MCAT is very likely the longest test you will have ever taken, lasting up to 7.5 hours. Even if you manage to finish it early, you will still spend several hours with minimal breaks. The importance of preparing for this grueling length cannot be overstated. MCAT test prep is like preparing for a marathon; without sufficient practice, your mind and body will not be ready for the real thing and your performance will suffer as a result. There are multiple ways of practicing. First, take multiple full-length practice exams. However, do not simply take them and expect to gain the right practice. You must establish the testing conditions carefully to simulate exam day as closely as possible. Turn off your phone, eliminate ALL distractions, block off the entire day, take breaks as you would in the actual exam center, and eat the same snacks during your breaks. Like training for a marathon, you cannot start doing all of this from day one; you must build up to it. Start by practicing uninterrupted (except for short breaks) study sessions and steadily increase their duration by 30-minute intervals over the course of several days. Once you have worked up to at least 5 hours of practice question sessions, you are ready to start taking practice exams. Your very first practice exam will probably not go as well as you’d like because it’s a new experience, so if you’re worried about being discouraged you can use a lower-value practice exam, e.g., a free exam from Kaplan rather than a paid AAMC FL exam (save these for later in your studying as they are the best score predictors.)
2. Be Able to Illustrate Key Concepts
The benefits of active vs. passive studying is discussed ad nauseum, but often under-emphasized or left out entirely is the importance of being able to illustrate key concepts using figures and diagrams. Certain physics and organic chemistry topics somewhat require this, e.g., writing out key reactions or drawing lenses. However, other topics like biochemistry are significantly easier to master if you learn (and test yourself) by drawing pathways and cycles. One major benefit of illustration is that it can be used for any level of detail; it is equally valuable to be able to draw out the entire Krebs cycle as it is to summarize the overarching relationships between metabolic steps and energy sources. Furthermore, two of the best ways to prove that you know something are to explain it to someone else (or say it out loud by yourself) and to draw it out from memory. You can accomplish both of these with any illustration as long as you explain each step of the drawing, either while you make it or after completing it. Finally, in medical school you will more than likely be asked to draw scientific and clinical concepts throughout your first two years. This is becoming more common as schools increasingly adopt a small-group case-based approach to learning or integrate this approach with standard lectures. Practicing this skill now will benefit you far beyond your MCAT prep.
3. Identify Specific Reasons Behind Practice Question Errors in Your MCAT Test Prep
As you go through a question bank and/or take practice exams, you will undoubtedly accumulate hundreds or thousands of errors on a range of easy, medium, and difficult questions. You can learn a lot about your study habits and test-taking skills if you carefully analyze patterns in your errors. These are some of the most common reasons (beyond simply not fully understanding the content) students tend to repeatedly miss the same types of questions:
- Read too quickly and missed important details
- Focused too much on distractor information and missed the bigger picture
- Second guessed their instinctual answer because it didn’t feel 100% correct, or because other answer choices seemed at least partially correct
- Nerves (more errors earlier on, before becoming comfortable in the current exam)
- Decision fatigue, or physical fatigue (more errors later in the exam)
- Not identifying the targeted concept(s) that the question intends to test your understanding of
- Faulty process of elimination strategies (e.g., eliminating an answer choice because it is shorter or longer than all the others)
It may take time to identify which reasons apply to you, but it is worth the effort. If you just dismiss repeated errors as silly mistakes or think that you will overcome the errors with just time, you set yourself up for potentially losing many points that you can recover more easily than learning new material.
4. Master Over-represented High-yield Concepts
Although there are high- and low-yield concepts, this is a false dichotomy. It is really a continuum, with the most important topics receiving the most attention overall and on each individual exam. Additionally, some of these super high-yield topics are trickier than average for many students and thus deserve special attention. A few of these key topics are enzyme kinetics, lenses/mirrors, and the bicarbonate buffer system. Consult the official AAMC guide for a full list of what they consider to be high-yield topics. Also, look back at your notes from your pre-med courses to remind yourself of what was emphasized the most (there will be a lot of overlap).
5. Maximize Official Aamc MCAT Prep Materials
Of all the resources made available to you, the AAMC official MCAT prep materials are far and away the best. These include the official guide to the MCAT, FL practice exams, question banks, and more. If you plan on purchasing more than a couple individual items, consider purchasing the full package as it is offered at a discount. This package will likely not be enough on its own for most people; review books, additional question banks, larger flashcard packs, more practice exams, etc. However, keep in mind that all third-party resources should be given second priority to the official AAMC materials.
6. Avoid Reddit and SDN
Many students read through Reddit and SDN posts for advice, exam information, emotional support, etc. Only you know what you need to get through your study period, but keep in mind that these sites are full of disinformation, anxiety-inducing posts, and over-representation of performance reports and experiences of high-achieving students who are more willing to share this information than average or low-achieving students. There are of course supportive community members and posts, but you will likely encounter many negative and harmful posts along the way. Think carefully about what you need and if these sites are the only places to get it. More often than not you will be able to find help and support elsewhere, whether it be through friends, family, academic mentors, or professional tutoring/test prep companies. It can be more difficult to seek help through these avenues, but you will receive more personalized and accurate support.
7. Use MCAT Tutoring Well
MCAT tutoring and other forms of professional test prep support are not resources only for those who are struggling. On the contrary, many top-performing students take advantage of some form of professional support, ranging anywhere from a single consultation session to weekly tutoring for several weeks or months. Due to misconceptions about MCAT tutoring such as it being only for struggling students or not being worth the cost, it is often dismissed as a specialized service only for a select few to utilize. On the contrary, like teaching throughout college and medical school, it is always essential to receive external, objective feedback about your learning and studying techniques. Even the smartest students and most savvy test-takers benefit from the critical eyes and ears of a professional who knows how to evaluate and maximize strategies for studying and demonstrating complicated information. They can also help develop personalized study plans that target your specific goals, timelines, and individual factors such as your ideal work-life balance or any other personal responsibilities you have to balance alongside studying.
8. Self-care is Part of a Holistic Study Plan and MCAT Prep
Last but not least is the ever-so-important topic of self-care. It is often discussed along with studying, as a final reminder that studying too hard can make you burn out and therefore taking care of yourself is important too. However, here I will explain why it is more than just a way of bolstering yourself to outlast a grueling study period. First, self-care habits should be explicitly integrated into any study plan that you make. For example, be specific about how and when you’ll exercise, eat healthy foods, maintain your hobbies, see friends and family, and spend some quality alone time. What days of the week will you do each of these, and for how long? Additionally, be intentional about why you’re doing all of these things. In addition to making sure that life goes on while study, are you looking for fulfillment? Do you want to maintain a positive attitude? Are you trying to maximize your energy and focus so that your studying efficiency is as high as possible? Maybe all of these apply to you. Regardless, a healthy balance of some combination of these will do more than help your studying and test performance. It will also prepare for you a life in medicine where balance will always be key. Everyone will seek out and achieve a different level and style of balance, but if you start to figure out what you want it to look like for you now then your future medical school self will thank you.
Throughout your MCAT studying you will doubtless come across a wealth of advice, tips, and tricks to succeed. Some things however you may not hear as often or at all; but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are therefore less important. On the contrary, these often-overlooked pieces of advice can sometimes be the most important things for you to pay attention to. Of course, the MCAT is a difficult exam covering a huge amount of information, so it is no simple task, and you will need to integrate a lot of advice from many different sources if you are to succeed. But take these specific tips seriously and along with a comprehensive study plan you will be well on your way towards crushing the MCAT!
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