How to Achieve Success on the MCAT…Lessons Learned from Two Retakes

A few weeks ago, a reader asked me for some tips to prepare for the MCAT. I would be happy to share the techniques I used and in particular what I learned from having sat it 3 times over a period of 10 years! I didn’t feel my scores on the first two attempts were competitive enough for medical school and hence my decision to take it a third time. The retakes are so far apart in time because of some unexpected life circumstances and our decision to start a family before medical school. I was very happy with my final scores from my 3rd attempt which are a definite improvement compared to the first two attempts.

Take 1, 2005: Score 27P

  • Study duration: Approximately 3 months during the summer (while working full time) after I graduated from university.
  • Resources: Examkrackers (EK) and Princeton Review (PR)
  • Strategy: Content review and practice questions from EK and PR.
  • Lessons learned: I focused too much on content review, memorization and not enough on understanding the concepts and practicing questions. I did not have very good test-taking skills and ended up running out of time on the exam, leaving several questions unanswered. I also had not practiced the writing section much.

Take 2, 2008: Score 28S

  • Study duration: Approximately 3 months while working full-time.
  • Resources: Examkrackers (EK) and Princeton Review (PR)
  • Strategy: Content review and practice questions from EK and PR, 2 full-length AAMC exams. I also did a writing sample question every lunch-time at work.
  • Lessons learned: My strategy had not really changed much from the first time around aside from the full-length exams and working on the writing sample. Although the writing section is now obsolete, my point in mentioning this is that regular practice improved my writing score from a P to an S (the highest you could get is a T).

Take 3, 2015: Score 512 (roughly translates to a 34-35 on the old MCAT grading system)

  • Study duration: Approximately 4 months of informal reading (it was something to do while breastfeeding and changing diapers around the clock!) and then 4 months of serious preparation while on maternity leave with baby number 2 (at least 15-20 hours per week during those last 4 months)
  • Resources: Khan Academy, Examkrackers (EK), 101 passages in MCAT Verbal reasoning, Examkrackers 1001 questions in MCAT series (Chemistry, Physics, Biology), AAMC online official guide (120 questions), AAMC question pack (720 questions), 2 AAMC full-length exams (old MCAT version), 1 AAMC full-length exam (new MCAT version),
  • Strategy: Since my score had not improved significantly the second time around, I knew I needed to revamp my entire approach to the MCAT. I first combed the internet for various tips on preparing for the MCAT and the general principle I found was understanding the fundamental concepts rather than rote memorization, and then…PRACTICE!PRACTICE! PRACTICE !

Take Home Lessons:

During my 4 months of concrete MCAT preparation, this was my approach:

  • I drafted a study schedule for the entire 4 months leading up to the exam. I think this step is key because although it can be difficult to know how long each chapter will take, you need some idea of what you are going to study when so that you do not run out of time at the end, especially since the latter months are crucial for practicing questions.
  • I spent the first two months studying. I would read a chapter for leisure as if I was reading a book and then re-read the same chapter and answer the questions at the end of the chapter to make sure I understood the principles. This was also the period when I prepared flash cards, formula sheets and other short notes. The material to study for the MCAT is voluminous so I wanted to narrow the concepts down to something I could leaf through fairly quickly during my final review.
  • During the first two months, I would also listen to Khan Academy videos while performing other tasks. It can be an efficient way to study if you have to commute, do house chores, breastfeed etc.
  • During the last two months, I mostly practiced questions and noted down any problem areas to be reviewed later. I also wrote down some of the questions I had gotten wrong so that I could attempt them again later. I also reviewed flashcards periodically to refresh my memory.
  • Key point when practicing questions: I would time myself strictly. Whatever set of questions I was doing, I had the goal of completing it in 1-2 minutes. If you calculate the number of questions on each section of the actual MCAT (53-59 questions) and the time you have to do it (90-95 minutes), you really only have 1-2 minutes to answer each question (some will take longer, some less).
  • The AAMC practice resources were critical to building my confidence because I became so familiar with the MCAT testing environment that I did not feel intimidated on exam day.

I hope this post has been helpful to any aspiring doctors planning to take the MCAT. There are many approaches to prepare for the MCAT. This is just what worked for me (the third time around, that is!). In a subsequent post, I will provide strategies for you to be at your best on exam day. Happy studying and good luck!

Additional reading: MCAT 2015: Is 508 the new 30?

Image courtesy of anankkml at freedigitalphotos.net
Image courtesy of anankkml at freedigitalphotos.net
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20 thoughts on “How to Achieve Success on the MCAT…Lessons Learned from Two Retakes

  1. This is very helpful to me as well, although no MCAT in sight but, the need to change strategies is so important. If one thing does not work, evaluate then readjust. I am still celebrating with you, congratulations once more

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    1. Wonderful! I’m glad this post is applicable to your situation. Better to share our mistakes so others don’t fall in the same trap! Thanks for your encouragement once again my dear!

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    1. Thanks so much Cristina! I want others to know that even if things don’t work out so well at first, there is still hope of success if we just try again and don’t give up! Glad you have been inspired and thanks a lot for your support!

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  2. great post! i am currently studying for the 3rd time as well. I am wondering how you kept up with stamina because I am feeling burnt out and just emotionally and mentally drained, especially having done the exam twice before (around the same time you did too!). To put it bluntly, I am just tired but have no time for breaks (my exam is coming up soon!). Any advice is greatly appreciated!

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    1. Thank you! I’m glad you found the post helpful. Let me start by saying well done for persevering with this challenging exam! I can completely relate to what you are saying about feeling drained and tired. Your question about burnout and stamina is very pertinent. I will answer your concerns in detail in a subsequent post early next week. Hang in there! You can do it! You are doing a great job! 🙂

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  3. Thank you so much for sharing your strategy and you are such an inspiration. I am 32 and currently prepping my MCAT exam after phD, post-doc and one year working in the pharmaceutical industry. Sometimes I wonder if taking time off to prep for MCAT is the right thing to do, while all of my friends are getting promotions at work, getting married, and having babies. Thank you for the tips again your blog really motivates me.

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    1. You’re most welcome and thank you for taking the time to read my blog! Your background sounds similar to mine. I am 34, and also worked in pharma although I started this right after my BSc several years ago. First of all, congratulations for getting so far in your education and for preparing for the MCAT! That is a feat in itself! I know what you mean about the difficulty in focusing on the MCAT while life continues all around you. But the good thing is the MCAT is only a temporary hurdle to overcome. It will not dominate your life forever. Also, I am learning that school and the rest of life do not have to be mutually exclusive. There are ways to integrate both, we just have to be creative! I wish you all the best on your endeavors! You can do it! 🙂

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  4. Job well done and good luck with your applications! I am working on a plan to attack the beast again. How fast of a reader are you? What strategy did you use on verbal and the psychology portions of the test. I have the impression that being a fast reader as well as being able to synthesize information quickly help a ton on all sections of the MCAT. How to improve on these two skills specifically? Any suggestions?

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    1. Thanks Leo for your encouragement and positive feedback. Being a fast reader definitely helps (I read a lot of books for fun) and also trying to get the gist or general idea of the passage rather than focusing on the details. This is especially important for Verbal. For psychology, it helps to be familiar with how to interpret data and draw conclusions. I did find that there’s only so much you can study for the Psych section because there is quite a bit of memorization and even with all my preparation, there were some terms I had never come across before on the exam. To improve on becoming a fast reader and synthesizing info, my approach was to practice A LOT under timed conditions. I used 101 passages in VR by Examkrackers and all the AAMC practice materials and I saw my VR score go from a 7 to an 11. Practice is key (for all sections) so that you learn to not spend more than a minute per question (roughly) and about 3 minutes per passage. Hope this helps. When is your exam? Let me know if you have any other questions. All the best! You can do it!

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  5. Im working on a detailed plan. I will start with Ek 1001 questions to cover the basics and get my reading speed up on the verbal section by reading classical literature. 3 min to read a passage means I have some work to do. it takes me on average 5 min to read a psg. I haven’t scheduled my exam yet due to the lack of quality prep materials for the new MCAT. Content wise, there is plenty of good materials available out there from prep companies. Unfortunately, none of them have released quality practice passages that closely mirror the New MCAT. Verbal passages hasn’t changed. The type of questions hasn’t changed either. No more sciency passages on the verbal section. However, the science passages are different from the old MCAT. Looking at the sample full length exam released by AAMC, its pretty obvious that the science passages on the new MCAT have a different feel. They are longer, experimental-heavy, and the questions associated require more data interpretation and analysis (Research background is a plus I think). I have to admit that the test writers of the New MCAT found a very unique way to integrate science subjects together (Physics&Bio, Bio&Biochem, Psych&Bio).

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    1. You sound like you have a good plan. I found the EK 1001 series useful for practicing questions although they are quite outdated now. Some of the topics are not on the new MCAT so just take note of that. You have a good idea of what the new MCAT is like compared to the old which is great. I didn’t notice much difference in the verbal section except that it was longer (9 versus 7 passages). As you practice your reading, practice identifying the main idea of the passage (summarizing it in 3 or 4 sentences). And yes, you will need to speed up your reading to make sure you don’t run out of time. I enjoyed the greater emphasis on experimental questions in the science sections because I come from a research background. It just made more sense to me! I think the new MCAT though daunting actually refines some useful skills. Good luck! 🙂

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  6. Thanks for sharing the Lessons you learned Malaika. I’m embarking on my own MCAT journey now and i found your blog at a much needed time, thanks to Jonathan.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for sharing your experience with the MCAT. I have a similar situation so this is very inspirational.

    Did you have any trouble getting into med school? Did you have to address the multiple MCAT scores or the gaps between the test dates in the application or interview stage?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome! Thanks for reading! Canadian med schools do not seem to mind the number of times you sat the MCAT or gaps between test dates (provided the MCAT is still valid at the time of application). It may be different for American med schools as I have heard that it’s best not to sit it more than 3 times. It may be worth verifying this to be sure. Anyway, it wasn’t an issue for me. All the best with your journey! 🙂

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