It's about time that I posted as much of my personal strategy that I can in this thread. To be honest I'm kind of ashamed that I haven't yet! Without further ado, here is Vihsadas's Personal MCAT Strategy
(err...mostly, I think.):
1) Your individual scores and composite score:
Composite MCAT: 40S
2) The study method used for each section
As a general note, practice will always
be the most important part of your MCAT preparation…for any section. You should make time to do as many practice exams as you possibly can and to do practice problems as you are doing your content review. For the MCAT, you need to become comfortable with the testing format, the types of questions, and the manner in which concepts and information is tested. Being familiar with these aspects of the exam can only come through long and thorough practice of MCAT material. If you are diligent and really put forth maximal effort into practicing the material, you will start to gain an intuition about MCAT questions, and how to approach them. Accordingly, the number one mistake made by MCAT studiers is to only review the material in great depth, and to neglect actually taking timed, full-length practice MCAT exams. In fact, you must do both.
Understanding Concepts and Developing an Intuition –
The best way to approach this section is to be extremely curious about the concepts presented. When you are reviewing a particular concept you should constantly be asking yourself “WHY?” Doing so will refocus your thought process from one of memorization to one of understanding. In fact, you must understand why
all of the equations are the way they are, and why
they make logical sense. One way to facilitate this process is to try and work through what you think should happen without worrying about the numbers at first. Often, students have memorized an equation and will just settle for plugging values into an equation in order to try and arrive at an answer. Unfortunately, this process often bogs the student down in number crunching at the expense of understanding what is actually going on. The latter is extremely important for the MCAT.
Thus, when you are doing physics and chemistry problems, the first thing you should do is think about the general
result you would expect from the situation given. Only when you have understood what should happen conceptually, should you begin number crunching. For instance, if you are dealing with an acid base buffer problem and the question asks, “What will the pH be after I add X amount of Y substance?”, the first thing you should do is ask yourself, “Would I expect the pH to increase a little or a lot, stay the same, or decrease a little or a lot?” Once you think through the concepts, you’ll be more confident in your numerical answer as well as have an understanding of why
your numerical answer is correct. After all, the MCAT is a thinking test
. If you do not understand the concepts you simply will not be able to confidently answer a fair number of problems on the real exam. That being said, even though I have stressed the importance of concepts, you still must also know all of the relevant equations, and be comfortable with manipulating those equations. Both concept understanding and skill in formula manipulation are necessary for success on the MCAT PS.
Additional Note: When we say we are doing "Content Review" in terms of PS, this includes
doing practice problems along with your content review to absorb the material. For physics and chemistry, an integral part of learning to understand the material is to work through problems to make the logical process more concrete in your mind. Thus, do sectional tests, practice problems and practice passage (but not timed, full lengths!) when studying.
Learning to be Highly Proficient with Simple Math –
This is a point that is grossly overlooked both by students themselves and test prep companies. In my opinion, the most important factor that separates the average speed test taker from one who can finish the PS section with 10-20mins remaining is the ease at which the latter uses estimation methods, tricks with formula manipulation, and answer elimination techniques to reduce the amount of scratch work necessary to complete a problem. On my real exam, I used no more than ¼ a single-sided page for scratch work on the PS. Because I was intensely comfortable with order of magnitude estimation, decimal estimation, log estimation, dimensional analysis and conceptual knowledge I could eliminate answer without too much written math. Sure, you could use the formulas to explicitly solve each problem, but using estimation along with formula manipulation will save you whole minutes on the real exam. In previous posts I have highlighted one example of this:
Estimation trick for pH and log calculations
In addition, you must be completely comfortable with orders of magnitude estimation. You should be able to figure out just from estimation what the order of magnitude of the answer should be. This will aid you in eliminating one or two answers right away. One way to start to get good at this is to treat every number in scientific notation:
If X = n x 10^-4 and Y = p x 10^8, then Y/X = (p/n)x 10^(8 + 4).
You must be completely fluent in order of magnitude manipulation like this. Definitely practice it.
You should also become familiar with estimating the decimal values of weird looking fractions and the fractional values of weird looking decimals. For instance, .3145/.6021 might look difficult, but it’s approximately = ½. This kind of estimation is usually sufficient for the MCAT, and GREATLY simplifies the manipulation of formulas and numerical calculations.
Dimensional Analysis –
Using the units of physical quantities to your advantage is also often grossly overlooked by students. One way to check your math is to manipulate the units of the quantities you are using while you are manipulating the math.
The following post sufficiently explains one very MCAT relevant way of how you should be able to use dimensional analysis on the PS section of the MCAT:
An example of how dimensional analysis can really save you one the MCAT
An additional way dimensional analysis can be helpful is if you forget the formula for something. Let’s say that you forgot that one of the formulas for electric potential (Volts) is Volts = Electric field * distance. Let’s say that you know that Voltage is expressed in Joules/Coulomb and Electric field is Newtons/Coulomb. Then, you remember that Work (Joules) = Force (Newtons) * Distance (meters). Therefore, if I multiply Newtons/Coulomb * Distance I get Joules/Coulomb, which is the correct units for electric potential. Usually, this trick will lead you to the right answer!
A word of warning, however, about this last point: Sometimes there will be an extra constant factor needed to arrive at the correct answer. Therefore, only use this technique when you really forget the correct formula and be wary for extra constants! Example:
Let’s say that you know the units of energy are [E] ~ kgm^2/s^2. Knowing that, it would be reasonable to guess that one correct formula for energy would be E = mass*velocity^2. Afterall, mass*velocity^2 has the correct units…but because of how the formula for energy was derived, energy, as you know, is actually = ½ mass*velocity^2.
So while this particular trick with dimensional analysis can be useful, you must not rely on it.
See the following post: My Verbal Strategy
Just as a note, I wanted to say that I was scoring 13-15s on the verbal practice exams for AAMC CBT 7-10. As a word of warning, please heed the part I mention about being able to do the verbal section with 5-10mins remaining. If you get a monster verbal section like I did on the MCAT, you’ll at least be prepared to get through the entire thing. My real verbal was hard. Really hard. Be prepared!
Biology is like a Modified Verbal Section –
The trick to the BS is treating this section a little like the verbal section. You should definitely memorize everything that you possibly can in terms of biology and organic, but, while your are memorizing you MUST think long and hard about the logic of what you are memorizing
. For instance, you can memorize all of the favorable and less favorable conditions that lead to Sn2 or Sn1 or E1 or E2 reactions in organic, but, do you have a conceptual understanding of WHY these different conditions favor one type of reaction over the other. This type of conceptual understanding on the bio section is absolutely necessary for the MCAT. Then, you will have to be able to understand the logic that is presented in the passage (because it will be more convoluted than in the PS) and using the logic set down by the passage, apply what you already know.
Know Intimately what you Expect to be Tested on–
One type of logic useful for the BS section is to be familiar with the topics that you would expect to be tested and to use that knowledge to your advantage
. Let me give you an example. Let's say you are given a large organic macro-molecule diagram with various keto/acetyl-groups labeled "A" "B" "C" "D". You are then asked "Enzyme X is added to a solution of the macromolecule, which keto/acetyl group do you expect to be cleaved?"
Now let's say you have absolutely no idea what enzyme X does and you have never even heard of enzyme X. What would you do? On the MCAT, with the information I've given you, you should be able to guess
what the operative characteristic is that the test-maker is trying to test. I can guarantee that it has something to do with how strongly that "O" is drawing electrons from that C=O bond. So without even looking at the answer choices, you should be able to narrow it down to two possibilities: the highest amount of electron draw, and the lowest amount of electron draw.
Applying knowledge to novel situations –
While this is important for the PS section as well, it's much, much more likley to show up on the BS section. You will be asked to integrate many different subjects in one passage and use your conceptual knowledge to find an integrated answer. Sure you know all the oxidation and reduction reactions, but if I gave you a novel reaction could you logic out whether it should be an oxidation or reduction reaction? Then, could you use that information to determine whether that reaction would help or hurt the aerobic capcity of a mammal? Do you understand WHY the oxidation and reduction reactions proceed the way they do? Can you hypothesize mechanisms for different reactions? Do you understand WHY electrons move the way that they do? Always, always, always ask ‘why?’ Then, of course, you still do have to memorize all of the information as well.
It take all of 1) Memorization, 2) Conceptual understanding, and 3) Problem Practice!
Additional Note: Although more helpful for the PS section, doing practice problems during your content review including sectional tests and practice passages can also be helpful to drive home important concepts in the BS section. This is especially true for the organic chemistry section. I definitely recommend doing some practice problems as you finish various sections in your content review, but again, timed full length practice during your content review may not be that helpful. Save those full-lengths for after your content review study months.
3) The practice materials you used
Kaplan Premiere Program Book (2008)
Princeton Review ‘Cracking the CBT’ (2008)
The Princeton Review Verbal Workbook
Kaplan Sectionals and Topical Exams
Monthly Quizzes and Tests from Kaplan Online (Comes with Premiere Program)
Wikipedia and Google (Seriously, for random things I wanted to know)
I studied the Kaplan Premiere Program and Princeton Review Cracking the CBT book side by side. Although there is a large amount of overlap between the two books, each book covers the material from a different angle and there is some information that is not doubled in each section. I found this tactic to be very helpful in gaining a deeper understanding of the material, particularly for the organic chemistry section of the exam.
4) Which practice tests did you use?
I made absolutely sure to get my hands on as many practice tests as I possibly could. Altogether I took 20 practice exams. I had access to:
AAMCCBT 3 – 10 and the extra passages from 3R – 9R (8 exams)
Exams that came with the Princeton review ‘Cracking the CBT’ (4 exams)
Free Princeton Review Exam (1 Exam)
Kaplan Full Lengths 1- 11 (11 Exams)
Free Kaplan Exam (1 Exam)
Gold Standard CBT Free Exam (1 Exam)
Two Kaplan Exams on CD, Premiere Program, (2 Exams)
A Copy of my testing schedule is attached to this post.
5) What was your undergraduate major
I started off as a B.Mus in Music Theory at the McGill Conservatory of Music and then started all over again in a joint program in Physics and Physiology in my 3rd year. I finished my undergraduate degree after 6 years.
6) Any other tips you may have
The most important thing you can do is post-game analysis of your practice exams. Keep a log of the types of questions that you are missing, and why you thought you missed the question. Make sure that you review every single problem, right or wrong on your practice exams.
Even though you may have gotten a problem correct, you need to ensure that you got it right with the correct thought process and also, in the most efficient manner possible. Therefore, you need to review every single problem that you do on practice exams. If you do this you will begin to see a pattern about how the MCAT test makers have structured the exam questions, and how to develop what I call ‘MCAT intuition’ about what the correct and incorrect answers are.
What is the test maker thinking?
Accordingly, think about what the test maker is trying to test! Really try and figure out what concept or thought process or piece of knowledge the test maker is trying to test with a particular question. If you think about that, you have a better chance of not over-complicating problems and seeing what you are supposed to do. It is important to try and think from their
about what you are a doing! Although it seems obvious I guarantee that many of you are not doing this! I know, because when I started studying I wasn’t doing this either. Always ask ‘why?’ and always question the process you are taking. You must always be critically thinking about how you are approaching each problem. Make sure that you are completely aware of exactly what you are doing, and why you are doing it when you are testing.
The more practice you do, the more familiar you will be with the material in an MCAT format, and the more familiar you will be with doing the calculations or thinking that will be required of you on the MCAT. This is extremely important. Practice as much as you can, and whenever you can.
Ample Content Review:
Although practice is definitely more important than studying, in my opinion the best way to study (if you have the luxury of time) is to do solid content review for 1 – 1.5 months and then do a very, very arduous string of practice exams for the next 1 – 1.5 months. I believe that taking full-length, timed practice exams when you lack a cursory knowledge of the topics and material covered on the MCAT is a waste of time. You can’t improve your MCAT test-taking skills if you don’t have the basic MCAT knowledge at hand. Personally, I did 1 to 1.5 months of solid content review with a diagnostic at the beginning, and then 1.5 months of practice exams, reviewing the material between exam days. Note, however, that I did do practice problems
in the course of my content review. In fact, practice problems are very important for gaining a solid understanding of some of the concepts, especially in the PS! What I am saying is to avoid doing practice tests
during your content review, but practice problems
, however, are very important!
In my opinion, the four most important keys to MCAT success are:
2) Know everything. Really.
3) Understand the Concepts and Logic.
4) Do many, many full length timed practice exams.
In the final days before the exam:
In the final 2-3 weeks before you real exam you must
develop a routine to get your body and mind ready for test day. For instance, I planned my 'homestretch' for 2.5 weeks before my exam. At this point content review is long ago done with. I'm not really even opening up my books anymore unless there's a random/weird fact I somehow missed. The last 2.5 weeks are for tying up loose ends, final test-taking preparation, and getting yourself into an MCAT Rhythm
. Here’s what I did:
1) I took four AAMC CBTs in these final days and I planed 3 day breaks between each of these last four exams so that my actual MCAT was synchronized with this schedule. It is important to make these last exams AAMC exams because they are the closest thing you have to the real MCAT.
2) In addition, I took each of these last four exam at the exact
time that I would take my real MCAT, and woke up and went to sleep at the same time that I would on and before real test day.
3) I also restrained myself from going to my refrigerator during breaks, and brought an ‘MCAT lunch and snack’ which was exactly what I would take to the real MCAT to my room on practice test days.
4) In the days between exams, I reviewed the tests (the same way as I suggest above) and also did peripheral content review if there was a particular concept or question I was still shaky on.
By simulating real test taking conditions as close as possible and developing a ‘routine’, when I got to my real exam, it was just another day at the office so to speak.
My body, my sleep cycle, and my mind were just continuing the routine I had developed over those last 2.5 weeks.
I took the first of the final four tests on a Wednesday, the next on the following Sunday (3 day break), the next on the following Thursday (3 day break), and the final one on the following Monday (3 day break). That way I had a 3 day break until my real exam which was Friday.
I believe that making my last four exam times periodic and treating them like my real exam really helped. When I sat down to do my real exam it really felt like it was nothing unusual from my normal routine. I was prepared, and I had done this before... That helped to calm my nerves and give me extra confidence.
7) How long did you study?
Total time studied: I studied for approximately 3 to 3.5 months for 4-8 hours every day, 7 days a week.
Guys, you really can do this. Just treat the MCAT like a big game, a competition of sorts that you are trying to win at. Get excited
about studying and doing better on the next practice exam. If you are able to take that pseudo-masochistic viewpoint, the MCAT almost becomes fun
. Put your mind, body, soul…put your entire existence into this MCAT for a few months. Remember, it’ll be worth it in the end. If I can do it, you can to. You just have to figure out the best way for you to gain your own success. Good luck, and kick that MCAT straight in the crotch!