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6 Steps to MCAT Study Success

Discussion in 'MCAT Discussions' started by smtrinidad, Feb 10, 2015.

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  1. smtrinidad


    Jul 7, 2014
    New York
    6 Steps to Creating a Successful MCAT Study Plan

    In this document we will go over the steps for how to create a successful MCAT study plan. All of the advice comes from many years of experience, working for several of the large test prep companies including Kaplan, Next Step and others, and working with hundreds of different students.

    1. Start with the Official Materials, familiarize yourself with the exam Know how the exam will be administered, how many sections, the number of questions, the time etc…

    To do this start with the AAMC Official Guide to the MCAT which can be found at: https://www.aamc.org/students/applying/mcat/prepare/

    2. Mastering the Science Content with the three pass approach

    The MCAT exam is very different from so many of our traditional science exams and the study process should reflect this. The amount of material covered on the exam can be staggering as it incorporates material from at least 10 different courses (2 Bio, 2 Chem, 2 Physics, 1 Biochem, 1 Orgo, 2 Psych/Soc). It then takes the content and requires that you apply the concepts to new passages and critically synthesize the new material to answer questions. The silver lining in all of this is that because the exam tackles such a breadth of material and topics, it really sticks to the fundamentals of each. This should really be reflected in how you study the material.

    I have had many students try to use multiple review books to try and make sure they get everything, but in the end they spread themselves thin and really grasp very little. They become familiar with more than they really even need to know but really master very little of it. Instead, choose one set of content books and stick with it. Which books you choose maters significantly less than how you use them, but I personally recommend either EK, NS, Kaplan or PR. With whichever ever set you end up with, the absolute key will be to know that specific set of content review inside and out, front to back, top to bottom, upside down to right side up etc… It is better to absolutely master the fundamentals than to be familiar with tons of extraneous details so really stick to whichever set you choose and don’t cut yourself slack in learning THAT set of material.

    One of the most successful approaches I’ve seen work with students is the three pass approach:

    I. First pass:

    The first time you work through the material should take longer and it can also be broken down into several passes which we will call 1a, 1b and 1c.


    Flip through the pages looking just at the bolded terms and pictures. Spend extra time on any you aren’t familiar with, recite the definitions out loud, take brief notes, reproduce figures etc…. but save any questions you may come across and don’t spend the time yet analyzing large blocks of text… The goal of this pass is really just to learn the language and get an overview of the chapter. This should take 20-30 minutes per chapter depending on the length of the chapter.


    Next read through the chapter carefully and thoroughly. Spend time on each concept, especially the sections that are new or aren’t as familiar. Take notes if needed (try to be concise though), reproduce figures, work through questions (but don’t circle the answers) etc… Now that you know the vocab you can really master the material which is the goal of this pass through. This should take roughly 1-1.5 hours depending on the chapter.


    Lastly, after you have gone through and really understood the material, you want to do one last pass through. The overall goal of this is to get a broader overview or context for the material. Identify connections between sections, emphasize important concepts, begin to anticipate how the material could be tested and even identify tie-ins to other chapters. This last approach is again a little quicker like the first and should take roughly 30 minutes per chapter.

    II. Second Pass

    WAIT A DAY…………

    Go through the entire chapter a second time. Make sure you still understand all of the content, can reproduce all of the figures (this is especially important so don’t give yourself slack here), reproduce all of the important equations, concepts etc…. The goal here is to reinforce the material and make sure you retain it, so if there is anything that is unclear or that you have forgotten really spend the time reinforcing it and learning it. Re-do all of the questions. This should take roughly an hour per chapter (can be more or less depending on how well you know the material)

    III. Third pass

    WAIT A WEEK…..

    Read through the chapter a third and final time. The goal again is to really reinforce the content so go over all of the content, emphasize key relationships, be able to reproduce all of the figures, and re-do any questions that you got wrong or that were difficult.

    Lastly, Kahn academy has produce a whole set of excellent videos and practice passages for much of the exam. The amount of material in each section is inconsistent but the quality is good and it can be used as a great supplement to your books for learning the content. Incorporate the videos on an as-needed basis throughout the process.

    The videos can be found here: https://www.khanacademy.org/test-prep/mcat

    3. Find an approach for the CARS section that works for you and master it

    Different test prep companies advocate different approaches to the CARS section and honestly they all have their advantages and disadvantages and each can work well for different students. Thus the key is to find one that works for you and master it. How do you do that?

    I. Try multiple different strategies and test them out early. Try taking summary (brief) notes for each paragraph of each passage and use them with the questions, try highlighting topic sentences and key vocab, try a combination of highlighting and note-taking, try no notes/highlighting and just read for big picture, read fast, read slow etc….

    For each different approach really stick with it for enough passages to a good idea of the approach’s strengths and weaknesses and whether it would work for you (usually this is at least 4-5 passages and as much as a full section test). And try to do this all in the first week or two

    II. Master the Approach you selected and constantly refine. You really want to stick with which ever approach you’ve selected. Practice, practice, practice and always learn from the practice. For each set of passages you tackle, identify problems you had with the questions you got wrong, figure out solutions, identify ways to apply and practice the solutions and follow through. You always want to be learning and self-correcting.

    4. Integrate tons of questions, section tests, and full length exams.

    Mastering content with the three pass approach is only half (maybe even less) of the process for really succeeding on the exam. As we talked about, the MCAT goes beyond the material and really requires you to apply the concepts to new situations (passages) and incorporate the new information/relationships to answer questions. You can’t just know the material, you have to practice applying it. This is absolutely essential and at least half of your study time should be devoted to practicing questions and learning from them. The following points will detail where to find resources, how to practice questions, and how to learn from those questions.

    I. Identify resources to use for practice

    Below are descriptions and links for various full length practice tests.

    1 AAMC Exam


    5 Full Length Practice Tests - NS


    8 Full Length Practice Tests - PR


    Several Practice Tests – Gold Standard


    -Not till March and then April/May

    1 diagnostic and 3 practice tests


    2 Practice Tests - McGraw-Hill Education : $30

    4 Practice Section Tests for each Section – Next Step





    There are a total of 23 full length exams along with an additional 4 practice sections for each section listed above. Most sets of content books also come with several practice exams that you should make use of. All 23 exams can be used and the more practice the better, however you also want to make sure you thoroughly learn from each exam. The old MCAT exams (pre-2015 MCAT exam) can be used, especially for verbal practice, but most of your practice should be with the new MCAT. As a minimum try to fit in at 8-10 exams though 10-15 would be ideal and as mentioned before, completing more practice questions can never hurt. Definitely use the AAMC practice exam, then I recommend incorporating exams from NS, PR, and GS and spreading the exams from each company throughout your study period ( don’t work through all 5 NS, then all 8 PR, then 3 GS etc… instead spread them out so 1 NS, 2 PR, 1 GS, 1 NS, 2 PR, 1 GS etc…)

    You want to begin incorporating exams from the beginning and should start the study process with a diagnostic exam. Any of the exams can be used and NS has a half-length exam they have developed for just that purpose. At the beginning 1 exam every week or every other week (depending on the length of your study period) works well and then increase it to 2 exams every week as you approach test day.

    II. Learn from the practice exams: 3 step approach.

    In my experience the students that have seen the largest improvement have consistently been those who have been able to learn from their mistakes. Many I have worked with will take exam after exam without spending the necessary time really learning from their results. To really learn from the practice exam plan on devoting at least a full day to each full length you take for that purpose. There are two different sets of lessons you want to look for and the general model for fixing them remains the same.

    1. First, identify the problem. This doesn’t mean identify questions you got wrong, but instead you need to take it a level higher. Identify patterns, types of problems you struggle with, types of passages you struggle with etc… (you will never see the exact same question again, but you will see the same types of questions, passages etc…)

    2. Second, come up with a solution to deal with the problem. For ex, if you struggle getting through Bio experimental passages, try switching your approach and taking brief notes for those passages. If you struggle with stoichiometry calculations, come up with a method/approach to deal with it.

    3. Lastly, (and possibly most importantly) apply that solution and practice it extensively BEFORE your next full length. If you found Bio exp passages difficult and decided to try brief note-taking as a solution, then make sure you tackle several Bio experimental passages before your next full length exam (even if they are passages you have seen before, reinforcing the new approach/lesson learned is absolutely essential).

    Then really focus on consistently applying the lessons learned on your next full lengths. And as a side-note, make sure to review all questions on your full lengths including the ones you got right. Lessons learned can come from both positive accomplishments and mistakes that need improvement. If you have found something that works well for you, reinforce it and continue to apply it.

    III. Keep a Take-Aways Notebook and constantly review

    In order to really learn from your lessons/take-aways you want to keep track of the problems and solutions and review them constantly. This helps you focus on what you need to do to keep raising your score. The best way I have seen students accomplish this is by keeping track of your take-aways in a separate notebook or word document. In general split the lessons learned into 2 categories to keep track of them.

    The first is content/knowledge gaps and mistakes. As you read through questions (both ones you got right and wrong), identify any content gaps, go back to the set of content books you have and review/learn those sections, and for step 3 apply that knowledge and redo the questions in the back of that chapter and the questions on the full length exam that you missed.

    The second are strategy/approach mistakes. This category will help you identify mistakes in your approach or patterns of questions or passage types that you consistently struggle with. For ex, you may struggle with calculation questions. If so, you have identified the problem, then work through an approach or series of steps to solve calculation questions and lastly apply that to a series of calculation questions (even from old exams).

    Make sure to review your take-aways notebook every other day or so depending on the length of your study schedule.

    5. Find others going through the same thing

    We are all social beings and need support. Others who are going through the same difficult study process can be an immense support both socially and for learning the material/strategy.

    6. Keep perspective and don’t forget to rest

    MCAT study is an extensive process and many students can get tunnel vision. Don’t lose track of yourself in the process. Make time for other activities, friends, family, and other things that are important too you and remember why you are studying for exam in the first place. The MCAT is a marathon, not a sprint and you will need this perspective and time to rest in order to keep up the pace over the long-run and not burn out. There are several ways to accomplish this, but ideally intentionally set aside time in your schedule for rest. Choose a day of the week that you know you can look forward to and enjoy it.
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  3. JPSmyth

    JPSmyth 5+ Year Member

    May 1, 2012
    thank you so much, this is going to be very helpful. Question, for the three pass thing? How many chapters would you recommend going through per day? Block it out into a few chapters per day for the first pass, then repeat the same ones for the second pass the next day, then wait a week to do the third pass for all of them at the same time?

    And on the days where you do the second pass with the material, will you be doing a first pass of new chapters on the same day? Thanks again
  4. smtrinidad


    Jul 7, 2014
    New York
    So much of this honestly depends on your individual study schedule and how much time you have available per day. In total the first pass really takes about 2.5-3 hours. (20-30 min preview for vocab, 1.5-2 hour in depth learning, 15-30 min big picture review and questions). If you are doing full time MCAT study (8 hours 6 days a week) the following schedule can work well:
    2-3 chapters a day for a first pass are generally a max. For the 5 content sections (CARS is a little different) you could work through a chapter from all 5 books (Using EK books, 2 Bio books, 1 chem, 1 physics and 1 psych/soc) over the course of 2 days, then do your second pass on the third day as the second pass should only take roughly 45 min - an hour per chapter. Then repeat, so over the course of 6 days you would cover 10 chapters (2 chapters from each section) through both the first and second pass. The 7th day would be used for rest/a buffer. Then begin to incorporate an extra day into the schedule for the third pass, along with a day for a full length practice and review.

    Essentially the first week you would cover the first two passes from 10 chapters (2 from each section). In each subsequent week you would cover the first two passes for 5 new chapters (over three days) , the third pass for the chapters from the previous week (1 day) , a full length and a day for review (2 days).

    This schedule also gives you some time for spread out CARS review (1-2 hours in the beginning of the week and 2-3 hours on the days where you will be completing the 2nd pass and 3rd passes for a total of around 6-8 hours a week of CARS).

    This type of systematic approach can be adapted to other schedules though and it is important to leave time for CARS review and some practice even early on. If you have a better idea of how many hours/wk and what type of schedule you have I can give you more pointers but hope this helps.

  5. Forca Barca

    Forca Barca 5+ Year Member

    Jul 15, 2011
    I'm not the person who asked above but your plan seems pretty similar to the 100 days to success by the NS Tutor here: http://forums.studentdoctor.net/thr...e-mcat-2015-100-days-to-mcat-success.1101251/

    I'm just starting this 100 day plan. My only problem with his approach is that there is practice passages only once a week with the Khan Academy material. The bulk of the practice material/passages/questions is done on the last 3 weeks where he says we should be doing the full section practice? What do you think? The first 10 weeks have basically only 10 days dedicated to passage practice?

    For practice passages, I have 2012 TPR Hyperlearning Science Workbook + NS Psych Passage book + NS Bio/Biochem Passage book and a bunch (EK,NS,Kaplan,TPR Verbal). How would I spread those out using the 100 day plan one above? Thanks alot.
  6. smtrinidad


    Jul 7, 2014
    New York
    It is somewhat similar to the plan. I have worked with Bryan and Next Step Tutoring. They do a great job and working with them has influenced what I have done with students which is why you see some overlap (but also some differences).

    It depends a little on what book set you are using but part of the reason I like the EK books is that they come with Mini-mcats at the end of each chapter which incorporate sets of passages and questions. Most of the books do come with sets of questions which at the very least should be incorporated into your review.

    As far as the number of passages per week, backloading the practice does make a lot of sense. It is difficult to really tackle passages well and learn from them if you are still struggling with content. However, you also do want to be working on the skills needed to do well on test-day and should incorporate practice throughout. I've often recommended trying to get through about the equivalent of 1 full length exam every week or every other week (depending on how long your study plan is) which allows consistent practice and application of the content you are learning. That is why starting in the second week the hypothetical schedule above includes about 2/3rds content and 1/3rd practice. Out of the 6 days a week, 4 are spent on content (2 days on 1st pass, 1 day on 2nd pass, and 1 day on 3rd pass) while 2 days are dedicated to practicing passages and reviewing that practice. I think it would be very difficult to incorporate much more than this into the study process and still make significant progress in your content mastery.

    I also generally recommend trying to use MCAT 2015 specific practice if at all possible and wouldn't generally recommend using the TPR 2012 practice passages as they are outdated. While the general content is the same, the format for the passages is different, especially for the physics and chem. If you want to use it for Bio and CARS/verbal it can work, but even then the distribution of content for the Bio is different and your 2012 workbook won't really reflect that. If you have some money to spend I would purchase sets of full length exams. NS has 5, PR has 8, GS will have 3 out before the April exam and there are a handful of others you can purchase (McGraw-Hill and mcatcracker.com) so you should be able to incorporate a full length a week for the first 5-6 weeks and then transition to 2-3 a week for the next 8 weeks or so and still have enough, especially if you make use of the practice section tests that come with most review sets. I would definitely make use of old MCAT resources for extra CARS practice though as the types of passages and skill sets are the same.

    To answer your question more specifically, I'm not really sure how I would spread those passages out exactly. If passages match up with content you are reviewing well then I would incorporate them daily into your 1st or 2nd pass through. If not I would incorporate them weekly and try to get through about the equivalent of a full length exam.
  7. proteinworker

    proteinworker 2+ Year Member

    Jan 2, 2015
    Are McGraw Hill full length practice tests good enough? So far no review on Amazon.
  8. Forca Barca

    Forca Barca 5+ Year Member

    Jul 15, 2011
    First, Thanks alot for the quick and prompt response.

    Do you think the Khan Academy passages + FL once a week (2-3 /wk in the last month) are sufficient for passage practice for the science sections? I currently have the NS Passage books of Bio/Biochem, CARS, and Psych. Regarding FLs, I currently have 3 TPR + 3 Kaplan + AAMC Official Test, I plan on purchasing more.

    You said that the Physics and Chem have different format? What do you mean by that? Does the NS Passage book reflect this different format if I purchase it? I totally thought my TPR Hyperlearning would be sufficient for Chem and Physics since they're not changing much? What options do I have for Chem/Physics passage practice other than Khan and FLs? Or is that sufficient in your opinion? Sorry if my questions seem repetitive.

    Does any Prep company other than NS have dedicated books for passage practice? I know the EK content books that I have the mini-mcats.

    Thanks again
  9. smtrinidad


    Jul 7, 2014
    New York
    I can't really comment on their quality either. My general take is that I trust those that have been in the business longer so I would start with Next Step, Kaplan, Princeton Review, Gold Standard and then if you want more practice make use of McGraw-Hill and mcatcracker.com. The other very reasonable option is to use the full lengths you trust more (the ones just listed) for more timed, diagnostic purposes and use the other material as extra passages and questions that you just spread out over your study instead of as predictive full length exams.
  10. smtrinidad


    Jul 7, 2014
    New York
    I think the Khan Academy passages + FL once a week and increased in last several weeks is definitely enough practice passages and will give you a lot of material to work with and learn from. I would advise you to really use the practice well and make sure you take the necessary time to review the practice passages and learn from them. Having said that, with that schedule you should be taking close to 15 full length exams or so which is a large amount of practice and if used properly is more than enough to really do well on the exam.

    The content for Physics and Chem will be the same (after all physics and chemistry haven't changed significantly in the last year) but the way they are tested will be different for the new exam. In the new exam both the physics and chemistry will have a very heavy Bio focus for application. So instead of applying V=IR or the nersnt equation to batteries, the passage will have an application to neurons or heart action potentials, or while you absolutely will still use Newton's laws for forces, it'll be in the context of a force causing a trauma etc... The other difference (especially on Bio) is the representation of topics. So for instance the old MCAT was more Orgo heavy with 20-25% of the exam devoted to the content, while the new exam hardly touches the subject and instead covers substantially more biochemistry. This isn't as critical for the physics and chem but is still a consideration. Both of these changes/differences won't be reflected in the old MCAT passage/question books.

    So in summary, is there overlap withthe TPR 2012 hyperlearning series and the new MCAT? Definitely... Would the practice from the TPR Hyperlearning be useful? Yes (so feel free to use them if you have extra time and want questions)..... Are there better sources that more accurately represent how the material will be applied to the new exam? Absolutely which is why I would recommend using an updated content review book and passages whenever possible and honestly any of the new sets could work well.

    As far as more passages to practice with, that is a question students always ask and there is always a desire for more. I know Next Step has their MCAT Chemistry and Physics: Strategy and Practice book which is a good resource. As you mentioned the EK has mini-mcats in their books which are good. For the old exam TBR used to have some good passages to practice with along with other resources from EK/PR but unfortunately there is little out yet out from them for the new exam. What I would recommend would be to purchase some of the extra sets of FL exams and use those as a source of practice passages instead of actual predictive full length exams. This is where the McGraw-Hill and Mcatcracker.com tests could be useful as they are much cheaper ($30 for 2 exams and $50 for 4 exams) and even though they may or may not be great resources yet (it's hard to tell), they will still be extra sets of passages and questions which is always helpful.
  11. Glazedonutlove

    Glazedonutlove 2+ Year Member

    Jan 2, 2015
    How is the next step psych book??
  12. Forca Barca

    Forca Barca 5+ Year Member

    Jul 15, 2011
    Pretty solid
  13. Glazedonutlove

    Glazedonutlove 2+ Year Member

    Jan 2, 2015
    compare it to passages in old mcat??
  14. smtrinidad


    Jul 7, 2014
    New York
    The NS strategy and passage books are very solid in general and I especially like the psych book.
  15. smtrinidad


    Jul 7, 2014
    New York
    Here are two examples of study calendars that would work very well with the strategies listed above. The first is a 12 week plan utilizing EK for content and NS books for strategies along with multiple different sources for practice. Personally I like the EK content the most as it is one of the most concise and also provides the sets of practice passages that correspond to each chapter which are a good source of practice passages that integrate well into content review. The NS strategy and practice passages books are very solid and definitely my favorite for strategy and practice. They are great to incorporate early on as they provide in-depth explanations for all their practice and generally more guidance for strategy than most other books or sets of full length exam.

    The NS CARS book is also one of the best (if not the best) on the market. It is the only book (to my knowledge) that recognizes that there are different types of strategies for the CARS/verbal that work for different individuals instead of advocating a one-size fits all approach that other sets do. So even if you don't purchase all of the NS strategy and practice books, I definitely recommend the verbal.

    The second plan is a 10 week plan utilizing just the EK books for content and NS CARS along with a variety of full length exams.

    Both study plans provide a good balance of practice (even early on) and content review and can be used as templates to craft your own study plan.
    Of the two study plans I recommend the 12 week as it incorporates more guided practice (in the form of NS strategy and practice sections) but the 10 week plan is definitely very solid.

    Attached Files:

    Perseverance06 likes this.
  16. lcashmoney

    lcashmoney 2+ Year Member

    Jan 7, 2015
    Thank you for posting these calendars, they look really helpful. I am wondering though, on the 12 week calendar, it refers to only 7 chapters of content, making 3 passes through each- can that be referring to the EK books? Are there really only 7 chapters of content to go through in those or am I reading the calendar incorrectly?
  17. smtrinidad


    Jul 7, 2014
    New York
    Many actually have less than 7, but there are now five content books instead of the previous four for the old exam. Covering the equivalent of 1 full chapter from each a week (doubling up on certain books once you are done with others so you always cover 5 chapters )will have you finish between 6 and 7 weeks in.
  18. Takeda

    Takeda 2+ Year Member

    Jan 13, 2015
    Thank You for creating this very informative thread! This truly cleared up a lot of my MCAT 2015 study questions and concerns before I embark on the fantastic 12 week study plan you've blocked out. I just have a few general questions.

    1. For the FL practice tests starting at week 6, do you recommend we start with AAMC and then just mix them up? Or save AAMC for the end?
    2. Can you clarify what you mean by the solution practice and general review days? Is this part of the "Take-Aways Notebook/strategies/content gaps" you mentioned above in part III?
    3. By what week would you recommend we finalize our CARS strategy?
    4. Do you believe EK provides sufficient Biochem review for someone who hasn't taken the course? Or would you recommend, say, adding Kaplans book/foundations course to the mix as well?

    Much appreciated!
  19. smtrinidad


    Jul 7, 2014
    New York
    1. I would save the AAMC exam until closer to the end and start with either the Next Step or Princeton review exams and mix them up as you go ( for ex. 1 NS, 1 PR, 1 GS, then repeat...)

    2. Yes, this is part of what was mentioned in part III, specifically it is part of learning from the lessons and reinforcing your solutions. So for instance, if you learn you have a content gap in forces, then you go back to the forces chapter to review, practice questions and then re-do the force questions you missed. If you learn you have trouble with Bio experimental passages, then you brainstorm/troubleshoot solutions (maybe slowing down or highlighting or taking brief notes as you go) and then practice those solutions on old (or new) Bio experimental passages to reinforce your solutions before your next full length.

    3. The sooner you can finalize the CARS strategy the better and ideally by the end of the second week you should have worked through all of N.S. CARS book which will walk you through multiple approaches to the section along with practice to help you determine what works well for you.

    4. I do believe the EK Biochem review will usually be enough but let me elaborate a little more. The EK books will cover everything required for the exam so if you know the EK biochem portion well you will be set,, will have the content foundation you need to succeed and should not need another review source. However, some students without a biochem foundation may find that they have a harder time really understanding the EK Biochem portion simply because it is more concise. If this is the case then it would be a good idea to purchase another more in-depth review source. So if you feel that you cannot really master the EK Biochem book as is because it is too concise then get a supplement but otherwise just stick with the EK review. There are two sources that would work well for extra MCAT Biochem review, first is the Next Step Biology/Biochemistry book. It includes more information than the EK books (which can be a good and bad thing, it has more detail and background for those who haven't had Biochem but isn't as concise or efficient as the EK Biochem book) and will match up well with the NS. Section tests that are incorporated in the study plan. The Kaplan 2015 Biochem book would also work well. Alternatively, another approach would be to use the EK Biochem book and supplement it with an actual course textbook for areas that you feel you don't understand.

    Good Luck!
    Last edited: Mar 4, 2015
  20. whitenoir

    whitenoir 2+ Year Member

    Sep 21, 2014
    What do you mean by "reproduce the figures?" Do I draw the figures in a separate sheet of paper?


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