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Get Inside the AAMC Test-Makers’ Heads and Crush Your MCAT Retake with These 5 Tips

Defining_MCAT_Insanity.002Whether Albert Einstein actually said this or not, this quote sums things up nicely: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”

If you’re taking the MCAT again, the same standard applies. What’s different this time? If you prepare the same way you did before, you’ll likely get the same results. And “studying harder” is rarely the solution either. Sorry to be cliché, but you’ve got to study smarter, not harder. Here are five tips to make that happen.

1. If This Wasn’t Already Your #1 Priority, It Had Better Be Now.

For many MCAT retakers, the primary reason they’re in this position is that they did not spend enough time on their MCAT studies the first time. Is this true for you? Perhaps you had a bit too much on your plate. Maybe you were putting in too many hours at work, or were taking too many credits in school. Or maybe you were scheduling MCAT around the rest of your life, instead of the other way around. Well, that needs to change. Schedule everything else around MCAT studying and commit to it.

Fair or not, this process will not be convenient or quick. Your goal should not be to be done with it as quickly as possible. Your goal is to become a doctor, and to do whatever gives you the best chance to do that, not to just try to get it over with. You don’t have to spend every waking moment studying for the MCAT—that’s untenable. But whatever you planned to study each day, stick to it.

(Hint: Have a support team who helps you carry the load of the rest of your life. In med school, for example, many students go back home to study for Step 1 while their parents feed them and take care of the laundry. Hold yourself accountable to your support team. Find someone who will hold you accountable. And give yourself enough—but not too much—time to prepare for your test.)

2. Set a Date For Your Test

Mark it in big letters on a calendar you use specifically for the MCAT. I’ve known people to push off taking the MCAT indefinitely—for years. What are you waiting for, to feel “ready” for the test? To know everything that could be tested? The former might never come for a type-A pre-med, and the latter is impossible.

Set a date, figure out what’s to be studied by then, work until you run out of time, and then take the test. Some people feel confident with lots of practice, others never achieve that. What I can tell you is that I’ve done well on the MCAT and all three USMLE exams, and never felt “good” while taking them or just before taking them. It’s an uncomfortable, undesirable process, by and large, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect on performance. So set a date and put in the work, and you’ll do fine.

3. Make A Study Schedule

A strong study schedule is crucial to success on any standardized test, and the MCAT is no exception. We’ll discuss specific study schedules and tips at a later date, but for now, let’s just say that it’s better to work with definites, and to put things in writing, than to leave everything up in the air. Here are some of the methods I used for MCAT preparation that I hope will be of value to you. 

When developing your study calendar, approach things as realistically as possible. Figure out approximately how much work you can get done each day of the week and make a list of the subjects/tasks that must be covered (i.e., topics/chapters of sciences, how many practice tests and verbal sections need to be done, etc.). Fill out the calendar with those tasks, to be done at a realistic, plausible pace, and mark things off as you complete them.

When I studied for the MCAT, I made a list of topics in order of decreasing importance/yield (I used Examkrackers books, which are loosely ordered in decreasing importance/yield, especially with physics/chem/orgo). My goal was to go over the practice problems in those chapters 4-5 times each, so there was a lot of built-in repetition. This approach is more focused on time than on material, in that you determine how much material there is and how much time you have. You start at the top of the list and work at the pace you’ve determined until you run out of time, and then you take the test. When you’re in med school, you’ll see that many students have a fantasy of accumulating all the knowledge that could possibly be tested. They figure out how much time that will take, and sacrifice anything and everything that gets in the way of that. This is neither balanced, nor realistic. Instead, realize that your time and the real estate of your brain space are both limited. Make the most of your time, and when you’ve run out, realize that you did what you could, and go and take the test.

4. Do Practice Problems (and AAMC Tests)

This seems obvious, and probably you feel you’ve already been doing this. But what I’ve found in the 12 years that I’ve been teaching/tutoring for the MCAT is that students too often either do too much reading or focus too much on practice tests.  What’s the problem with this? you may ask.

Reading chapters of test prep books or, worse, college texts, is a poor use of your time. You should do that once or twice early on, but afterwards, those materials should be used as references for looking up topics on which you’re feeling weak (while doing practice problems).

On the other end of the spectrum is taking AAMC practice tests over and over. Taking AAMC practice tests does not magically improve your score. If you take test after test after test in a row, as many students do, you should not expect to do better on each subsequent test. After all, you’re the same person at the end of this process as at the beginning. Your score improves from REVIEWING practice tests, so spend at least as much time reviewing each test as you do taking it. In fact, I’d suggest twice as much time. Even all the tests combined cannot cover everything you should know for the MCAT, let alone any one or two tests. So what I’d want you to do with the tests is to use them to find your weak areas, and to detect your weak spots in test-taking techniques, the kinds of problems with which you struggle, the errors you commonly make, and to work on better recognizing them going forward.

But before reaching for those full-length tests, let’s focus on the invaluable practice problems in the test prep books you’re using (I used and prefer Examkrackers). They’re meant to be comprehensive, to cover everything you’d need to know, and to cover all the types of problems/skills for which you’re responsible. They also test the application of knowledge, rather than just facts. As you do problems, and as you review practice tests, think like an AAMC test-maker. Ask yourself if you know what knowledge and skill is being tested, why the right answers are right and the wrong answers are wrong, and if you can explain all of this to someone else. It’s never enough to say, “That was just a stupid mistake I made.” You have to figure out why you’re making those errors, and then to address those issues. This is the path to real improvement in your score.

5. Focus and stick to your plan 

I was dealing with pretty bad symptoms of chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia the last time I studied for the MCAT. I was also taking a full course load in college. I felt that I really only had enough energy and attention to study for three hours each day before my brain just felt fried. So that’s what I did. But I did it every day, without fail. I studied in a remote part of the school, where no one knew me, where there were no people socializing. I went to the bathroom beforehand, I turned my phone off and didn’t use the internet. None of my friends knew where I was during that time. After 3 months of study, I was proud of how dedicated, organized and determined I had been.

Too often, we focus too much on results and on scores, and not enough on our efforts. Decide what you’re going to do to prepare for the test this time, then go out and do it. So believe in yourself. We certainly do.

Good luck!