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MCAT Prep – Prepping for the MCAT Exam vs College Coursework

  • by Sam
  • May 07, 2018
  • MCAT Blog, Pre-Med Support

by Clara Gillan

As an MCAT instructor, I’ve seen students fall victim to countless misconceptions that negatively impact their MCAT performance. One of these misconceptions is more prevalent than almost any other:

the MCAT is similar to undergraduate science courses, and – by extension – students can prepare for the MCAT just like they prepared for their undergrad pre-med classes

Like all misconceptions, this is false. The MCAT is very unlike a typical college class, like organic chemistry for example, and it requires a very different method of preparation.

What does this mean for for you?

If you excelled in pre-med courses (4.0 GPA, anyone?) it means that you can’t expect to sail through MCAT prep without effort. It’s very possible for a student who knows 100% of the core science content to still struggle with the exam.

On a brighter note, if your performance in your college prereqs wasn’t so hot, that doesn’t necessarily mean a low MCAT score is in the cards for you! As long as you prepare and plan carefully, you can perform just as well – or better – than someone who got A’s in their biology, chemistry, and physics classes.

At Next Step, we’ve compiled our list of the key differences between typical pre-med college courses and the MCAT. Review carefully, and you’ll be better prepared to tackle this difficult exam!

1. The level of detail/memorization required

If you’ve taken a college biochemistry course, you might have not-so-fond memories of learning dozens of enzymes, steps, and intermediates, or of drawing out each amino acid, atom by atom. Fortunately, the MCAT typically does not test at this level of detail! MCAT prep certainly does involve plenty of memorization, but the questions themselves tend to ask about larger points and fundamentals much more often than small details.

For example, you’re not likely to see questions asking for the enzyme that catalyzes the eighth step of glycolysis – while such a question would not be out of place in a biochemistry midterm or final. Of course, the MCAT may occasionally ask very detail-specific questions, but overall, focus your prep on larger-scale ideas (What is the purpose of this process? What are its net products and reactants? How does it relate to the other concepts I’m familiar with? etc.).

2. The ability to “cram and forget” and succeed

Knowing that the MCAT isn’t focused on tiny details, you may be relieved. However, in certain ways, MCAT prep can be much more difficult than preparing for a college midterm. In pre-med college courses, it’s often possible to succeed by “cramming,” or packing information into your brain in the days before the exam, and then forgetting this information, since subsequent exams will test different content. As an MCAT student, however, you’re preparing for a single exam that can test any content in the scope of the AAMC’s official outline. Additionally, MCAT content tends to build on fundamentals. So, instead of learning about periodic trends and forgetting about them soon afterward, you’ll need to keep this material in your head and even apply it to more complex concepts later.

3. The overlap across concepts and even larger subjects

When you were taking your pre-med prerequisites, how often did a physics question appear on your organic chemistry quiz? And how likely was your chemistry lab final to include a question about the mesoderm and endoderm? For most pre-meds, these situations never happened, because college courses tend to stay within the realm of their own subject, rather than overlapping with content from other science subjects. On the MCAT, however, you could easily see a physics question and a general chemistry question – and maybe even a biology question to top it all off! – in a single passage. In fact, this overlap is one reason why pre-meds with top grades still struggle to master the MCAT exam. As you prepare for the MCAT, make sure you constantly ask yourself how each new topic might relate with other science concepts – even those from entirely separate subjects. For example, when reviewing amino acids, make sure you think about their relationship to acid-base chemistry!

Now that you understand some key differences between the MCAT and college pre-med coursework, you’ll be better equipped to plan and carry out your MCAT preparation.

From all of us at Next Step, we wish you good luck!

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