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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