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How to Start Studying for the MCAT

Friday, June 14, 2019

Guide to the MCATHow to Start Studying for the MCAT

As part of the medical school admissions process students need to take the MCAT, which is a seven-and-a-half-hour exam (including breaks) with four sections. The MCAT is an intensive exam and students need to understand the content and formatting in order to prepare.

IvyWise’s Medical School Admissions Counselor, McGreggor, is here to highlight what students need to know about this grueling exam. Here’s your guide to the MCAT!

What Is the MCAT?

The MCAT, or Medical College Admission Test, is a standardized, multiple-choice exam administered by the AAMC. It’s a pre-requisite for admission to nearly all medical schools in the United States and Canada. It’s also a notoriously challenging, and lengthy, exam. In total, students will spend nearly eight hours sitting for the test. Here is how that time is broken down:

There are 7.5 hours of total seated time, including breaks. Or 6.25 hours of content time, not including the breaks.

  • Optional tutorial: 10 minutes
  • Section 1: Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (59 questions)
  • Optional Break: 10 minutes
  • Section 2: Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS 53 questions)
  • Lunch Break: 30 minutes
  • Section 3: Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (59 questions)
  • Option Break: 10 minutes
  • Section 4: Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (59 questions)
  • Void question: 5 min
  • Optional Satisfaction Survey: 5 mins (12 questions)

In total, there are four sections within the MCAT exam and each section is scored on a scale of 118-132, with good MCAT scores falling towards the top of the range.

When Is the Best Time to Take the MCAT?

The best time to take the MCAT will vary by student. The earliest that you should consider taking it is the summer before your junior year of college. The latest that you should take it is between January and April of the year that you want to apply to medical school. It’s often advantageous to take the test multiple times, so ideally you don’t want this January-April exam to be the first time that you are taking the MCAT. Make sure to check out the MCAT testing calendar for specific dates.

How Long Should I Study for the MCAT?

The MCAT is a comprehensive exam that is designed to challenge students and test their knowledge of multiple fields. It’s more like a cumulative exam testing multiple years of college classes, which makes it quite daunting, at least initially. As a result, students should be prepared to study for the MCAT for quite some time before taking the test. Ideally, you will want to spend at least six months to one year preparing for the exam.

How to Start Studying for the MCAT

If you want to maximize your performance on the exam, here are some MCAT tips to help you get started:

1. Learn About the MCAT

Make sure you know the basics before you dive into studying. The AAMC has created a document, the MCAT Essentials, to give you a thorough overview of everything you need to know about the test. Start by reviewing this information, and maybe brushing up on some fun facts to get inspired.

2. Determine Your Starting Point

Take a practice test before you begin your test preparation to evaluate your baseline performance. Depending on how you feel about the practice exam, you may need to set aside more or less time studying. The practice exam is the best way to get familiar with the exam itself and begin to identify what areas of the test you should prioritize.

3. Set a Goal Score

Next, do some research to identify what kind of score you will need to be competitive at your top choice medical schools. Many students wonder “what is a good MCAT score?”. Fortunately, much like colleges, medical schools provide data about how their admitted students performed on standardized tests and these figures can help you get a benchmark of what score you need to aim for. These websites also shed light on what a good GPA for med school might look like.

4. Acquire Study Materials

Next, it’s time to get your hands on study materials that will set you up for success. You will need to take several practice MCAT exams to evaluate your progress, as well as more specific content based on the areas of the exam that you find most challenging.

5. Learn From Your Mistakes

Review what kind of problems are giving you the most difficulty and set aside time to practice these specific kinds of questions. If you notice a pattern in the mistakes you are making, make it your goal to learn from them and start doing things differently.

6. Consider a Good Test Prep Program

Different kinds of test prep programs will work for different students. Generally, it’s advantageous to work with a private tutor who understands what your specific goals and strengths and weaknesses are.

The exam is focused in that it tests specific, advanced knowledge about a subject, and it is broad, in that test takers must understand a wide range of material from seemingly disparate subjects. If anything, it’s more like a cumulative exam testing multiple years of college classes. That makes the test quite daunting, and I can tell you first-hand that the MCAT is a formidable step for any premedical student to overcome.

How to Study for the MCAT: 4 Valuable MCAT Tips

Preparing for the MCAT is completely different than prepping for a college science test. For one thing, the MCAT is an entire-day exam. Students often prepare for months, taking multiple practice exams, reviewing material both old and new, using question banks to buff up their knowledge and speed in answering questions, and sitting in prep classes, all with the aim of getting the highest score.

Excelling in this interdisciplinary exam is not easy. If anything, the test has become more challenging because it asks students to exhibit knowledge in more areas. But students can take critical steps to optimize their performance on the exam.

First, choose your classes correctly. Work with your school’s premedical advising office and speak with upperclassmen to understand which courses are better than others in preparing premedical students.

Start early with practice problems using online question banks. These can be particularly effective if you tie in the questions with the material you are learning in your classes, so it won’t feel like you’re just preparing for the MCAT, but also mastering the college classes, as well.

One major issue I see is that STEM-focused students brush off or deprioritize the humanities and social science parts of the MCAT, often to their own detriment. When they get their MCAT scores back, the score distribution is lopsided as a result. Medical schools can see this lopsidedness in a heartbeat! Taking strong, challenging social science and writing classes and preparing ahead of time for these aspects of the MCAT can help buff up those sub scores, and in the process, help convince admissions committees that a biology or chemistry major is multifaceted and not one-dimensional, capable of understanding the psychosocial complexities of the patients they treat.

I’d also avoid the “gunner” mentality of some premedical students who are focused so much on their MCAT score, their grades, and oftentimes the scores and GPAs of their classmates. Keeping yourself as stress-free as possible will pay dividends in the end. It’s incredibly difficult balancing classes, research, after-class activities and leadership experiences, AND preparing for the MCAT, so try to take time to destress, relax, meditate, and sleep. In my opinion, that’s just as important as mastering the obscure aspects of organic chemistry that you’ll be tested on.

What Is a Good MCAT Score?

In many ways, the MCAT score can guide an applicant in putting together the list of medical schools to consider. Though one single metric isn’t going to make or break an applicant, the MCAT (along with GPA and completion of premedical requirements) has been identified as an academic metric with the highest importance rating in the American Association of Medical Colleges’ survey of admissions officers.

It can be very helpful to understand where your score is in relation to the students who were admitted to a medical school, which will allow you to determine whether your score is in a competitive range. The easiest way to do this is by using online, publicly available resources that link a medical school with the average MCAT score of their admitted students, but take these with a grain of salt, because the data may be out of date or incomplete. In general, if your MCAT score or practice score is close to or higher than the average MCAT score of accepted students to a medical school, that’s a good thing. It may mean that admissions officers at that school will be able to look beyond your score at the other, important contextual parts of your application.

If your score is lower than the average for that medical school, you risk being viewed as less competitive unless there are other important contextual aspects of your case. For example, AAMC data shows that students who use fee waivers for the MCAT may have lower average MCAT scores than their non-fee waiver colleagues by about five points, likely for myriad reasons. It’s important for these applicants to strategically use their medical school applications to highlight these contextual differences, particularly if there is any history of being disadvantaged. Though this won’t “explain away” a lower score, it does mean that you are advocating for yourself in a competitive process using the mechanisms these schools have provided you.

AAMC publishes in a wonderfully transparent manner data related to MCAT scores, GPAs, and medical school admissions. For example, this chart shows the acceptance rate of applicants given MCAT score and GPA. I think it’s worth looking at the data here to see how important the MCAT is in admission to medical schools. Using the most recent AAMC data from 2017-2018, 1 in 5 applicants with a score between 498 and 501 will be admitted to a medical school, though it’s worth noting how important GPA is for this group with regards to their admissibility. When you move up a bit to the 502-505 range, admission to medical school jumps up to 1 in 3, much better odds. In the 506-509 range, 1 in 2 students are admitted to medical schools, and 2 in 3 applicants with an MCAT score in the 510-513 range are admitted. The higher the score, the more solid the score, and the data bears that out nicely.

The MCAT is an important exam for students applying to medical school, and it takes time and practice to achieve your goal score. At IvyWise we work with students to help them maximize their performance on the MCAT and also compile the best medical school applications possible. Learn more about how IvyWise can help you achieve your perfect MCAT score with its grad school admissions consulting services and test prep programs.


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Medical School Admissions
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