How to Improve Your MCAT Score: A Complete Guide
- Jul 20, 2021
You’re getting ready to apply to medical school and studying hard for the MCAT. But what if you need to improve your score? In this post, we cover mindset tips, study tricks, and high-yield content to help you earn your best MCAT score.
To improve your MCAT score, you need to do the following:
- Understand what makes the MCAT fundamentally different from pre-med exams
- Know how to analyze MCAT questions
- Effectively evaluate your study resources
- Be able to create an effective study schedule
- Know which high-yield topics you’ll need to cover
- Know how to utilize AAMC MCAT practice exams
- Simulate a test-taking environment
- Be able to effectively address topic trouble areas
Click any link above to jump to a specific section, or read straight through to learn everything you need to know to get a better MCAT score!
Why the MCAT is Different from Exams You’ve Taken as a Pre-Med
There are a few key differences in how the MCAT tests students compared to other standardized tests. First off, the MCAT is specifically content based, meaning that it tests how well students understand a particular entity of information. This is in contrast to standard college admissions exams, which test more general concepts that students learn throughout school.
Another difference is the duration of the MCAT exam. The MCAT spans 7.5 hours and will test the stamina of a student who sits through it. Each section is time constrained, so mental stamina is essential and must be considered when studying for the exam.
Finally, although the Reading Comprehension section of the MCAT (aka CARS) draws comparisons to the reading sections of the ACT and SAT, this section is an entirely different animal.
Whereas college admissions exams test comprehension of material directly present in the passage, CARS passages require you to understand various points of view from the passage and then use that information to answer inferential questions. As a result, many of the answers to CARS questions cannot directly be found in the passage and require students to put themselves in the author’s POV and think from another perspective.
How to Analyze MCAT Questions and Answer Choices
MCAT question analysis strategies vary by section. For the Bio/Biochem and Chem/Phys sections, it is beneficial to use the questions to guide your analysis of the passage. In other words, the questions can help direct your attention to the relevant parts of the passage.
For the CARS section, however, it’s advised that you limit going back to the passage as much as possible. Students often struggle for time on the CARS section, and this can be caused by hunting for answers within the passage repeatedly. For CARS, it is critical to have a consistent annotation strategy that works for you. Med School Tutors can help you determine the appropriate strategy to efficiently master passage comprehension. Learn more about MCAT tutoring!
In terms of analyzing answer choices, one of the most commonly-used strategies is process of elimination. Firstly, it’s important to take your time in reading the question itself. One of the most frustrating errors I’ve seen students make is due to misreading the question. After understanding the question, make sure to read each answer choice carefully and begin the process of elimination in your head.
The MCAT test writers are experts at throwing in distractors — a prepared student will be able to predict distractors and how the test writers reached some of those other “incorrect” answers.
How Can I Improve My MCAT Study Process?
Get the most out of your MCAT review period by dividing your study process into two phases: content review and practice exams.
Phase 1: Content Review
The content review phase follows the AAMC official topic outline. Do a thorough, exhaustive review of all possible topics on the MCAT. The content review books listed in the next section cover these topics in order and are an excellent resource for the review phase.
During content review, one great way to balance the monotony of text reading is to incorporate video learning into one’s study plan. For many students, reading textbooks can be grueling. Using videos via Khan Academy or other YouTube Channels (AK Lectures, The Organic Chemistry Tutor, Professor Dave Explains, among others) offers a reprieve from reading while still allowing for content review.
It is important to revisit reviewed content while also progressing to new material; this is crucial for maintaining knowledge of past material. Reviews can be accomplished in a variety of ways: reviewing notes, using Anki flashcards, or watching content videos (Khan Academy, YouTube).
After you’ve spent some time reviewing, you’ll start consolidating content. Make sure you’re getting enough rest!
Content consolidation varies by topic. For Biology, Biochem, and Behavioral Sciences, content consolidation is often easiest via Anki or some other video/text-based review.
However, for Chemistry and Physics, content consolidation is best achieved via practice questions. Chemistry and Physics questions often require a formula or mathematical understanding, and this can only be achieved through question-style practice. UWorld is an excellent resource for these, as are third party textbooks, such as Examkrackers, which have practice questions divided up by topic.
The only exception to the content phase of the MCAT is CARS. It is widely agreed that the only way to get better at CARS is to practice. Thus, the practice phase for CARS begins immediately. The first goal is to identify an annotation strategy that best suits you, and then it’s a matter of perfecting that strategy and practicing on as many passages as possible. By the time you take the real exam, you should never have a question of what strategy to use. This should be second nature.
Phase 2: Practice Exams
The second phase of MCAT exam studying involves heavy practice via practice exams and questions. A standard breakdown for a three-month study plan is to spend the first month or month-and-a-half reviewing content and then to spend the remaining month and a half doing practice questions and practice exams.
The goal of the practice phase is to identify gaps in content knowledge and patch them via review. Once a gap is identified, do a thorough review of the material to ensure that similar questions are not missed again.
Another main goal of the practice phase is to build your body’s stamina for the exam. The MCAT is a grueling exam, and the only way to become accustomed to completing such a long exam is to practice putting yourself through it. We recommend taking seven to ten MCAT practice exams before test day.
Re-Evaluating MCAT Study Resources: Which Ones to Choose and How to Use Them
The first resource to utilize in studying for the MCAT is a set of content books. These can be Kaplan, Princeton, Examkrackers, etc. It is important for students to go through these resources, refreshing an understanding of the exam materials.
Once you are ready for practice tests, you have a few options to consider. The best third-party practice exams are from Altius, Blueprint, and Examkrackers.
The absolute best resources for studying for the MCAT are AAMC test materials. These should be reserved for the last month of studying. The AAMC practice exams are retired exams, and as a result, will be your closest indicator to how you’ll score on test day. The section banks are another excellent resource, and should be taken to identify any existing content gaps.
MCAT Practice Exams: How to Use Them for Maximum Benefit
As stated above, MCAT practice exams are key for improving your stamina and getting accustomed to the rigor of the real exam. However, the other benefit to using practice exams is to see what topics you struggle with in a testing environment.
With the MCAT, mastery of a certain concept doesn’t necessarily guarantee correct answers. You must acclimate to how the topics are presented. Use the practice exams to analyze trends in the types of questions you miss (are they due to content lapses, issues interpreting lab results, lack of research methodology understanding, mental math errors?), and thoroughly re-cover those topics before taking the next practice exams.
Initially, use third-party practice exams as you get accustomed to the format of the MCAT. After three to five third-party exams, switch to AAMC practice exams. There are only four official AAMC exams and one sample full length exam, so use them wisely. They will be the most representative practice exams you take.
MCAT High-Yield Topics
MCAT high-yield topics vary by section. Overall, Physics and Organic Chemistry are the lowest-tested topics on the MCAT, and it’s possible that you may not even see an O-Chem question on your MCAT. However, Physics and Organic Chemistry are also some of the most frequently missed questions on the MCAT, due to students under-preparing for them.
High-yield topics should be covered in as much detail as possible, until you are comfortable with them. This will vary depending on many factors, such as your major and the level of education received on certain topics.
I’ve worked with students who picked up Behavioral Science terminology with minimal effort, and I’ve worked with other brilliant students who took multiple sessions to pick up terminology. It varies, and you should understand your own level of comprehension!
Here are some high-yield MCAT topics divided by section:
- Punnet Squares and Mendelian Inheritance
- Cellular Signaling
- Endocrine System and Hormones
- Cell Biology: includes DNA replication, transcription, translation, and organellar functions
- Carbohydrate Metabolism (all steps, enzymes, rate-limiting steps, and regulatory mechanisms)
- Fatty Acid Metabolism (steps, enzymes, regulatory mechanisms)
- Nervous System
- Action potentials, parasympathetic/sympathetic, etc.
- Renal System and Regulation of Homeostasis (both electrolyte and acid-base)
- Musculoskeletal System and Muscle Contraction
- Hemoglobin Dissociation Curve and Acid-Base Homeostasis
- Immune System: some of the most commonly missed questions come up here
- Circulatory System: oxygenated vs deoxygenated, physiology terminology (capillaries, arterioles, etc)
- Gastrulation, fertilization, blastulation, etc.
- Digestive System
- Enzymes; where nutrients are absorbed
- Virology and Bacteriology
- Lots of questions relating to transformation, transduction, plasmids, etc. These questions will show up as studies so be prepared to understand the methodology and answer questions
- Passages will resemble scientific papers
- ALL Laboratory techniques are critical for the B/B section.
- This includes PCR, Gel electrophoresis, western blots, cell culture, plasmid studies, etc. The test writers will not take time to explain the tests to you; they will present the results and move on. It will be up to you to interpret the results, so mastery of the methodology behind these techniques is absolutely essential.
- Gen Chem
- Equilibrium problems
- Absolutely must understand different equilibriums (Keq, Ka, Kb, Ksp, etc.) and how to solve problems related to these. Practice basic ICE boxes.
- This is huge in both chem and physics. You must understand endothermic vs. exothermic, Gibbs free energy, entropy, and all formulas related. Units must be mastered as well.
- Titrations and Graphs
- Equivalence point, half-equivalence point, buffers
- Henderson-Hasselbach Equation and when to use
- Radioactivity is used in a lot of experiments in the MCAT, it’s a huge plus to understand why/how radioactivity makes for such a useful experimental marker.
- Galvanic vs electrolytic cells, knowing anode vs. cathode, etc.
- Periodic Trends
- Bonding and Electron Configuration
- Very critical for not just chem, but understanding organic chem, biochem, etc.
- Equilibrium problems
- Fluid Dynamics
- BASIC Circuits
- It is extremely rare to see a complex circuits problem on MCAT; basic understanding of resistors, capacitors, voltage, current, etc. will suffice.
- Ohm’s law
- Organic Chemistry
- Basic IR peaks. OH broad 3300, NH2 sharp 3400, Carbonyl 1700 and CN 2200
- Know how to determine chemically equivalent hydrogens in NMR
- Know how to determine stereochemistry of a carbon in a Fischer projection
- Carboxylic Acid Derivatives, Mechanisms
- Oxidation and Reduction Reactions, Reagents
- Acid/Base chemistry: Lewis vs. Bronsted-Lowry vs. Arrhenius definitions
- Research Methodology
- Confounding variables, internal vs. external validity, reliability, types of study (crossover vs. cross-sectional vs. case-control vs case study)
- Freudian theories, Piaget’s developmental
- Pavlovian Conditioning and Skinner’s Behaviorism
- Honestly, all vocab terms in P/S are fair game. Know all the vocab terms, and you’ve set yourself up well for success.
Looking for a guide to Psych/Soc? See our MCAT Expanded Psych/Soc Outline.
How to Handle MCAT Topic Trouble Areas
When struggling with a topic, it’s important to tackle it in multiple ways. If I read a book chapter on the topic, proceed to miss a question, and then re-read the same book chapter, I may not be consolidating my understanding of the topic in the best way.
There are several resources to use here: I have used topic outlines via Reddit, Khan Academy videos, and even other third-party YouTube videos to review topics.
The amount of time spent on a tough topic is dependent on the yield of the topic; if it’s a topic that you repeatedly see showing up time and time again, you may need to spend additional time reviewing it so that you can minimize your errors.
For topics that are lower-yield (magnetism, pipes/waves, etc.), you may be able to escape with a more surface-level understanding. Of course, if you have the time, review these topics to ensure that if any questions do arise, you are comfortable answering them.
The MCAT is about efficiency and time management. However, for an independent study exam such as this one, it’s important to know where to spend your time. Thus, a plan should be developed daily to determine where and how to spend your time.
How to Create (and Acclimate to) an MCAT Test-Taking Environment
When taking MCAT practice exams, always try to take them starting at the time of your official exam. If your exam is at 8 a.m., take your practice exams beginning at 8 a.m. and practice doing your “test-day” routine everyday you study by waking up at 6:30 or 7 a.m. and begin your study schedule at 8 a.m.
To simulate the testing environment, put your phone somewhere you cannot see it and ensure that you have minimal distractions. I’ve had students who used noise-cancelling headphones and even a dry erase board, if available, to really simulate the actual environment, since that’s all you get on the MCAT.
Follow the break schedule to the best of your ability (but don’t cut your meals short if they go over a bit—your health and nutrition is the first priority!).
When doing practice questions and passages, always simulate an official testing environment. The more you practice in this environment, the more you’ll grow accustomed to it. Context-dependent memory is real!
With these tips, you are on your way to improving your MCAT score. Happy studying!