Preparing for the MCAT As a Bad Test-Taker
- Jan 13, 2023
- MCAT Blog, MCAT Prep
- Reviewed By: Liz Flagge
We’ve all heard it before, either from people around us or maybe even our own mouths. “I don’t feel like I’ll ever do well on the actual MCAT; I’m just bad at taking tests.” But what does it really mean to be a “bad test-taker”? This article will help break down some of the reasons why students arrive at that often-erroneous conclusion, and how you can identify the true obstacle and work to overcome it.
“The bad news is that time flies. The good news is that you’re the pilot.” -Michael Altschuler
If reaching the end of a question block in time seems to be what prevents you from getting the MCAT score you want, then pacing is likely the culprit. In turn, the obstacles to good pacing usually fall into one of two categories: either you’re spending too much time second-guessing an answer choice or flipping between two, or it simply takes too long to read a passage or understand the questions being asked.
Fortunately, the solution remains the same regardless of the bucket you fall in. To race faster, you have to practice slower and build your speed over time. When doing practice questions early in your MCAT study schedule, it’s completely fine to take the untimed route. Make a note of how long it takes to finish 59 questions with passages.
As MCAT test day gets closer, though, it’s not a bad idea to start setting timers that gradually give you less and less time per block until you’re able to comfortably finish questions in the time the real test would allow you. For example, if you’re able to finish 59 questions in 2.5 hours (150 minutes) initially, then start decreasing that time to 120 minutes, then 110, and so on until you’re able to finish within 95 minutes. You will likely find that with repeated practice, you’ll naturally speed up since you become more and more familiar with the phrasing of questions and passages, allowing your brain to work through it quickly.
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“When you get to the end zone, act like you’ve been there before.” -Vince Lombardi
Know that a big part of being a bad test-taker is often mental. Often, students will do poorly on one standardized test, perhaps in middle or high school, and subsequently, label themselves as being inherently talentless at taking tests. Ironically, it is this very perception of their ability that can potentiate test anxiety and hinder future performance, which can lead to a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy lasting for a long time.
However, when a student can realize this cycle of thoughts and acknowledges that they are not inherently bad at taking standardized tests, they can focus their time and efforts on combatting test anxiety.
Coupled with adequate preparation for the content on the MCAT, every student has the potential to meet their goal MCAT score.
Of course, changing one’s self-concept is much more easily said than done. Everybody’s heard the phrase “fake it ‘till you make it,” but there is value in actively blocking negative self-talk when it arises. It’s easy to blame missing a question on a practice problem on being a bad test-taker. What’s harder is putting thought into why you missed that particular question and being systematic about figuring out the precise knowledge gap. A good tutor will help strengthen one’s test-taking skills by working through strategies to facilitate independent learning and reflection to ensure that a student won’t make the same mistake twice.
Anybody who’s been in theatre, dance, music, or sports will know that as MCAT test day approaches, it becomes ever more important to simulate the real thing. That’s why dress rehearsals, full run-throughs, and scrimmages exist.
The practice of pushing down negative self-talk and focusing on questions objectively is very different when you’re in an untimed, relaxed environment versus sitting in a rather uncomfortable chair, wearing earplugs, and knowing that a timer is ticking down in the corner. Marathoners will run consecutive days to simulate how tired their legs will feel at mile 20 of their race; likewise, you should get used to focusing for multiple-hour stretches at a time to replicate the real event and find ways of confronting test anxiety.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” -Abraham Lincoln
Another reason why someone might deem themselves to be bad at taking tests is that they were simply insufficiently equipped to take it. This could have been self-imposed to a certain extent—perhaps there were a lot of things going on the semester you took Organic Chemistry—but it’s an unfortunate fact that there is variation in how comprehensive different colleges’ pre-med courses are.
The material in college science courses is often dictated by an individual course master, who is unlikely to be a medical doctor who understands exactly what the MCAT covers and wants to prepare students specifically for it. This is exactly why test preparation companies exist; their mission revolves around building a curriculum designed to give students a solid base of knowledge for a particular exam.
Full-length exams never lie; taking a mock MCAT will reveal where your strengths and weaknesses are, and a study plan should prioritize the knowledge gaps to raise your score in the least amount of time possible.
In the case of Blueprint, a wide variety of preparation plans exist to support students with different levels of background knowledge and fill in gaps where they are needed.
Remember why you’re taking the MCAT, and don’t be a bad tester taking the MCAT. While it is a major milestone for many pre-med students, in some ways, it’s simply another stepping stone on the road to matriculation into medical school. And for better or for worse, the standardized tests don’t stop when you get there.
Not to fear, however. A nice difference between a test like the MCAT diagnostic test and other standardized tests you may have taken before in your life (e.g., SAT, ACT) is that the MCAT emphasizes subject-based knowledge more heavily than it does soft skills like reading comprehension or critical thinking. This is often welcome news for students who fear standardized tests, as it feels very encouraging to watch MCAT practice test scores rise rapidly during the content review phase of a study plan or to see a question covering a familiar topic.
A solid study plan will involve both a strong content review phase and an application phase with lots of practice question opportunities, which Blueprint helps take much of the guesswork out of with a personalized plan generator based on your goal MCAT test date and the amount of time you are able to budget for studying. Check out Blueprint’s MCAT Resources for everything from online classes, practice exams, tutoring options, and study plans to help you receive your goal score on the MCAT.
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