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Shrike

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This Explanations thread is unlike the others: it is intended to provide answers to questions about how best to study for the MCAT that are not related to a particular subject. The moderators do not have a consensus on some of these questions, and whenever this has happened, we have posted everyone's views. Unfortunately, the strategies that worked best for Shrike might not be the best ones for QofQuimica, or Nutmeg, or jmugele, or MoosePilot, or lorelei, or you. There is no universal secret method to doing well on the MCAT, and it may take quite a bit of trial and error before you figure out which test-taking methods are best for you. Thus, we advise students to try several strategies, use the ones that work best for them, and practice their preferred strategies thoroughly, starting long before test day.

For your convenience, a table of contents with links listing all of the posts included in this thread is given below.

**********

Table of Contents
  • Post 11: Best Order to Answer Questions on the MCAT
  • Post 12: Best Way to Review a Practice Test
  • Post 07: Calc-Based vs. Noncalc-Based Physics
  • Post 19: Computer-Based MCAT Issues: Information about the CBT
  • Post 24: Computer-Based MCAT Issues: Paper versus Computer Practice Tests
  • Post 04: Daily Studying Time
  • Post 02: Deciding Whether to Take a Test Prep Course
  • Post 03: Deciding Which Test Prep Course to Take
  • Post 21: emack's Tips for Doing Well on the MCAT
  • Post 22: Helpful Links for Pre-Health Test-Takers (DAT, MCAT, OAT, PCAT)
  • Post 15: How to Finish the PS Section Faster
  • Post 05: How Many Months to Study
  • Post 13: How to Stay Motivated and Awake While Studying
  • Post 18: Learning Science Material for the Pre-Health Exams
  • Post 20: Low MCAT Score: Advice and Options
  • Post 17: Non-traditional Students: Advice and Special Considerations
  • Post 23: Practice Test Score Fixation
  • Post 16: Predicting MCAT Scores from SAT/ACT Scores
  • Post 10: Taking Biochemistry for the MCAT
  • Post 08: Taking Genetics for the MCAT
  • Post 09: Taking the MCAT without Taking Organic Chemistry
  • Post 06: Taking the MCAT without Taking Physics
  • Post 14: Test Scores Decreasing, Burn Out, and Cramming
 

Shrike

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Should I take one of the commercial review courses?

Shrike: Maybe. It depends very much on too many variables for us to address your own situation adequately. Here are some of the things you should consider:
  • How well do you study on your own -- do you do better in groups? Do you have the discipline to spend four hours every night on the MCAT, even though there's no obvious direct benefit?
  • How close are you, right now, to your score goals? How do you know -- have you taken a full-length practice test? If you found out you weren't where you thought, or it were possible to improve a different amount from what you thought, would your goals change?
  • Do you have the money for the course?
  • Are the courses available to you any good? Are they taught by experienced instructors who will make things easier for you to understand and will be able to answer your questions, or are they taught by first-timers who will just read from the textbooks or lesson notes? How do you know these things? Ask your classmates about courses they've taken; ask the companies whose courses you're considering; try a course and see what you think (but make sure you can get your money back if it isn't what you hoped).
QofQuimica: I want to add that those of you who prefer independent study may want to consider taking a course on line rather than the live classroom course. The advantages are that it is cheaper, it is very convenient (you can study anywhere you have internet access, anytime 24-7) and you get most of the same course materials as the live course users. The disadvantage is that you do not have facetime with instructors if you want to ask questions, although you can email questions. This is basically what I did to prepare myself for the MCAT.

Test prep companies also offer private tutoring, but it is outrageously expensive. I personally do not feel that private tutoring gives most students the best value for their money. If you decide that you need extra help to learn your science content above and beyond the classroom lectures, I would suggest that you first try approaching your instructors before class or after class to ask questions.​
 

Shrike

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Should I take Kaplan or The Princeton Review (TPR) for my test prep course?

Shrike: There is no single test prep course that is right for everyone, so we can't tell you which one you personally should take. Not because we're being difficult, but because we don't know. For the record, we want everyone to know up front that I teach for TPR, and QofQuimica teaches for Kaplan. There are no hidden agendas here, but we thought you should know.

Kaplan and TPR cover pretty much the same material, in pretty much the same way. Each provides lectures and practice passages in each of five subject areas; each provides loads of material from which to study; each has you take several practice tests under proctored conditions. Each provides some form of guarantee. Oh yes, each costs more than $1000. And don't forget, these things are true of the other prep courses out there, too. In many areas, Kaplan and TPR are the only games in town, but in other places there are other companies. In this area, I have to exercise caution, but I'll try to be as objective as possible, though I actually have strong (and predictable) views.

The most important determinant of what you should choose is how well the individual courses that are available to you are taught. It's individual instructors that make a course work for you (or not), not the number of pages in the texts or anything else that is easily quantified. Ask around in your area about the courses you're considering: Are they taught by experienced instructors who will make things easier for you to understand and will be able to answer your questions, or are they taught by short-timers who will just read from the textbooks or lesson notes? Ask the local office which instructors are scheduled to teach the course you're considering, and how many times they've taught before. Ask how those instructors were trained -- by videotape, or in person? Ask to speak to some former students. Ask around your campus to see who's taken courses from those particular instructors, and what the students thought. Do your homework.

That said, there are systematic differences. The consensus among students, to the extent there is one, is that Kaplan is geared more toward self-studiers, while TPR is more of a comprehensive, lecture-based experience. This makes sense, considering that TPR's course offers many more hours of instruction. Kaplan is known for providing extensive resources, particularly at their offices; TPR gives students nearly though perhaps not quite as much, and provides everything to the student rather than at the office.

The companies' score improvement and satisfaction guarantees are subtly different; read the fine print. The schedules will differ, of course, but that should be only a small factor: if you're serious about this, you'll choose the best option and then find a way to make it work. TPR is usually slightly more expensive, but in context the difference is small. Remember that there may be other prep courses available to you, too. This answer deals specifically only with the two we know best, but before committing your preparation for the most important test of your life to date to anyone's help, it behooves you to investigate all options. Ask the other guys the same questions detailed above.

QofQuimica: I would like to second what Shrike has already said, and emphasize again our joint belief that getting a good instructor is THE single most important determinant as to how positive an experience you will have with your test prep course. Word of mouth is the best way to find out who the good instructors are; ask your older pre-med friends who have already completed a course. In general, any test prep company's curriculum will prepare you for the MCAT, but (and this is a HUGE but!) you must complete all of the assignments, attend all of the classes, and take all of the proctored practice tests. This seems self-explanatory, but you'd be amazed how many students (or their parents) shell out large sums of money for test prep courses and then do not take advantage of the resources available to them. So if you do decide to go with a test prep course, take it seriously, and approach it as seriously as you would any of your regular college courses.

Those of you who are studying for the DAT, OAT, and PCAT will have more limited choices compared to MCAT students. Kaplan does offer live courses for these three exams, but TPR does not, as of this writing. You may be able to take a local company's course in your area, however, so it is still worth your while to check into what options are available to you.

One other thing that I'd like to make you aware of if you didn't know already: many pre-health clubs (PAMSA, AED, etc.) make deals with both Kaplan and TPR to get reduced rates for their members to take our test prep courses. So if you decide to take a course, you may want to check with your local pre-health chapter about this.

Shrike: If you have the opportunity to take Q's (Kaplan) class, take it. If you have the opportunity to take my (TPR) class, take it. As we live a thousand miles from each other, you're unlikely to have to choose between us.

spartan83: I took Princeton Review, and now I teach for Kaplan. TPR does a much better job of teaching the content of the course, has specialized teachers, and has a more lenient schedule of what they teach. Kaplan does a much better job teaching how to attack the questions and the passages, as well as all the little things about the test (stress, etc.). If you feel that you are someone who can read on your own and keep up with things, then Kaplan is for you. However, if you feel that you need to learn the content in class, and then go out and practice, then TPR is for you. Both are great, and have a lot of resources; basically it comes down to how much you want to study (over 100 hours probably).​

What about ExamKrackers, Berkeley Review, TestMasters, and other courses?

Shrike: We don't know. Ask around. See above re: what you want to ask.​
 
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Shrike

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How much time per day should I study while preparing for the MCAT?

QofQuimica: This question depends on so many factors that it is hard to answer it generically. There won't be one answer that is right for everyone. First of all, you need to honestly assess how much preparation you need for the MCAT. If you are a current student who has just finished the pre-reqs and who did well in them, you will not need to study as extensively as those students who have been out of school for many years or who did not do very well in their pre-req courses.

What I recommend that you do is decide how many hours to study per day based on how much studying you need to do for your individual situation, divided over the number of weeks or months that you plan to study. Ideally, you should have a plan for every day. For example: read Ch. 1 of Biology on Monday, take a biology practice test on Tues, go over the test on Wed, and so forth. If you are taking a prep course, you will receive a study schedule as part of your course, and most of this work will be done for you. If you are self-studying, however, you will need to make a schedule for yourself. Invest in a calendar and make assignments for yourself for each day between the day you plan to start studying and the day of the test. This will give you an idea about how many hours per day will be necessary to accomplish your studying goals. Finally, you need to be practical about your outside obligations. If you are in school full-time or working full-time, you will not realistically be able to study for the MCAT eight hours per day on weekdays. So make your schedule flexible enough to accomodate the other things going on in your life. For example, study more hours on weekends and fewer hours on weekdays. I also suggest adding a catch-up day every week or two in case something comes up and you get behind.​
 
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Shrike

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How long before the test should I start studying?

QofQuimica: I recommend that most students begin preparing for the MCAT three to six months in advance, depending on their work/school schedule and how much preparation they require. It is possible to prepare in two months, but I don't recommend doing this unless you are able to devote yourself to studying for the MCAT full-time. (For example, some students choose to study full-time during June and July for the August test, which can work if they do not take any summer classes.)

During the last month before you take the MCAT, you should take several practice full-length tests. Students who take a TPR or Kaplan prep course take five full-length proctored exams as part of the course, which is probably an adequate number of practice tests for most people. Those of you who are self-studying will need to take the practice tests on your own; make sure that you strictly observe the time limits for each section. You can purchase actual released MCATs from the AAMC, and you can also buy practice tests from any of the test prep companies.​
 
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Shrike

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Does it make sense to take the MCAT before I've taken physics?
Shrike: Actually, it's not a terrible idea if you're getting professional test prep instruction. Many of my students have not had, or are currently taking, second-semester physics, and this works fine. A few haven't taken any college-level physics, and they have a lot of catching up to do but most manage if the instruction is competent. If you're not taking a prep course, it's going to be difficult, and I don't personally recommend it, but obviously I haven't seen such students. I don't believe there's a consensus among other experienced posters on this issue.​

QofQuimica: My feeling is that students should not even be taking the test prep course unless they are at the very least currently enrolled in Physics II. I try to dissuade students from taking the MCAT if they haven't completed Physics I and nearly completed Physics II before test day, because while a few may be able to do it, it will be ridiculously difficult for most students. It's challenging enough to learn physics over the course of two semesters, and you have to take both physics classes anyway to get into medical school. So I would encourage you to postpone taking the MCAT for a year so that you can take both semesters of physics before beginning your test prep. This will allow you to prepare for the test properly.​
 

Shrike

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Which physics class should I take to prepare for the MCAT: calculus-based (engineering) physics, or non-calculus (pre-med) physics?

Shrike: You should take calculus-based physics, in my opinion. Calculus was invented to solve physics problems, and many of those problems are a lot easier with calculus available. More importantly for us, some of the concepts are easier to understand with calculus, too. Anyone who makes it through calc-based physics will be better placed when the MCAT rolls around than he'd have been with algebra-based physics. Unfortunately, we know it's not that simple. At some schools, calculus-based physics is really tough, in ways that do premeds little good. It therefore may be more difficult to maintain your GPA, and to absorb all of the material, if you opt for the calculus-based course. Ask around your own campus. Ideally, you'll ask people who have taken calculus-based physics, and are about as sharp as you are at math. If you're considering choosing the calculus path, you're probably more mathematically inclined than the average premed. Unfortunately, you're probably less mathematically inclined than the average engineer, and these courses may comprise primarily engineers.

One more thing: be very careful when choosing any physics course to ensure that the professor's English is clear. In physics, more than any other subject you're likely to take (except perhaps math), this is a frequent problem.

QofQuimica: I would just like to add one other non-MCAT-related benefit of taking calculus-based physics, which is that it is a more rigorous course than pre-med physics. Remember that medical schools do look at the level of difficulty of the courses that you've selected. In general, it is best to take the most difficult courses available to you, assuming that you are able to do well in them.​
 

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Will it really help me to take an advanced Genetics course before taking the MCAT?

MoosePilot: I took one and I thought it helped. Genetics is getting more emphasis, but it's pretty basic genetics. I've noticed at least one pedigree question on each practice/actual test I took last year. Know the major types of inheritance (dominant, recessive, sex-linked) and these aren't too hard. Draw the pic and it becomes easier. Don't get suckered into wasting all your time.

Law2Doc: The MCAT doesn't go super in depth on genetics, but it does cover it. So whether you need to take a specific genetics class totally depends on how well genetics was covered in your bio classes. If you spent substantial time (weeks) on it in bio, and you have a solid grasp of the material, you will do fine on that part of the MCAT, and needn't take another class. (Look over Kaplan/TPR prep materials to be sure that what is in there was covered in your basic bio classes - in mine it all was.)

QofQuimica: I basically agree with Law2Doc. I don't think a genetics course is the best use of study time for most students, unless somehow your basic biology course did not cover genetics.

jmugele: I agree -- most of the genetics on the MCAT is pretty straightforward. A class may help, but most of the information you need, you can get from study guides or even by reading the relevant chapters in a biology text (I never took genetics, just checked out books from the library).
 

jmugele

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Does it make sense to take the MCAT before I've taken organic chemistry?
Shrike: No. Or so seems to be the consensus.

jmugele: As I posted before, I think a person could get away without taking genetics. But I think the opposite is true for organic chemistry. Although there's not a whole lot of orgo on the MCAT (although, that probably depends on the specific test -- I'm guessing it's roughly the same amount of material as genetics), organic chemistry is much more complex conceptually. I also found that a good organic chemistry class teaches you some really good abstract problem-solving skills that are helpful for test-taking in general. But overall, because orgo is so complex and because there is a lot of memorization, I think a class helps before the MCAT.

QofQuimica: No, as with physics, I believe it is best to have at least completed Organic I before taking a prep course or starting self-study, and ideally Organic II as well. It is fine though if you are still taking Organic II while you study for the MCAT.

 

QofQuimica

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Probably. But it's fine if you take it your senior year, after you take the MCAT. For the MCAT, you do NOT need to take biochemistry if you have successfully completed organic II and a full year of general biology, although it certainly won't hurt you. However, most pre-meds should seriously consider taking a biochemistry course with lab because several medical schools are starting to require it. Check the MSAR to see whether any schools you think you might apply to have this requirement. If you're not sure where you want to apply, you should probably take biochemistry so that you will have the option down the road to apply to schools that require it.
 

QofQuimica

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Should I do the discrete questions first on the MCAT science sections?

QofQuimica: Some of the other moderators may have other thoughts about this issue. My personal opinion is yes; in fact, I do the discrete questions first myself. The main reasons are that the discretes tend to be more straightforward than the passage-based questions, and they take less time to do because there isn't any passage to read. But there is also a good psychological rationale for doing the discrete questions first: since they tend to be quicker and less involved, getting through them quickly can build up your confidence before you start tackling the passages.

As with any strategy for taking the MCAT, if you are unsure about whether doing the discretes first works for you, you should try it on one or more practice tests well before test day.

Shrike: Q's right, but there's even more reason to do what we at TPR call Free-Standing Questions first: even if they aren't quicker to do (and sometimes they're not), they tend to take a fixed amount of time -- there's really only one approach to these. On the other hand, there are a variety of ways to approach a passage, some more time-consuming than others. As you approach the time limit, you want all of the inflexible FSQs done, so you can adapt your methodology on the remining, passage-based questions to the time remaining.

On the other hand, if you're really fast, it doesn't matter what order you do the questions in.

QofQuimica: I'm really fast, but I still do the discretes first for all the reasons we gave above. Still, I agree that if you don't have trouble finishing the section on time, then whether to do the discretes first is probably a question of personal preference. But for most students, it will probably save time to do the discretes first.

LT2: I tend to agree with the people who suggest doing the free standing questions first; they tend to give you the most "bang for your buck". They're quick: either you know 'em or you don't, and you don't want to be stuck at the end of a section leaving three or four free standing questions....I found it really helped me on the PS section where i tended to run short on time.

 

jmugele

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After taking a diagnostic exam, what would be some good ways to go through it? Also, is it worth taking the same exam again?

jmugele: One of the most useful learning experiences for me was taking a diagnostic test, marking the questions I was uncertain of (in case I guessed correctly), and then looking up the correct answers. I would recommend taking as many diagnostics as I could and looking up all of the answers you could (not waiting for it to come up in class). I found it helps learning a subject to have specific problems to try to answer. Regarding re-taking a test, I'm guessing that won't be as useful to you. (Are you really learning a subject or just remembering it from the previous test?) Also, there are plenty of diagnostics out there, especially if you're taking Kaplan or TPR.​

Did you keep track of problems/passages you got wrong so that you could go over them in the last 2 weeks leading into the MCAT?

jmugele: Um, not really. I definitely went over those problems after taking a test. And I would do whatever reading/studying necessary to make sure I understood the correct answer. But I never saved those up. I guess I generalized it more -- I kept track of those topics that I was having trouble with. I would save out flashcards on those topics and make sure I did extra studying on those. Because if you think about it, saving individual problems for later won't do much good, because the chances of you having a very similar problem on the MCAT are slim. But if you know your strengths and weaknesses in terms of subject areas, you can better hone your studying as you approach the D-Day.​

Should I be writing a detailed reason for each question I got wrong in a notebook, so that I can go over it later?

jmugele: I would not revisit the ones I got right. Instead, as I'm taking a test, I'll mark the ones I'm guessing on or unsure of (I wouldn't worry about keeping track of time on a test until late in the studying process). That way, even if I get them right, I can still go study them. What I liked to do after a test was immediately study each wrong answer or marked answer to better understand it. Then, I would also keep a log of the topics that I was having trouble with and make a point to go study the topic more. It's much more useful to know which subjects you need to study more, than to be able to nail a particular question.

QofQuimica: I would recommend reading over the explanations for all questions, even the ones you got right. The reason for this is that WHY you got the question right matters more than the fact that you got it right. (Let's be honest; we all get multiple choice questions right sometimes out of sheer luck!) While you are studying, you should be concentrating on improving your problem-solving and thinking skills, not on any one particular question or answer. So if you read the explanation and it is along the same lines of what you were thinking while you were taking the test, then you are doing the right thing. On the other hand, if you read the explanation and it is completely different than your own method for arriving at the answer, you should check into whether your method is generally correct or you just happened to luck out that time.
 
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Nutmeg

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What can I do to stay focused and awake while I'm studying?

Nutmeg: A good stay-awake method my sister taught me was strong gum (like Dentyne Ice or such--strong mint or cinnamon gum). Also works well for long drives. Additionally, there's a dietary supplement called DMAE (dimethyl amino ethanol) which I heard Dr Perricone talk about in his lecture dealie that he gives during PBS fund raisers. He said that it was used to help ADHD kids once upon a time, and suggested that it helped attention. I used it, and while I didn't perform any manner of controlled study, I'm pleased with the results, so why the hell not give it a try?

QofQuimica: It's kind of crazy, but I find that chewing mint-flavored gum works for me, too. I'm not sure if it's the actual mint itself that keeps you awake, or just that you're doing something "physical," but it helps. Plus as a bonus your breath will smell nice.

Another good strategy is not to sit for hours at a time with no break. I think a break of a few minutes about once per hour is in order. Get up, stretch, walk around a little, get yourself a drink, that kind of thing. Having a few minutes to clear your mind every now and then will help stop you from getting fatigued. Also, figure out what kind of biorhythm you have (morning person or night person) and do the bulk of your studying then. I always found that I studied best in the morning for long periods, but I can read for a little while (maybe an hour or so) at night before going to bed. But I know some people like to stay up studying till the wee hours. If that's you, then go with it.

I don't advocate using DMAE or any other drugs; the potential benefit is not worth the potential risks IMHO. I would suggest that you try not to get yourself addicted to caffeine or other chemical aids to stay awake if you can avoid it. You do build up a tolerance to these things, and then it's a pain to go through withdrawal. I've quit caffeine several times myself. :smuggrin:

jmugele: I'd try mixing it up, and like I say to my kids when they're cleaning, make a game of it. If I'm reading something for a few hours, then I'll take a break and take a mini-practice test or do flash cards or switch subjects. I also liked to track my scores on various sections and overall and chart my progress (huge nerd, right here). But it kept me interested.
 
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jmugele

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What should I do if my practice test scores have started to decrease?

jmugele: If you're studying intensely, I'd recommend taking the week of the actual MCAT off. I find that intense studying can actually make me more nervous and give me performance anxiety. Taking the final week off from studying might help you go into the test fresh and ready.

QofQuimica: My practice test scores also started decreasing toward the end of last summer. In my case, I think it was a severe case of burn-out, and I stopped studying altogether for the last few weeks before the exam. I agree with jmugele that maybe some more downtime would help you. Also, if you are planning to take more full-length practice tests in the next month before your exam, don't take more than one or two per week, and give yourself at least a day or two off between tests.​
Will it hurt my test score if I cram for the MCAT?

Nutmeg: I've never understood this mentality. If you cram 'til the last minute, you can rely on information in your long-term memory and your short-term memory. I always do much better on a test if I enter the test in the mindframe of the subject--it helps wake up all of the relevant mental machineray, so you don't need to wait for the engine to warm up before you start cranking and firing. It makes you more tired by the end of the day, but I can't imagine remembering all of the random-ass conventions for chemistry for a week or more. I say focus on comprehension of material in the prereq classes, and cram your brain with facts and conventions immediately prior to the test.

jmugele: For me, it wasn't a question of keeping things in my short-term or long-term memory (although one week really shouldn't be out of the threshold of short-term). For me it was about managing stress. If I study right up to the minute of the test, I start worrying myself about one last thing I didn't cover, or do I really know a certain formula. Then I go into a test more stressed out. If I can take a test in a more relaxed state of mind, I find I usualy perform better, especially on those sections like VR where you're not relying on past knowledge.

QofQuimica: Cramming doesn't work for me, either. I actually didn't study at all for the last three weeks before the MCAT. I was feeling tired and burned out at the end of July, and my practice test scores were going down rather than up. So I just stopped studying altogether: no more practice tests, no more review, no more anything.

I guess the most important thing is to know yourself well enough that you know what YOU need to do to get yourself ready mentally and psychologically for the MCAT. No one strategy is going to work for everyone. Some of my students swear by the flash cards that come with their prep class; I never used them even once. I'm just not a huge flash card fan for most things. Some people time themselves religiously after every passage or every few passages; I never timed myself at all. Some people don't annotate their passages, or don't skip around the section; I did. My way of doing things isn't necessarily better or worse than theirs, but it's what worked for me. Overall, I'd recommend that you students studying for the MCAT try several of these strategies (on practice tests, not on the real thing!) and play around a little to figure out what works best for you. Then practice your strategies of choice consistently between now and test day.​
 

QofQuimica

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I'm finding it hard to increase my speed in the physical sciences section. Any suggestions?

QofQuimica: I'd recommend focusing on relationships among variables. It's important to be aware of how one changes with respect to another, such as direct or indirect relationships, and linearly or exponentially varying? Shrike wrote a very nice post about how to read physics passages quickly that you might want to read over if you haven't already.

jmugele: I think the best thing you can do to increase speed is to know the formulas cold and know when to use them. Also, if you have speed issues on the paragraph sections, then a lot of techniques for the VR will help you here: summarize each paragraph briefly as you read; underline any formulas that are given; etc. In terms of raising the score, practice, practice, practice. I found it very useful to go to the library and pick up a book of college physics problems and explanations and just work through the whole book. Flashcards of the formulas helped too. And lots of practice tests (I'd ignore other sections if you're doing well on them and just do physics sections).​
 
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Is my SAT (or ACT) score a good predictor of how well I will do on the MCAT?

QofQuimica: We have discussed this issue on SDN before, and the general consensus is that there is not a strong correlation between scores on the pre-college tests and scores on the MCAT. There was even a thread where people tried to come up with a formula to calculate theoretical MCAT score based on SAT or ACT score, but it wasn't a very good predictor in many cases. If you want to gauge where you're at on the MCAT, take a practice test under timed conditions and score it. You can get practice tests from a bookstore, from a test prep company, or from the AAMC. I will caution you though that many students underestimate the difficulty of the MCAT VR, and to their own detriment. So make sure that your MCAT study plans contain plenty of VR practice; VR is the one section that tends to be the hardest for the vast majority of students.​
 

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I am a non-traditional student (generally defined as an applicant of age 25+, but basically this could be any student who has been out of school for a while for whatever reason). What do I need to know about preparing for the MCAT, OAT, DAT, or PCAT?

QofQuimica: Basically, all of the advice that applies to traditional-aged students about studying for the pre-health standardized exams applies to you as well. If you have no science background, or if you have otherwise not taken all four pre-requisite courses (physics, general chemistry, organic chemistry, and biology), you ideally should take two semesters of each of these courses before attempting to take any of the pre-health exams. You may also need to take coursework in math, such as calculus. (Note that the PCAT *does* have calculus problems on the QR section of the exam. The other three exams do not have calculus on them, but you may still need to take calculus as a pre-requisite for school or to help you prepare for physics.) If you are a graduate student in the sciences or post-bac student taking pre-health coursework, and you have already taken all four pre-requisite courses, you can begin to study for your test whenever you are ready.

Non-traditional students who are planning their pre-health studies and preparing for their exams are invited to visit the Non-traditional Students Forum for more help with issues specific to older applicants. There are several threads there that are good resources for older applicants, including the Links to Pertinent Non-trad Threads Elsewhere thread and the Non-trad FAQ thread. In addition, several of the moderators in this Study Questions sub-forum are non-trads, including MoosePilot, jmugele, TheDarkSide, and myself, so feel free to ask us if you have any questions about preparing, studying, and applying as a non-trad.​
 

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I earned As in my pre-health science coursework without really studying, but now that I'm preparing for my pre-health exam, I need to go back and actually learn the material. What can I do?

jmugele: I had a similar problem because I had been out of class for about 10 years prior to taking the MCAT. I prepared with material from the library. I checked out a biology textbook and read it pretty much cover to cover. I checked out a workbook with physics problems and explanations and did those, and I checked out a general chemistry book. Rather than reading it, I just did the problems at the end of each chapter. If I had issues, I went back to the text. I also got an organic textbook and worked through the first few chapters.

QofQuimica: I think that jmugele's suggestion could work well for you if you're motivated to study on your own and you have enough time to cover all the material. Other possibilities could be to hire a chemistry tutor or audit the classes at a local community college; many community colleges cater to working students and offer classes at night or on weekends. If you want a tutor, you should call the chemistry department at your university and ask for a list of graduate students who are interested in tutoring. You'll pay a lot less this way than you would going through a test prep company, and since the grad students typically TA the undergrad classes, they will be very familiar with your chemistry coursework. Finally, if you have questions while you're studying, feel free to drop in here and post them. We're happy to help.​
 

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What is the CBT (Computer Based Test) for the MCAT, and what will the new CBT MCAT be like?
If you will be taking the MCAT in April or August 2006, you will have the option in certain cities of taking it either on a computer (CBT) or via the normal, pen-and-paper way. Beginning in 2007, all MCATs will be administered on a computer. This will obviously create some changes in the test itself, as well as in the strategies needed to perform well on it. We will continue to post further updates about the CBT over the next year, but here is some basic information about the MCAT CBT:

1) The CBT will (obviously!) be taken on a computer, but it is NOT adaptive. What that means is that the test questions do not get harder if you answer a question correctly, nor easier if you answer a question incorrectly. The CBT will work analogously to the DAT, in that every question is worth the same as every other question, and the test-taker has the option to skip around within a section and review earlier questions until time is up for that section. In contrast, the GRE (standardized exam for graduate school applicants) is an example of an adaptive test; on such a test, the harder questions are weighted more heavily, so that you earn more points for answering them correctly than you do for answering easier questions correctly. The test-taker must answer the questions in the order they are presented, and s/he is penalized for wrong answers.

2) The CBT will basically be just like the pen-and-paper MCAT and cover the same subjects, but it will be significantly shorter in length. Starting in 2007, it will no longer take a full day to take the MCAT, and test-takers may even have the option to schedule the test in either the morning or the afternoon. There will also be more dates to choose from; instead of just the two dates (April and August) that we have now, there may be as many as 20 test date options. The four sections will apparently stay the same, including the WS, but students may only have to write one essay instead of the two that current test-takers must write.

You can find more answers to CBT FAQs on the AAMC FAQ page.​

I don't like taking computer tests. Should I take the MCAT in August 2006 so that I can avoid having to take the CBT?
The answer to this depends on whether you will be ready to take the test by August 2006. If you can finish the four year-long pre-requisite courses (two semesters each of biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics), and you will have adequate time to review and take practice tests before August 2006, it is not a bad idea to take the MCAT a year early. (That is, you can take the test in August 2006 to apply for the entering class of 2008.) If you will NOT have completed the MCAT pre-requisites before August 2006 or you will not have time to study for the test during the summer of 2006, my advice is to wait and take the MCAT in 2007 AFTER you have completed all of the pre-requisites and studied for the test. It is possible for a rare few people to do well on the MCAT without completing all of the pre-requisite courses and studying for the test, but I wouldn't be willing to take the risk that I'm one of them.​

Why is the AAMC moving to a computerized MCAT exam?
There are several reasons why changing the MCAT to a CBT is logical. One is that it is more efficient in terms of your time to take the test, and their time to grade it. You will get your scores back faster, you will have more flexibility in choosing a time to take the test, and the medical schools will also get your scores faster. You will probably not have to wait as long as you do now to re-take the exam if you need to do that. In addition, it is beneficial for pre-medical students to become accustomed to taking computerized exams, since the USMLE (the "board exams" required to get your medical license) are also taken on a computer.​
 

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I just got my MCAT score back, and I didn't do as well as I expected. The rest of my application (ECs, GPA, LORs, etc.) is great, but my MCAT is lower than the average at the American allopathic schools. I studied a ton and I did much better on my practice tests, so I don't understand what went wrong on the real thing. What should I do?

You basically have two options: retake the exam, or apply with your current score.

If you want to re-take the exam, I would recommend that you start by doing some soul-searching about what went wrong. Keep in mind that two mediocre scores are worse than one, so don't retake the MCAT without a clear idea of where you went wrong and a solid plan to improve your score. There are a number of things that could explain your discrepancy in performance, and you will have to figure out where you went wrong in order to fix that problem. I will list some possibilities here, but there may be others besides these, so don't limit yourself to my list.

1. Timing: One possibility is that you may have run into trouble due to the timed nature of the test. For example, if you ran out of time on the real MCAT but not your practice tests, think about why that happened. Were you strict about observing the time limits on your practice tests? It's essential to time yourself EXACTLY when you take practice tests and not give yourself any extra time on the sections or take extra breaks. Have someone else proctor you if necessary to keep you honest. Timing is a skill that must be practiced like everything else.

2. Test Anxiety. Another possibility if you did well on your practice tests but not on the real test is that you may have test anxiety. If that is the case, you need to work on controlling that. Try some meditation techniques until you find something that helps you. Positive visualization and breathing techniques help many people keep calm during exams. Knowing that you are prepared to do your best will also help you feel calmer.

3. Study Methods. Since you studied a ton for the last MCAT you took, you may need to change the way you are studying. What were you doing to prepare yourself for the MCAT? You might consider trying a different method like EK, or taking a commercial prep course if you tried going it alone. Two thing that a course does are to give you a study timetable with weekly assignments and to hold you accountable. It also provides you with people to support you. But courses are expensive and the quality can vary, so don't sign up for one without doing your homework and really considering whether you have the time and motivation to get your money's worth out of the course.

If you decide not to re-take the exam, you should research which schools do not have MCAT thresholds (minimum required scores below which they will automatically reject you). Do not waste your time or money applying to schools that you know put a lot of emphasis on MCAT scores unless you have a good extenuating reason to do so. You can also research other options outside of American allopathic medicine, including osteopathy (getting a DO degree), going to a foreign medical school, or going into other health-care related fields such as nursing or PA (physician's assistant). Depending on your career goals, one of these options may allow you to achieve your goals without your MCAT score being a major problem.

One thing you should NOT do is just throw up your hands and give up. If you are serious about going to medical school, then look at this low test score as a learning experience, not as a definition of your worth as a human being or as the harbinger of your future ability as a physician. You are definitely not alone in having this problem, so focus on picking yourself up and doing better the next time.​
 

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What tips can people with insanely high MCAT scores (40+) give to students who are currently preparing for the MCAT?

These tips are from volunteer advisor emack, who scored a 41R on the MCAT.

Level of detail: as much as you can cram in! But seriously, it doesn't need to be 100%. For example, I gave up on really understanding much organic chem, and decided to cut my losses and just memorize what seemed to be the most common reactions.

Performance on practice tests: worse scores than on the real thing. I did 3 or 4 AAMC practice tests, and kept scoring 12s. I think the stress of the real test made me more paranoid about double-checking every answer, which I didn't usually bother with for practice ones.

Hardest topic for me: organic chem, some biology. Never having taken physiology, I had to teach myself the bare minimum of cardiac and renal stuff from a Princeton Review book. The hardest one to do on the real test was the writing sample. I didn't (couldn't) practice much ahead of time, and figure I'd be okay, having had some past experience with demand writing. I have to admit I got a bit pressed for time & ideas.

How many questions can be missed: variable. Answer every single question. When you don't know, try to narrow it down as much as possible. Even if you're staring at a question you're sure you have no clue how to answer, you can probably rule out at least one or two options.

Other important study strategies I used that may or may not already have been mentioned elsewhere:

-Practice doing scientific notation calculations quickly & accurately. You won't have time to double-check everything. Also practice quickly converting between all those measurement prefixes (you know: milli, micro, kilo, mega, etc.). I tend to automatically convert everything into scientific notation for calculations so I can forget about the prefixes, and convert back to the appropriate units for my answer at the end.

-Practice reading passages quickly and not for detail. All you want to know on the first go-through is what's there, so you can go back and find it quickly depending on the questions.

-Keep track of units, especially for physics questions. If you know, for example, all those relationships between Pascals, Newtons, kilograms, Joules, etc., then knowing which formula to use will be much simpler.

-Know the vocabulary! Even if you think a given subject might be a lost cause, even having an idea of what the most basic terms mean will help you get through a lot of questions. For me, this would probably have applied to anything to do with magnetism (*yawn*).

-Don't study too much. The law of diminishing returns applies to MCAT studying. Do what you normally do. I tended to study 3 afternoons or so each week. In the last week before, I started studying some evenings too.

-Don't panic! Don't stress! Don't let it ruin your life! While there are disadvantages to having to take it again, unlike a lot of other things you do in life, you can easily get a second chance at this (or third... or fourth... ).
 

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Where can I go to find information about my pre-health test, register for my test, or find a prep course to take?

Test Registration and Information Websites:

DAT:This test for pre-dental students is administered by the American Dental Association.

MCAT: This test for pre-medical students is administered by the American Association of Medical Colleges.
All students should download and read the AAMC's MCAT Student Manual. You will need Adobe Reader to be able to view this file.

OAT: This test for pre-optometry students is administered by the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry.

PCAT: This test for pre-pharmacy students is administered by Harcourt Assessment, Inc. on behalf of the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy.​


Test Prep Companies: Note that not all commercial test prep companies may offer live classes in your area. You may also be able to take test prep courses through your college or through local groups. These links are for your convenience only; we are not recommending a particular test prep company, nor do we advocate that all students must/should take a commercial test prep course.

Berkeley Review (MCAT only)
Examkrackers (MCAT only)
Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions (DAT, MCAT, OAT, PCAT)
The Princeton Review (MCAT only)​
 

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My practice test scores are (plateauing, not going up at fast as I wanted, variable rather than having a consistent upward trend, etc.) What should I do?

I want to caution all of you against being overly fixated on your practice test scores. It is very understandable human nature to focus on practice test scores to the point of neglecting the larger purpose of your test prep studies, which is to improve your test-taking ability as a whole. Try very hard to concentrate your energy on understanding HOW the correct answer can be obtained, and WHY certain answers are right or wrong, instead of WHAT the correct answer is for a given question. As long as you are improving your problem-solving ability in general, you are preparing properly, even if a particular practice test score does not reflect this. It is also helpful to view each practice test as a learning experience, rather than as an evaluative tool per se. Finally, remember that you will most likely never see a particular question again, and that your scores on practice tests will never be seen by the professional schools. In the end, only your score on the actual test counts. ;)
 

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Please excuse my rambling in advance, but I just read what I think is some pretty dangerous advice in another thread. The advice was that it isn't necessary to practice CBT questions, because paper was just as good.

At face value, there is definitely some truth to that statement. Reviewing using paper materials is actually more efficient that reviewing on computer (we did a pretty long term focus group study that showed far and away that paper review was more effective in terms of learning). Hence, we strongly promote the idea of reviewing in a paper medium for at least two months before ever trying a CBT. Admittedly, we do provide a few passages throughout the course that can be taken either on computer or on paper, but it's only about 150 passages total and the answers are only in a paper format. Once reviewed to a good point, it's time to learn how to take the exam.

However, to go into the actual CBT MCAT without ever doing a CBT exam is suicide for most people. You have to learn the nuances of how you'll react to the actual setting. You have to experience seeing the countdown timer ticking before your eyes as you go through the exam. Mostly, you have to discover that it's a pain to do calculations and draw diagrams on scratch paper from a computer screen compared to writing right next to the question on a paper version. You need to take practice CBTs for at least a month before you sit for the real exam. This is how you'll get better at the format of the exam.

There are definitely some high-scorers who didn't do very many (if any) CBTs. But there are far more low-scorers (opting not to post I assume) that didn't do enough CBT practice.

No matter what you do with your preparation, you need to do passages and practice in a realistic environment. You need to learn from your mistakes by analyzing how to do the question better next time. Maybe we (BR) emphasize answer explanations a little too much, but this is where you learn test-taking methods, concepts, and how to apply information. It's all about doing passages and learning from your experience.

  • Giving of $0.02 is now complete... you may now return to your regularly scheduled exchanges of "Will I get in anywhere with my 38, given that its not well rounded?"
 
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